Athletics: The ultra inspiring champion

Lizzy Hawker may not be mentioned at tonight's BBC Sports Personality show - but she should be

Lizzy Hawker has just spent the past two months at sea and most of the day unloading cargo from the RRS James Clark Ross. Still, she has a long-cherished treat ahead of her: running on land that is dry, on a surface that is not subject to the swelling of the Southern Ocean.

"Yes, you do have to avoid the minefields," Hawker says, her voice crackling some 7,000 miles down the line from the telephone on board the royal research ship, which has docked in Port Stanley. "There are a lot of big areas marked off, especially around the beach, but I'm really looking forward to being able to go for a run in the hills around Stanley."

With good reason, too. Since mid-October, when she embarked on a research cruise of the Southern Ocean with her colleagues from the British Antarctic Survey, Dr Hawker, an oceanographer, has been obliged to do her running on a treadmill on board ship. "On previous trips I've done a lot of skipping," she says. "For this voyage, a colleague and I went halves on the cheapest treadmill from Argos. I didn't get on very well. I felt like I was running in slow motion."

The rocking motion of the sea can hardly have helped. Then there has been the shifts to contend with - on watch from 2am to 2pm every day, collecting data about the temperature, salinity and currents of the icy waters through which the RRS James Clark Ross was passing, as part of the British Antarctic Survey's Discovery-2010 programme investigating the response of the ocean ecosystem to climate change.

It is not quite the regime followed by Britain's other reigning world champion runner. Then again, the self-effacing Hawker - winner of the world ultra-marathon championship race in Misari, South Korea, in October, just 10 days before she departed for Antarctica - cringes at the mere mention of being bracketed with Paula Radcliffe, winner of the world champion-ship marathon race in Helsinki in August 2005. "I wouldn't presume to compare my achievement with Paula's in any way," she insists. "I don't feel I've done anything remarkable at all. It is important to keep perspective."

It is important too, however, that 2006 should not pass without due recognition being made of Britain's thus-far unheralded world champion. Nobody from the BBC has been on the line to the RRS James Clark Ross requesting Dr Hawker's presence at the Sports Personality of the Year show in Birmingham tonight. That is a shame, because the story of how the 30-year-old scientist has become a world champion at running, which she confesses to having thus far only done "on the side" of her true passions, mountaineering and ski mountaineering, is a remarkable one.

The physical feat that earned Hawker her world title was a remarkable one too. Her winning time for the 100km race was 7hr 29min 12 sec. She maintained a staggering pace of 7min 14sec per mile for 62 consecutive miles - the equivalent of running two conventional 26.2-mile marathons each in 3hr 9min, plus an additional 10 miles in 72min. Oh, and she also had to summon a sprint finish to prevail, beating Monica Carlin of Italy by a margin of four seconds after just short of seven-and-a-half hours of toil.

Hawker's achievement is all the more exceptional when you consider that she has never been a member of a running club, has never followed a structured training schedule, and has yet to break three hours for the conventional marathon distance, the standard club runner's distance-running benchmark. She only turned to ultra-marathon running by chance. Steve Ovett was once described as "the ultimate fun runner", but that was before Lizzy Hawker came along.

"When you put it like that, it does strike me just how strange it is to find myself in this position," the accidental world champion reflects. "Until now, I have just entered races that attracted my interest, turned up and managed to surprise myself. So far, running has only ever been on the side. My real love is the mountains; I have so many mountaineering and ski mountaineering dreams and aspirations. It intrigues me now to see how well I could do with my running if I started to specifically train and target a few races."

Having become friends with Sarah Rowell, the former British marathon record holder who became a fell running and mountain running champion, Hawker has the ideal guide to help her explore her potential at the conventional marathon distance. "I'm so grateful for the help and support Sarah is giving me."

The 2007 London Marathon is a provisional target. As she prepares to return home to Cambridge, though, the intrepid Dr Hawker has other peaks on her horizon. In August last year she won the gruelling 96-mile Ultra-trail Tour du Mont Blanc race. One of her major mountain running goals is to beat the record time for the 188 miles between base camp on Everest and Kathmandu, which stands at three days, seven hours, 10 minutes.

"It's something I'd love to try one day," she says. "I'd like to pursue the mountain running and the ultra road running, and I'd like to achieve a good marathon time. In some ways, it is inevitable that I will have to change some aspects of my approach to running, but the most important thing is to run how I feel, and simply for the love of it - running with heart and soul, as well as the head and legs."

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