Girls on Hills – Ultrarunning Skills weekend with Nicky Spinks and Debbie Martin Consani. Social media is a big, positive source of info for me when it comes to running. I read everything about warmups, cool downs, how to prepare for an ultra, even guides on best baby food to eat on the go and how to toilet with etiquette outdoors! Imagine my delight when I stumbled upon an advert for a company named ‘Girls on Hills’ The female led (obvs) workshops cater for everything from using navigation to using poles to sky running. So, after a glass of wine or 2 back in mid-June 2020, I plucked up the courage to book a weekend of ultra-running skills with the GOH team featuring Nicky Spinks and Debbie Martin-Consani.
Just to let you all know I started running 5 years ago, starting to get fit, I went from shorter road races to trail races, then road marathons to trail ultras. I’ve won a few trophies (nothing major) and am currently going through my CiRF qualification, so I’m a decent runner but MASSIVE scope for improvement.
Anyway, enough of me.... fast forward to late October. I just about survived the turbulent drive to the mountains of stunning Glencoe, Scotland, arriving in the pitch black at almost bedtime. I dumped my belongings in the very cosy bunkhouse (it had underfloor heating and a drying room-yay) and got myself to bed, ready for an early start the next day.
Saturday arrived and with it brought a jam-packed day of learning - we also mustn't forget that this weekend still happened amidst covid restrictions; the weekend was initially planned to take place in a residential activity centre, but careful planning and consideration meant that the attendees would be split into groups and spread between 3 different venues located in Glencoe Village.
First stop on Saturday was Glencoe Mountain Rescue Station. I arrived wrapped up in my wet weather gear ready for a brief on ascent and descent using poles with Kerri, a Girls on Hills owner/facilitator and later we would be meeting Nicky Spinks to teach us how to use the poles properly. Kerri was not only a great facilitator, but her knowledge of everything ultra is UNREAL. Kerri ran through the verbal theory of using poles and had with her numerous sets of Mountain King poles to suit every height and build. I had my own MK poles with me, but it turns out I was using the wrong size for my height! Who knew? You see, I always seem to think you know a lot until I meet the next inspirational person, then the next amazing human …I mean, wow, I’m constantly in awe and bowled over by these athletic marvels and am humbled in the fact that I’m still learning and can improve what I do every single day. There is also something about female camaraderie that gives me a massive sense of pride about the female ultra-runner of the species (are we deadlier than the male?)
We made our way from the mountain rescue centre to Glencoe Lochan armed with our poles that had been carefully suited to us by Kerri. Glencoe Lochan is a truly idyllic, undulating woodland setting in the heart of Glencoe. Pulling into the car park, the rain was behaving like the proverbial cats and dogs, only the cats were on steroids and the dogs had seemingly breakfasted on the cats; it was epic, fat rainfall! Us small group of girls, pretty much strangers before now, climbed out of our cars and promptly braced ourselves in the weather. Amidst the outer shell of colourful, functional outdoor sportwear brands, inside lay an array of female athletes all perhaps a little bit nervous but also chomping at the bit and waiting to learn from the best. Then there she was, Nicky Spinks pulled into the car park in her white van and let her dogs, Wisp and Joss out to acclimatise themselves, then off we went, poles in hand, straight into the ascent/descent exercise. We ran around 5km together, with a couple of hundred feet elevation, but most importantly, Nicky taught us techniques involving holding and using the poles, and the best bag/kit to co-use to store the poles easily. I was pleased to find that I wasn’t utterly star struck (not in any way derogatory, she was just a dead nice
lady and made me feel at ease), and I was able to chat with her quite easily. I noticed that her dog Wisp was holding its paw up and from there we just chatted more about her dogs more than anything! I was, however, listening intently about her tales of her Barkley Marathon adventures, particularly about the techniques and kit she used to overcome the Rat Jaw (if you don’t know about this, please look it up ).
After the fabulous couple of hours with Nicky, its was time to grab lunch then spend the rest getting absorbed in navigation skills, an injury prevention workshop, and a yoga for runners’ session. Day 1 was certainly massively informative, action packed and certainly worth every penny!
After a snug night in my bunkhouse, Sunday gave way to more epic Scottish rain. I began the day again in the welcoming home of Glencoe Mountain Rescue where we were engaged in a nutrition for ultra-runners workshop. Whilst I won’t go in depth about what I learnt here, I have to admit that I took a massive amount of input away from this particular session and have recently had a u-turn in my eating habits for the better (I’d never bought chia seeds before now). Second instalment for Sunday was session by Debbie Martin-Consani appropriately entitled ‘Women in Ultrarunning’. Debbie was such a motivating speaker, and I took a great deal away from her talk. I didn’t feel too dissimilar to her, in that she started running later in life, she used to party hard, she works pretty much full time and squeezes training as and when she can also around raising her child too. Granted, I don’t do the same distances as her (yet) but it was great to have someone speak to you who you are on precisely the same wavelength as. I was in awe listening to her speaking about her Tors de Geants and Spine Race adventures, and simply still can’t get round my head around the fact that she ran round and round a tiny track for 24 hours for Team GB. Any woman who has that type of resilience catches my attention! I loved that Debbie reassured us that road running still has a place in training, it doesn’t have to be about trail all the time, we also participated in a discussion about the barriers women face in ultra-running, which made me feel a little less alien about the whole thing. I thought I was the only one who struggled with full time work and bringing up kids and trying to keep up the training amongst a fit of hormones!! The dialogue was quite raw in that we discussed fear, confidence, low self-esteem, and other major worries that go hand in hand when wanting to build up to longer distances. Debbie reassured me that if I want to do triple figured miles I can, I just need to keep on pushing outside of my comfort zone ever so slightly: softly softly catchy monkey as the saying goes. I stepped out of Debbie’s workshop with a newfound buzz and even bigger dreams in my head than ever before!
Straight after Debbie’s session, I was lucky enough to be spending an hour in the Village Hall with Nicky and her dogs. Debbie came along and joined the session too and it was super lovely to have these 2 running greats buzzing off one another in the same room. Nicky went on to talk us through training plans for ultra-runners. It was impressive to hear about Nicky’s early days in running, her farming background but also how she devised detailed, structured training plans for Barkley Marathons and the double Paddy, Charlie and BG rounds. I have watched all vids about Nicky on YouTube, but it was even more inspiring to hear her stories straight from her.
After lunch it was time to get the wet weather clothes back on and head over to Altnafeadh, Glencoe to participate in and ascent/descent workshop with Kerri and Nancy. And guess what? Yes! It was lashing down again as we gathered at the foot of the Devils Staircase which was the formidably named setting for our practical session.
Kerri (L) and Nancy (R)
I ran ahead with Kerri, who is an incredibly accomplished ultra and sky runner; knowing Kerri’s credentials I took comfort in being in such competent company, and eager to learn new skills from her as such a great runner. Amidst the rain beating down so forcefully and the wind taking our breaths away, Kerri managed to holler loud enough for us to hear and follow her instructions both ascending and descending the Devils Staircase (it isn’t as intimidating as it sounds). With another few miles done, some decent feet of elevation under me and a few more skills in my ultra-running armoury, it was time to bid farewell to rainy Glencoe and the remarkable ladies I met that weekend.
To summarise, this was an AWESOME weekend, come rain hail or shine this weekend would be of benefit any female ultra-runner who is looking to embark on their first ultra, or indeed wants to enhance their skills and to build confidence and to simply dream bigger! Girls on Hills are lucky to have the greatest office imaginable; this idea simply could not work in an urban location. Spending time in Glencoe was a tonic in itself for me, as I instantly fell in love with the backdrop; so much so I am heading back to Fort William in a couple of months to explore more of the hills. Since attending this course I have since participated in a more enhanced navigation skills course and have also worked the nutrition planning and injury prevention techniques into my daily routine. Girls on Hills run many more courses than the one I attended, so if you really want to get out of your comfort zone and meet like minded female athletes, then why not look them up. They really put my Summit Crazy kit through its paces.
Jill Bridges - Summit Crazy Ambassador