She holds the female world record for running a colossal 24 hours non-stop. In her latest feat, she claimed a fifth win in the 2012 168k North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc race.
As marathons lose their epic status and more running enthusiasts look to push body and mind to the limit, we ask Lizzy Hawker what helps her go the distance.
FIND YOUR STRENGTH
‘My motivation is simply to strive to give the very best of myself, to push my limits to the edge, to learn more about myself and to feel strength in body, mind and spirit,’ says Lizzy.
In preparation for an ultra-run, which must be more than 26.22 miles (marathon length), Lizzy covers an average of 130-160km a week. So what gives her the impetus to run so far - and so often. ‘Motivation doesn’t come from just the victory or the competition. With endurance sports, the mental aspect is as important as the physical. Keeping focus, keeping belief, reminding yourself that you are there because this is what you love to do. It isn't just about the race, it’s about the journey.’
Running aside, Lizzy complements her training with yoga and meditation. ‘After an ultra-distance race I usually have two or three days without running. It's also important to try to get sufficient sleep and to give myself the space and quiet time to recharge mentally. I also love anything in the mountains: mountaineering, ski alpinism and hiking,’ she adds.
‘I eat mainly fresh ingredients, avoiding processed food as much as possible. I keep to my normal diet the night before a race. It’s important to keep to something that you are used to. The night before a race isn't the time to try something new. It is important to have a quiet, early meal to give yourself a good environment to relax and focus on the race.’
In 2011 Lizzy became the first woman to finish the nine-day 200k Everest Sky Race in Nepal. So, what gave her that burst of energy to keep on going day after day? ‘It’s important to maintain sufficient energy during the race. I prefer real food to gels when possible, but easily digestible food is key.’
ON THE RUN
After all the training is complete, what secrets can Lizzy share to help others endure that epic race day?
‘People ask how time passes during a long race. The running becomes almost a moving meditation, helping you through the times when you feel great and the times when you feel like you can't go on. There are moments of camaraderie with other runners and supporters, and then moments when you are entirely alone. Sometimes your mind wanders and sometimes it is fully focused and right there in the moment.’
We’re also dying to know what’s pumping on her iPod. ‘I don’t listen to music. If I'm in an urban environment then I think it is important to be able to hear for safety and in a non-urban environment I want to enjoy being there around nature.’
Conditions during the 2012 North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc included snow and thick mud. How does Lizzy stay safe when bad weather hits on race day?
‘I need to focus on the moment and literally take it step by step. I once got a puncture wound to the knee after stumbling five miles into a 50-mile race and falling on a piece of piping. I finished, won the race & then got carted off to A&E. You could see the tendon & bone through the hole.’
Avoid pounding the ground and you'll protect yourself from injury says Lizzy. 'Run lightly as less strain and tension reduces the physical impact,' she advises.
When she’s gearing up for a run, Lizzy believes the wonderful thing about running is its simplicity. ‘Put on a pair of trainers and go,’ she says.
Lizzy lives in the Swiss Alps, where most of her training takes place. ‘When running long distances in the mountains, my super-light North Face kit means I can keep comfortable in all weathers and stay free just to focus on my run.’
Lizzy was a scientist with the British Antarctic Survey. She gave up her full-time job and financial security in order to have flexibility to race and train. ‘Life is always a balancing act - for all of us. The important thing is to work out what means the most to you and what you can do without,' she says.
‘My life demands sacrifice on a daily basis. I don't have time to browse in the shops, to watch television, and nights out are few and far between. I guess you make a lifestyle choice. To really follow our dreams we have to make sacrifices, but the riches you find in just making that journey are reward in themselves - whether or not you manage to reach your dream.’
THE NEXT STEP
Ultra-runners aren’t superhuman; they’re everyday people who’ve decided to challenge their abilities. If you’ve been inspired by Lizzy, you don’t need to sign up to an ultra-race to push yourself that little further.
‘Start with small steps that you can easily incorporate into your life as it is now. Each step will lead on to another until you are at your desired destination. If you progress with a love for the sport and you’re passionate, you’ll succeed. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. It’s important to enjoy your journey, not just reaching the destination.’
Mental strength and the courage to explore your own limits is what Lizzy believes will allow you to achieve things you didn't imagine possible. 'It might be running 5km, 50km or 500 km; it doesn't matter. What is important is looking to challenge yourself.'
Lizzy’s four top running tips:
- Keep in the moment and stay focused.
- Believe in yourself.
- Run lightly.
- Stay positive to keep your motivation.