Written by Damian Hall about Damian Hall. Published by Vertebrate Publishing in May 2021.
I hadn’t heard much of Damian Hall before reading this book, but now I am an emerging fan and have stalked him on social media and even watched a few video interviews online. I also bought a sports documentary video about him called Underdog. This British bloke quickly became a sensation after multiple placings in the top of the field at UTMB (a 100 mile running race in France, Italy, and Switzerland that is kind of the world’s most popular trail event par excellence) as well as after breaking several tough outdoor running records in the UK. So what is the book about? What is FKT?
Mom, if you are reading this, FKT doesn’t mean what you think it means. The term is an acronym for ‘Fastest Known Time’ in reference to running a certain route/course quicker than anyone else has done before, as far as anybody knows.
British and American English
By the way, you may have noticed that I used the world ‘bloke’ above, which is a word normally missing from an American’s lexicon. Well let me tell you something, this book is full of British phrases and terms that are normally absent from my own use. So much so, in fact, that I will provide a dictionary of such terms at the end of this review to help the audience across the pond in the hopeful event that you buy and read this book. The nerd in me can’t resist the delicious linguistic buffet of every little Britishism I could find in the book. In reality, I am quite familiar with the many differences between British and American English: I mean I have lived outside the US for nearly 20 years and many people – especially boomers – out here have learned the British variety of English in school. These days, to be honest, using certain phrases and words in British seems more natural to me. For example, saying ‘I studied at uni’ sounds much better than ‘I went to college.’ And ‘invigilating’ an exam sounds much more professional – and less invasive – than ‘proctoring’ an exam. But let’s not even talk about about rubbers and erasers. Can you translate this into American English: “I play football in my kit on the pitch.”?
Our backgrounds are vaguely similar
Damian begins his book with a brief introduction of his middle class and less-than-academically-stellar background, which sounds familiar to me although his economic position does seem a bit below what I had. As for academics, I also wasn’t overly interested in learning as a pursuit in and of itself until I entered uni and found that studying all weekend was actually fun and helped avoid situations I might later regret: Unsurprisingly, when my childhood friend’s father heard I went on and earned a Ph.D, he nearly had a heart attack. Damian also overcame some educational struggles and went on to study journalism and has now published extensively; he has done really quite well for himself. #wearelatebloomers! But these are not the only similarities I found in our backgrounds…
We also happen to be nearly the exact same age. And we both have had disgusting night sweats after long races and problems with our toe nails (see p. 59).
Interestingly, both of our fathers occasionally jogged. Damian, however, ran in his youth and then began again in earnest in his mid thirties. I didn’t run for just running’s sake (racing at least) in my youth but I did have a similarly cliched mid-life crisis with the accompanying running trajectory. Even more interesting is that Damian and I both played soccer (er, football) in our youth though we eventually found and preferred “the honest and simplicity of” running and because in running “there was no hiding, no ball to miss-control or teammate to shout at you” (p. 20). I really got tired of team sports later in life for these same reasons, though I did recently have a minor renaissance playing in a one-day tournament for dads of kids on local soccer teams. Speaking of my son, I hope someday that he becomes more interested in running for himself rather than worrying about what his occasionally-mean teammates are saying during soccer games. But if he chooses soccer, I will be there to support him. You see, my son and I are both sensitive dudes: Just let us be who we are. And being who you are is exactly what running affords.
About Damian’s book
In addition to his background, Damian also includes a quick tour of running history since the dawn of humanity; arguing that we are born to run (cliché, but probably true). I have to say that the more I read and hear Damian talk, the more I like him: This guy has lots of dad jokes in his verbal arsenal along with self-deprecating humour that endears me even more to his persona (read that again, I didn’t write self defecating, but I feel like Damian might approve if I had). But let’s not get presumptuous in our parasocial relationships.
The remainder of the book leads the reader through a whirlwind tour of Damian’s accomplishments as a runner in various exotic-to-me locations around the globe, most of which are in Europe.
The Spine Race
The first event that Damian describes in depth is an event in the UK called the Spine Race that follows the Pennine Way for 261 miles and takes days and days to complete on unforgiving terrain… in the dead of winter. Perhaps Damian best describes the experience here: The race had “put me through an emotional shredder, tested me, frightened me, humbled me, reduced me to tears, but ultimately made me feel alive…Almost all of us need more adventure, more wildness, more exercise, more bogs in our lives. And there are few better ways of getting all than the brilliant Spine Race” (pp.58-59). This ‘brilliant’ race is actually set to begin here in a couple of weeks and Damian is returning yet again. I wish him and the other crazy people success in this event. We have at least one strong runner from Finland scheduled to be there as well. Someday I would like to do this race but without a sponsor, the price tag is a bit beyond a teacher’s salary. In a related vein, later in his book Damian describes claiming an FKT for the Pennine course – outside of the official Spine race. Interestingly, Damian took the course record from my fellow ‘tea-dodger’ American, John Kelly, who later regained it. I wonder if these two elite runners will continue to up the ante on the Pennine Way?
Other than crushing records in the UK, Damian has carefully progressed up through the ranks in one of the most popular ultra trail races in the world; this one starting in France. As I mentioned above, Damian placed well multiple times in the “the defacto ultra-, trail-, and mountain-running world cup” known as UTMB. Starting on page 73 of his book, Damian describes his ambitions to complete the event in less than 30 hours and as one of top 100 runners (out of more than 2,000) – during his first attempt in 2015! After much pain and a heroic effort, Damian managed to finish in a mere 26.5 hours and I think he got 31st place – amazing! As his first attempt, this is really quite impressive and shows his natural talent. But what about me? Will I ever attempt UTMB? Yes, I think I will. In fact, I have a ticket there for 2022 or 2023. As a part of my preparation, I am reading and watching everything Damian has ever said about his experience at and training for the UTMB.
Damian returned in 2016 and made it into the top 20. He came back in 2017, and guess what? I was actually there at UTMB working as a volunteer for the US based website irunfar.com in 2017 when Damian placed 12th in an insanely stacked field of top runners. This means that most assuredly I saw him on the top of Grand Col Ferret (over 2,537 meters) in the early morning hours (see photo below). I was up there for irunfar.com from 4.30-11.00 or so. It was freezing!
After his 2017 placement, Damian seems to have added more speed work into his training. In fact, he wrote about the speed work: “It was horrible. But exhilarating in a way…Running with others – crucially, fast others – helped me run fast (go figure). I liked the slight friction that existed between us. We weren’t competing. But also we were. We all shook hands afterwards, after a bit of dry-retching” (pp. 115-116). This reminds me of my experiences running Vo2 max workouts with friends here in Finland. Astonishingly, Damian returned to the UTMB in 2018 and placed fifth – which is completely insane and amazing.
After one of Damian’s UTMB races, he wrote “Crossing the line with the two of them (his children) was the best feeling in the world, the ultimate combination of the things I loved most: My children and, paradoxically, the obsession that so often took me away from them” (p 102). I present the following photo to honor my own children at the end of a 100 mile race – Karhunkierros. See my most recent report about this event here – I saw a mama bear and two cubs!
The rest of the book covers numerous running shenanigans including many in places that I have only heard about in the UK; lots of places with the word ’round’ at the end. Someday I would love to run on the famous fells and other locations in the UK. Too bad they don’t have so many trees (anymore) like Finland.
As for the rest of this review, I will leave you with some random inspiring quotes and anecdotes from Damian’s book, followed by my dictionary of Britishisms that North Americans might find interesting though certainly not humorous 🙂 Spotted Dick anyone? I will also add a bit of commentary here and there.
Other gems and money quotes
- “There’s something deliciously secretive about going out running before everyone else is up; you’re experiencing something almost no one else is. Plus there’s no one to laugh at your compression shorts” (p. 72). Ha ha. For me, it would be compression running pants (aka trousers). In Finland, people go shopping in sports clothes and it is totally normal.
- “To be a good ultrarunner you need three things. One, a high pain threshold. Two, a bad memory. And three… I can’t remember what the third one is” (p 131). I can’t recall this third thing either.
- “Running friends are different. I know a whole bunch of people who don’t know my birthday or my children’s names, but ask them to meet me at 3 a.m. … in a blizzard… and they will be there (as I would be for them)” (p. 136). This very morning I, Jeremy, went running with a friend who has two kids. I don’t know their names but this friend and I have run together hundreds of times. 🙂
- “There are still some fundamentally good and very kind people around. And a lot of them are runners” (p. 146). Amen, and if you don’t have friends – join a running club or group! Instant buddies that will help you regardless of your ability.
- “Running makes me feel alive. And that’s vital. On a daily basis, the simple act of moving that way alludes back to our primal ancestry. But when we take on a challenge that really tests us, that has us howling at the wind/power-sobbing into a puddle of our own urine, it’s a test of our character, of who we really are, and a chance to act authentically. And eat an alarming amounts of custard” (p 240). I’m not sure about the urine thing, but everything else sounds legit. I do agree with this – “I truly feel sorry for people who’ve never done those things” (p. 2).
- “When non-ultrarunners discover what you do it’s a weird mix of ego and awkwardness. ‘You run how far?!’ I often start apologising, saying, ‘Well, we hike a load of it, to be honest’. Then next time you see them, they ask how your hiking is going. At children’s parties you’re always introduced to someone who once did a triathlon” (pp. 39-40). This exact scenario – triathlete – has happened to me at a party, though it wasn’t a child’s birthday as far as I remember.
And that’s it from me. I wish Damian the best of luck in 2022 and beyond! Below is the much anticipated dictionary of Britishisms I found while reading.
Ye Olde Dictionary
|tea dodger||Someone who doesn’t like tea. Maybe also a term to describe an American in general (?)|
|bimble||ambling about, going out doing something without much thought about it (?)|
|lumpy places||hills, mountains|
|custard||custard, but what the hell is custard?|
|bobbins||‘I was bobbins’ = not very good at something, rubbish|
|pants||‘I was pants’ = not very good at something, rubbish. (?)|
|scrogging apples||? Is this a sexual reference?|
|Holy feck and smeck||Wow!|
|tip||“we smelt like a tip” ? I think this means they smelled bad|
|niggles||little small pains that bother you (almost sounds racist, right?)|
|sangers||carry your sangers ??? Google says this is Australian for ‘sandwich’|
|bugger||“you can see bugger all” – you can’t see at all (?)|
|have a mare||have a nightmare (?)|
|pip||“He pipped me” – beat me at the end (of the race)|
|nous||common sense, alertness|
|bothy||hut (free to stay in)|
|yonks||a long time, way. The path went on for yonks.|
|dicky||Adj. messed up|
|unlucky dip||luck of the draw (?)|
|sweaty eyes||teary eyes (reminds me of the song from the Flight of the Concords)|
|naff||lacking in style, dumb|
|stodgy||slow moving (bulky?)|
|patter||jargon, speech (?)|
|squeaky-bum time||the exciting part of something. WTF???|
|faffing||goofing around, wasting time|