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May 10, 2016 Comments (0) All Posts, Athlete Stories

Ultra Runner Sets New Record On UK’s Longest Trail

Damian Hall. Photo by tom Jones
Job done. The 630-mile South West Coast Path run in a new Fastest Known Time of 10 days, 15 hours and 18 minutes. Photo: Tom Jones, Contours Trail Running Holidays.

UPDATE: Damian Hall has set a new Fastest Known Time (FKT) for the UK’s longest trail, the 630-mile South West Coast Path. Damian, who ran alone after Mark Townsend dropped out just before halfway with injury, arrived into Minehead at 8:19pm on Tuesday May 24, the National Trail’s End Point, to complete the attempt in a time of 10 days, 15 hours and 18 minutes. The previous FKT held by Mark Berry stood at 11 days, 8 hours and 15 minutes. Damian averaged around 60 miles a day to beat the previous FKT by almost 17 hours.

Damian said: “It’s been a wonderful adventure and a real team effort. I’m a little relieved that’s it’s done now and that I don’t have to run another 60-mile day but, at the same time, I’m kind of missing it! I must admit, it was nice last night to enjoy more than the two hours sleep I have been getting during the attempt. I’ve got huge respect for Mark Berry and his record. We’ve had to work really hard to get it, sometimes starting running at 5.30am and not finishing until 2.30am. Mark is an awesome runner.”

The photos below, by Tom Jones (Contours Trail Running Holidays), were taken during Damian’s FKT attempt. Scroll below the photos to read Damian’s pre-challenge blog post.

Damian Hall 1. Photo by Tom Jones.

Damian Hall 2. Photo by Tom Jones

Damian Hall 3. Photo by tom Jones.

Damian Hall 4. Photo by Tom Jones

Damian Hall 5. Photo by Tom Jones

Damian’s pre-FKT attempt blog

My postman hates me (because of all the big boxes being delivered – at least, I hope it’s that). My wife has become begrudgingly accustomed to the distant look in my eyes that means I’m not listening to her but instead silently recalculating split times, counting calories and trying to decide which trail running shoes to take as a second back-up pair. My kids aren’t showing it yet, but they’ll be annoyed I’m away for so long. My cat still seems to like me though. That’s something.

UK equivalent to running America’s Appalachian Trail

I’ve agreed to accompany my good friend Mark Townsend in running the South West Coast Path (SWCP), in what we hope will be a Fastest Known Time (FKT). At 630 miles (1,014km), it’s easily the UK’s longest National or Great Trail and our closest equivalent to America’s Appalachian Trail, which has seen repeated FKT attempts by well-known ultra runners such as Scott Jurek and Karl Meltzer in recent years.

As FKT fever has grown, the SWCP has seen similar activity. Mark has run the path before, setting a joint record in 2013 of 14 days, 14 hours and 44 minutes. In April 2015, Patrick Devine-Wright, who I once finished joint-second with in a 102-mile race, ran it in a new record of 14 days 8 hours and 2 minutes. But then in June the extraordinary Mark “Bez” Berry – who, like Mark Townsend, I met on the Spine Race (it’s where you meet all the best people) – knocked a whopping three days off the record. He completed the trail in just 11 days, 8 hours and 15 minutes. An average of 55 miles a day. This April, Royal Marine Baz Gray, with several hugely impressive endurance feats to his name, attempted to run the path in 10 days – an average of 63 miles a day. He was, however, forced to give up after just three days with a bad knee injury.

Same elevation gain as Mt Everest x 3½

Mark Townsend co-owns Contours Walking Holidays and wants to run the 630 miles of coastline again partly to help promote the company’s new arm, Contours Trail Running Holidays but more pressingly, simply because he wants the record back. He says he’s invited me along to double our chances.

It’s not just the mileage that makes this such a big challenge. Those living in hilly northern England may scoff at the idea, but the South West Coast Path is rarely flat for long, with somewhere around (no one seems to agree exactly) 111,000ft (34,000 metres) of ascent. At around three-and-a-half times up Everest from sea level, there’s every chance my legs may well get a bit fed up with their new daily routine at some point.

The long climb towards Chapman's Pool on the South West Coast Path. Damian Hall trail running blog. Photo: Rosalind Schogger

The climb to Chapman’s Pool on the South West Coast Path. Photo: Rosalind Schogger

I do worry about getting injured. And that our attempt could descend into the biggest death march I’ve ever endured. The greatest distance I’ve run before is 268 miles, in the Spine Race and, to be quite frank, that hurt like hell. Both times.

The glorious simplicity of coastal trail running

However, I’m really excited about exploring the handsome Dorset, Devon, Cornwall and Somerset coasts. And I know I’ll love the glorious simplicity of the days – just run, keeping the sea on our left. And the wonderful absence of time sitting at a screen. I also love a challenge where you get into the glorious thing called calorie deficit. You can barely eat enough to replace the calories you’re burning, so you can just stuff your cake-hole all day long. Brill.

We are well prepared and we have a secret weapon: the legendary Tom Jones (not *that* Tom Jones, but an equally legendary one, anyone who’s done the Spine Race will doubtless agree) who’ll be crewing us in a Volkswagen New Transporter Kombi. I’m equally lucky to have the support of Volkswagen Vans, Contours Trail Running Holidays, CLIF and, of course, inov-8.

I’m still finalising kit choices and while I love my Terraclaw 250 running shoes, which were superb at The Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica in February, I might initially plump for the greater cushioning of the Race Ultra 290. Last time Mark got though three pairs of shoes, so I’m taking the Terraclaws and probably a pair of Roclites along too.

‘If you are feeling good, treat that as a bonus!’

Luckily I’m coached by one of the best ultra-distance runners in the world, US-based Brit Ian Sharman. He gave me these, er, reassuring words. “Psyche yourself up for a lot of suffering,” he said. “Go into it with your eyes open. If you are feeling good, treat that as a bonus! It’s going to be tough and that’s why it’ll have value to you – and to other people – at the end.” Ian got me in good shape for the British Athletic’s Ultra Trail Championships at the 53-mile Highland Fling recently, where I placed second. But I’ll need to do a bigger distance than that for 10 days or more.

That’s why you make seemingly foolish, public statements of intent like this one. When I want to quit, I’ll have to remember the painfully inconvenient truth that I wrote this story for inov-8.com and the whole world will know I’m a miserable, pathetic wimp if I don’t see it through. So I’d better have a really good reason if I’m going to DNF.

It’s also a great opportunity to raise some money for people who’re suffering a thousand times more than I will be and the more money there is riding on it, the less likely I’ll be to call it quits (pledge on my Just Giving page). We start on Saturday 14 May. So there’s not much left to do but pack my bag and get a head start on the all the scoffing…

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