Becoming a parent gave me the strength to quit my job and follow my dreams
One year ago, she decided to turn her professional career upside down, and to become an entrepreneur in Skyrunning.
Keri is a 40 year-old British climber and Skyrunner who loves the mountains, and especially the terrain with scrambling technical difficulty.
In her ‘previous life’ she studied in Cambridge as a scientist. But that wasn’t what she really wanted out of life, or maybe she just needed to physically challenge herself instead.
While climbing her very first mountain she had the misfortune to come across a mountain rescue incident, where the injured person eventually died. Perhaps it was fate, but something changed in her and that ‘mountain feeling’ started to grow.
Strangely, it was at first when she became a parent that she finally got the confidence to quit her job, and follow her dreams. In 2018 she founded Girls on Hills, in Glencoe Scotland and hasn’t looked back.
This is Keri’s story…
Who is Keri and your story behind?
I am a scientist who was thrown off track by unexpectedly falling in love with the mountains. I spent the next 15 years building a new and active life, with mountains in the centre of it.
Originally, I was a hockey player. I played national level as a junior but never really had a passion for it. At 18 I went to Cambridge University to study for a degree in natural sciences, and later a PhD in neurobiology. I kept up my hockey throughout, but my motivation was waning and soon I gave up sports altogether.
After leaving Cambridge, I joined an informal three peaks challenge group (to climb the highest summits in England, Wales and Scotland), my first time up a mountain!
Here I had the misfortune to come across a mountain rescue incident in which I assisted in giving CPR, and where the casualty eventually died. Perhaps it was fate or somehow just timely, but the incident changed me, and I literally started along a different track from that day. I took up rock climbing first and foremost, but around the same time I also started running.
I’m not really someone who does things by halves, so my first off-road race was the Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon (LAMM), which quickly showed me how much I had to learn! Over the next 12 years all I did was climb and run my way around the world (with some skiing thrown in!)
I qualified as a climbing instructor and a summer mountain leader, but all the while I worked a ‘day job’ in the sciences, not knowing how I might make a living from doing what I loved.
Strangely, it was having kids that gave me the confidence to take the plunge and follow my dreams. Honestly, two back-to-back maternity leaves all but ruined my career and in the end, leaving my ‘office job’ was not as hard as expected. In 2018 I set up Girls on Hills with a friend (Nancy Kennedy) and I haven’t looked back.
Can you describe yourself with two sentences?
I’m a live-in-the-moment person who believes that life is about the journey and the experiences you have along the way – not about the value of material things. I’m also a trainee juggler, struggling to balance kids, work and running without dropping the ball too many times.
What is most important for you in life?
My kids and my family come first. But I’m also a great believer in the ‘happy mum happy baby’ philosophy and know that I’m the best person I can be, and a better mum to my kids when I’m happy and fulfilled – and that means getting out in the mountains!
Your passion for SkyRunning? Where is that coming from?
I’ve been a fell runner in the UK for over a decade (fell running is UK mountain running at lower elevations, using self-navigation), but when skyrunning came to my home village in Glencoe, I was tempted to give it a try.
My first race was the Ring of Steall skyrace, just 9 months after having my second baby. It was really tough, but I completely loved it. The combination of mountain running with technical/scrambling terrain really suits my interests and experience.
In 2019 I was awarded a spot on the UK Skyrunning Team (for the VK). But unfortunately, the World Championship race fell just 4 days after the Goretex Transalpine Run (260km|16,000,) which I was racing the week before. Needless to say, it wasn’t my best performance, but it was really fun to race with the elites and try my first Vertical Kilometre.
Naturally I’ve been drawn more towards extreme skyraces since then and look forward to racing some abroad in 2020.
Can you describe your significant personal strengths that took you all the way to this level of running and entrepreneurship?
I’m no elite level runner but by living in the mountains and spending so much time playing in them, the Scottish hills have gotten into my blood somehow. I think the more time you spend climbing, running and just being in the mountains, the more you gain experience with the terrain and knowledge of the environment, and over the years you build up neuromuscular micro-efficiencies that will ultimately lead to improved trail running economy.
I also think that many years of rock climbing, from the Alps, to Morocco and Yosemite has played its part too, helping me move quickly over steep ground. It’s really this, and strong sense of adventure that underpins my running, and I like to use it as a way to explore places!
Entrepreneurship is a whole other ball game. I’m just winging it really! I have worked previously in business development and marketing, but with no formal training. Through Girls on Hills I’m simply trying to offer women the services and support that I myself would wish for!
Can you tell us a little about Girls on Hills?
Girls on Hills Ltd is Scotland’s only guided trail, fell and skyrunning running company, designed specifically for women. Our guided courses take place in the Glencoe area of the Scottish Highlands and are aimed at women who want to break free from the road and take their running into the mountains. We seek to equip women with the skills and confidence necessary to become independent in the mountain environment. We also aim to challenge the gender gap in participation that exists in most forms of offroad-running.
We’ve seen a huge amount of support and the business has grown rapidly, with people coming to Scotland from all over the world to run with us.
Girls on Hills is a celebration of the ‘headspace’ and wellbeing that can be achieved by combining the liberating simplicity of running with the value of wild spaces. Travelling fast and light in the mountains with everything you need on your back is an empowering form of escapism.
Which is the most challenging and demanding situations that you been through to get you where you are today as a person?
It is always hard to turn away from opportunities to make more money or have more stability in your life, in favour of doing something that carries a risk, or where the outcome is unknown. But if your passion is strong, then there is nothing worse than being plagued by regret or spending your life wondering ‘what if’.
Making big changes in the direction of my life has involved some of the most challenging situations and difficult decisions I’ve known, but they’ve always proven to be the most rewarding. The biggest example of this was the decision to have children. Since having the girls, the struggles of skyracing seem easy!!
Do you usually push yourself outside your comfort zone? How does it feel at the time? Can you see that the rewards coming out of this is worth this little extra effort?
As you push outside your comfort zone (in terms of effort levels in training), there are certainly rewards, but they are sometimes hard to see. As you get stronger, you are able to push harder and running never seems to feel any easier!
In the mountains it’s even harder to see this change happening (compared to road running). This is where the value of smart watches and advanced physio metrics come in of course. But what I think is really interesting is how the same is true of ‘suffering’ and ‘fear’.
As you continue to push against the boundaries of your comfort zone, things that used to bother or scare you, slowly impact you less. I think it’s important to push outside your comfort zone regularly so that it doesn’t shrink back and smother you.
How does your race plans and goals look like for 2020?
I don’t have many yet. I’d like to complete the UK Skyrunning series and do a few extreme skyraces abroad, but this depends on childcare arrangements and family commitments of course.
How does a normal week with training, work and all that look like for you right now?
My training is quite limited just now, as whenever I’m not guiding for Girls on Hills (2-4 days a week) I’m busy being ‘mum’ and can’t really get out running (my husband and I live in a remote area of Scotland, a long way from family support!)
Fortunately, though my work gets me out for long days in the mountains and with lots of strong women who help push me. Whenever I get a little window of time, I make a mad dash for the hills and enjoy running and scrambling around Glencoe (I’m very lucky that I can access these hills straight from my door)!
Which are your best training tips to other Skyrunners all over the world?
Although it is possible to train for big vert without living near the mountains, it is of course easier to train on the real thing. I am a big fan of ‘terrain-specific-training’ and think it’s important to run on the kind of ground, gradient and profile you expect to race on.
I also think that rock-climbing is a much-undervalued form of cross-training for skyrunners, especially for those interested in racing extreme courses. Rock climbing is great for building core-strength and training those movement patterns that you’re going to need to race over steep rocky terrain on race day.
Which are your favourite races that you would recommend to other Skyrunners all over the world?
I’ve yet to experience the great races on the world circuit, but ultimately, I’m biased and would say the Glencoe Skyline every time! Last year I came 3rd place in the Pinnacle Ridge Extreme, which was a race I really enjoyed and would recommend to anyone looking for something shorter that really packs-a-punch.
Are you involved in any other types of running-projects that you like to talk about (ambassador / entrepreneur etc)?
Last year Girls on Hills launched the first ever skyrunning course for women and experienced a sell-out in just 24h! We were so shocked and thrilled that we just had to run a second course for later that summer, which also sold-out. For 2020 we’re adding a new location (Snowdonia) to our skyrunning calendar, and also a ‘Skyrunning Improver’ course here in Glencoe, for ladies specifically seeking to improve confidence on exposed/scrambling terrain.
Girls on Hills has also just been named as project partners in a new centrally funded research network (‘Women in the Hills’/WITH), which will focus on women’s historical and contemporary experiences of participation in running, hiking and climbing activities in UK. The project is led by a team from Newcastle University, Manchester University and Edge Hill University, with support from representatives at the National Trust, Forestry Commission and John Muir Trust. It will run from January 2020 to December 2022.
We hope to identify and evaluate barriers to, and benefits from, women’s participation in mountain recreation. We also hope to identify and implement evidence-based strategies to counter these barriers.
Do you have any dreams and goals for the future that you like to share?
See race goals above. I’d also really like to race the Els2900 with my husband (we always like to have a ‘romantic holiday’ doing something ‘relaxing’ together once a year!) The KIMA and Tromso skyraces are also on my wish-list.
How does your game plan look like for that?
I’ll be honest and say that it’s almost impossible to have a solid game plan with two toddlers in tow and a husband who often works abroad as a mountain guide. As a family we pull together really well and somehow manage to get a lot done, but mostly by winging it, and not really by having much of a game-plan! I tell myself that in the future it will get easier to have a game-plan, but most parents I know assure me that it won’t!
What is your inner drive?
In terms of racing I suppose it’s really just to see what I can do, and how far I can go. I’ve always wanted to ‘find my limit’ – but not by just racing something I’m not prepared for, but by being ready.
Perhaps if you train correctly you can do anything? However, racing is just one small aspect of skyrunning to me. Running in the mountains is more about health and wellbeing. I soon don’t recognise myself if I can’t get out in the mountains for exercise.
What is your advice to other people that is dreaming of an active lifestyle running in the mountains as much as you do?
Be bold, be creative. Make it a reality. Jump. Run. Live. Life is now.
Name: Keri Wallace
Age: 40 (apparently)
Family: Husband and two kids under 5
Country/town: Glencoe, Scotland
Your team or sponsor now: No personal sponsor. Girls on Hills is sponsored by Ellis Brigham and partnered with Inov-8.
Occupation: Trail running guide, freelance writer and Co-Director of Girls on Hills Ltd
Education: PhD in neurobiology from Cambridge University, UK
Facebook page: www.facebook.com/girlsonhills
Webpage / Blog: www.girlsonhills.com
Thank you, Keri, for taking your time sharing your fantastic story! Wishing you all the best luck in the future both with your Skyrunning business and your Skyrunning.