Braving your First Ultra with Kirstie Handley


Photo taken by Paul Reed


This week we'll be discussing what it's like to run your first ultra. This is something that Kirstie Handley has just experienced and so this blog will be a Q&A style affair based on her first hand experience with a couple of other tips thrown in too.


I first met my gorgeous friend Kirstie on a Let's Run trail run. It was a perfect Summer's evening and as an energetic mix of about ten we headed up onto the moors . We plodded across the heather and skirted around Roseberry topping as the light gradually faded. At the end of our jolly jaunt of bravado and crown chasing, I remember chatting to her and feeling an instant connection.


In the space of a year, Kirstie has gone from running her longest run of 15 miles (Let's Run Pathfinder Adventure Challenge) to finishing the Hardmoors 60. After her Pathfinder run I remember firstly how thrilled she was to complete the challenge (her enthusiasm is infectious) but we also discussed the 60 -she wanted to do it but wasn't sure if it was within her reach. I'm not entirely sure what Kirstie has done within the space of that year but I do know that a lot of work must have gone into preparing for her first ultra. Personally, I'm totally inspired by how Kirstie set her goal and achieved it; it must have been incredibly difficult and required a big dose of resilience and determination on the day. I want to find out what she did to prepare and what her first ultra was really like.


What drove your desire to do the HM60?

Desire is a fantastic word Sarah, for me there was a deep emotional draw to enter the 60. When we lost Ian last year I looked at the 60 which was Ian’s last run, and said quietly in my head, 'I’ll run it, one day I’ll run it and I’ll carry all the memories of Ian’s remarkable achievements and memories of times gone by where I had the privilege to crew for him'.

I knew I would be wanting to give myself space in my head to believe I could do it, space in my head to turn away from all the negative criticism I can so easily give to myself, to work on my self-esteem my self-belief, I figured, maybe aim for it in a couple of years, spend time training build strength build confidence and faith in myself...then one evening in August I found myself looking on Si Entries (as you do) and not believing my eyes when I opened up the Hardmoors 60 and saw there was an option to enter. It felt like I was dreaming, I couldn’t believe that within a millisecond I had a place and it was only a month away, I remembered the Hardmoors slogan ‘stop doubting start believing’ - I’m pretty sure Ian was looking down on me then. It was at that point that I thought about Ian’s daughters and I knew that it was time for me to think about a fundraiser that I’ve wanted to do for them for some time, so I contacted them and the three of us discussed it and put together the social media story to launch the fundraiser for my place in the Hardmoors 60.


Photo taken by Anne Brown


How did you prepare for your first ultra? What training took place?

I have to say I owe my strength to CrossFit, I’ve been a member of Teesside for several years, I have built up to running through CrossFit training, the strength of my quads getting me up those hills. I owe my ability to trail run to Let’s Run night trails that I used to join two nights a week before lockdown. I have only been doing trail running for the past couple of years, I discovered that by running coastal paths and moorland tracks it felt like meditation to me and helped me to maintain my need to connect with the landscape around me. As I began my journey in recovery from alcohol addiction, by trail running I was able to acknowledge myself in an honest, raw sense; I had spent my whole life trying to escape myself and here, alone, out on these tracks I was forced to be with me, forced to listen to my feelings and emotions and forced to learn to accept them. In lockdown I ran and I ran and I ran to keep myself stable and my mental health at a manageable level, then Hardmoors opened up the Wainstones to replace the Farndale and I began training on the Three Sisters and around Bilsdale. I met a new friend Jason around this time, another incredible ultra runner and we would meet every Sunday to train. Then, in July I broke my ankle and the Wainstones had to be cancelled so I decided to do my own race using the same route adding a little extra to make it my first ultra. As this run approached, I had no clue how I was going to achieve it, I had a lot of physiotherapy on my ankle and yet the second of August I ran my first ultra 31.2 miles in 8hrs 20. My ankle was still broken, I had to crawl down the hills, and walk anything uneven and I had an absolutely incredible crew but what a feeling when I finished; it was like floating around in a star lit sky I was so proud of myself. I continued to have physiotherapy and get a long run in at the weekend. Then, on a chance encounter with one of my lovely running friends from the couch to 5k that I supported with MFC foundation pre lockdown, we discussed how I was feeling apprehensive running the 60 and how I didn’t have crew organised. We discussed how at this point and had no clue how my body was going to respond, then a very special thing happened - my friend suggested I run with her husband and share his crew (my friend and her sister). I was amazed at such a generous offer and I instantly had to fight off an avalanche of negative thoughts, how was I worthy of such an offer? I had no idea if I was even capable of that mileage, what if I slowed Paul down or had to quit? What a responsibility he would have to take on a partner that he hardly knew, I felt overwhelmed with concern for his experience and deeply humbled by the kindness of my friend. We had two weekends left before the 60 so Paul and I met for the first time on the 6th of September to Recce the night section (between Cloughton and Filey) and a second day recce a week later (between Whitby and Cloughton).


Paul’s pace was definitely faster than mine and he had so much spring in his step I was very impressed with his ability but more so I was struck by the connection we had, we talked and talked and we both shared many stories of people we cared for that we had lost and how heartache would be driving us both on the 60. We were thrown together just two weeks before but by the end we were like family.


Photo taken by Kerrry Reed


What was race day actually like? How much did you suffer? Were there highs and lows? Did you manage to eat and drink well? Race day was incredible, the start with Jon and Shirley and so many Hardmoors friends was so well organised with groups of six and the regulations to wear masks with social distancing, it felt very safe and there was a chance to relax within that safe feeling. Highs were many, the pure fact that I was there kept me buoyant, the scenery on the coastal heights of the Cleveland way gave many reasons to smile, the cry of seagulls soaring at shoulder height as you ran along the cliff tops, the glistening of the sea as the sun sliced out of the clouds, the changing of light as we rhythmically moved through the hours. Mostly the highs were the friends who popped up along the way, appearing on cliff tops and jagged edges -clapping and jumping for joy. Our crew blasted us full of positive vibes at every opportunity, finding us at random points and in the early stages, Paul’s two daughters running to catch him up and holding hands with him as they ran along with him chatting away - such beautiful moments.

There were lows and strange lows, but they were mostly in my head, but I would keep going thinking about Ian and the girls a lot of the time. The first time I hit a low was at Ravenscar - listening to a conversation in my mind it was saying, 'I need to stop now, I need to stop, it’s time to stop' and I was seeing images of my bed where I was sitting with a warm drink in my pyjamas. This went on for some time until I shouted out to Pau, ‘Paul my head is telling me to stop’. Paul suddenly appeared at my side and said 'you’re not stopping K look at you, look at how far you have gone already you are doing so well you’ve got this' and with that I was back. Paul was the most remarkable support, not only was he running his own race but he was looking out for me all the way along. We shared laughs and we shared tears, we were a team like I’ve never known before, the lows would appear and Paul would scoop them up. When I was watching the Scarborough lights seem as if they were travelling backwards, and I heard myself saying like a child in the back of the car ‘are we nearly there yet?’ Paul with his incredible patience would reassure me, 'yes not far now', and on I would go. When I was broken along Filey sea front Paul gave me mini goals to run to the bin then we would walk and then the next bin - he was remarkable I would not have gotten through it without him and I will never ever forget how much he supported me.

Food was so vital, I had heard someone say once that running the ultras are best ran like a picnic on the move. I’ve been vegan for about two years and vegetarian before that. Choosing my food meant that I had to be wise to the way my body absorbed nutrients, I didn’t have any gels or energy drinks, I had a couple of vegan zero tablets in water that I sipped at checkpoints and boy did they make a difference but mostly I had bananas (the best for a boost and stomach soothing) boiled new potatoes (had to be in the mood) roast carrots dipped in peanut butter at Robin Hoods Bay felt like a blissful discovery, oranges (fresh taste and vitC boost but might have just had 1 too many) had the odd biscuit and several energy bars. The best though by far was when our crew Kerry heated up pasties for us at Skinningrove, which I ate going up the steps, it was pure indulgence and sparked several tormented groans from fellow runners as I wafted past them. Eating that pasty was a very beautiful moment. I ate at almost every uphill that I could, I drank water constantly as I knew that was vital.


How did you feel when you crossed the finish line?

Crossing the line was indescribable, I was feeling pain in most of my body for at least the last 12 miles, going up and down endless steps, pounding pavements at Scarborough and climbing up and out onto jarred rocky tracks - each step feeling like knives driving into bone.


I crossed the line and felt a surge of relief and such pride, such disbelief, joy that I’ve never known before, to feel pride for myself was an emotion unknown to me, I felt aware that I had just experienced something life changing and I was overwhelmed. Immediately after finishing I saw Pete in his van and Jon Steel was there too, it was 3.15am Sunday and I remember thinking what a remarkable collection of people I was surrounded by, all that support and care, it made me feel humbled to be associated with this unique running community. Sitting down into the car was interesting, that sense of gravity taking hold was so noticeable, the strangest feeling, like somehow I had hidden from gravity by continuously moving and it landed all at once. My legs kept throwing themselves into a mad reflex, involuntary movements my body just didn’t seem to know it was time to stop. The high did continue into the week, I just felt so grateful that against the odds and with astonishing support I had actually gone and done it and it was that thought that would catch me gasping and tearful and then feeling immensely proud, the achievement is second to none. The fundraiser filled my heart to bursting when I saw that it had gone past the 1000 mark and still going thanks to Ann Brown who has continued to donate her Hardmoors photography to the fund, what a kind and lovely lady who has been an incredible support to me too.

Do you have a top tip for those preparing for their first ultra?

Ooh a top tip, well I would like to choose two top tips, firstly get your footwear right, get over to Let’s Run shop in Stokesley (also online) they analyse your style of running, you get to test shoes and they have a wealth of experience running the trails themselves, your feet allow you to continue, you need them to be ok and the right shoes are vital so get that sorted. Also train to eat on the move and learn about the food that your body likes, eating was crucial for me to get through the miles.

Do you have anything that you'd do differently?

Isn’t it incredible to reflect on such a journey? When you ask yourself ‘what would I have done different?’ so many perfect moments flash before you, I think that because it is such an unpredictable experience that there is only so much to plan ahead but in hindsight one thing I would have changed out of my shorts earlier than Scarborough, I was feeling the cool of the night for sometime before but didn’t really acknowledge it and I think my energy drained from that.

What's next for you? Have you got another ultra planned?

I have my name down for the 60 next year and Farndale and I am in a relay of 4 for the 110 and...and...and...If I could run an ultra every weekend from now on I would be living the dream. I feel very blessed to have this ability and to be part of the ultra community, it’s up to me now to honour that position and get out there, get on those hills and take those moments to look all around me and feel grateful for where I am in my life now.

Are you still collecting for Ian's girls and if so can we add the link?

Thank you so much for asking yes it is still open and I will continue to raise for it with any worthy challenges I face. It’s a just giving page and the link is

https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/kirstiehandley utm_id=1&utm_term=aRk6bz6v5




I find it so empowering seeing strong women do amazing things. Reading about Kirstie's experience; how difficult it was at times but how she persevered really brings home how amazingly difficult ultras can be, not only physically but mentally too. When Kirstie and I discussed the blog we were hoping that this would reach at least one person who is apprehensive about making the jump up to ultra running and give them that bit of encouragement that they need. Finally, I can't wait to see what my ultra strong, brave and beautiful friend Kirstie does next.


If you have any queries that we haven't managed to answer regarding jumping up to your first ultra then go ahead and reach out to the Summit team and we will do our best to answer your questions.


If you have any of your own experiences or tips to share we'd love to hear those too.


Keep running everyone.


❤️

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