Lizzy Hawker: British 'superwoman' runs into record books

Fresh from an ultra-distance triumph, she tells Simon Turnbull why 1,000 miles of Himalayan trail is calling
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The Independent Online

It was almost three weeks ago that Lizzy Hawker set out into the unknown in her first 24-hour race. She proceeded to cover a world-record distance in a day's running – 153.5 miles, or 247km. She also finished two miles ahead of the first male competitor in the race, the Commonwealth Ultra Championship in Llandudno.

"It was an honour to have been in the same race as Lizzy," said John Peres, who had the consolation of being crowned the Commonwealth men's champion. "She's a world-class athlete, a superwoman." A superwoman who has been cloaked in anonymity, sadly.

The superhuman feat in north Wales came on the same weekend that Paula Radcliffe, the British world record holder for the conventional marathon, made her marathon comeback in Berlin. Hawker's world record received scant recognition.

It was the same when she won the 100km world championship title in South Korea in 2006 – and when, together with Stephen Pyke, she broke the record for running from the Everest Base Camp to Kathmandu in 2007, covering the 187-mile distance (with its 10,000m of ascent and 14,000m of descent) in 3 days, 2 hours, 36 minutes.

Dr Elizabeth Hawker – a 35-year-old polar oceanographer who has worked on the British Antarctic Survey and who was consultant author of the Oxford University course-book which accompanied the BBC's Frozen Planet series – happens to be Britain's greatest endurance athlete. The trouble is Britain's interest in endurance running tends to end at the 26.2 miles of the marathon.

"It is a deep shame that ultra distance running, road and mountain, doesn't yet get the recognition it deserves," Hawker said. "Not only for us as individual athletes, but more importantly because I believe our sport could inspire and encourage so many people and really make a difference on many levels."

Right now, Hawker is getting ready to take her inspirational running to the ultimate level. On Monday she flew to the east of Nepal and over the past two days has been "walking in" to Kanchenjunga Base Camp. Once there, she will set off on a run of more than 1,000 miles across the Nepalese section of the Great Himalayan Trail.

"I'm hoping to take under 40 days but much depends on the weather and the route-finding," she said. "Running for records on a journey such as this is perhaps meaningless. Crossings of the country inevitably vary in distance, cumulative height, remoteness, terrain and level of logistical support. Depending on the exact journey I am able to achieve, it may or may not come to be regarded as a record."

Hawker has christened her venture "Sky Dance" and prefers to consider it as a spiritual rather than a clock-chasing exercise. "It will be an incredible challenge of body, mind and soul," she said. "It will require me to have the sensitivity and willingness to adapt to things like the weather and my health. I will also need passion and endurance, and calm and patience."

In logistical terms, Hawker will be carrying a sleeping bag, a bivvy bag, a stove and some food. She has arranged for some Sherpa support in the Everest region. She will also be carrying a satellite telephone and hopes to give updates via Twitter and the website of her sponsor, The North Face. She is running to raise money for Community Action Nepal.

By the time Dr Hawker has completed her epic Himalayan run, the British Athletics Writers' Association will have named their female athlete of the year for 2011. The polling has already closed and The Independent can reveal that at least one vote has gone the way of the 24-hour world record holder.

The chances are that one of the stars of the more mainstream British athletics fraternity will be honoured at the annual BAWA Awards Lunch in London on 28 October – and Hawker will return from the heights of the Himalayas to a public profile of subterranean level. It has been little different since she stumbled into trail running six years ago as a sideline to her lifelong passions of mountaineering and ski-mountaineering.

Raised at Upminster in east London, she fell in love with the Alps on a family holiday at the age of six and now lives there, in Switzerland. "My heart will always be in the mountains," she said.

For Hawker, the main event next year will not be the London Olympics but probably some challenging venture off the beaten track, up in the clouds somewhere.

"I'll make my plans for 2012 on my return," she said. In the meantime, Britain's finest endurance athlete has a mighty trail to blaze.

Best of British: Top endurance athletes

Alison Streeter The Queen of the Channel has successfully completed more cross-Channel swims than anyone else. After 43 swims between England and France, including a triple-crossing, she has now turned her hand to piloting others across.

Chrissie Wellington The English triathlete is a quadruple Ironman World Champion, winning the latest competition in Hawaii. The 34-year-old added this year's title to her 2007, 2008 and 2009 triumphs.

Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee The brothers are the leading lights in the men's triathlon. Alistair, the elder by two years, aged 23, was crowned world champion this year, finishing ahead of Jonathan.

Paul Oliver The firefighter is set to complete the equivalent of 17 marathons this year. He won his last event, the six-day Trans-Britain ultra marathon and aims to complete the Brazilian Jungle 200km Marathon next year.

Mathew Beech