Skyrunner and GB trail runner, Holly Page, has notched up a slew of wins on the Migu Run Skyrunner World Series circuit this year, and fresh from coming 9th at the Trail Running World Championships in May, will don her GB vest once more next month as she joins the Brits competing at the Skyrunning World Championships in Scotland.
Here, Holly chats about fell running as a child, hitch-hiking to races, and recovering from a near-death experience on Mont Blanc.
Your parents were fell runners during your childhood – did this shape your interest in running?
I was fortunate enough to have been brought up in the Yorkshire hills by parents who loved the outdoors. My brother and I could ‘play out’ wherever we wanted in the surrounding countryside, running around on neighbours’ farms, lots of football and inventing all sorts of games with friends.
My parents were teachers so we had long family holidays where we would pack up whichever old car we had at that moment and drive out to the Alps, or climbing spots in France, or explore Scotland or Wales, often with a group of adventurous family friends who also had children our age.
My dad loved fell running so sometimes we’d go along as a family to stand on top of windswept mountains with a banana waiting for him to run past in a race. As we got older, my brother and I also started entering the junior fell races and competed in the English Fell Running Championships all the way up from the U12 category. My parents have been such an influential part of my life, giving up their own ambitions so as to be able to drive me and my brother around the country to pursue ours. They’d travelled extensively around the world before having my brother and I and I think the adventurous spirit definitely rubbed off.
You ran competitively from a young age, but at what point later on in life did you venture into ultra-distances and skyrunning?
I’ve been running competitively since joining the local running club, Halifax Harriers, when I was about 12. Even as a junior I always fared better when races were longer and tougher as I didn’t have the natural ability of a lot of my fellow competitors, but could get by on hard work and a strong head! As such, I think it was natural for me to start leaning towards the longer distance technical races. I did my first ‘ultra’ quite by accident as I was in Canada in 2015 and saw a poster for the Mount Robson 50k race which was happening in two days’ time. I asked the organisers for an entry and despite not having run more than 10km, I actually pulled through that race to finish 2nd behind a member of the Canadian Trail Team. I think mental strength and knowing how to push yourself can get you a long way!
I didn’t do my first Skyrace until 2016, in South Africa, where I was based for work; I did a couple in Europe that year too but hadn’t done any specific training; confined to city life most of my running had been done on a treadmill or on an athletics track.
Not long ago you nearly died during a Mont Blanc accident. Can you tell me a bit about this?
I was in Addis Ababa for work and supposed to be flying to Greece for the Mt Olympus race, which was part of the Skyrunner World Series. My flight in Addis was delayed which meant I missed my connection in Istanbul and the only flight to Greece was the next day, meaning I’d miss the race. Turkish Airlines gave me the option to fly somewhere else instead; I chose Geneva and hitch-hiked round to Chamonix to join friends on a run up Mont Blanc the next day.
We set off really early, ran up to the Tete Rousse hut but then the weather was really poor so we abandoned the attempt and decided to come down. We’d come up a main path with no snow, but cut down the Tete Rousse glacier below the hut for the return. It was really steep and although I had my axe out, I slipped very near the top and started sliding. It’s all very well doing ice axe arrest practice on Scottish hills but when it’s really happening to you it’s a whole different ball game. I couldn’t get my axe in to stop me so I was just hurtling down the glacier with no way of stopping myself as I got faster and faster. It was one of those ‘Shit, this is it’ moments.
When the glacier changed direction half-way down, I crashed into the boulders, ripped up my legs and tore a ligament in my knee. By some miracle, I didn’t hit my head or spine on a rock – if I had, given the speed I was going that would have been the end, I think! Somehow I managed to clamber over the boulders and down to the Nid d’Aigle Tourist Train station and get the world’s most expensive train down into the valley before hitch-hiking to the hospital. Looking back, I don’t know how I did it – I couldn’t walk for weeks afterwards – I think adrenaline gets you a long way and I knew I just had to get down.
How bad were your injuries?
I’d torn my MCL in my right knee so after a week lying around in Chamonix I was able to return to the UK in a wheelchair and was fairly incapacitated for a couple of months as I learnt to walk again. I was very shaken for a while afterwards from the trauma and would get upset just talking about it. People asked whether I was sad not to be running after working so hard to get into shape for the 2017 season, but I was so close to not coming out of that experience in one piece that it definitely put running into perspective. I really questioned why we take risks in the mountains and learnt a lot from the experience… to be honest I was just so thankful to be alive. So to be back racing again now and feeling stronger than ever is such a privilege and one that I am certainly not taking for granted. I actually wrote a bit about it on my website.
This year you’ve already notched up some Migu Run Skyrunner World Series wins. Are there any races in particular you’re looking forward to?
I went into this season hoping I could challenge some of the top girls as a relatively unknown entity; I’m not very good at making decisions on which races to do so tend to just do everything. I managed to win the first race of the series in a blizzard at 4,500m in western China in May and then won again in sweltering conditions in the Pyrenees at the start of July. My aims this year were to get a GB vest and to win a Skyrace… and now I’ve won two! So now everything is a bonus really – I’m just trying to enjoy each race as it comes. Often the same athletes travel to all the races so it’s really great to see them every few weeks – although we race against each other we’re friends too! I speak four languages so it’s pretty cool being able to switch between them when chatting with the Spanish, French, Italian runners and race organisers!
You won the Monte Rosa Skymarathon with team-mate, Hillary Gerardi. For readers who don’t know how epic this race is, can you explain what’s involved?
So the Monte Rosa Skymarathon really takes Skyrunning back to its roots. This year the ISF (International Skyrunning Federation) decided to rerun the race which last took place 25 years ago. It started in a small Italian Alpine town called Alagna at around 1000m and climbed up to one of Monte Rosa’s summits, the Signalkuppe at 4554m. The first 1000m of climb is on paths and ski slopes but once at 2200m we had to put crampons on as there were very steep snow fields, and then above 3000m we were roped with a partner up the glacier. I’d never done a race with a partner before so it was a fantastic experience to share it with my good friend Hillary. We both had our ups and downs; I had ‘death hour’ and struggled up the first part of the climb (I think I ate too much cake at the buffet breakfast!), but came to life once we hit the snow. Then Hillary really felt the altitude towards the top so I was able to push on and encourage her.
Coming down, after last year’s glacier sliding trauma, I was less confident on the really steep sliding sections (you couldn’t stand up and run, you had to just slide down), and with no axe I was resigned to using my elbows as brakes. I left most of my elbow skin somewhere up on the glacier – ‘glacier burn’ was pretty painful for a week or so afterwards!
The event was so much more than a race – when you’re on top of Monte Rosa glancing around at the most spectacular mountain scenes it’s pretty awe-inspiring! Admittedly, I sounded like Serena Williams serving as I grunted my way up the glacier trying to gasp as much air as possible, but inside I was having a great time – it was one of the best mornings I’ve ever had for sure!
Which has been the toughest race you’ve completed?
Pretty much all races are tough – just because I’m sometimes near the front doesn’t make it any easier! I’ve been told by some of the Skyrace photographers that I should smile more, but I usually just have my mouth wide open gasping for air, some spit down my double chin… I’m not really one of the ‘smiley happy runners’ – I think my lack of natural talent means I’m working too hard for that. I also think that I learnt from a young age that a race is a race and I should be trying my hardest; nobody was smiling mid-race in the English u14 Fell Running Champs back in the day! Sometimes running a 5km Parkrun can be really hard – blasting all out on some flat London parkland gets the lungs and legs pounding! But yep, I suppose I make myself suffer in most races; but maybe one of the most difficult was running the World Trail Champs in May. At 86km, with 5000m+ it was the furthest I’d ever run. I wrote about it on my blog.
And which race has been the most memorable?
The most memorable from this year has to be winning the World Skyrunning Series race in Yading, China – it was a total shock as I never expected to be first as there was a strong field of women. I even cried at the end I was so happy/ surprised! Also the World Trail Champs for the same reason – although I died off towards the end, my aim in that race had been to finish the course and not be last, so to feel strong for most of it, push through the pain and weird hallucinations, and run in with the GB flag was a really proud moment.
Do you follow a training plan put together by a coach or is your training self-directed?
Haha. Anyone who knows me will laugh at this question. No, I don’t have a coach, or indeed a training plan. I have lots of priorities in life and running often isn’t one of them, plus I’m a prolific nomad so I tend to do what suits me that particular day/week depending where I am and how much work I have to get through. For example, I’ve just had a three-week stint working in the London office and so tried to maximise time by running into the office most days.
I’ve been running for ages now and have never been coached, but I feel like I know my body pretty well and have a good grasp of what works well for me. I’ve learnt to listen more to my body too so I never have a problem with taking a few days off if I’m feeling really tired for example. I guess a coach could be good in terms of giving me more of a rigid racing schedule so that I perform well at specific races rather than travelling around to do a 4hr+ marathon distance skyrace every weekend… but hey, what would be the fun in that?
Do you do speed or interval sessions or track your mileage/ascent?
I don’t track my weekly distance or ascent as I prefer to just train to how I feel – I know if I’m working hard or not! I do try to mix-up my training though, and will attempt to fit in at least one faster interval session each week as I find these are a good use of time. I could do with doing a few more to be honest as I feel like I’ve lost some of my flat speed since most of my races involve trekking around the mountains for hours on end!
Do you make time for strength and conditioning work or injury prevention?
Over the winter I made a conscious effort to try and build up some strength – particularly after the accident last year as I lost a lot of leg muscle – and I think it’s helped me with the back-to-back racing this year. A few weeks ago at the Skyrunning Series Race in the Pyrenees I was really questioning whether my legs would cope with 3300m of downhill, as I’d raced every weekend for about two months prior to that. But, miraculously, they held up and I felt pretty strong. So I think the yoga poses have helped! I’ve got a bit lazy with it recently though and not done much at all as I seem to spend all my time trying to get my legs to recover between races, rather than wanting to do anything to tire them out!
Am I right in thinking that you hitchhike your way to most of your skyrunning races?!
Yes, I seem to have built up a bit of a reputation as the ‘hitchhiking skyrunner’. Ever since living in France in 2010 when I used to hitch-hike to work at the other end of Lake Annecy, or back to the Alps from Geneva Airport, I’ve hitched rides all over the place. Obviously, it’s much cheaper than getting buses etc but that’s not the reason I do it. Hitching is often the fastest way of getting somewhere – buses take ages, so it’s much more efficient to just stand by the road and hop in a passing car! What I love most of all is that you meet such a cross section of people and can really learn about the politics/history/culture of a place from the people who live there. I hitchhiked much of the length of South America a few years ago which was such a fantastic experience – nothing like chugging down through Patagonia drinking tea with an Argentine lorry driver (who thinks you’re French because the “British are Pirates, they stole the Falklands” signs are somewhat foreboding).
But yes, without really meaning to, I’ve now hitched to all of the six skyraces I’ve done this year, even the one in China!
How are you feeling about the Skyrunning World Championship in Scotland this September?
As well as the Skyrunning World Championship there is the World Series throughout the year; that consists of multiple races rather than just one, so I’m more focused on that to be honest. I won’t do anything specific in preparation for the Skyrunning World Champs but will just treat it as any other race – I’ve got loads of races still to do before it, so I haven’t really given it much thought!
You must have had some tough moments during your running career. Do you employ any mental tactics to help you keep going when things get tough?
Plenty of tough moments. Being strong mentally is the key to success, in my opinion. No matter how fit you are, if you can’t hack it when the going gets tough you’ll struggle. I usually break a race down into much smaller parts and focus on getting through each one of them which I find definitely helps. I also tend to have random numbers going round in my head which definitely doesn’t help. Another thing which doesn’t help is having ridiculous songs stuck in your head. Before the Livigno Skyrace in June, my friend Finlay was playing Michael Jackson in the apartment and I spent the first few hours of the race trying to get ‘Thriller’ out of my head. MJ is great for the after-party but not when you’re feeling like death struggling up the side of a mountain. In the Trail World Champs, 70km in I started to go into a weird state – I’d had bad stomach problems and my body was giving up – so rather than thinking about the hours and hours I’d just been running for, I just pictured myself setting off on my usual 10km loop from home, telling myself I was just out for a little jog and it would be really easy – that seemed to get me through somehow.
Do you have any pre-race rituals or things you do to help you stay calm and focused on race day?
When I was a junior I used to get really nervous before races; I put a lot of pressure on myself even though I wasn’t very good. I remember getting so worked up before my first ever junior international race in Italy that I cried and nearly didn’t start the race. Nowadays, I feel like I have a bit of perspective on the world and life in general, and I’ve come to the realisation that running really doesn’t matter. I guess if I was racing for the prize money, or it was the only thing I cared about, then I’d probably be more nervous, but realistically, no one other than you really cares how you do. I know I can go as hard as I can and that’s all I can do. If people are faster than me, then I’m happy for them, I don’t mind at all now. I’m really privileged to be able to run at all so it’s important to just try and enjoy it.
Most people in the ‘non-running’ world have no concept of what I do in terms of the challenges of the mountains etc. I could go into work on a Monday and people would be like “Wow you were first in a parkrun, that’s amazing” and then look really disappointed if I said I was, say, 5th in a World Series race!
How do you fuel your ultra and skyrunning events?
I tend to take some energy powder in a bottle and some gels in my bag and then grab bits of food at aid stations such as bananas or bars. When living in South Africa and running in the crazy heat I discovered a love of crisps at aid stations – I think the salt really helps to counteract the super-sweet energy products. When I did the World Trail Champs in Spain in May I made sure I had crisps (and even tortilla!) at the aid stations so that I had something salty. Even though I spend most of my days eating cake, chocolate and icecream, I’ve learnt that all the sweet stuff plus running hard isn’t all that enticing so it’s good to mix it up with something savoury, particularly on the longer events. I’ve not done that many really long races so I think if I started racing over 12 hours I’d definitely be eating more ‘real food’.
What are your must-have items of kit for racing and training?
I don’t have anything specific but I find that having good grip on my shoes really helps with confidence. I find the Salomon Racing Vest is great for races as the bottles are right next to your mouth so it’s really easy to drink, and as it fits like a T-Shirt I don’t really notice I’m wearing it. It’s also handy for running to work in London as I can have a bottle in one side and my phone in the other so at least I can run and listen to Radio 4 podcasts!
Are you sponsored by anyone at the moment?
I get some kit from Salomon, electrolytes from Nuun, sunglasses from Julbo and flapjacks from a great Yorkshire company called Chia Charge.