No Place to Rest
While the U.K.’s Lizzy Hawker is not a household name in trail running on this side of the pond, she is tearing it up, from Europe to the Himalayas to South Africa. But you wouldn’t know it by talking to her.
Photo by Tim Kemple
This article is from our June 2012 issue.
Deep in the Himalayas, Lizzy Hawker sits in front of an open fire cupping a glass of tea in her hands, listening to the rain falling from the night sky. Despite the late hour, she’s anxious to be on the move, but the weather has trapped her. Less than a third of the way into her attempt to break the record for running 200 miles from Mount Everest to Kathmandu, her plans are on the brink of collapse.
Early that morning, November 16, 2011, Lizzy had left basecamp under clear skies. Yet by the time she passed the village of Pangboche a few hours later, clouds were building. Further down the trail at fog-bound Lukla—home to one of the world’s most perilous airports and gateway to Everest—frustrated trekkers shared rumors about when their flights might leave. Hawker skipped past in the late afternoon, having covered in a few hours ground that had taken many of those trekkers four or five days.
Then the rain started to fall. By evening, she was soaked. Even though her altitude had dropped from a lung-busting 5200 meters, she still faced a series of steep climbs over passes up to 3500 meters, crossing the hills between Lukla and the road head at Jiri.
At 10:30 p.m., all alone, shivering with cold and coughing spasmodically from a chest infection, Hawker knew she must stop and warm up before hypothermia took hold. Kathmandu would take another 40 hours or so, but toughing it out across mist-shrouded passes in the wet and dark could only end badly. The next village was Bupsa, but when she got there, all the windows in the tourist lodges were dark. Everyone seemed to be sleeping. Had she left it too late?
Then Hawker spotted a flickering light in a porter’s shelter. A local girl was putting out the fire and preparing for bed. Taking one look at the tiny bedraggled foreign woman dripping on the dirt floor, the girl stoked up the fire again and put on a pan for sweet milk tea, that reliable Nepalese pick-me-up. Then she sat her guest down where she could dry out her soaked running gear.
Hawker explains she only wants to rest for an hour until the rain stops. Then she’ll be back out in the dark, hitting the trail again. But the deluge shows no sign of stopping, so one hour becomes two, and then three. It is so tempting to sleep, but Hawker wants to be out of Bupsa the moment the weather clears. And so she keeps a lonely vigil, half-dozing in front of the fire, waiting patiently—and thinking of the door.
Being out on her own isn’t a novel experience for Hawker. She may be almost pathologically self-effacing, is thoughtful and kindly, but as friends attest, she does things her way. This is a world-record holder who has never had a coach or joined a track-and-field club. She admits herself she has much to learn about race tactics, especially for shorter distances like the marathon. Yet she’s also a four-time winner of the 166-kilometer Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB)—more victories in Europe’s premier ultra event than any other man or woman. What she knows, she learned the hard way.
Her 2005 UTMB debut was the stuff of dreams. Then 28 years old, Hawker, hailing from Upminster, in east London, had never run anything like the distance before. She had no support team and no plan. Under current rules for qualification, running two races in the last two years on a UTMB list, she wouldn’t even have been allowed to take part.
“I mean, even I hadn’t heard of me,” she says. Yet when she started running at the back of the field, she found she just couldn’t stop. One by one, she passed all the other women and won the race. Overnight an ultrarunning legend was born.
In the half dozen years that followed, Hawker proved 2005 was no fluke, winning many of Europe’s most prestigious mountain races—including the Gondo Event, the Zermatt Marathon and the Swiss Alpine Davos, setting course records in the latter two. She quit her job as an oceanographer to live in the mountains and focus on running. Yet as it has turned out, simply racing hasn’t been enough for Lizzy.
This is a woman with a strong environmental conscience who thinks constantly about how to live as lightly as she runs; a woman who is driven as much by the beauty of her surroundings as her will to win. So much so that interviewers are sometimes foxed by her talk of sunrises and perfect landscapes. Is this woman in the race or looking at the scenery?