We talk to the record-breaking ultramarathon runner about climate change, activism and tea. Despite not discovering the joy of running long distances until his late 30s, father of two, outdoor journalist and now running coach Damian Hall has represented Great Britain, set four Fastest Known Times (speed records) and placed 5th at Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc.
What does running mean to you?
Start me off with a nice easy one why don’t you! Erm… It’s become my work, my lifestyle, my obsession. It’s given me great happiness and some self-worth, some amazing friendships, made me hurt myself but feel pleased about it, made me cry, laugh and eat alarming amounts of custard.
Where is your favourite place to run?
I enjoy local runs in the ‘Cotswold Mountains’, especially in May when wild garlic runs riot and autumn when the beech trees turn the floor orange. But the Brecon Beacons have become a special place for me. I love their big green walls, how it’s quite a small place really, but can feel like epic wilderness in winter, with hidden waterfalls and lakes, wind-blasted summits, the fog and sleet and those uber-tough ponies. And there’s nearly always a cuppa tea waiting in a snack van at the end.
What’s your happiest moment as a runner?
They both happened at Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), a 105-mile race through the Alps in France, Italy and Switzerland. It’s the Super Bowl of ultra-trail running, so placing 5th there in 2018 is probably as good as it’ll get for me as an international athlete. But two years earlier, my happiest moment was when my two children (then aged two and four) were waiting for me at the finish line to surprise me and we ran the last 100 metres together. I’m getting spine tingles just thinking about it now. They were a bit fast for me at that point, mind.
How concerned are you about our climate and ecological crisis?
Very. I’ve had sleepless nights about it, made lifestyle changes, joined protests, written about it, talked about it, and incessantly posted on social media about it. I’m probably quite annoying about it. It seems we may only have eight-10 years to significantly slow greenhouse gas emissions before environmental tipping points are reached (and may have already been reached). It’s really scary and I’m alarmed that more people aren’t alarmed.
“Talk about our climate emergency, post on social media about it. It’s okay to be annoying. We’re almost out of time.”– Damian Hall
What impact have your concerns had on your lifestyle?
I’ve given up beef, lamb and dairy, switched to a renewable energy supplier, drastically cut down on household plastic waste (all that is surprisingly easy to do), but also assessed my lifestyle as an international athlete and decided I simply can’t go on flying as much as I used to. I’m also thinking a lot more about which brands I’m willing to work with: are they serious about sustainability and our situation? When I do races or challenges now, I use public transport, and fuel without animal products or plastic waste, whenever possible. Consulting with a carbon accountant helped make my family carbon-negative for 2020 (which admittedly involved a little bit of offsetting). None of that is perfect, but nothing about our situation is. I care and I’m trying. Some people may still see me as a hypocrite because I might still fly once or twice a year or drive a handful of times a month, but it’s incredibly difficult to live without releasing any greenhouses gases, so anyone who speaks out is automatically a hypocrite. I’d rather be a hypocrite than do nothing. But here’s where governments and corporations need to step up and take moral responsibility.
Do you think the running world is doing enough about it?
Yes and no. Some individuals, such as Jim Mann (Trees Not Tees), Dan Lawson (ReRun), Rosie Watson (New Story Run) and others, are doing some incredibly inspirational and brave things. Are brands, events and international athletes doing enough? Some are, some aren’t. I think there’s the personal side of this and the political side, and that’s where I see the biggest leadership vacuum — hence my involvement with Extinction Rebellion, to try and force through change that way.
What would you urge others to do?
Several lifestyle choices are easy and often fun and rewarding too; fly less, drive less, eat less dairy and red meat, switch to a renewable energy supplier, such as Bulb or Ecotricity (it takes about five minutes). But also hassle your MP about sustainable policies — easily done if you sign up to Greenpeace UK. Get involved with Extinction Rebellion, they’re a lovely, diverse, welcoming, non-judgemental bunch. Talk about our climate emergency, post on social media about it. It’s okay to be annoying. We’re almost out of time.
“fly less, drive less, eat less dairy and red meat, switch to a renewable energy supplier”– Damian Hall
What’s next for you running-wise?
We’re talking during the Covid-19 lockdown, so a lot is uncertain. However I’m keen to do more carbon-negative challenges, where I hurt myself a bit but feel happy, but there’s something of an environmental message too.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Yes. Pouring (non-dairy) milk in before hot water when making tea should be criminalised.