Published on March 15, 2016
Dan Lawson Profile
Dan Lawson has been described variously as both the ‘quiet man of ultra running’ and ‘a true force of nature’, but this sinewy Brit remains something of an enigma. A (peace-loving) Keyser Söze amongst the usual suspects of ultra-running he has repeatedly shown ‘those men of will what will really was.’
To paint a first impression of Lawson here is the scene: It’s the final fading moments of sunlight over the sprawling salt pans of the Great Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, India. As I step out of the small hut that functions as race HQ for the 161km Run the Rann ultra a lean, sinewy figure sidles up to me in the manner of someone about to sell me something illicit and all-but whispers, ‘Hey man, what’s your story?’ That’s Lawson all over – far more interested in everyone else’s story than promoting his own. It could have been easy to dismiss this shape in the half-light as some long-term drifter of the subcontinent (Lawson actually does spend half of each year in Goa) accidently washed up in this remote and dusty corner of the country, but that would be a big mistake.
Switch from sunset to sunrise and Lawson is lined up with the other athletes about to tackle the gruelling thorn-strewn course, but he could not look more at odds from his fellow runners. Whilst most are kitted out in the latest high-tech fabrics and compression garments, bristling with packs, bottles and gadgets, Lawson is stripped to the waist with nothing more sophisticated than simple shorts, a pair of Brooks shoes and a draw-string PE bag slung casually over his shoulder. ‘Man,’ he mutters to no one in particular, ‘I think this bag is going to rub my nipples off for sure…’
One other thing is obvious ‘for sure’: in this primal landscape he is the one that looks most at home, he looks like he owns the desert and shortly (well 24hours, 6minutes and 1second later) he will own the race, having beaten second and third placers Damian Stoy and Linda Doke – neither of them slouches when it comes to ultras – by over 8hours.
You might be forgiven for thinking that with such a natural talent Lawson has always been a runner, but that’s really far from the case. He did run his first half-marathon at the tender, rather precocious, age of 12 but then, like so many obsessed Brits, football took over his life and it was the best part of a quarter century before he would lace up another pair of running shoes. ‘As a young lad.’ he explains, ‘it was always my dream to run a marathon, I really wanted to run the London Marathon… but that just never happened. So pretty soon after I took up running again, around 6 years ago, I took myself up to the South Downs and ran for 26miles. Dream achieved!’
It says a lot about Lawson that a childhood dream of running one of the most prestigious and media saturated races in the world was ultimately replaced by a self-started, lone run across some hills in southern England. It says even more that he refuses to distinguish between the two or that, to this day, he doesn’t really know – or probably care – how long that first marathon took him. He’s only recently bought a watch.
As with so many runners Lawson soon upped his game to longer distances. ‘I would always argue with people that anyone could run a marathon with little or no training,’ he says, ‘so I entered the London to Brighton off-road race to prove my point that with very little training I could run 56miles.’ No surprise that he did so successfully and came second. Although he says he can’t remember his exact time on the race (it was pre-watch) the records show it was a more than solid 8:49:55, less than 8minutes behind the far more experienced winner that year, James Tomlinson.
His decision to undertake a series of increasingly epic runs for charity proved his readiness to play the media game in order to raise the profile of his chosen causes. Broadly he split his charitable work (and legwork) as he does his life, between Indian and the more prosaic, quintessentially English seaside town of Brighton. In the UK his efforts have often supported Albion in the Community, the charitable arm of Brighton & Hove Albion Football Club, whilst in Goa he commits to the Oscar India charity, an evolution of the football project he started there for children to promote a range of social issues including the importance of sustained education and true gender equality.
In the second year of its staging Lawson ran the Brighton Marathon along with all the ‘regular’ competitors, but having already run the course out-and-back three times for a total of four continuous marathons. The following year he doubled his effort to eight back-to-back course lengths for 336km. ‘With each challenge,’ he explains somewhat wistfully, ‘I had to ramp it up in order to attract more sponsorship.’ In 2013 he stepped on to a treadmill and smashed out a record-breaking 838.5km in seven days and, not neglecting India, he ran the 700-plus-kilometres from Mumbai to his sometimes home in Goa.
‘After that I took a break from asking people for money,’ he say, ‘and ran in organised races; winning a few here in England.’
Modesty at play once again as one of those races was the prestigious Gloucester 24 Hour Track Race. As their own race report recalls at the start of a warm and sunny day: ‘The field was soon spread out over the whole track as relatively unknown ‘youngster’ Dan Lawson set off at a pace which seemed suicidal to many while the experienced Steve Holyoak ran at a more measured and metronomic pace…’ Holyoak was certainly the main contender for victory that day having been awarded the first Briton place at the 2013 World and European 24 Hour Championships (12th overall and 5th European) with a total distance of 246.155km. But that simply wasn’t meant to be. As day turned to night and back again Holyoak, ‘…showed his international experience by maintaining his steady pace throughout to eat into Dan’s lead in the final few hours, but he finished well short in second place…’
Lawson recorded 607 complete laps in 23:54:52 for a total distance of 242.88km, compared to the more internationally experienced runner’s 849 laps in 23:58:21 – a lead over 24hours of close to 10km.
Lawson’s victory at the Gloucester 24 Hour Track Race qualified him for his own place on Team GB at the IAU (International Associated of Ultrarunners) 24 Hour World Championships, set to be held in Taiwan that December. This should have been his all-important debut on the international stage, but fate intervened with the event cancelled.
Lawson, back in India, smashed the Performax Bangalore Ultra (winning the 24-hour challenge with an unassailable 60km lead) and ripped up the 2015 Run the Rann– making look easy what others had described as the ‘fight of their lives.’ Damian Stoy, the American ultra-runner and coach who finished second to Lawson in the Rann, recalls: ‘When I first met him on the course, around mile 8 of the race, I could tell he was a legend – he seemed almost mythical. As I panted and sweated under the blazing sun, he appeared to be right at home. He seemed to float across the desert effortlessly and I loved his simplicity and earthiness. He’s both badass and a true inspiration…’
Sitting on a chair hastily arranged for him at the finish line of Run the Rann with his feet caked in the primordial ooze that sits just beneath much of the salt pan’s fragile crust expanses Lawson bemoaned the fate of his shoes: ‘I though the desert was going to eat me, I hope I can get these clean they’re the only pair I have with me.’ A quick rinse later – for both Lawson and his precious Brooks – and he disappeared on the long journey back to Goa leaving organisers to sit it out and await the other competitors many, many hours down the line… Keyser Söze once more: ‘And like that, poof! He’s gone.’
In April 2015 Lawson got get his shot at representing his country at the 24 Hour World Championships, rescheduled and relocated to Turin, Italy. 302 athletes from 40 countries took to the 2km loop course around the Park Ruffini (rather incongruously also holding the World Table Snooker Championships and American Football International Matches simultaneously) with Lawson lined up in pristine GB shirt and shorts. He couldn’t have looked more different from the bare chested primal runner that had toed the line in the Rann just two months prior. 120 laps and 23hours, 45minutes and 57seconds later Lawson had clocked up a truly impressive 241.274km. It may have been some distance off German Florian Reus’s winning 263.899km, but his efforts saw him ranked 24th overall and contributed to GB’s World and European gold at the event.
But how does Lawson compare the metronomic formality of the 24 Hour World Championships with the wild freedom of trail running? ‘It’s very different,’ he concedes, ‘(24 Hour) is much harder in my opinion. Physically there is not much in it, but mentally it is much tougher. In a race like Run the Rann it has a flow to it, you are moving from one place to another and the course is nicely broken down into the gaps between the check points, the scenery changes and you feel like you are making progress. In the 24hour race it doesn’t flow as well.’
As an encore to the 24 Hour World Championships, perhaps as an antidote to it and to regain that ‘flow’, Lawson next tackled the Grand Union Canal Race. He went head to head with Mark Perkins, both men determined to be the first to break the 24hour mark and smash the 25:35 record held by Pat ‘Paddy’ Robbins. In the final analysis both Lawson and Perkins did annihilate the seemingly impossible 24hour goal but it was Lawson with 22hours and 16minutes (compared to Perkins’ 22:42) that walked away victorious.
Although he’s previously tackled the likes of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (clocking a respectable 28:07:40 and saying of it, ‘One day I will go back and give a better account of myself…) it was last year’s Spartathlon that really marked Lawson’s emergence on the big international scene.
‘It’s been a race I have always thought about,’ he admits, ‘It’s so iconic, a real classic of the ultras. I think it suits me too, I love the sunshine so it’s also an excuse for a days sunbathing.’ It’s a typically relaxed approach from this unflappable runner and the only fly in the ointment for Lawson’s race proved again to be that German machine Florian Reus. ‘At 42km,’ Lawson explains, ‘I took the lead and it stayed that way till Florian overtook me just after the 200km mark… When Florian caught me I was going through a bit of a low and it was actually quite nice to watch him glide by so effortlessly. I was happy to let him go physically as I didn’t have the power to stay with him. So I just concentrated on securing my second place.’
That second place came with an exceptionally impressive time of 23hours, 53minutes and 32seconds; Reus swept in to kiss the foot of the statue of King Leonidas (the traditional finishers’ ritual) just 36minutes ahead. Did that narrow margin rile Lawson? Hardly: ‘I wasn’t beat up about it, this was Florian’s race and second for me in the Spartathlon is just amazing, a real ‘pinch yourself’ moment.’ But he does concede that his relaxed attitude does leave room for improvement. ‘I got stuck into the habit of stopping at too many of the very frequent check points, those enticing chairs and friendly faces! My crew told me afterwards they were hiding chairs at the check points before I got there…’
Lawson met Benoît Laval, founder of leading French trail apparel brand Raidlight, in the deserts of the Rann earlier this year and is now signed to Team Raidlight UK (motto: ‘Share the trail running experience’.) Lawson clearly embraces this, all be it on his own terms as usual: ‘It’s so nice to have people who believe in you and are happy for you as a runner and a person to endorse there products,’ he says with the caveat: ‘But I try to make a point of only wearing equipment I personally really like and would use anyway… I’m lucky in that respect that my trainers are from the Pure Brooks range and the kit I wear is from Raidlight, a really great company that “get it.”’
But does all this change things for this naturally reserved and non-materialistic runner? ‘I am getting to closer to the point where my running doesn’t cost me any money,’ he concedes, ‘When you can get given kit, trainers, physio… it makes such a difference. Before it was an expensive hobby for me, now it’s a cheaper hobby. Or maybe I should call it way of life.’
‘Way of life’ is certainly where his priorities lay. In a world increasingly defined by personal gain, Lawson says he would ‘…rather quietly look up to the sky and thank the universe.’ Instinctively you know that’s not just some easy-quip hyperbole from him; he’s the real deal.
GUCR image © Ross Langton, RTR images © Run the Rann / uphillemg.com, Spartathlon images © spartathlon.gr, 24hour WCR images © IAU