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Damian Hall: The Ultra Activist

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ULTRA ACTIVIST

From casual runner to record-breaker, Damian Hall is one of the world’s best ultramarathon racers. Discover what motivates Damian to run mindblowing distances, and why he’s now turning his attention to the climate crisis

From completing his first half-marathon in 2011 to finishing 5th in a 105-mile ultra race in the Alps that attracts the world’s best long-distance runners in 2018, Damian Hall caught the attention of the running world. Now, he’s turned his attention to the climate crisis and is using his platform to ignite change. 

We ask Damian how he found running at a relatively late stage of his life, what motivated him to become a record-breaking ultra runner, and why he’s now turning his attention to environmental issues.

'I was representing my country at the age of 40. As far as midlife crises go, I guess there are worse ones!'

You went from ranking 29th in the 105-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc race in 2015, to an astonishing 5th in 2018. That takes a tremendous amount of hard work – what motivates you?

I simply love running long distances in lumpy places. It’s hard to explain why exactly, but it’s something to do with the simplicity, freedom, nature, and getting a bit sweaty and sore. Oh, and eating a load of chocolate! There doesn’t have to be an element of competition to it, but I like it if sometimes there is. Plus, I know I’m a healthier and better person if I do this fairly regularly. 

Was there any defining moment that set you on your current path? 

Kind of. Apart from four years at university where I was a big stoner and a couple of years in London where I certainly wasn’t unfamiliar with the interiors of various public houses, I’ve always been reasonably outdoorsy and sporty. 

I played a lot of football, but I was bobbins. I was often sub for the school team. But in 2011, having just returned to the UK after almost a decade abroad, I did the Bath Half Marathon and absolutely loved it. I soon discovered trail races and longer distances, and five years later I was representing my country at the age of 40. As far as midlife crises go, I guess there are worse ones! 

What drew you to start competing in big international races? 

When I first did the 105-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in 2015 I fell for it straight away. Everything was so big: the Alps are obviously bigger (and more hurty) than UK mountains, the crowds are huge and wonderfully supportive, and the competition is big too – the best runners in the world come to this one. I became obsessed with the race and how I could improve there, gradually moving up over four years from 29th place to finishing 5th in 2018. 

'We may only have 10 years, possibly eight, to significantly reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions before the seas reach a tipping point.'

You’re a vocal advocate for environmental issues. What prompted you to start speaking out about climate change? 

We may only have 10 years, possibly eight, to significantly reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions before the seas reach a tipping point, feedback loops are triggered, and we’re – to put it bluntly – f****d. 

Systemic changes need to be happening now. And they’re not. As an athlete, I’m not comfortable flying around the world all year anymore. That’s not right, for me. So I’m racing less, doing more domestic events and (reluctantly) offsetting when there’s no better option. I’ve made myself and my family carbon negative for the year. And will continue to be involved with environmental campaigning. 

'Anyone who speaks out is automatically a hypocrite... I’d rather be a hypocrite than an arsehole.'

To what extent is it a tricky issue for a sponsored athlete to speak out about? 

I have two primary sponsors and there is an expectation that I will take part in some international ultras – I’m still doing that, but less so. Also, implicitly, my role is to help sell products – and yet over-consumption is one of the planet’s biggest problems. So I’ve compromised on that by deciding to be much more careful about that on social media. I’ve also been asking questions of my sponsors – are they doing enough? I feel they’re moving in the right directions. 

Thirdly, I was also worried I’d be called a hypocrite. But we’re trapped in a system heavily dependent on fossil fuel consumption, from our food, clothing, travel and even the data we access on our phones. So anyone who speaks out is automatically a hypocrite. In the words of Jonathan Pie, I’d rather be a hypocrite than an arsehole. I’m not a perfect activist – no one can be on this one. But I care, and I’m trying. 

How can the running world tackle the issue, both as individuals, and the businesses involved?

Races can do a lot to reduce waste and greenhouse emissions, and many are making great progress. Charities such as ReRun Clothing are helping to spread awareness about waste. Trees Not Tees are encouraging runners to plant trees instead of getting yet another race T-shirt. I’d urge individuals to look more at political actions than personal ones. Governments and corporations can make much bigger changes than we can. We need to pressure them. Join Extinction Rebellion. Join Greenpeace. Email your MP. Then email them again. 

A UK Athletics running coach, widely published journalist and author, public speaker, and parent. Damian Hall is an ambassador for inov-8 and Tomax Technology.