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Breaking Down the 268-Mile Pennine Way Record

How Damian Hall prepared to break the 268-mile Pennine Way record, and then went and did it.

I didn’t used to be big on preparation. Which is why all my school exam results are bobbins. When it came to running, too, initially I was more of a lob some Mudclaws in the boot and hit the road type person. But then Nicky Spinks started letting me hang around with her a bit, and I saw how incredibly thoroughly she prepared for things. And she habitually breaks fell running records. So I started preparing better. After all, the preparation stage is very much part of the challenge – and enjoyable too; pouring over maps, faffing over kit, testing out lots of different nosh. When it comes to the moment of pressing start on my Suunto, 75 per cent of the adventure is already done.

For my run on the 268-mile Pennine Way (the run itself was 260 miles, avoiding some minor detours) in July I prepared more thoroughly than I’ve ever prepared for anything. Including my wedding.

In fact, my preparation started nine years ago, when I hiked the Pennine Way as I wrote a guidebook for it. And the important thing was – partly because I’d been abroad for most of the previous decade and was seeing Britain with fresh eyes – I fell in love with it. The wind-whipped heather moorland, those peaty groughs and bogs, the testing lumps and bumps, the bleak remoteness, and the history too. It’s England’s oldest National Trail and links to the Mass Trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932, a wonderful piece of civil disobedience which led to changes in the law that freed up private land for us common folk to roam on. It feels salient today, when civil disobedience may be the best way to help save our planet from politicians unburdened by ethics.

In 2016 I broke my first running record/Fastest Known Time, on the 630-mile South West Coast Path and naturally pondered what was next. The Pennine Way was suggested, but the record had stood since 1989, when Mike Hartley ran it in two days, 17 hours and 20 minutes. For a long while I didn’t believe I could better that.

Even though my confidence grew slowly over time, especially with two Spine Race (which follows the Pennine Way in January) completions, I always seemed to find a good reason not to go for it. Then lockdown happened, all races vanished and I had no excuses left. Plus my tea-dodging American buddy John Kelly told me he was going for it, which helped shame me into committing.

I had been self-coached for two years, one of which (2018) was my best year of ultra running, culminating in 5th place at Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. But 2019 wasn’t as good, for various reasons, so it seemed smart to take on a mentor, an objective sounding board. I looked at which athletes were winning the biggest races and they all seemed to have the same coach: David Roche.

It’s a tricky adjustment to go from doing whatever you feel like, to following orders. But from late autumn 2019, David helped me train smarter not harder, literally and metaphorically put a spring in my stride, and filled me with belief. However, as David also coaches John, I figured our fitness probably wasn’t going to be a significant difference. Which made me work more on logistics, getting the right team around me, and psychology.

Damian with Mike Hartley and John Kelly.

I asked my good friends Tim Laney and Mark Townsend to crew me. They know this sport inside out, know what I’m like when I’m very tired (sullen and sulky) and know exactly when I need a kind word or a stern one. Crucially, they’re also friends.

Almost literally at the last minute, the vivacious Nicki Lygo, who had crewed John, jumped in too. She’s a Pennine Way fanatic, Spine Race stalwart and a doctor. She knows the Pennine Way better than some guidebook authors, produced fresh mango at a crucial time, and kept the other two on their toes with inappropriate suggestions about muscle guns. Initially trying to cherry pick people who’d done well at the Spine Race or knew the Pennines well, I felt very lucky that my elite team of pacers included another Nicky, Spinks, and many other amazing runners.

To study what had worked before, I spoke to Mike Hartley and ogled his schedule, which included no sleep stops, but three hours at road support points. I was going south, like him, partly to get more of the ascent done early, but so I’d be ‘running home’. Rather than think too much about his intimidating record, I concentrated on the fact that if I kept my average speed above 4mph (albeit for 260 miles), I’d break the record.

What made practical preparations tricky was that I’d chosen to fuel without animal products (which is simple enough nowadays with vegan food readily available), but also without plastic waste. So much hill food comes in non-recyclable plastic or plastic that claims to be recyclable but is difficult to organise (post to a specific address for example). But some research turned up some amazing companies such as Outdoor Provisions, Lucho Dillitos, 33Fuel, Two Farmers, Oggs, The Vegan Kind, OMG It’s Vegan and Firepot. Plus the old classics; bananas, sandwiches, and banana sandwiches.

Fuelling well for three days would be key and I consulted renowned sports dietician and Fast Food-author Renee McGregor, who reminded me to get protein in every six hours and suggested white bread instead of brown, less fibre making it easier to digest.

It was vital I was still moving well on day three, so I worked with movement specialist and The Lost Art of Running-author Shane Benzie. A more efficient, natural technique engages the elastic energy of our fascia system, instead of unnecessarily stressing muscles. Tapping into that free energy should create less muscle damage and mean I’d be running well for longer.

I knew the Pennine bogs and boulders would give me a bashing, so I worked with Strength For Endurance to make me stronger all over. Lockdown sent their classes online, which allowed me to do even more, 30 minutes most days. As did the purchase of a pull-up bar, which became addictive (when I could get my kids off it).

Cramp has hampered me sometimes, so I visited Precision Hydration for a bespoke sweat test, to see exactly how much sodium I should be replacing as I run. More electrolytes meant I suffered no cramp on the Pennine Way.

Ultra running is often thought of as at least 50 per cent in the head, yet other than podcasts and books, I’d never properly delved into sports psychology. It was fascinating to work with Performing Under Pressure-author, Dr Josie Perry.

We looked at lots of things, from goal setting and visualisation, to confidence and self-talk. I also began to feel some pressure – all self-created. Summit Fever Media would be producing five daily videos for Runner’s World, and a separate film, Totally FKTed. While my main sponsor, inov-8, were launching a new shoe, the TERRAULTRA G 270, with a campaign including a video with me jabbering on about how I could run for hours and hours. There was also a photoshoot for a magazine lined up for just afterwards.

If I belly-flopped, it could all be a bit embarrassing, for sponsors, film-makers and myself – and it’d be watched by tens of thousands of people on social media. But I simply reframed that perceived pressure as faith.

All those people had faith in me. Including so many of my friends who were helping. Several told me they simply wouldn’t have given up the time if they didn’t think I would do it. That faith meant a lot to me.

Josie also encouraged me to really think hard about my values and my ‘why’ – why was I doing it, how authentically was I acting and what mattered to me?

She suggested I give myself explicit, visual reminders. I’m very concerned about our climate and ecological emergency and really believe in what Extinction Rebellion are doing. I brought a couple of flags of theirs along, one created by my two children, and stuck them up inside my VW Transporter (we’d love to have used an electric vehicle, but trying to find charging points at 3am in Bellingham would have been a lot of extra stress for my crew). Though my run created more car journeys than might have happened otherwise, Our Carbon audited me and created a plan for the year which makes me carbon negative. I wrote F, F, F on my forearm, to remind myself why I was doing it: for Family, Friends (especially everyone helping me out – I couldn’t quit or slack off if people were prepared to met me at 3am in the rain), and Future. That also doubled as a key reminder: Food, Fluid, Form. Though some of my crew suggested it could just as aptly be a repeated swear word.

I also decided to pick up litter as we went, an easy to understand gesture which garnered some nice attention afterwards. Though I must admit my pacers and crew did 98 per cent of it and I was forever fearful we’d find a sofa or burnt out car on the moor.

As lockdown eased I was able to run three recces on the route, to test out nutrition, kit, and mental strategies, as well as create a realistic schedule. Being suspicious of Excel’s dark magic, it was the first time I’d ever created a spreadsheet from scratch and was rightly ridiculed for its glaring inadequacies. But it mostly made sense in the end. I designed a schedule with the bare minimum splits to get me to Edale only just inside the record. I wanted to feel relaxed and enjoy it as much as possible, rather than stressed out by some arbitrary, over-ambitious goal. Enjoyment would bring a better result, I felt.

The fact it finished at a pub comfortably before last orders was also deliberate. I hadn’t had alcohol in four months.

Just eight days before my start date John Kelly broke the Pennine Way record by 34 minutes, running 2 days, 16 hours, 46 minutes (64:46), despite persistent tummy problems. He showed me it was possible.

Of course, it’s all very well having a plan. But as the coach of a famous boxer once said, “Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.” I was mentally and practically prepared for that too. Though, even then, in this sport so full of variables, you can’t expect everything to go smoothly…

Damian starting his FKT attempt in the town of Kirk Yetholm.

But, the first 24 hours did go uncannily smoothly and after 120 miles I found myself over three hours up on my conservative, 64-hour schedule. However, I was already well into an inevitable calorie deficit and energy was seeping away. I had a semi-effective power-nap in the morning, then a less successful one in the afternoon. I wasn’t losing time, yet, but I felt empty, slow and frustrated. After a 45-minute power nap in the evening, I battled the sleep monsters through that second night, but was now starting to lose my precious, hard-earned time buffer.

My amazing support runners kept me ticking over, unexpected small crowds in villages and acts of kindness from strangers (someone ran up a mountain just to give me a snack) gave me huge emotional lifts. My diligent road crew kept me fed, but also motivated with surprise, unplanned aid stations.

Dawn, and the feeling I was into the home straight with just 40 miles to go, gave me a gee up. There were still ups and downs, time lost and gained back on the schedule, happy and grumpy moments, smiles and sulky faces pulled. But despite my dwindling pace and powers, I always felt motivated.

With the idea of breaking the record by three hours very much in the balance, Nicky Spinks and the pacers on my final leg kicked my butt mercilessly over the last 15 miles.

After one final unpleasantly relentless push over the Kinder plateau, we arrived in Edale to an unexpectedly large crowd, a lorry load of emotion and a new Pennine Way record of 61 hours, 35 minutes, 15 seconds, three hours under the previous one.

All that preparation had paid off.

View the film of Damian's record-breaking run.

Damian Hall is a carbon-negative ultra runner, UKA coach and an ambassador for inov-8 and Tomax Technology. You can pre-order Totally FKTed here now.