JULY 2014: The first time I heard the name Dan Lawson was in the context of him having run Brighton Marathon, immediately preceded by him having run the Brighton Marathon course in reverse, immediately preceded by him having run the Brighton Marathon course, immediately preceded by him having run the Brighton Marathon course in reverse!!!! Yes, 104.8 miles (4 marathons) in one go, much of which was done throughout the night on the eve of the actual event. That was in April 2011.
In April 2012 he did double the above!
The next I heard of Dan was in 2013 when he spent a week on a treadmill outside Jubilee Library, making an assault on the world record of 520 miles in 7 days. I watched him striding out in the last hour, approaching midnight on the 7th day. He climbed off the treadmill having completed 521 miles.
A couple of weeks ago, he took part in the Gloucester 24 hour track race. He won. He completed 152 miles, and without stopping for any sleep. That’s 5.8 marathons in 24 hours, averaging just outside 4 hours for each one. He currently awaits confirmation that his victory has been rewarded with selection for the 24 hour World Championships in Taiwan in December. The only reason he hasn’t got immediate, automatic qualification is because entries have (officially) been closed.
What on earth motivates anyone to run such distances? How does he seem to keep going without injury? And what are the secrets to his success?
These are just a few of the questions I wanted to ask Dan. He agreed to meet up.
Dan, thanks for finding time to chat. Perhaps we can begin with you telling me a bit about yourself / your family / what you do when you’re not running?
I’m 41. I live with my girlfriend… she was actually my wife… we got divorced but then got back together again. And we have 2 daughters aged 14 and 10. I guess we live a slightly unusual lifestyle. I sold my house so I could afford to work less and spend my life doing things I enjoy. I bought a seven-and-a-half tonne truck which I’ve converted into my home. It’s big enough for me as well as my girlfriend and my daughters. So sometimes we stay in that and sometimes we stay at my girlfriend’s place. And for 6 months of the year we live in India.
To be honest, running takes up a fair amount of my time, but I also do a lot of yoga. We also have an allotment which we enjoy working on most days.
My girlfriend teaches Bollywood dancing!
What’s your earliest running memory?
I’ve been running since I was about 10 years old, and have always loved it. I was very small and everyone thought I was younger than I was, so it was great competing in local races and beating bigger runners, who most people thought were a lot older than me. I regularly did 10k races around age 10 and 11, and ran 38mins 36secs at age 12.
I also did a half-marathon at age 12 in 1hr 28mins.
At about 13, I stopped running as I got into football which I played for several years. I always wanted to run a marathon but you weren’t allowed to until age 16. Actually I didn’t get around to running a marathon until about 6 or 7 years ago. In fact, that wasn’t an official marathon… I just ran 26.2 miles on the Downs on my own. I’ve no idea how long it took as I’ve only recently bought a watch.
How did you first get into ultra-running?
I wanted to prove that I could run over 50 miles, particularly as some people told me I wouldn’t be able to do it, that it would be bad for me, that I’d get injured. I guess I wanted to prove them wrong. I entered the London to Brighton off-road race, which is about 55 miles. It took me about eight-and-a-half hours… I can’t remember exactly… but I came second!
What motivates you to keep on running such distances?
I just love to push myself to see how far my body can go. And I’m always surprised that, no matter what I do, I come away feeling like there’s more in the tank. I also love pushing the boundaries of the ‘runner’s high’!
I understand you went for the 7-day treadmill world record to raise funds for Albion in the Community’s children’s activity projects. What can you tell us about that? And what prompted you to focus on that cause?
I used to work for Albion in the Community, in fact still do part-time. I ran projects in schools, getting kids more active and leading healthier lifestyles. I did that for about 6 years. And now I help set up activity clubs. It’s funded by Brighton Council.
I imagine you must cover a fair few miles in training. What would a typical training week look like?
I run around 15 to 20 miles every day, mostly early in the morning before breakfast, and normally up on the Downs. Sometimes I do just one run a day, sometimes twice with the higher mileage in the morning. I’ve never followed any structured training program. In fact I’ve never thought of it as training. ‘Training’ sounds like work, but it isn’t work. I run because I love running! I simply run to how I feel, which might vary within any run. If I feel like going quicker I’ll speed up.
Having said that, I’ve recently started doing some specific sessions to improve my speed. For example, I’ve started doing a weekly tempo session of 8 reps of 10 minutes fast with 4-minute jog recoveries.
I also do a boxing session each week, and I do yoga 5 or 6 times a week.
And what about your diet? There doesn’t seem to be an ounce of fat on you, but I guess you get through a lot of carbs to keep you going?
Actually, I eat very little… just breakfast and dinner, no lunch. I like to run light, and don’t enjoy that bloated feeling from eating too much. I’ve always been vegetarian and, although I’m not a vegan, I’d say my diet is 95% vegan.
I’ve never eaten the traditional heavy carbs like pasta and rice. I eat mostly fruit and vegetables, which is where I get my carbohydrate. For protein I have things like kidney beans. For breakfast I might just have peanut butter and a little bread. Very occasionally I have a little fish, but that’s probably about once a year.
I also seem to get through the day drinking very little.
I guess you’ve probably picked up a few injuries along the way? Surely running such extreme distances can’t be good for you?
I’ve never really been injured. I think ultra-running is very different to, say, marathons and half-marathons. They’re not run fast, and I think it’s shorter, faster runs that get you injured. I suppose I do get small injuries, but you just have to run through them. It’s not possible to do an ultra-event without any pain. But I’ve never had anything serious. Perhaps that’s because I run very light on my feet. After I’ve done a big event I’m usually back running within 3 or 4 days.
I know how demanding it can be to train for a marathon. Doing up to 20 miles a day, how do you manage the balance between training, work and spending time with your family?
It’s not always easy. But I realised the importance of free time, which is why I made a conscious decision to change my lifestyle, as I mentioned earlier, and minimise the amount of work I do.
You mentioned spending time in India. How did that come about? And what’s life like over there for you and your family?
We used to live out there, for a couple of years. My girlfriend danced in Bollywood films. I set up a small football project in Goa, which went on to become the Oscar India charity. The charity uses football to educate young people about different social messages, such as Gender Equality, Child Abuse, not dropping out of school early, thinking about child marriage, and so on.
I’m now a Trustee for Oscar India and other charities, mainly in tribal communities.
We live a very basic lifestyle out there. When we’re in Mumbai we live in the slums. Otherwise we have a house by the beach in Goa. It’s great for my daughters. They get to play outside, and they get an insight into real life, away from all the material things and electronic games associated with western society.
And my girlfriend teaches Bollywood dancing out there now.
So, all being well, the next big event is the World Champs in Taiwan. How do you think that will compare with the challenges you’ve previously set yourself, up against the world’s best?
I’ve actually planned to do Mont Blanc before that but, assuming I get my place in Taiwan, I’ll just jog Mont Blanc. I’m really confident about Taiwan. For several weeks before, I’ll have been running in India in the heat, so that will get me used to the conditions. I’m sure I can win, but I really want to break the British record which has stood for 32 years. When I ran the 24 hour track race in Gloucester, I did 152 miles. The British record is 170 miles and I’m sure I can beat that.
And will there be any thoughts of retiring from ultra-running after that, or will there be further similar challenges ahead?
I’m certainly not going to stop running ultras, but I have no idea what I’ll do after Taiwan. I’ll decide nearer the time. I don’t plan ahead too far.
Dan, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you. I can only conclude that you are one of a kind. You come across very calm and relaxed, but with an overwhelming desire and determination to achieve in challenges which most of us would think impossible. Congratulations on everything you’ve achieved to date, and all of us at RunBrighton wish you the best possible outcome in the World Champs in December!
If you’d like to know more about Oscar India, or make a donation, please take a look at http://www.oscar-india.org/
If you’d like to know more about Albion in the Community, or make a donation, please take a look at http://www.albioninthecommunity.org.uk/working-with-us/donate_albion_in_the_community/
By Mike Bannister