She and I stand in front of a sign reading, ‘Please wait to be seated.’ I steal glimpses of her out of the corner of my eye as we wait our turn for seats in this restaurant churning with Sunday business. It’s a chilly December morning here in Mill Valley, California, so she’s clothed in a fleece jacket and jeans. Sun shines through the café’s windows and into her eyes, which flash bright hazel from behind a pair of wire-framed glasses.
At first glance, I suspect most folks might use the adjective ‘diminutive’ to describe my company. She’s small, sure, as compared to the average woman in this restaurant. Underneath those clothes and behind those eyes, however, is a world-class endurance runner. People don’t get to her position of running success without a well-developed musculature and a fierce spirit. I’m about to have coffee with Lizzy Hawker, so perhaps you understand that the word ‘powerhouse’ might be a more accurate descriptor.
Lizzy Hawker’s running resume is a little ridiculous. In November of 2011, she won the Everest Sky Race, a stage race in Nepal. In September, she set a new world record for the 24-hour road run. (I interviewed her after that run.) In August, she won the revered The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (iRunFar post-race interview) a couple weeks after blowing away her competition at the Gondo Event’s two-day stage race in Switzerland. In July, she was victorious at the 78-kilometer Swiss Alpine Marathon. And that’s just the last seven months or so. Lizzy is about as good as it gets in ultrarunning.
Soon we have seats and drinks, fresh-squeezed orange juice and caffeinated beverages of our choices (a cappuccino for her and a tall cup of black coffee for me), and I’m a question-asking machine. She follows each of them with a few seconds of silence before she begins her response. The first few bits of quiet feel awkward, and I catch myself pawing at the hem on my jacket’s sleeve. Soon I realize that Lizzy’s thinking over some of these questions and I grow accustomed to the contemplative pace of our conversation.
Yesterday, she ran and dropped with a bum Achilles from The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championship not too far from here in the Marin Headlands. She’s tired, I can see the fuzz of fatigue in her eyes and I saw her favoring one leg as we walked to this restaurant. But I’m here to learn about the non-racing version of Lizzy Hawker—and she seems more focused on her cappuccino’s foam than yesterday’s race any way—so I resist asking about that outing.
“All this started on a family vacation when I was a child.” The 35-year-old Brit has been talking about her love of mountains and oceans, so I ask where that love was born. “My parents took our family to Zermatt and I saw the Matterhorn for the first time. I was six. When the train pulled away from the mountains, I cried.” Since then, she explains, a deep love of nature has guided her life choices.
For example, she possesses an undergraduate degree in natural sciences from the University of Cambridge and a PhD in polar oceanography from The University of Northampton. “After university, I had the opportunity to go to sea for a month on a British Antarctic Survey boat. I wasn’t qualified, but there was a last-minute opening and they needed a warm body. I loved it and couldn’t wait to get back out there. Entering a PhD program was the only way to spend more time with the ocean. I’ve probably been at sea for 18 months total now.” That’s right, she schooled herself for a long, long while in order to spend quality time with the deep blue.
These days, she keeps a studio flat in the Engadin Valley of Switzerland, in the Alps. “I want to be surrounded by the mountains.” When I ask her to describe what her apartment is like, she says, “There’s no TV, but there are a lot of books. It’s very simple. Sometimes I’m gone from there for a couple months, and I’ll go there after an adventure to re-group.”
Lizzy’s professional life is a fascinating hodge podge of opportunities resulting from chasing her passions. She works as an outdoor guide for Outdoor Engadin, a Swiss outdoor company. “In winter, I take people on snowshoe outings. During the summer, I guide trail-running trips.” For example, if you’d like to run the Haute Route, the famous route connecting Zermatt, Switzerland and Chamonix, France, you can do so with Lizzy Hawker as your guide.
“Science writing, I love this, too. Midway through my PhD program, I knew a career as a research scientist wasn’t right for me. But staying connected to science is important.” As such, she undertakes freelance science writing projects as an additional income source. (She’s currently looking for new writing gigs. Check out her website and hire Lizzy!) The BBC’s Frozen Planet series has its own product line, including a book. Lizzy says, “I put my polar-oceans experience to work doing some of the writing for that book.”
Though her love of the wild appears to be her life’s main course, she’s a multi-faceted woman. “I love my family, too,” is her response when I ask about what else gets her excited about life. Her parents, who live in the UK, are avid supporters of her adventures, “They do worry a bit, as every parent does. But they also live vicariously through some of my experiences.” Lizzy has three siblings, two that are older and one that is younger. “They all enjoy being active, but I might have been the one who caught the outdoor bug.”
Though she grew up with a cadre of family members around her, she says, “I guess you could say I’m independent. I love being with people, especially my family and close friends. But I do enjoy my own company.” She enjoys herself enough that she embarked on a solo, 1,000-mile journey. Last fall, Lizzy attempted to travel the length of the Great Himalaya Trail through Nepal. (Here’s her report. In summary, she lost crucial gear, including communications equipment and her permits for travel in Nepal, early on and was forced to abandon her expedition.) About her plan to spend several weeks alone, she says, “It was a conscious choice. This was a complex outing. It would have been challenging to find someone with identical expectations for an outing as complicated as this one.”
Hey gentlemen, I think this is where I should tell you that Lizzy’s single! “I think the right man is out there on the trails somewhere. I look forward to someday sharing these kinds of adventures with him.”
It’s difficult to go a whole conversation with one of the world’s best ultrarunners and not talk about running, and Lizzy wanders back to the subject herself. “Running is an outlet for me to see and be with nature. Racing does that, too. I don’t want to race forever, though. But, if my body allows, I’d like to run for a long time.” She currently has a lot of racing dreams, “Comrades, Western States 100, all of the Grand Slam races, Hardrock 100, London Marathon, the World 100km Championships. I don’t know, I think I’d like to have another go at the 24-hour road running world record, too.”
Her list of must-do races is diverse, and not all of them involve running in pretty places. I ask about her motivations for the non-trail races on her list. Her answer is a simple, “I just like to push my body. I want to see what it can do.” I’m learning another descriptive phrase for Lizzy: ‘wicked humble.’
After an hour or so, we walk back to the hotel at which we’re both staying along a path next to an undeveloped wetland. In a couple hundred meters, the wetland gives way to an inlet of Richardson Bay, one of the smaller bays dividing the landmasses composing the San Francisco Bay Area. A couple unidentifiable water birds are separately splooshing on stilted legs in the standing water. Lizzy’s got her eye on them as she ambles, still favoring that Achilles tendon, “It’s so beautiful here, the water and the green, all in December. I love this part of California.”
I can’t help but wonder if she’s dreaming of places a bit wilder than this tiny, urban respite among the well-developed Mill Valley. I mean, in 2011 alone, she voyaged in probably more than a dozen mountain ranges. Lizzy and I have, over a couple years, developed an acquaintance-ship based upon our interactions at races she’s running and I’m attending as a journalist. We know each other well enough to say good-bye with a hug. In a way that so perfectly embodies Lizzy Hawker, she says as we part ways, “See you on the next mountain.”
Call for Comments
- What comes to mind when you think of Lizzy Hawker?
- What about Lizzy inspires you?