The Pennine Way is a 268-mile footpath drenched in history at every turn. Britain’s oldest national trail, it snakes its way through three national parks (the Peak District, Yorkshire Dales and Northumberland), winding across undulating, windswept hills and remote, peaty, bog-filled moorland. The entire route crosses 204 bridges and 432 stiles, has a total elevation higher than Mount Everest (11,837m according to Strava) and takes most hikers around 16 days to trek from start to finish.
Ultra-runner Damian Hall wanted to traverse the length of it a little quicker. A lot quicker, in fact. He was aiming to smash the record for completing it, which had stood at 2 days, 17hrs and 15secs, set by fell-running legend Mike Hartley back in July 1989. That was until a week before Hall’s attempt, when US runner John Kelly shaved 34 minutes off of the time, despite suffering stomach problems throughout his attempt.
Unperturbed, Hall set off at 6am on Wednesday July 22 from the most northern point of the trail at Kirk Yetholm on the Scottish border, and began his odyssey south. The journey to this point hadn’t been an instant decision after seeing Kelly break the record though – it was percolating for four years, and took months of planning.
The idea formed when Hall tackled the South West Coastal Path FKT (fastest known time) in 2016. For that, he ran all 630 miles in 10 days, trouncing the record by more than 16 hours. “With utmost respect to the coastal path record, it was less intimidating in terms of the quality of the record than the Pennine Way one,” says Hall. “Mike Hartley is a legendary fell runner, with numerous records and genuine athletic talent. I kept putting my attempt off as it was so intimidating. I was scared of it. Every year I’d find a reason not to do it, then this year when there were no races, there were no reasons left.”
I kept putting my attempt off as it was so intimidating. I was scared of it
Hall has a long history with the Pennine Way. The first time he encountered it was in 2007 during a coast-to-coast trek. “Partway along there were signs for the Pennine Way pointing north, and the moorlands just looked more dramatic, foreboding and moody, so I was left wondering what exactly the Pennine Way was.”
A few years later, while working as an outdoor journalist, he was offered the chance to write a guidebook for the trail. “It was one of those ‘Sliding Doors’ moments,” says Hall. “I walked it in 14 days and I really fell for it. Britain has around 75% of the world’s heather moorland. It’s a unique habitat and feels very British.”
When the Spine Race started in 2012 – a famously tough ultramarathon that traverses the Pennine Way in the middle of January – Hall quickly became obsessed with tracking the runners, and joined in on the race’s third run in 2014. “It was incredibly rewarding – super-painful but wonderful. Locals came out to support the runners or turned up in the middle of a moor with a chocolate bar. It made me realise how much kindness there is in the world. As soon as it was over I thought, ‘That really hurt, I’ve got to do it again.’ So I was there again the following year.”
Fast-forward five years and the world is currently a very different place. “When lockdown started to kick in and the key summer races began to be cancelled, I was thinking, ‘My Pennine Way attempt is gonna happen.’”
Hall’s fitness levels were in decent shape due to training for the summer race calendar, so the main issue was sorting the complicated planning involved with an FKT of this scale. “The logistics of getting a team together, with people who know what they’re doing and have the right personalities – you have to get all that right. It’s a team effort, and that really made a difference – small things like being able to sleep when I wanted or having a motivated team, because if they get fed up of me they might not put the effort in. Towards the end they added bonus aid stations when I wasn’t expecting them, which gave me a huge lift. At points when things became difficult, I thought, ‘All these people have put in an effort for me, I can’t just give up,’ so it became self-perpetuating.”
Formulating a strategy for attacking a 268-mile trail is not something many people have experience of. Do you go out hard and see what happens or play it safe and save yourself for the second half? Hall tried to keep a balanced approach to his pacing, resulting in a strong second section. “If you look at my stats, though, it looks like I went out hard and tried to hang on! But that wasn’t deliberate. I’m much more of a ‘run by feel’ runner. My schedule timings were very relaxed – they were the minimum timings required.”
Hall spoke to Mike Hartley before the run to attempt to glean some useful advice. “He was very generous with his time,” says Hall. “He said he’d had the record for long enough and wanted to see someone take it in his lifetime, and it had happened the week before with John. His key advice was you need to be able to run well early on but without damaging yourself to set a good time overall.”
He also corroborated with Kelly. “I went for a run with John in the Brecon Beacons just before lockdown, and he told me that he was going to try for the FKT. I told him that if the UTMB was cancelled, I might have a go too. We discussed starting together, and I suggested starting from opposite ends. But as it got closer, we couldn’t find a date that suited us both.”
In the end, Hall ran in the same direction as Hartley’s 1989 run (north to south), whereas Kelly went the opposite direction. “It’s difficult to know which is best,” says Hall. “Mike ran it south, and I thought there must be something in that. He said he did it because he was running home, so it was psychological. Also the Cheviots are in the north, which is a long, hilly, boggy section without any road support, so it made more sense to do that when I was fresh. But the disadvantage was that if the weather picked up it usually comes from the southwest so it would be right into my face.”
From the beginning, Hall was ahead of his schedule, gradually banking time until he was nearly an unprecedented four hours ahead. “The first day and night were pretty good, then I began to get tired and was simply not getting enough calories in, so my energy levels started to decline.”
My overall sleep time was about 35-40 minutes during the whole attempt
To try to solve that problem he took three power naps throughout the run, crashing out in the back of team members’ cars. “The key advice I got on the second night was to have a 45-minute sleep and I’d still be three hours up and in a strong position, so I lay down for 45 minutes, although I didn’t sleep. My overall sleep time was about 35-40 minutes during the whole attempt.
“I remember I really wanted a fourth nap in the middle of night two, and the people with me didn’t want me to have another sleep, and I felt quite resentful of them in my head – I didn’t say anything, of course. But that’s just the places your mind goes to when you’re tired and paranoid.”
He had worked on mental preparation with sports psychologist Dr Josephine Perry earlier this year. “We came up with personalised motivation, so for the run I wrote ‘FFF’ on my arm in permanent marker. I didn’t tell anyone what it stood for – people guessed ‘F*ck f*ck f*ck’ – but it stood for ‘Family, friends – all the people helping me – and the future’ – as in the environment. That became really powerful for me.”
Another key motivating factor was that he was attempting to complete the challenge with a carbon-negative footprint. “I’ve basically been radicalised by Extinction Rebellion,” says Hall. “Like most trail runners, I was aware of the environmental emergency on our planet, but I hadn’t realised the urgency, and governments and corporations aren’t acting quickly enough.”
To help achieve this he collected litter along the way. “I filled eight bin bags, which was quite rewarding.” He also only fuelled himself with plant-based products and companies making snacks in compostable wrappers. One food in particular was a revelation: “Hummus and avocado sandwiches,” says Hall. “I started with banana and nut butter sandwiches, and I even had a curry sandwich for breakfast, then someone gave me their hummus and avocado sandwich. From then on it was all I wanted, with tea.”
Hall drinks tea by the gallon, and the beverage even formed part of a bet with Kelly. “I’m a British stereotype in that I do love tea, and I did drink a lot of it during my attempt. John is from the southern US where tea is something you drink iced, which to me is a disgusting idea. I haven’t been able to get him near a cup of tea, so we had a side bet of whoever had the slowest time would have to drink the tea choice of the other. If he goes south next time and drinks a lot of tea, he could do very well…”
Thanks to the combination of power naps and regular brews, when dawn arrived on the final day, Hall felt transformed. “It was partly the change of pacers and partly the sun coming up, which always rejuvenates me. I had a really good spell after that.”
Despite this high, he had no idea that one of the lowest points of the challenge was to follow as he approached the final section in the Peak District. “As more people began to turn out to congratulate me, I started to feel it was done. I began to relax. I hadn’t checked the time for a while as I thought everything was going fine, then I checked the schedule and I’d lost half an hour. I was devastated. But it really gave me the kick that I needed.”
On the final section, Hall was joined by ultra-running royalty, Nicky Spinks. “She was the tonic I needed and she gave me an absolute kicking for three hours,” says Hall. “Basically I just tried to cling to her. She destroyed me, and I’m very grateful that she did.”
Hall reached the finish, the Old Nag’s Head in Edale, at 7.45pm, breaking the record by more than three hours, with Hartley and Kelly there to congratulate him. “There were so many highlights – mainly the shared moments on the hills. I’d come to little villages and there’d be 20 or 30 people cheering. I’m very grateful to those people. It was a reminder of what a special trail the Pennine Way is.”
Hall wore inov-8’s new TERRAULTRA G 270 shoes, which boast pioneering Graphene-Grip rubber and a new Powerflow Max midsole foam that gives extra bounce. He has raised more than £4,000 for Greenpeace UK. Visit his JustGiving page here.