Tales of the Hawke

Ferg Hawke is cited in Wikipedia as “a leading international ultra-distance runner.” Starting in his 30s and still going at age 60, Ferg hauled his lumberjack-large frame to obscure ultras like Chuckanut, Kneeknacker, Elk Beaver and Eagle Run as well as star turns in legendary venues. At age 46 in the 2004 Badwater 135, Ferg finished second, 7 and a half minutes behind the renowned Dean Karnazes. Ferg scored an 8th place finish at the 2002 Marathon des Sables (at the time the highest placing and fastest time by a North American competitor) and in 1999 he finished third at the Ultraman Triathlon World Championship.

Born November 16, 1957 in British Columbia, Fergus Hawke and his brother Bill were, as he recalls, “mischievous little shits that never got into serious trouble but definitely kept our mom and teachers on their toes.” Sadly, his father died when Ferg was 13. Ferg says he was a fat kid growing up and “the only thing going for me athletically was a really good throwing arm.” So he excelled as a pitcher in baseball. At the time, he didn’t enjoy running.

In their 20s, Ferg and Bill raced flat track motorcycles. To fund his pursuit of speed, he installed swimming pools. “That was my introduction to endurance,” recalls Ferg. “I worked with my best friend Glenn. His brother Leon owned the company and, playing on my competitive instincts, challenged us to run as fast as we could with fully loaded wheel barrels of sand, rock or concrete. That really helped when I started running races.”

In his early 30s, Ferg weighed north of 220 pounds and was diagnosed with dangerously high blood pressure. Scorning blood pressure meds, he started running to shed pounds. For motivation, he entered a 10k. Within four months, he did his first marathon his first triathlons – and capped it with an Ironman where he qualified for Kona.

Once again, he needed a job and Air Canada was hiring. Full time work as a baggage handler offered medical, dental and free flight benefits which helped immensely. So did a work schedule shift of four days on and four days off, made to order for a budding ultra endurance athlete. With a little prodding and light editing, Ferg recounts some favorite moments:

Canadian Arctic fun run

"I hate the cold! I might have known that heading to the Canadian Arctic may not be in my best interest when Ray Zahab asked me to join him on a little fun run across the Akshayuk Pass on Baffin Island. “We’ll go in August. How cold could it be?” Well as it turned out… really freakin’ cold!

"It was a remote 62 mile trek through stunning scenery up a glacial valley surrounded by massive peaks with foreboding names such as Thor and Odin. Rangers showed us a mandatory pre-race video on Polar Bear awareness. My takeaway: if you encounter a Polar Bear, you’re screwed!

"We planned to finish under 20 hours, bringing minimal gear. We had a satphone, although the rangers warned if we got into trouble it would take them 4-5 days to arrive.

"We made great time traversing wet spongy marshlands the first 27 miles. The rangers warned us the most dangerous part of the trek is crossing the rivers fed by dozens of glaciers along the pass. The biggest crossing was at the head of the Owl, a kilometer-wide braided river. We started in frigid waters, struggled through the deep parts, sprinted across the shallows and made it across. The next hour darkness fell and so did rain.

"At midnight we’d crossed the first two braids of the roaring Turner River. When I shone my headlamp across the remaining 20 meters of fast moving water I was horrified. Ray, who’d made an unsupported trek to the South Pole, said we’d be fine. We searched for a safe spot to cross which clearly did not exist. I feared that losing our footing would wash us into the violently churning Weasel River and things would end very poorly! Ray finally convinced me to start. Two thirds across we made our way to a little islet. I was now officially the coldest I have ever been in my life. We waited for morning for the water level to drop. To ward off hypothermia. I removed my shoes, put on dry socks and a thin pair of tights and slipped into a Mylar survival bag. This was problematic as I’d lost most of my body heat playing in the glacial water. I spent the next four hours lying on wet rocks shivering uncontrollably,
As the sun rose I realized my feet were swollen and numb. It took forever to loosen my laces and wedge my frozen hams into soaking wet shoes.

"Did I mention cold sucks! We plunged in and it got gradually deeper until we were arrived at a steep rocky bank. As we crawled up to stable ground we yelled and ran to warm up. Spirits were high.

"With 15 miles left we realized we wouldn’t make the prearranged evac point. No problem. Called the outfitter on the satphone to let him know we were a couple hours behind. No answer, left a message. While Ray made the call I discovered a catastrophic zipper failure and my beautiful Canada Goose jacket was gone. We kept rolling and I started to worry our boat won’t wait. Prospect of another frigid sleepover freaked me out so I had Ray call again. Turns out the first call was a wrong number. This time he got the outfitter’s wife who informed us he came at the prearranged time, waited an hour and returned to Pangnirtung. Crap! We pushed on. Half mile to the end of the pass I saw a boat chugging toward us and I started yelling and waving my arms. I was so happy to see him I ran into the water and leapt into the boat."

Ultraman Hammy

"Twenty miles into the 1999 Hawaii Ultraman Day 3 double marathon, I was a minute back of Latvian speedster Anatoly Levsha. It was a two man race as we hit the Queen K. The heat was rising and Anatoly stretched the gap to a minute and a half when I told my crew I want to catch him. This got the boys fired up and I picked up the pace.

"It took three miles to catch Anatoly and I decided to settle in behind him to recover before making a move. I sensed he wasn’t digging my drafting strategy and he moved over and waved me past. Well thank you very much my Latvian friend! as I slid into the lead. I thought he might pick up the pace when I caught him, so I was happy to roll past him and led the first marathon with 3:11 on the clock.

"Nearing 30 miles, he closed and decided to draft me. I was cool with that for a mile or so as the headwind was picking up. We could take turns I thought, work together, help each other get to the finish sooner. Brilliant! I did a ten minute pull then gestured with my hand that it was his turn to lead.

"Nothing. He did not pass. I waved my hand again suggesting he go by and set the pace for a while longer. Nothing. Hmmm… In fairness we had been chatting away to Anatoly and his pacer, cracking jokes and carrying on a very one-sided conversation knowing neither spoke a word of English. But I did feel the hand signals were universal.

"Ok, time for plan B! I slowed my pace and waved him by. Nothing! Slowed down even more and again waved him by. Nothing! Alright Anatoly, now you’re just being rude and running a 10 minute mile is not going to cut it! Time for plan C! I told my brother Bill who is pacing me that I’m going to fake the most catastrophic hamstring failure in the history of endurance sport. He passed this on to the rest of the crew, so we were all in on it.

"With Anatoly still right on my ass, I yelled, grabbed the back of my leg and start hopping down the Queen K like I’d been shot by a sniper. ‘Toly and his pacer ran past, eyes popping out thinking I was done. Not so fast my Latvian friend! I quickly pulled in behind him and enjoyed a well-deserved reprieve from the trade winds. I noticed them smile at each other realizing what just happened.

"Following my brutal injury and miraculous recovery, Anatoly and I exchanged the lead four or five more times before he eventually pulled away for the double marathon win. I managed to hang on for second on the run and third overall and we shared a few cold beers with our new Latvian friends."

Marathon Des Sables

"In April 2002, I was running the long stage of the Marathon de Sables, a 45 mile grind across some of the largest sand dunes in Morocco, in a violent sandstorm. The storm started in the morning and the winds intensified throughout the day and near the end of the stage we were running directly into 50 mph gusts. By the final checkpoint with 14 kilometers to go, I just moved into fifth place in the stage and I desperately wanted to hold it together to the finish.

"It was getting dark and the blowing sand made it nearly impossible to navigate. Race officials marked the final miles with glow sticks but my Oakleys were covered in sweat and caked with sand leaving me no choice but to remove them to spot the glow sticks. Big mistake. I had no way to prevent the sand from blasting directly into my eyes as I squinted into total darkness desperately trying to spot the next glow stick. Once past each glow stick, total darkness reigned until the next faint glow reappeared. Finally, a much brighter light appeared in the distance.

"As I neared the finish chute everything was blurry. A race official grabbed my arm and guided me to the line and I was taken to the tent where medics spent twenty minutes flushing the sand out of my eyes. A doctor explained I had lacerated my corneas; he applied antibiotic drops and taped my eyes shut! Fortunately for those of us managing to finish the long stage in one day, the next day became a rest day. The doctor said if I kept my eyes taped closed, I would likely have sufficient vision to finish.

"A race official guided me back to my tent and left me. As the storm reached its peak I was afraid to open my pack as I might lose gear in the powerful wind. I crawled inside my sleeping bag and, unable to grab a snack, I hunkered down. Alone with my thoughts, eyes taped shut and shivering in the wind, it occurred to me that if I finished this crazy race I needed to run Badwater.

"By reputation MDS is the toughest foot race ‘of its kind’ on the planet. Badwater claims without qualification to be the toughest foot race on the planet. No way could I claim to have run the toughest footraces in the world unless I finished both! Fortunately I continued the final two stages and scored an 8th place. In July 2004 I found myself on the start line of the Badwater 135."

Badwater 135

"I was in a battle with Dean Karnazes for the lead although I had not seen another competitor in over twenty hours. For traffic safety the 6am start is for the slower competitors, 8am for mid pack runners and 10am for the contenders. A lesser known entity, I was in the 8 o’clock start, Dean in the 10. I overtook the leader of the early group near mile 40 and, less than an hour from the finish, we heard Dean went through the 122 mile checkpoint two minutes back of my time.
I was falling apart.

"The final 13 mile climb to the finish, 8300 feet up Mount Whitney, is a nasty bit of business. Running that far took a tremendous toll on my body. My feet held up quite nicely until mile 90 when a painful blister formed beneath the ball of my right foot and was now the size of a baseball. Eight toenails popped off. But I was most concerned that my urine was now as dark as Coca Cola. Thousands of miles running, three months of heat training on a treadmill in a sauna, and a training camp in Death Valley only got me so far. They say you run the first half of Badwater with your legs, the second half with your heart. Every cell in my body was screaming to slow or stop.

"When my 15-year-old son Carter jumped in, it was exactly what I needed to lead me through this soul destroying climb. He became my cheerleader, my coach and my biggest fan. He pushed me hard, yelling over and over: 'You can do this dad! You’re almost there!' When I started pushing my hands on my knees to help with the climb, Carter saw this was slowing me down and coached me: 'Swing your arms dad! It makes you faster.'

"The last stretch has a series of switchbacks. On each one I desperately hoped to spot the finish only to see another cruel turn in the road. I knew we were close when I spotted my nine year old daughter Connie and my wife Cheryl with tears streaming down her cheeks charging down the hill toward us.

"One final switchback and the finish line mercifully appeared. With 100 meters to go I realized, after 135 miles of brutal Badwater blacktop, I needed to cross the line running. I dug deep and managed a painfully slow hobble. With Connie and Cheryl on my right, Carter and brother Bill my left, the rest of my crew joined in.

"As a small but vocal crowd cheered us home, I grabbed Connie and Carter’s hands and raised them to the sky. I was first to cross the line and faced a two hour wait to know the final result.

"My crew captain and lifelong friend Glenn handed me an ice cold Molson Canadian, without question the best tasting beer of my life! Following a short celebration and a few interviews my crew gave me an air mattress near the finish. As I laid there reflecting, I felt strangely indifferent about the final outcome. I had given everything and dug far deeper that I ever imagined possible and was totally content.

"One hour and 52 minutes and 32 seconds after my finish, Dean finished as the 2004 Badwater Champion. My race was good enough for second place – seven and a half minutes separated us in the closest finish in Badwater history."