“Why Does UTMB Take So Long, Daddy?”

“Do you have to do UTMB every time we come to France, Daddy?” asks my son wearily. The day before he’d asked, “Why does UTMB take so long, Daddy?”

It’s good that he’s questioning things, I figure, as I grope futilely for a credible answer. “No, not every time” (I lie). Yesterday’s promise that “I’ll try really hard to do it quicker this year” was said with a good deal more conviction.

My son is three. My daughter is six. I want to be a hero to them. It doesn’t seem to be working.

My addiction to running long distances began around the same time that I became a father. I’m not sure which has aged me the most, but collectively both have had a clear and displeasing aesthetic effect. Something’s been wearing me out.

My children have twice run the last few metres of UTMB with me. After their births, it’s been the two most magical moments of my life. For me anyway. Not them so much.

In 2016, I took them to the final stretch up to the hallowed dark-blue arch the day before the race, to show them the spot where I hoped to meet them and fulfill a long-held daydream. “Would you like to meet Daddy here and run the last bit together?” I’d asked hopefully. “No,” they both said. “We want to eat mud cakes instead.”

Yet two days later, when I finally arrived at that spot, my son was bouncing up and down, almost uncontrollable with excitement. They both rushed at me, catching me in thrilled surprise. I hoisted up my son, clasped my daughter’s hand, and began to run. My son wriggled and wriggled. He wanted to run too, so I put him down. With 25 hours of mountains in my legs, I struggling to keep up with their nine-minute-mile pace.

Damian Hall and kids - 2017 UTMB 1

Damian Hall and his children at the 2017 UTMB finish line. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

We did the same this year, my wife faithfully curtailing their playtime despite protests, as I would be back in Chamonix earlier than predicted. They waited patiently in the cold and rain and though they rushed to meet me again, they weren’t smiling so much this time as we reached the arch. The novelty may have worn off. They don’t know or care how the race went for me. Well, my son noted my leg was muddy. And my daughter often mentions that I was “behind the first person–again.”

Other than a DNF, my biggest fear at UTMB is that I’ll be chasing through the streets of Chamonix, a la Jim Walmsley and Pau Capell this year, but also hoping to meet my children for the final run in. What would I do if forced to choose between a top-10 finish or share the final moments with them? I wish I could give a more honourable answer, but I might have to let the moment decide. That is, if they can be persuaded to join me again.

Social-media snaps of my UTMB finishes might imply I’m a good dad. But really, am I, if I’m often absent in the morning because I’m out running? If I’m routinely away for several days at a time, for races? If I’m neglecting fatherly duties on the pretence that I’m inspiring two children who are more interested in calling me Pooh Head than my race results and only know that I’m not there?

Hopefully being half-decent at both things isn’t mutually exclusive. I do take my six-year-old daughter to ‘running club’ every Wednesday night. Corsham Running Club’s One Mile Club is a wonderful concept where children are encouraged to run one mile once a week, with milestones rewarded with certificates and T-shirts.

At some point each time, there will be rebellion, threats of a DNF, sometimes tears of protest (not unlike us allegedly grown-up ultrarunners, really), and ashamedly I often resort to bribes (usually chocolate-based) to get her through. But each week she wants to go back again. She already has runners’ amnesia.

My son is too young to go. Around the time of UTMB this year he drew a family picture, but with only three people in it. “Where am I?” I asked. “You are out running, Daddy.” I hunted for any smidgen of pride in his tone, but found only annoyance.

I hope, of course, that over time they will see things differently, that they might even be a tiny bit impressed and inspired (that I once fell only 15 minutes short of the top 10 at UTMB)–even if they never tell me. But equally, they might not. The risk of the latter, however, doesn’t seem enough of a reason to do anything drastic like attempt to give up my addiction to running long distances. Even if it’s clearly time to spend a little more time at home for now.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

Your kids and your running habits, let’s hear how it susses out in your family. Funny stories? Stories that have shaped how you co-mingle families and hobbies? Leave a comment!

Damian Hall and kids - 2017 UTMB 2

Another photo of Damian Hall and his kids at the 2017 UTMB finish line. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

There are 29 comments

  1. TrailClown

    The window of time your children will hold their Dad’s hand is a very short one in this life (I now get the occasional fist bump from my 12-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son)…maybe run only the CCC race next year! :)

  2. Jon

    When your child draws a family picture and you aren’t in it, that’s probably a sign he wants you to spend more time with the family and/or that child. At the end of the day, it’s only running.

  3. Michael W.

    I’ll give no armchair advice. This resonates with me @Damian. As a father of 4, and a trail runner, it speaks. I have my own pics of crossing finish lines with my kids, and I treasure those moments. I think it brings them joy too, in that moment. All the other moments? I don’t know… My 7 year old son keeps asking me, “Dad, when can I run the Barkley Fall Classic?” “Dad, when I run the BFC, will you run it with me?”

    1. Ally Beaven

      I assume your 7 year old is planning on winning the Fall Classic in order to get a Barkley spot? Got to teach them to set audacious goals.

  4. Ultra406

    Damian, this post really struck a chord with me. I have almost exactly the same story, except I’m not as strong of a runner as you are. My UTMB is the Bighorn 52. I too want my children to see me as a tough and strong dad. That motivation sometimes take away from being a father. I’m starting to realize that the above two posts are spot on, spend time with them. They will not be around for much longer. A real hero of a dad is just there. The balance has been a struggle, best of luck for the both of us. Thanks for the article it’s nice to know I’m not the only one.

  5. Tony

    Damian, my kids -although a bit older now- don’t give sh!t about me trying to be a tough trail runner. They have never, and never will, waited for me at the finish line. ‘That’s where you wanna be, and that’s OK, but not us’. I even travel alone to all these locations. They will text ‘You can make it’ if I’m lucky. Yes, off course it would be nice to have it differently. But it isn’t. I just accept it and we spend valuable other time together. I’d say count your blessings. It doesn’t tell anything about how they think about you, at the most only about running (yes, you and running might be inter-connected, but they don’t realise). You’re doing just fine!

  6. Jody

    I remember my first DNF. I was sad and my four year old son looked at me and asked ‘did you lose?’ Of course I had to run it the following year so I could cross the finish line and teach him a lesson on perseverance. He unenthusiastically crossed the finish line with me…❤️

  7. SLC

    As a woman (and mother) and having a lot of the same thoughts you have had – it’s interesting to see the comments from other dads about this and the similar angle from all of them. I have a son, and he’s been at almost all of my races, some of them in really really crappy weather. I will look at him all bundled up and briefly question why the hell I’ve chosen to be out in the same weather, running, for hours on end. I want him to witness and grasp what I’m doing, physically, mentally and emotionally, but I don’t know whether he can really get it at the age of seven.

    He’s in the 100 mile club at school and last year he ran 117 miles, and honestly I don’t know who cared more, me or him. He’s doing it again this year and I run every week with him, and try and instill in him that it should be fun and he should be proud of his accomplishment. If there is ever a day where he’s not having fun I try to get him to stop, but he won’t. I leave every Saturday morning and tell him I’m going for a run and he and his dad do whatever they decide to do for those hours while I’m gone. Sometimes I feel guilty, but it makes me run faster. I leave Sunday as a rest day, so there is one weekend day where we all hang out and it has nothing to do with my running schedule and sometimes that helps assuage the guilt.

    I feel a little differently about what most everyone else has said, for probably my own selfish reasons. While you can’t ever predict the future and can never assume you will be around for a long long time (long enough to eventually show up in the family drawing) if what you are doing makes you a better father: happy, connected when you are with them etc., it’s not something I’d suggest trading for that drawing.

    Children are surprisingly resilient, and more spongelike than I ever would have imagined. What they see now, or don’t see, has a good chance of showing up much later in life. Yes, maybe the ‘right now’ reward of their attention and affection means a lot – but to me giving them things they can use later in life means just as much. I like to think that’s what I’m doing, and I sleep better feeling that way…

  8. Dinsmore83

    Right now I’m “only” training for my first 100k. I’m in the habit of getting up at 0400 to get my 8 week-day miles in before I go to work. Weekends are harder, with my Long Runs, I’m definitely gone for some of the time my little guy is awake but, fortunately, my wife is amazing and takes little man duty while I’m running. The sound of him yelling “daddy!” and running to me, when I get in the house, gives me more incentive to get my runs in as quickly as I can, while staying safe and productive.

  9. Nathan

    I’m a father of a 3 year old boy and a 5 year old girl so I know where you’re coming from. Personally, I think you’re making the right choice. Include your kids as much as they want to be included (and maybe a little more, always good to be encouraging!).

    I grew up in a family that did competitive horse endurance racing. We trained the horses most days of the week, and did 50 to 100 mile races about once a month. It was an important and formative part of my childhood. Obviously ultrarunning is a little different–I was actually riding a horse for 50 miles by the time I was 9–but it’s also really similar. You get to travel to a cool place, experience pit crewing and helping someone accomplish something difficult, and as you’ve been doing you can help your kids participate in running too!

    They may not understand or really care now, but when they’re older they’ll understand and think it was cool to run with you at the end of UTMB.

  10. Ric Moxley

    love your writing style — entertaining and yet emotionally involving on deeper levels too.

    As for me, my days of running began after my kids were mostly grown, so I expected no transference of interest of running to them. But, funnily enough, my oldest, 30, has become a trail runner and my youngest, 25, is at least trotting through city streets. :)

  11. Aleksandar Radan

    Great article. Spoke volumes to me as a father of four and working 80hr weeks as an Emergency Room physician.

    Ultimately, I try to invest more interest in my kids lives than I expect them to display of my running. They know I run, they have seen me finish races, but I want to know who they are and what they want to finish.

    For me it’s a ven diagram where there is some overlap, however I appreciate and respect that they will be there own individual selves to the same extent I am.

    I can only hope they find as much enjoyment, challenge, life and meaning in the finish lines they chose to seek.

  12. BG

    As a mum of three who chases bug endurance dreams its interesting to read your thoughts as a dad. This year (a year after my third) I ran my first ultra 53 miler and competed in my first Ironman. I trained around the kids, with the kids and made it work for all of us. They come to every event and join in all the pre race kids events. Yes I’m sure if my perform better if I had less distractions, if I relaxed before the day rather than chase them around but what matters is crossing the line and giving it my all…and showing them what hard work achieves. Like the mum above said I honestly believe that even if they don’t realise it they will be inspired by what is around them and this will last forever. I took me a long time to realise I might not be able to set the performance goals I wanted but I could still set goals… my kids already can’t wait until they can do an Ironman. The first one is on me (that’s the deal).

  13. Henning Karlsson

    Father of 2 small kids. Three things I think of. #1 Happy parents happy family. If running makes you happy it is a habit to stick with. And for ALL the other obvious and hidden benefits.
    #2 Your running shouldn’t exclude you partner from getting their excercise in. Equality.
    #3 If you have a decent occupation. (wich often is the case with ultrarunners) you can afford to work less than full time. Me and my wife have 32 hour weeks. (also helps that swedish law gives parents with kids <8 years of age the right to ask for part time without losing their full time employment).

  14. worm

    Damian,
    My sons are 10 and 6 and my daughter 18 mo. My reality is that as much as I’d like them to learn something from my running, the only thing they understand is that I’m not there. Whenever I have a race coming up they beg me not to do it because they know I’ll be gone a day (or more) just running. It has taken me 5 years to realize that the running is really just for me, no matter what spin I try to put on it. Time spent with them at this fleeting age will be far more valuable than anything I can accomplish or attempt to ‘teach’ them through running. We are all searching for significance and identity, and what we find on the trail won’t bear much influence on our children, who at this point in their lives are looking to us learn who they are and if they matter.

    1. Brian

      I really think this depends on the kids. My 8 year old has told me countless times how proud he is of me since finishing my first 100 miler almost a month ago now. Both of my boys beg me to take them on runs constantly and cheer me in at every race they’ve been to. I’ve only been at this 3 years now, and while I am sure it will get old to them at some point, it is no doubt having a big impact on them already. To each his own though.

  15. Doug K

    I quit ultrarunning when the kids came along.. switched to short-distance tri, which doesn’t require nearly as much training time and recovery time. My family came to one tri race. #2 son aged 4 looked at the crowds around the start, said “that’s too many people for me” and requested my wife take him to the playground instead..
    #1 son is a competitive swimmer now, think he may have been faintly inspired by my athletic endeavors, but #2 son never yet figured out why I’d want to do all that running..

  16. Jim R.

    My Dad ran some ultras when I was really young and ran and exercised religiously growing up. I always listened to his stories and saw him getting after it everyday, he was my hero. Now being 33 and looking back I still want to be just like him and am just like him in many ways. I wanted to run like him when I was younger but never wanted to be a runner, I wanted to play other sports. There was no pressure, he let me do what I wanted and eventually on my own I came to become a runner and started running ultras even when I said there was no way in hell I would run a 50miler like my Dad even through my early 20s I said that, and I just finished my first 100 a few weeks ago :) Looking back watching my Dad growing up gave me a passion for movement, the outdoors, adventure, and grit….I wouldn’t trade these for the world. I am a father to a 3 year old son now and I just hope that I can live with a purpose, passion, and presence that will hopefully inspire something, whatever it might be. Thanks for the great article, love hearing about other parents experiences!!!

  17. shawn

    You are obviously a bad father. You should quit ultras and take up golf instead. Spend at least 5 hours at the course each weekend (which is about what it takes to hit some range balls, do 18 holes, and then have a beer or two in the clubhouse afterwards). When you get home, be sure to watch at least one full football game (3 hours) while shushing the kids if they get too loud during the commercials. I’ll let you decide between NCAA and NFL.

    Seriously, thanks for sharing. Your kids are still a bit too young to appreciate the time and effort that goes into training and racing. At least you finish near the front; try explaining PRs and age-grouper to a kid.

    If you honestly want an answer about whether you need to make changes, ask your wife instead of us. I’ve always consulted with my wife before signing up for or training for anything big; starting with my first marathon in 1998 (before we knew she was pregnant with our first) and most recently before tackling the Colorado Trail the week after dropping that same kid off for college.

    Happy trails!

  18. Jonathan Taylor

    “Social-media snaps of my UTMB finishes might imply I’m a good dad” err, no. A big clue is in being omitted from a family sketch. Basically, through choice, you are absent from their lives (possibly at times when they might need you most) because of extensive time out, training and competing. Taking a child 1/week to a fun run evening will do little to assuage a child’s feeling that they are not a centre and top priority to you. Your ultra-exploits do not herald virtues of a strong, inspiring Dad in the eyes of a 3 & 6 year old. The problem with addiction is you ultimately dance to the theme you want to see through your own lens, then align values that you hope benefit and (eventually) will be understood by your children. Sorry to say, but you engage in a self-centred, self-indulgent activity, for you alone. Your near-best-ever-feeling in a captured finish-line photo with your children, may suggest to others, you are the dad that has-it-all, but it is deceptively incomplete.
    Your problem is certainly a modern-day problem. The rise of the middle-aged family man suddenly finding himself and indulging in ultras, Cycling sportives, triathlons etc is already a decade (or more) old.
    Unless you’re a professional and competing in your sport is the sole reason food goes on the table, you will in time, when your finisher’s T-shirts no longer fit, regret the time you missed with the children; the exhilaration of crossing a finishing line on your personal adventure will long be forgotten.
    I get the addiction. My racing days came to a rapid halt when my children, now 4 & 5, arrived. Admittedly, I didn’t consciously call time on a 15 year career of Ironman and multi-day adventure racing, but there was a seamless shift from 25hrs/week training to indulging all that time with two small children. We do everything together, swim, cycle and soon-to-be 5k park runs: if anything is going to inspire them, it is this. I don’t miss a thing with the children. My biggest fear is that I do. My addiction: being there to witness all their accomplishments no matter how big or small.

  19. Joe

    I think your being just a tad harsh Jonathan and maybe need to re-read the article.

    I’m nowhere near as accomplished an ultra runner as you Damian, and big congrats by the way on being first Brit, but as a dad of a 4 year old I still put in about 8-15 hours a week training while working a 50 hour week.

    Basically for me that means being out on the trail at 5am and home before the family wakes up (7am) during the work week and fitting a long run Saturday mornings but the rule is I have to be home and DONE with that running thing by 10am so we can spend the weekend as a family. It works for us but then again I’m not aiming for the top end of the field.

    Just my 5 pence worth

  20. Damian Hall

    A huge thank you for all your often fascinating and really valuable comments.

    It’s clearly a very subjective topic, complex and with endless nuances – for example, a parent could be physically present a lot of the time, but not necessarily engaged in the present moment, with their children. Some parents work long hours and their jobs demand trips abroad. I work from home most days and when it comes to long runs I’m not afraid of a 4am alarm.

    Your comments also made me think abut my own parents and though they aren’t sporty, my dad is very outdoorsy and that’s had a big impact on me. When I was about seven he did a hill-walking challenge we have in the UK called the National Three Peaks. A minibus full of people set off to attempt it, but only three of them managed it, including my dad, which really impressed me – and perhaps even helped lead me down certain paths. (My sister doesn’t remember anything about it.) I also remember noticing how much bigger and rounder most of my friends’ dads were, compared to mine.

    Fittingly enough, UTMB came up at dinner time last night and my daughter (six) showed interest in how many runners there were and how I’d done this year compared to last year.

    I’m not planning to make any radical lifestyle changes just yet, but some of your comments have been a great reminder to make the most of moments. Thank you.

  21. Daniel Cunnama

    Hi Damian,

    Thank you very much for your article and for having the courage to talk honestly about a matter which affects a great many of us.

    Your article rang true to me, having a 2-year-old and another on the way, and simultaneously having a job and personal running goals for the Comrades marathon in particular.

    I gave this article a lot of thought over the weekend and spoke to my wife about it and I think what I came out believing is this:

    As you mention above there is a difference between being physically present and engaged in your children, especially in the current age of smartphones etc. But at the same time, there are many reasons for not being present all the time. I for one have to travel abroad occasionally, as does my wife. This causes much angst and heartache but it is somehow acceptable because it is work, not being around for a run, on the other hand, seems less acceptable.

    I think we can be teaching our children all the time, even if we are not in the room. You want to be proud of and inspired by your parents, and if they aren’t out there chasing and achieving their goals, I don’t think you will necessarily have that drive as an adult. My parents were both long-distance runners, completing multiple Comrades marathons and looking back I don’t harbour any resentment at them not being around(in fact I don’t even have that as a memory really), on the contrary, I think it is the precise reason why I have such ambitious goals for myself.

    I think being a good parent is a complex and difficult task, one not easily remedied by spending every waking moment with your child necessarily, and I think in your case, by virtue of this article alone, you are a good parent. Because you care, and you want to be a good parent. You, like me, are a perfectionist, a common trait amongst runners, but I have learned in my short time as a parent thus far that I will never be perfect, all I can do is strive. Something you are doing. So Bravo.

    All the best, in racing, parenting and life.
    Daniel

  22. Brian

    Whenever the topic of kids/parenting is involved you are going to get every kind of advice under the sun. Nobody is a good enough parent these days, and everyone is doing it wrong according to someone. I’ve got 2 young boys 4 and 8 and for the first few years of my oldest son’s life I devoted everything to him and family. I completely neglected myself, I became overweight, I had psoriasis taking over my body and I smoked like a chimney. Basically, I was a typical father. I worked, I came home and everything was family. We worship our kids, our world revolves around them. That’s how its supposed to be, right? As they grow, we are supposed to cart them around and watch them play sports, we make sure we start them young so that they can be competitive and get a good team as they grow. Youth sports has become like adult professional sports. We sit, and we watch our kids, living through them, right? That’s it’s supposed to be.

    How dare any of us take out time away from our kids for ourselves, and miss precious hours away from them? Well, for me I decided at some point, to be a different kind of father. I watched my dad waste away his life, I wanted him to be my hero but he never was. We are supposed to be grateful to our parents, for giving up their dreams and providing for us. For spending all their free time and energy on us, making sure we are happy and have the best life. But what if that isn’t enough? What if that leaves us wondering what our own purpose is? What are our dreams supposed to look like? How are we supposed to follow our passions if we have no example to follow?

    There is a difference between being there and being present, I think. My kids have definitely said similar things to me about running, about being away or taking a long time to finish a long race. But they say other things all the time that lets me know this is the right choice. Just the other day my wife was not feeling well, resting, while I played with the kids. Nice rainy fall day, and my boys know how much I like running in the rain. As I opened some windows to let some fresh autumn air in I said “Sure would be nice to run in this.” my youngest turned and said “Go for a rain run dad.” I said “who’s going to take care of you guys and take care of mom?” and he said “we’ll be fine dad, I will check on mommy for you.”

    All this to say, I do my best to always be there for my kids. I run ultra’s but I am nowhere near in the top and my training rarely goes over 10-12 hours a week. But I truly believe this is good for my kids, not only modeling good healthy behavior, good eating, exercising, setting and completing goals, but also that they feel apart of this too. That they are exposed to and can take part in the running community.

  23. Lucy

    Damian, this is such a good article, and even the fact that you are pondering the question shows you are Not a bad Dad. The truly bad ones don’t ever worry about it. I only have myself to speak for, but I honestly had the best father in the world who was also my best friend throughout my whole life. He was a heart surgeon, so we didn’t even typically have traditional family dinners because he may have had to stay late if there was a surgery that took long. But we always had breakfast together and that was fantastic, I absolutely didn’t envy kids who had traditional family dinners. My Dad was also an avid skier, and I am sure it must have taken him away from family time – but I truly do not remember that at all and never begrudged him that. I remember the good things, like how much fun it was to study Latin together, when we went skiing or hiking together – and neither when I was a child nor later in life did I ever felt he wasn’t a good father because of his schedule. I don’t know if it quality vs quantity? All those important things, when it truly mattered – he always was there for me, like when I needed to talk about something important or was facing some dilemma. I think that really determines the quality of any relationship. Congratulations on UTMB!

  24. Laurent Vercueil

    Great article, Damian, thanks !
    Running the 6000D ultramarathon this year, my 7-year old boy (and a school friend of him) went through the finish line with me, hand in hand (the video is here : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uFFayk2NiH4 ).
    After the finishline, I got a finisher teeshirt, and He asked for one. The staff gently gave him one, then we move to the refreshment station, and he felt unfair not having his part of food and drinks, having the finisher tee shirt on his shoulders.
    A great moment.
    laurent

  25. NICK ROBERTSON

    Perhaps if you’d come around the corner with a wild boar across your shoulders the kids would understand more. You’re bringing home the bacon in the form of athletic success, and no doubt money earned from insightful journalism like this. At a certain age, probably about twelve, they will realise that you’re not afraid of the world and it will inspire them to be brave too.

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