At some point in 2020 I briefly skirted around the start of the Pennine Way (or end, depending on your perspective) on a small hike with friends during our relatively unrestricted summer period. It was a beautiful day with glorious sunshine baking much of the country in 30 degree heat, although it was far fresher up on the Kinder Plateau. Anyway, there was nothing impressive about our physical feats that day, we were just rambling about before heading into Sheffield to drink beer, but around that time I first heard the name Damian Hall, and that he had run all of the Pennine Way in an astounding 61 hours, and 34 minutes.
The trail is 268 miles.
Obviously a book about such an exploit was going to be required reading because books about amazing people doing insane things on their own two feet is really my bag, man. In It For the Long Run (have you noticed how runners love an athletic double entendre?) has Hall charting his own journey from young, slightly rubbish footballer (a Alexander Hleb-alike, I was delighted to read), to reluctant cross country star, and eventually a mile chewing, sandwich noshing, activist/athlete on the global stage. The Pennine Way record is the book’s jewel, but there’s a whole lot of gold in the crown around it.
When Hall found running he dived deep. After years of travelling and hiking (and building a great big base of spending a long time on his feet), he went in first at half marathon, then a marathon, with a Wateraid sponsorship and, more importantly(?), dressed as a toilet. In his own words:
“If I did get the runs it’d at least be appropriate. Though I hoped people wouldn’t take the piss, that the event wouldn’t wipe me out or drain me too much.”
I believe he may have gone on, if his editor would have allowed it.
And then Damian Hall’s ultra career begins, and continues, with a series of agonising events that, as he describes them, come to sound concerningly appealing.
Hall has a unique voice which lends personality to his exploits. Sure, his massive runs are impressive, but they could still fall flat on paper, landing stale and stiff amongst a swirling data flurry because, really, the numbers don’t mean much, do they? During a record attempt the whole run is driven by a wild number chase but after the fact, with the data already out there, it is more interesting to read about what drives a person to do these completely unsensible things, what happens to mind and body when they do them, and how many sandwiches are required to complete each.
Beyond all that, Hall is driven by more than records, more than data. On the Pennine Way he picked litter, and raised money for Greenpeace. He is also an active supporter of Extinction Rebellion. As readers we are never beaten over the head by these activist leanings. Hall recognises a strange problem with caring: it has the potential to turn us into self-styled hypocrites. We can be so wrecked by our own guilt that we feel like we don’t deserve to care and campain for our environment. Drive to a trail, fly to a race, and we might suddenly be struck by horrible guilt about what we’re doing. Yes, there are changes we can make (Hall dials back his international calendar, for example) but our guilt shouldn’t be used as a weapon against us – there are bigger, uglier enemies to the environment out there than the average runner, or the average person at all really, we just have to make enough little changes to live with that intrinsic hypocrisy and not let it cripple us.
In the end, In it for the Long Run made me want to run far, and if an ultrarunning book makes the reader start to daydream about doing enormously stupid things over long, lumpy distances, I think we have to call it a resounding success.