From the Western States 100 to the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), Caroline McKay has finished some of the world’s most revered ultras. She’s also the brains and voice behind Of Mountains and Minds, the podcast she launched in 2018, which sees her interview members of the endurance sports community about life-changing challenges such as grief, mental illness, exercise addiction and eating disorders.
Here, Caroline shares some of her own ultrarunning experiences, along with the motivations behind her podcast and the lessons she’s learned from guests such as The Spine Race winner, Jasmin Paris, and ultrarunner Gayle Tait.
Tell us about your podcast, Of Mountains and Minds – what is it about?
I launched my first series in June 2018. I interview guests who have been through something life-changing. It could be the loss of someone close, an expedition demanding incomprehensible endurance, an addiction, an eating disorder, a mental illness or even an unconventional change in career. They have all moved forward after these experiences and share their perspectives and advice on dealing with the sometimes excruciating challenges of being human in our world today.
I guess my manifesto is about shining a spotlight on the unpolished truth of people’s experiences in life, not the end results and achievements that some running and adventure podcasts focus on but the raw difficulties, process and learnings that shape us as humans trying to be better.Each conversation is long-form, generally over an hour and a half, so we can really go deep with their stories.
What motivated you to start the podcast?
There were many motivations. I’ve run ultras since 2011, testing my endurance at races like Western States 100 and the West Highland Way Race, but after an incredible experience at the 2017 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc I hit a period of burnout. I felt a strong urge to do something creative that challenged me in a new way, and part of my inspiration for the podcast came from seeing first-hand the connection between endurance sports and recovery. There are many athletes I know through the running community who have battled extremes before finding running – drugs, alcohol or eating disorders as well as mental health issues – and I wanted to shine light on these stories.
I’d also read that just a quarter of podcasters are women so I wanted to put more female voices out there – I’ll admit to getting frustrated with one or two male-led podcasts and their egotistical focus on the pursuit of body perfection, business and wealth etc.!
My own experiences were a big part of my motivation. The loss of my mother at 52 devastated me. It changed the way I saw the world yet fired a powerful drive for an adventurous and healthy life, like I’m living some of it for Mum. I have tremendous empathy for others who have lost someone; I guess I am fascinated by the grief process. I had my own mental health struggle as a teenager, which Mum helped me through yet I couldn’t tell anyone else about. I’ve at times felt claustrophobic in the small-talk culture we live in, too. It seems to be improving, but we still get stuck in cycles of small talk – in relationships, with friends, at work – which can lead to disconnection. These experiences led me to fiercely believe in speaking up, both to develop as individuals and to inspire others to try it.
You mention having an incredible experience at UTMB and then experiencing burnout. What happened?
I trained so hard for UTMB 2017 – back-to-back weekends in the Alps and a tough structured schedule from Trails and Tarmac – and was delighted to run strong and feel positive through most of it, taking three hours from my 2015 performance (wow!). I thought that a few weeks of rest after the race was enough. I pushed myself to finish the North Face 50 Endurance Challenge in San Francisco that November but struggled to reach race pace and had a nasty bout of post-exercise postural hypotension afterwards.
Through the winter I ignored IT band niggles until they forced a DNF at the Georgia Death Race in March. I questioned why my body was letting me down and why I felt compelled to sign-up for new races yet was not enjoying a minute of them – was I crossing the line over into some kind of unhealthy exercise addiction? With hindsight, both body and mind needed months of unstructured recovery, not weeks.
Are you back into ultrarunning now, and have you got any races on the cards this year?
I’ve learnt from overdoing it in previous years, and am keen to strike a happy balance with the podcast and my fundraising work, so this year is minimalist in racing. But what it lacks in depth, it makes up for in excitement! I’ve just been out to run Lake Sonoma 50 in California – very tough race, I was a bit injured with Achilles tendonitis and it was a bit of a slog in the heat. I’m hoping the Achilles heals up so I can get back at it, as I have another date with UTMB in August. In between this, I plan to escape to the hills for lots of point-to-point adventures with friends.
Going back to the podcast, were there learning curves in the beginning?
Starting out I had an exhausting list of fears in my mind. Coming from a knowledge base of zero when it comes to sound engineering, my first concern was which audio equipment to buy. I was also nervous around the public speaking element, which is what recording a conversation felt like at first. I’d love to be one of those people who feels at home in front of a large audience but this hasn’t happened yet. So I decided that game planning was the key; to do this well I needed to plan and curate conversations in the most natural way possible, make each guest feel comfortable and guide each interview to cover topics that I may not know a lot about. I also decided I didn’t want to be the type of interviewer who brings their own experience into the conversation all the time, the spotlight should be firmly on the guest. This type of curated, recorded conversation is still sometimes a challenge but it’s been an empowering one as I grow in confidence little by little.
Asking new guests was another fear. Making that first ask to someone awesome was nervewracking and I’d often procrastinate. But the first time I was turned down actually made me laugh; they responded to my messenger ask with a thumbs down, nothing else. The vast majority of people I’ve asked have been incredibly friendly, open and given their time generously. The fear of rejection is still there, but fainter. I know if it happens it’s momentary at worst and you just have to accept and move on – it’s not personal. There are countless individuals out there with stories of meeting challenges in life who we can learn from, and I have no doubts about trying to get more of this content out there.
Have you taken away many learnings from the guests you’ve interviewed?
My guests have influenced me in more ways that I can articulate. At times reminding me that we are all human and have similar fears, and at times opening my eyes to the reality of a certain challenge I have no experience in. Some of the conversations that have stayed with me include:
#1. Athlete Jasmin Paris (episode 12) on her relationship with running.
She explained how she feels her soul spreading when she is running free in the hills, then she has to gather it up again for work. Such a beautiful description. Jasmin ran until the day her daughter was born and returned to the trails a matter of weeks after giving birth. This is not to say all new mothers – athletes or not – should feel any pressure to jump back in to activity so soon, but I was struck by the natural balance she has found as a mother with her own dreams. She clearly puts her daughter firmly first but shows us that traditional roles can be sidestepped and adventure is possible with a baby in tow.
#2. Yoga teacher and therapist Caroline Toshack (episode 19) spoke from first-hand experience about exercise addiction and endurance sports. For years Caroline was lost in the grips of anorexia, bulimia and compulsive exercise of over 30 hours a week. We talked about the pitfalls of endurance sports and how to know if you’ve crossed the line into exercise addiction from healthy training; warning signs such as not enjoying workouts to feeling undeserving of a ‘treat’ unless you have reached an exercise goal. I was reminded that it’s not just emaciated white women who struggle with eating disorders. People in larger bodies can suffer too, and not all athletes are models for a healthy body and mind; so much turmoil can be hidden inside ‘normal’ looking bodies.
#3. Ultrarunner Gayle Tait (episode 25) told me about her depression, anxiety and suicide attempt, and what it’s been like talking openly for the first time about it. In 2018 she made an attempt on her life, after a dark period of emotional paralysis, a marriage breakdown and game-changing injury. Her friends have played a critical role in her recovery from this dark place, texting and calling persistently every day. I resolved to try and be that friend to others, and remember that anyone I meet might have such difficult thoughts going on inside, even if they appear outwardly ‘fine’.
#4. Tim Dempsey (episode 21) on losing his partner of 16 years, Ali Schofield, at 34.
Tim advised at the end: if you know someone – perhaps a colleague at work – who has lost a loved one – don’t say nothing because you are worried about saying the wrong thing. Just ask them how they are feeling today and let them know you are thinking about them. I didn’t know Ali but after speaking to Tim I started to read her journalism for the Big Issue North, Guardian and Marie Claire, and I’ve been massively inspired by her despite the fact she is not with us anymore. Her resolve to fight for the issues important to her, such as native wildlife conservation, saving the NHS and talking to people with cancer, has stayed with me and influences me to live fiercely by my own values.
#5. Speaking to inspirational mountain bike guides Andy and Aneela McKenna (episode 24) was one of the most upbeat conversations I’ve had. Andy has MS and is a powerful force in advocating for non-conventional treatment, with an infectious approach to life and staying active. And Aneela’s work empowering women to challenge gender norms through biking and adventure is a wonder. They reminded me that passion doesn’t always come easily; we have to work on keeping ourselves inspired in our interests every day, with creativity. By going public with Andy’s MS through a film, Stoked on MS, and all the difficulties it brings for their lives and relationship, they shared their vulnerabilities with the world. And whilst being so open was difficult at times, they found it only improved their relationships with loved ones.
What’s your vision for the podcast in the future?
To continue making it. I am more committed than ever to putting these stories out there, improving the audio quality and widening the audience. I’m starting to put feelers out to find an ethical, fitting sponsor to support the costs of professional production, and allow me to spend more time researching guests and recording new conversations.
I’m always keen to hear feedback on the topics people want me to cover and recommendations for new guests. With more resource and capacity I’d also like to build a platform for feedback, perhaps through Patreon or Facebook, a dedicated place where I can give updates and listeners can respond. New themes I’d like to cover include eating disorders in men, motherhood and endurance sports and domestic violence.
I love the writing element and I’m keen to spend more time on the blog, writing about my own experiences as well as introducing guests. I am strongly opposed to the idea that as a creator you must follow a commercial, social-post-a-day approach to gain an audience and be recognised. I find that I only want to sit down and write if I’ve felt a strong instinct to cover a topic, so I have to wait until an idea takes root and I feel fired up about it, which forces me to find the time. I’m keen to keep creating in my own way as well as work more with other women creating similar content.
You can follow Caroline via social media on www.instagram.com/caromckay and www.twitter.com/carolinermckay. Find info on Caroline’s podcast at www.ofmountainsandminds.com – new episodes at currently released every Friday at 8am (Soundcloud, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn and most Android apps.)