Damian Hall continues to improve every year at UTMB. This year, running his way into fifth place. In our first interview with him, Damian talks about how he downplays his expectations, how he came to running from hiking, and how his race went this year.
Check out our 2018 UTMB results article for the full story of the race, as well as links for all of our post-race interviews.
Damian Hall Post-UTMB 2018 Interview Transcript
iRunFar:Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Damian Hall after his fifth-place finish at the 2018 UTMB. Congratulations, Damian.
Damian Hall: Thank you very much indeed. It was nice to see you out on the course. Thanks for your encouraging words.
iRunFar:Likewise! It was fun. We had a good time out there. You were on my radar as someone who has improved well over the last couple of years – in general as well as at UTMB. You went from the back half of the top 20 to twelfth last year and the potential to keep moving up. That you did. Is this what you dreamed of for this year’s UTMB?
Hall: It’s probably better than I imagined, if I’m honest. Like you said, last year I was twelfth. I was a quarter of an hour from tenth. I was in tenth briefly, in fact. The iRunFar tweet still holds me, like “Looky here, Damian Hall’s moved into tenth.” Not long after that, Jordi Gamito gazumped me.
iRunFar:It turns out he’s pretty good.
Hall: [Laughs] He’s quite good, yeah. So it haunted me all year, really. I trained harder, but then I looked at the lineup for this year’s race and thought [grimaces]. But then, if I’m honest, it kind of happened how I – well, even better than I could have imagined in that I hoped all the fast guys would burn each other out. Hopefully, there’d be a little bit of a void behind that that hopefully I could move into if I got everything right. If I stayed on top of all the basics. I’m not in the same class as these guys and I’ve got lots of disadvantages like, you know, I’m not a full-time athlete, I’ve got children, I’m quite old. Some of these guys have got 2:20 marathons and I’m a 2:38 marathoner. I don’t have big mountains near me. So, all these things against me, or at least that’s the mindset I like to get into.
iRunFar:And then you can only go up from there. It’s not like you’re trying to be self-deceiving.
Hall: No. I think it helps me to think [like this]. I remember at last year’s race, passing David Laney and Sage Canaday, thinking “Whoa! I shouldn’t be here.” It sort of helps my mindset by getting me relaxed. To answer your question a little bit more: No, I couldn’t imagine placing fifth.
iRunFar:How was your lead-up? How was your season coming into this?
Hall: It was good. I did two other Ultra-Trail World Tour races. I did the Madeira Island Ultra-Trail, which I loved. I placed sixth there. I just love the terrain there at that race. Then I did the Mozart 100, which is a bit faster. I sort of did that on purpose to try and get a bit faster. I was second there, which is probably my best international result. Then I came out and recced the course with three other Brits who’ve all done well: Beth Pascal, Jo Meek, and Jim Mann, who I think was 15th.
iRunFar:He’s a top fell runner.
Hall: Yes, he’s very good. I was quite concerned the whole race that he was going to catch me, but he didn’t have an elite start, so he had the disadvantage of starting behind me. Yeah, I recced the course for a change and trained a bit harder.
iRunFar:Does having the previous years’ experience from UTMB allow you to tweak or work on places you can improve?
Hall: Yeah, I think so. This is my fourth consecutive UTMB. Over that period, when I started it was the climbs I seemed to do well on. That’s probably because I’ve got a background more as a hiker than a runner. The climbs used to go well and then these European mountain goats would speed past me on the descents. This year, I found I was catching people on the descents and it was the climbs I felt weaker on. Obviously I’ve neglected them.
iRunFar:Or maybe it could be who you’re running against at this point [laughs].
Hall: It could be that [laughs].
iRunFar:You were 19thtwo years ago. Three years ago where did you finish?
iRunFar:That’s pretty consistent, solid improvement.
Hall: Yeah, I suppose it is. There’s such huge crowds here and so much attention on it. So if things go well, you get this huge wave of goodwill. I’ve always come away with this overwhelming positive feeling, but then also this nagging doubt that I could’ve done something better, either in the race or in training or both. So there’s always room for improvement, though I’m not sure I can improve from here.
iRunFar:You were saying you come from a hiking background. What is your athletic background? Did you grow up playing sports or were you just a hiker? What’s your story?
Hall: I remember being okay at cross country at school. I remember when I was a teenager, when you’re a rebel without a cause, I remember having a hissy fit that I wasn’t selected for some level of cross country team, and I just thought, “I’m not going to do that anymore. I’m just going to play football.” Or soccer, as you guys call it. So I played football for 20-odd years – wasn’t any good, but I loved playing it. Then, I had a bit of a mid-life crisis and signed up for a half-marathon in 2011.
iRunFar:How old were you then?
Hall: About 35. Then I did my first marathon the next year, dressed as a toilet, as you would, for sponsorship reasons. It’s a long story. Then, I did my first ultra that year, in 2012, and just thought, “This is for me.” By then, I already loved doing long-distance trails. Maybe not like the Appalachian Trail, but in Britain we’ve got the Pennine Way, Coast-to-Coast Walk, and I’ve done lots of trails around the world, like New Zealand. So I’ve been out on my feet for days at a time, being self-reliant, going up and down hills, stuffing me face as you move. All these skills I already had, but I didn’t realize.
iRunFar:And you didn’t know they were skills – like stuffing your face.
Hall: Yeah [laughs]. I’ve been doing that since 4:00 this morning, actually. Yeah, quite skillful. So, when I did my first ultra, I just absolutely love this stuff and yeah, I thought, “I’m doing more of this.” Gave up football pretty much.
iRunFar:So you had run as a kid and over the years, but more recently you just loved being outdoors and hiking.
Hall: Yeah, I just loved being outdoors. And I loved this sport.
iRunFar:And it turns out you’re pretty good at it.
Hall: Well, you know, I’m trying. The Brits haven’t got a great record, really, at UTMB.
iRunFar:Except for those five Lizzy Hawker wins.
Hall: Sorry, I’ve made the classic mistake. We do have some disadvantages with terrain and also the weather. My first two years were very hot. I didn’t really like that.
iRunFar:So shit years weather-wise are really good for you.
Hall: Yes. This year and last year, my best two years.
iRunFar:But this year wasn’t hard. It wasn’t a pleasant evening, but…
Hall: No, but it was cooler and there was drizzle and fog and all those things.
iRunFar:It wasn’t beyond category bad, though.
Hall: No, I think last year was a little bit tougher, weather-wise.
iRunFar:So you live in the Southwest of England. You have a family. You’ve come in with the kids in the past. You’re just too fast for them now?
Hall: They’re faster than me, actually. But I couldn’t convince my wife that for three years in a row, a “family holiday” in Chamonix was the place to have a holiday. They were watching at home on the live stream, which was nice.
iRunFar:What do you do back in England for your day job?
Hall: I’m a journalist, mostly outdoors stuff, as well. Normally, when I come to these races, I write a tedious, annoying report of how it all went.
iRunFar:Don’t remind me of my afternoon [laughs]. How has that been? You’re coming to these races and reporting on them – are you good at separating that? Do you take this weekend off from work?
Hall: That has been a change. When I started doing the races, I was doing them primarily for magazine stories. Now, I’m definitely doing them as an athlete. After my first UTMB, I thought, “Maybe I could be good at this if I go straight, more honest.” So I started saying no to stories, because you don’t want to race too much, do you? I would say no to sometimes all-expenses-paid trips that would be a nice race, but my next race wouldn’t be so good because I’d be tired. So I started to say no, and hopefully it made a difference.
iRunFar:So you focus on your races as an athlete rather than as a journalist. Are you going to be doing any stories on this race?
Hall: I think I’m doing one afterwards.
iRunFar:From your personal perspective, or that of covering the race?
Hall: It’s a personal perspective. I’m not trying to clash with iRunFar [laughs]. It’s just a personal write-up.
iRunFar:No! I didn’t mean it like that. You’ll probably have a pretty good story coming out of it.
Hall: I guess so. Most of the magazines in Britain, I’ve written a UTMB story for.
iRunFar:You’re running out of them, then.
Hall: Yeah, but I’ll do one.
iRunFar:Any particular stretches of the race that just stand out in your mind that you’ll remember going forward?
Hall: I always love the section after Courmayeur: the climb and the undulating plateau. It always seems to go quite well for me there. I remember going up Grand Col Ferret, or “ferret” as we say in English, in the mist and the cold. I liked that. That was nice.
iRunFar:The only problem with your racing is you keep getting faster, so your first one it was probably toward daylight as you were going along that nice balcony going to Réfuge Bonatti [92 km/57 miles].
Hall: Yeah, every year it’s been [farther along the course when the sun rises] and it was only just light by the top this time.
iRunFar:You might have to take a slower tour one of these years. Any rough patches? You seemed to be consistent or move up throughout the day.
Hall: I did have some small slumps, I suppose. I’ve always been quite good at being fairly conservative early on, being patient. This year I did analyze my previous year and see where I could improve. It was clear that the people who finished ahead of me went a bit faster than me early on. So I did think, “Okay, let’s just experiment very carefully with going a bit quicker.” By Saint Gervais [21 km/13 miles], I realized that was definitely about as quick as I should go. So I thought, “No, calm down.” I did have a little slump after that. I also misheard someone tell me my race placing, I thought I heard them say I was 37th. This was early in the night and I thought, “Oh, this is terrible, what a nightmare race!” I got into that sort of spiral of self-loathing. I had a bad spell around then.
iRunFar:How do you turn that around?
Hall: I started asking the runners near me where they thought we were in the race. They all thought around 13thor 14th. I thought, “Oh, actually that’s fine.” Usually nutrition, as well. Often I’ll start with addressing any lack of nutrition.
iRunFar:That skill of stuffing your face.
Hall: I know it doesn’t look like I love food [gestures to his body], but I do. I do love food.
iRunFar:Nice. Do you have any other races planned for this year?
Hall: No, absolutely nothing. I think I learned this lesson a couple of years ago. It was the Trail World Championships, actually, a couple years ago. It was after UTMB and neither of those races went that well for me. So now I just keep a clean slate so I can sort of just smash myself up on UTMB and not worry about it.
iRunFar:You’ll probably come back again and smash yourself here next year?
Hall: No. I’ve got to stop coming. I think four years in a row is enough. I’ll come back and do it again, but not next year.
iRunFar:Is there anything that has your interest piqued in terms of a big race?
Hall: Oh, I’d love to come over to your country and do a couple of your big 100s, especially Hardrock or Western States. But they’re difficult to get into. I’m going to sit down and look at Western States and see how I can get it. It might not suit me as much as maybe Hardrock or UTMB, but I’d love to do that.
iRunFar:Your training grounds would probably be pretty good for it. You could get some fast training in.
Hall: I suppose, yeah. I’d also just love to come over and experience the American trail running culture, which I’ve read so much about. Yeah, I’d love to do that.
iRunFar:Well, congratulations on a great race, Damian. It was great chatting.
Hall: Thank you.