© Skyline Scotland
Today’s guest is Keri Wallace, climber, mountain guide and sky/fell runner, who came first V40 female at this year’s Glencoe Skyline. Keri’s love of the mountains has taken her on extreme running challenges (such as running for 10 days non-stop in an attempt to tick off the Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsay rounds in one single go) and has led her to co-found Girls on Hills, a women-only guided trail running and navigation company based in Glencoe, Scotland.
As a mum to two toddlers, Keri has to be innovative and flexible with her training. Here she shares how she does it, her love of technical running and her tips for confident descending.
Tell me a bit about your background – did you have a sporty/outdoorsy childhood?
I grew up in Cornwall, which has no mountains to speak of. Perhaps that’s why they had such an impact on me when I first saw them! I was, however, part of a very sporty family. We did a lot of travelling, camping and just playing in the great outdoors. I spent most of my time on beaches and in the water. My sports were surf life-saving running events (junior national champion) and school team sports such as hockey (England U15 squad). Sport was basically my life but I never really found ‘my thing’. After years of university and club hockey I quit all sport and focused instead on studying for a PhD in neurobiology at Cambridge University.
How did you get into climbing, running and mountaineering?
Many years later, I was asked to join a group Three Peaks Challenge event. And so Ben Nevis became my first mountain. Or, nearly. On the way to the summit our group encountered a medical emergency and I stepped-up to give CPR to a man who sadly died before the Mountain Rescue Team could reach him. It was a tragedy that awoke something in me. A kind of ‘live for the moment’ ideal. I decided right there and then that I wanted to be in the mountains, and find out what I could do there. But I also wanted to learn, to be competent and be safe. And so it was that I took up rock climbing and fell running. Almost at the same time, and from scratch. I guess this is pretty unusual. I just started joining courses and climbing or running with anyone who would have me!
I learned to lead climb, to navigate and signed up for my first ever mountain event – the Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon. We were terrible. My race partner and friend hated it (and me for a while)! But I just wanted more. I loved the freedom, the independence and the lack of expectations/pressure that I found in outdoor sports. I went on to acquire my Rock Climbing Instructor and Summer Mountain Leader (SML) awards. I became a member of the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team and finally felt that I had come full-circle from that fateful day on Ben Nevis, pleased to have the opportunity to help others who needed saving in the mountains.
When did you focus more on fell running?
Fell running only became my sole sporting focus after having my first daughter in 2015. Being a mum just didn’t leave enough time to enjoy trad-climbing, winter climbing, mountaineering and skiing to the same degree! But running was perfect. It’s a simple sport – ultimately you just need a pair of trail shoes. You can get a really good workout in just an hour or two, and get back to your baby/family. And living in Glencoe meant that I could get my ‘mountain hit’ running straight from my front door.
I imagine Glencoe is a pretty awesome training ground?
It’s the perfect playground for me. I can’t think of anywhere else in Scotland where so many steep mountains can be accessed so easily from the road. I also love that it’s on the coast. The lochs and sealochs make the backdrop even more spectacular. The terrain in Glencoe offers fantastic fell and skyrunning opportunities, but the trail running is more rugged than many are used to. Apart from the West Highland Way there is little in the way of groomed trails, and so you need a bit of mountain-savvy and imagination (not to mention fitness) to run in this area.
Tell me about Girls on Hills?
My friend Nancy and I set up Girls on Hills only last year. We honestly didn’t know if there would be any interest in what we were offering and have been amazed at the uptake. We wanted to empower women with the confidence and skills they need to become independent in the mountains (and it’s mostly about confidence actually!) We run women-only trail, fell and skyrunning weekends alongside navigation courses. There has been so much interest in our events that we now have a team of 6 guides to help us meet the demand. Our guides all have slightly different running specialisms but live and work in the Glencoe/Lochaber area. Our ultimate mission is to make running in the mountains more accessible to women and to help address the gender gap in participation that exists in off-road running in the UK.
But interestingly, we have also found that for many women, the company is serving a different purpose altogether. I would say that on average about 80% of the women that run with Girls on Hills use trail running as a tool for managing mental health issues and life crises, including loss, divorce/separation and anxiety. We have received a lot of sincere and moving feedback which seems to suggest that women are finding therapy in the mountains and can see the value of trail running and nature in improving wellbeing.
Have you noticed a big appetite from women for adventure/fell/trail/skyrunning?
Absolutely! At the beginning of the year we launched the first ‘introduction to skyrunning’ course for women and were surprised when it filled up in just 24 hours. We then filled a second course just a few days later. We’ve just run an ‘ultra trail running skills weekend’ with the legendary Nicky Spinks, which we hope will help women break into ultrarunning. We think that the popularity across all our courses says something important about the appetite for adventure that exists in the women’s running community in the UK at the moment. This is likely because these running disciplines are growth sports, but also we hope because we are succeeding in making adventure running more accessible for women, showing that you don’t need to be a super-fit or extreme athlete to participate.
Personally, what kind of running do you tend to do in your own training?
I do almost all my running in the mountains these days – a mixture of sky, fell and trail running, and I almost never run on road. I have found that I am extremely injury-prone if I run too far on tarmac. My body seems to prefer the variability in surface, gradient and form that comes with running over mixed ground. I am a firm believer in terrain-specific training and therefore try to train on the kind of ground that I can expect to encounter on the type of races I have entered. And of course, I just enjoy that kind of running best! If time and weather permits, then my favourite thing is to mix ridge scrambling with mountain running and to take ‘a solo journey’ in the mountains whenever I can.
How important is strength and conditioning to you as a skyrunner?
It is, of course, very important but I’m afraid to say that this is an area I personally tend to neglect through lack of time. Ankle strength is probably most important to me as weak ankles can really impact descending confidence (and susceptibility to injury on tired legs). I find that regular mountain running in fell shoes keeps my ankles strong enough, but for those who don’t have such easy access to mountains or rough trails then I always recommend a wobble cushion, as it’s a cheap and easy way to injury-proof the ankles and fine-tune proprioception.
What does a typical week of training look like for you at the moment?
Nothing like I wish it did! I don’t really follow a strict training schedule. Instead I tend to plan each run on a session-by-session basis, taking into consideration my previous activity, the weather, how I feel in myself, and how much time (away from the kids) I have available. In general however, I run in the mountains several times a week, including at least one long fell run over 4 hours with a considerable ascent profile. Some weeks it’s much more than that and sometimes much less. If my time is limited, then I tend to focus more on speed work and intervals. I have two toddlers and work part-time for Girls on Hills (variable hours), which means that my training needs to be really flexible – too much structure just isn’t practical for me. I also find that too much rigidity kills the joy.
Talking of your two children, how/when do you fit your training in?
My children are ages 2 and 4 years at present and my set-up unfortunately leaves a lot to be desired! I work two days a week and some weekends, I live in a remote location and all my family live far away in Cornwall. Also, my husband works abroad a third of the year, so I find myself flying solo a lot of the time. This whole situation makes it really hard to manage training and racing. I’m very fortunate to have a wonderful childminder who looks after my girls two days a week and who is very understanding and flexible. At times I have to run in the early morning or at night to get training done. I’ll be honest and say that when I returned to work after my second maternity leave, finding any ‘me’ time for running was almost impossible. I started to suffer with mild depression, mum-guilt and a sense of lost identity.
At the time I worked in an office as a Communications Manager and spent a lot of time commuting back and forth, and shuttling children to childcare. In 2018 I made the decision to launch Girls on Hills, quit the day job and spend more time running and being with my girls. That decision is one of the best I’ve ever made and I have no regrets. I am a strong advocate of the ‘happy-mum-happy-baby’ philosophy and know that I’m a better mum to my girls when I feel healthy and fulfilled. So many mums struggle the sort of issues that I mention above and I’m keen not to feed the pressure that other mums experience and the misconception that some women are managing to ‘do it all’! Behind the scenes balls are always being dropped and the so-called ‘balance’ is never easy (or balanced).
You’ve run some seriously gnarly events. Do you recall any particularly low moments that you had to push through during your racing?
I’ve experienced plenty of low moments during races but my most challenging ‘inner battles’ actually came during a fell running challenge, rather than a race. In 2014 I attempted to complete the UK’s three ‘Big Rounds’ – the Bob Graham, the Paddy Buckley and the Charlie Ramsay rounds – as a continuous and solo, multi-day journey. Collectively these rounds cover 113 summits, 183 miles and over 25,000m ascent, across three countries. Although self-navigating in extremely poor weather made the experience stressful, the low moments were all associated with a fear of failing. I made myself sick with nerves, worrying about having to pull out and ‘embarrass myself’ after raising so much money for charity.
Weirdly it wasn’t actually the running or the physical nature of the undertaking that I found difficult but the mental fatigue that comes with continuous worrying, second-guessing and constant risk assessment. Pushing on was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And in the end I did ‘fail’. I had to, and the decision was kind of a no-brainer. On the last round (the Charlie Ramsay Round), the weather finally deteriorated into a blizzard – whipping snow on gale-force winds. My phone battery was dying, the visibility was poor (running on a bearing) and I was blown to the floor several times. I suddenly realised that I was taking too many risks; being out of contact on tired legs in severe weather, where not even a Mountain Rescue Team helicopter would be able to save me. And so I bailed – 2 summits from the end and after 10 days of continuous running! The disappointment was overwhelming but, in the end, the whole experience taught me a valuable lesson. To get the most out of your running, you have to focus on process over results. As with life in general, it’s all about the journey and not the finish line.
When it gets tough in a race or training, do you have any mental strategies that help?
In a race I usually work on the principle that when it starts to feel really tough, then I just need to eat/drink, or slow down – or both! If I’ve done the training then I know that I can come out the other side and WILL feel better. I try to resist self-criticism and just ride it out. In training however, I tend to cut myself a bit more slack. My research background showed me that human physiology is extremely complex and there are always a lot of variables at play, therefore the relationship between training and performance is a non-linear affair. I try to look at the bigger picture and listen to by body. Sometimes training is hard, and that’s OK, but if it just doesn’t feel right then I try not to push myself too much, as that is when I tend to get injured.
Elevation is a massive feature in skyrunning. Do you prefer ascending or descending – and do you have any tips for mastering both?
I’m definitely more of a descender than an ascender. I marvel at how the brain can process the ground ahead of your feet so quickly, allowing the legs to follow on autopilot. On technical trail it can feel like you’re running by ‘the Force’.
My top tip for ascending would simply be to do a lot of it. Although there is ‘good ascending technique’ it is far outweighed strong legs and good aerobic capacity. When it comes to downhill running, research shows that 13% of descending ability can be attributed to innate ‘risk taking behaviour’. My top tips would be to make sure you have really strong ankles and also just to practice at it. Repetition is the only sure-fire way to improve confidence if you’re naturally a nervous descender.
You came twelfth in the 260K/16,000m Transalpine Run. What was this experience like?
It was truly epic. Not only was it tough to run that far but it was super-tough running with my husband! We’re pretty used to racing together and know each other’s strengths and weaknesses when it comes to pushing the body outside its comfort zone. As a mixed pair, I’m naturally the weaker team member, so I’m always being pushed. I expected that going into the race, but I had underestimated how hard it would feel over 7 consecutive days. I wrote this guest-blog about the whole experience for the National Running Show.
Which events are on your to-do list for the 12 months – any big plans?
Next year I’d like to do the UK Skyrunning series and maybe another race abroad, childcare permitting. I secretly have my eye on the Tromso Skyrace!
What are your favourite items of kit for training and racing?
I just love my Inov-8 trail shoes. I’ve had so many different models over the years, for training and for racing. It’s pretty much all I’ve ever run in since I started fell running and I just can’t seem to get along with anything else. In terms of apparel, I find my wind-top (various) my most versatile piece of kit – it’s amazing the difference something so lightweight can make to your body temperature. I’m a massive fan of the Mountain Fuel cola ‘jellies’ for race-day. Other than that, it’s all about Haribo Tangfastics and Babybels, really!
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
Not personally, though as a company Girls on Hills is supported by Ellis Brigham Mountain Sports, Inov-8, Harvey Maps and Bridgedale socks.