Other outdoor sports and activities
grew up in the south but spent my holidays with my Gran in a village called
Seascale on the edge of the Lake District. From one window we could see
the sea, the other the fells. My much older cousin was a Scout Leader who
used to take me hiking and wild camping. We’d plot our routes before we
set off and then I’d have to navigate them. I learned about survival, looking
after nature and how to read an OS map! Having these skills from a young age
has opened up so many adventures for me since – and now my children. I only truly
appreciated a childhood spent walking when I was much older and I continue to
get outside today.
My husband grew up in the Irish countryside but never hiked there (having tried to trail run there I really appreciate the amazing public rights of way in the UK!). As soon as he met me, I introduced him to hill walking and he fell in love it. He even proposed on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, although I don’t remember saying yes, only being sick a few seconds later. But we’ve been married 13 years now.
I fell into ultrarunning, by accident. I certainly never expected it to change my life! I had never run more than that mile at school when I met an old friend who had just finished the Marathon des Sables, a 250km multi-stage ultramarathon race in the Sahara Desert. We had previously completed the Nijmagen Marches together (travelling 100 miles in 4 days) whilst at a University Air Squadron so he had a general idea of my capabilities. I completed the first part of RAF Pilot/Navigator training whilst at university so my map reading skills are good from the air as well as the ground! My friend told me most people hiked the Marathon des Sables and as I was a strong hiker, I’d be fine.
So, with just 9 months to train I signed up rather blindly. If something feels uncomfortable, I like to say yes to it and the thought of 7 days in the desert definitely sat in that category! The next day I went for my first run, having decided that I wanted to spend as little time as possible completing each day in 40+ degree heat.
I found the race itself an incredible experience. Not only pushing my body to its limits but the breadth of people I got to meet and the speed that our relationships developed, sharing our adversity. Being outside, running side by side breaks down so many barriers. On the trails we are all just runners – there is no preconception about each other and I find I can be my true self.
I had a successful race at Marathon des Sables and realised that despite “not being a runner”, my hiking and survival skills had served me well. I remember the hottest day being 47 degrees, and me speed hiking past others who were trying to run-walk.
Since then, I’ve raced ultramarathons all over the world – from Bhutan to Iceland. Initially I concentrated on stage races similar to Marathon des Sables but now I have children I like to run the whole distance at once so I can get home quicker!
Growing up hiking means I’m very comfortable on the trails, and also in managing myself in difficult conditions. Some of the mountain races can be high altitude and remote, so it’s important to know how to move safely and what to do in an emergency. Lots of races have marked courses so you don’t need to closely follow a map but many don’t, such as Lakeland 100 and the Spine (the whole Pennine Way). I usually download the route both to OS Maps on my phone and my Garmin watch but I always have a paper backup and my compass! This was vital on the Summer Spine race for me as my watch had not downloaded the last part of the route and my phone was on low battery! I definitely appreciated being comfortable with a map in hand, though 11 hours of sleep over 5 nights had me making a few tired mistakes over the Cheviots!
I really believe most hikers can complete ultramarathons – many even have early starts for walkers. An ultramarathon is a great achievement that so many people can work towards and is far more accessible than most people realise. I love hearing from women who have been inspired to take on their first ultra and have it open their mind to how much more they can achieve.
I’m now most known for being an ultrarunner and campaigner for Women in Sport. A few years ago, a picture of me breastfeeding my 3 month old baby in the middle of a 106 mile mountain race went viral around the world. It opened up so many conversations – particularly around the difficulty we face in having our own goals and identities separate from being mothers.
Time for ourselves - and our own goals - are often the first things to go when we become mothers. But it is so important that we have them for our own mental, and physical health. I have "mum guilt" when I don't go for my run as I know I'm a better mother when I do.
It also highlighted the struggle most women face to recover from having babies. Being active is not only good for our physical but also our mental health, and it is linked to the activity levels of our children, so it is even more important.
What helps me juggle it all is having a running coach who sets my schedule and I'm accountable to - mine (Edwina Sutton) is also a mum of 3 so understands my crazy life. If you don't have a coach, having a friend who you report back to also works, as well as a big event to train for. My husband is training for an Ironman so we have to be especially organised and support each other. There's no "I'll do it later" in our weekends - if you skip your training slot you lose it!
I usually run or do a spin class straight after school drop off before I start work. My 7 year old tells me I'm cheating when I drop him last on run days (so I can start at the top of the big hill!). I'll also use the running buggy where I can to ferry the kids around - my 3 year old loves going to his gym class in it. At weekends I'll often run to one of our local National Trust properties and my husband will meet me there with the kids for our hike. I love plotting new routes on OS Maps and exploring new trails - though last time the paths I picked were more river-like and I was glad I'd packed lots of dry clothes into the car (luckily the café was open for tea and cake).
Ultramarathons can sound daunting, but I've trained for some of the longest ultras on less than 30 miles running a week by using the rest of my life to "cross train". I hike 20 miles a week up and down hills just on the school and nursery runs - much of it carrying my 1 year old on my back. I'll do my core and strength work when I'm playing with the kids or watching them in the playground. And I'll often switch my video off on zoom calls so I can get my stretching in! The juggle is so hard but if we think creatively, train effectively and protect our time for us, we can still go after big goals as mothers.
I’m passionate about giving my children the childhood I had – at least when I was staying with my Gran. A few years ago, we moved from London to the Surrey Hills and are now surrounded by beautiful countryside. On the school run we have to climb a steep hill but are rewarded with an incredible view every morning over the North Downs.
My boys are now 3 and 7 (my baby daughter is 14 months) and hiking – and trail running – is part of their daily life (and was a saviour during lockdown). It’s not long until the boys can beat me downhill – they absolutely fly with none of the fear I have of falling! We’re definitely an all-weather family too. I remember my eldest when he’d just started school saying that “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad equipment!” when we arrived in full waterproofs having hiked there in a rain storm. I avoid taking the car as much as possible. If it’s less than 2 miles we’re always going to walk it and my baby daughter luckily loves being strapped to my back.
Being outside with the children not only gives them adventures and a love of nature but also helps them develop key life skills. They learn to plan their kit, look after themselves and make decisions. It’s also free (except maybe for en-route ice cream)
Hiking also gives them a huge sense of achievement. They are always excited to take in the view from the top of a hill they have climbed. We even walked up Pen-Y-Fan when my youngest son was just 2 and 3 months (fuelled on Haribo). Having done that, for both boys other challenges seem more approachable, just as I feel more confident tackling harder and harder ultramarathons. I think this goes into other parts of their life – they are more resilient and confident.
It is so important that we break down the barriers to getting outdoors – for us and our families. I think the OS Maps app is a game changer in this in making it more accessible to explore new places. I plotted new walking routes for my parents in lockdown to keep them active! My goal is now to inspire other women to be active, not just for ourselves but for our whole families.
Be inspired to do more and go further by equipping yourself with the best tools for the job. Our maps are built on 220 years of experience - we keep walkers, runners, cyclists and more safe in the great outdoors all year round.
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