The record-breaking ultra trail runner, driven by his passion to protect the environment
Damian Hall hasn’t always been a runner.
Attributing his love of ultra running to a midlife crisis, he completed his first half marathon in 2011 aged 35. A year later he ran his first full marathon and since then has completed some of the world’s most gruelling ultra-marathons, breaking world records aplenty along the way.
He’s set records and fastest known times (FKTs) for The Pennine Way, The Paddy Buckley Round, The South West Coast Path plus many more trails. The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), Marathon de Sables and the Ice Ultra in Arctic Sweden have all been ticked off too…
Clearly, it’s safe to say that when the running bug bit, it got him good.
Despite stacking up a wealth of running achievements, Damian is not like your average trail runner. It’s clear to see he’s driven by a passion for the environment and has had some of his most gruelling runs fuelled by vegan brownies – that’s our kind of running!
He’s also taken steps to incorporate sustainability into his runs and the running community, even picking up litter whilst breaking the world record for running The Pennine Way.
We got the chance to pick Damian’s brain about epic running accomplishments, the secret fuel to completing such feats and how he thinks the running world can take a bit more responsibility for the environment.
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Where are we speaking to you from?
My house in a village in North West Wiltshire, at the bottom of the Cotswolds, near Bath.
In a few sentences, how would you describe who you are and what you do?
I’m a 45 year old father of two, I’m a running coach and I have a running problem.
Many people will have seen your record-breaking Pennine Way run, but would you say it’s your most meaningful outdoor achievement to date? If not, could you tell us a bit about what has been?
In terms of sporting achievements, yes breaking the Pennine Way record last summer was the most satisfying. And probably also my best run at UTMB, which was 5th place in 2018.
They’re both quite different. One is an international race against all the other super-elite guys and it took me 4 years to get to that position.
Similarly, even though I said it was different, the Pennine Way is not a race as such, and very much a domestic thing. But, the record had stood for 31 years before last summer. It took me a long time to build up the courage to take it on.
So very satisfying, but satisfying because it was a huge team effort; a lot of people helped. I put a lot of values into it which made it important.
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How important are the records to you? Are there other elements that inspire you to lace up your boots and run?
Over the past years I’ve felt very troubled by the ecological and climate emergency and what can I do about it. I couldn’t really think of anything so I’ve tried to make my running carbon negative.
I’ve worked with a company called Our Carbon who analysed my lifestyle and there’s a little bit of offsetting. But it’s things like giving up dairy and animal products, cutting down on travel. Being more responsible as an athlete in lots of ways, such as on social media promoting consumption and so on.
I broke three records last year and they are important but there not the most important thing. For each of those records I did them without animal products fuelling me. Also without creating any plastic waste, which is much more difficult actually. Plus picking up litter as I went which my team helped me to do.
All of that made it more meaningful to me because you’re living by your values. Although I imagine most people reading this will agree with those values, they’re not that profound.
That makes it more meaningful and in a way makes the records less important. If you can perform according to your values, that matters more than how fast you went.
But ultimately they’re all good old-fashioned fun and a day out.
With some of your highly documented runs, some with film crews and sponsors etc. how much does this change your running process, and do you warm to the potential added pressure?
I’ve just got used to them, especially with Ellie and Matt Green from Summit Fever Media as they’re really good friends of mine. We tend to just chat often which means they’ll know what I’m up to and if they think it’s something interesting, they’ll just come and film it. I just forget that it gets turned into a film afterwards. Similarly, if Lee Proctor from Inov-8 is there, again he’s just a friend I’ve known for years now.
Things have always gone well with those guys hanging around. It probably does help focus me. And you could say there’s added pressure. For example, I knew when doing the Pennine Way there was a film, daily filming and magazine stories arranged. There was also the new Inov-8 shoe The TERRAULTRA G 270 coming out. So, if I had tripped up and face planted in the first mile, yeah that could’ve been really embarrassing.
In a way it’s pressure but I also think these people have got some faith in me and that’s actually a really nice feeling. People wanted to give their time and be involved which is actually really cool. So I thought of it like that instead.
Word of the street is, your Pennine Way FKT was fuelled by vegan brownies… could this be the missing formula to many peoples’ running nutrition?
Yes, yes it could be! My wife made me those very kindly and they were very good.
The other secret from that one was – and this sounds horribly middle-class – but hummus and avocado sandwiches. Now I didn’t actually prepare them; I was struggling to get food in and one of my pacers, Jason Millwood, offered me a sandwich and I was like, “Oh wow, this is heaven! This is rocket fuel! I need more of these.” I then think I pretty much just ate those for the next 24 hours.
You picked up litter along the 268 miles of the Pennine Way and proudly state you’re carbon negative runner. Is protecting the natural environment something you feel particularly strongly about?
Yes, if I’m honest I’ve been radicalised by Extinction Rebellion and their protests. I’ve gone along and also joined in some of their meetings.
I just really feel strongly that times running out. It’s just really quite alarming. Mostly it’s alarming that politicians and some big businesses aren’t acting quickly enough. We’re really starting to struggle and run out of time.
And this is a bit naff really, but I just think, what will my kids think of us? And their kids. We mostly know what’s happening in the world, and we’re not doing enough. We’re not acting quickly enough and what are people going to think of us.
I want to be able to look my kids in the eyes and say I tried. That’s what’s motivating me most of all.
How do you think other runners can lower their environmental impact within the sport?
That’s a great question and one I’m still researching. There are big areas that apply to everyday life which are energy, diet and travel. But more specifically to running there are some things people can do.
I really like Dan and Charlotte Lawson who have started up ReRun Clothing. Their overall message is that we’re over-consuming, buying too much kit, maybe throwing it away before it needs throwing away. So they aim to give unwanted gear a new home.
T-shirts are a big thing, so one thing we can do is say no thanks to a t-shirt after a race. Especially if it’s a race you’ve done before or one that’s not particularly special. It’s easy to accept without really thinking about it. Then it just ends up in a draw and then maybe landfill 10 years later.
The running industry has got into the unfortunate habit of creating millions of excess tees. It takes the same amount of water a person drinks in 2.5 years to make a cotton T, plus over two kilograms of CO2e, while nylon and polyester can take up to 200 years to biodegrade.
Another great company is Trees Not Tees who have mushroomed in popularity, started by a friend of mine, Jim Mann who’s also a record-breaking fell runner. They allow race organisers to give runners the option when signing up to get a t-shirt or have a tree planted for them instead. I think that’s a fantastic initiative.
So I think it’s thinking about consumption. Do I really need the medal or the t-shirt? Do we really need all this kit? And I’m as guilty as anyone; sometimes it’s hard when something new comes out to think it’s better. Often it’s not.
Another thing is single-use plastics and rubbish. People can pick up litter as they go if they like. But trying to reduce the use of plastics overall when running.
Another one is racing abroad. I’ve been guilty of taking a handful of flights abroad every year, and now I more fully understand their impact on the environment I’m going to fly much less.
For UTMB, if I do that again I’ll get the train. It’s a little bit longer, probably costs a bit more but I just feel a little bit happier knowing that I’ve contributed less to planetary problems.
I don’t want to be preachy but they’re just a couple of thoughts. And I think we can all put gentle pressure on brands and event organizers without being aggressive or bullying. You know, just by asking them.
I politely push back on my sponsors and ask them, do you have a sustainability policy? Have you considered how much waste your product is creating? I’m not being aggressive or threatening by saying I won’t work with you anymore but I’m saying, have you thought about it? Then if that becomes normal, we’re making progress.
Overall I’m fairly optimistic about the running industry. Well, at least the runners in it and some of the amazing stories coming out of it – some people doing amazing things. People like Rosie Watson, who is running to Mongolia to highlight climate change.
Do you ever see yourself stopping running?
I hope not. I’ve been very lucky with injury, uninjured for 4 years. I suppose some sort of injury is inevitable at some point. But I don’t, I’d always like to carry on.
What one thing do most not know about you, but you feel they should?
I don’t think there’s anything people should know, I’m not that interesting. I don’t remember if you know or not, but I’ve got a book coming out. I suppose I don’t mind mentioning that, it’s called In It for The Long Run, it’s coming out in May.
I don’t know what I can say, I guess that I went to a Rudolph Steiner school for a bit. I smoked a lot of dope when I was young. I played a lot of football but was rubbish at it…
Some quickfire questions, favourite UK trail?
Well, I’ve got a long relationship with the Pennine Way. But really I’d have to say the Cape Wrath is the most spectacular, remote, exciting and wild of the ones I’ve experienced in the UK.
What are you scared of?
The climate emergency. Letting my children down and letting future generations down. And reeeally milky tea.
Films or board games?
It probably is films, but I always fall asleep in them, to be honest. I do quite like chess; I play chess with my daughter. I’m not very good but chess is fun.
How would you sell trail running in a sentence?
Happier, healthier, greener. Oh wait that’s three words and you asked for a sentence. Let’s try that again. Let’s just stick with: it’ll make you happier. There you go.
For someone doing their first ultra, what would be your one most important tip?
I would say, it’s not as hard as you think. Eat lots of snacks. Don’t be afraid to walk the hills. Relax and enjoy it, don’t put any time pressure on yourself.