Katie Bamber talks to Girls on Hills, an organisation radiating positivity and inclusivity in the world of trail running
“Extreme. Wild. Freeing. Intimidating and impenetrable-looking – but not once you know…” I’ve asked fell runner and Girls on Hills co-founder Keri Wallace what it is about the Scottish Highlands that make the perfect environment for her campaign to bring more women into trail running.
“As well as being more mountainous than England or Wales, the potential terrain you can explore in Scotland’s is far bigger, thanks to its ‘right to responsible access’ (freedom to roam act). This isn’t the case elsewhere, where runners must stick to designated footpaths and legal boundaries.”
Her women-only group, set up in 2018, leads guided trail runs and training courses for both new and seasoned runners, bringing people into terrain that they wouldn’t otherwise venture.
Each year, Girls on Hills brings hundreds of women through the fells of Glencoe. “It’s a remote place, so it’s quite a feat.” Keri mentions that when she started the company, she thought it would simply be about trail running: “We almost immediately realised that it was way more than that for most. Many turn to the mountains and open spaces for mental health, wellbeing, fitness. Some we met were struggling – with grief, health, relationships – and on the hill stories come pouring out. One lady was still having chemo; she said it was focussing on climbing and running through the mountains again that got her through treatment.”
Regarding the most common barriers to running, Keri claims most are self imposed. Navigation is a huge stumbling block, and not for any reason but from traditional stereotypes that have had women deferring to men. “It’s the most important skill. Where you are and where you want to go – this is ultimate freedom. That’s self reliance right there.”
Talk about empowering.
The fledgling Girls of Hills ran three courses in its first year. Quickly growing arms and legs, the group runs dozens of courses. As for the women, they come from all walks of life, from the youth ambassadors, to mother-of-young-children Keri, to co-founder Nancy who started trail running at 50 (“I haven’t reached my peak yet”).
Despite its main focus, Girls on Hills’ is not just about getting women outdoors but all minority groups. Summer 2019 saw them first collaborate with Black Trail Runners on the Ramsay Round, a 58-mile circuit with 24 summits and a total climb of about 8,700m. The famous route was pioneered by Scottish black man Charlie Ramsay, a fact that’s been largely missed out of stories, says Keri. The bottom line for all under-represented groups is the same: ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’, something Black Trail Runners is redressing, with films at the 2022 Kendal and Fort William Mountain Festival.
Girls on Hills has teamed up with Wanderlust Women, a hiking adventure group for Muslim women. “Talk about changing stereotypes,” Keri says, describing the winter skills course they ran that involved crampons, hijabs and ice axes.
Trips to ever more wild locations are on the agenda for the future: fastpacking adventures to Knoydart, late summer – a truly wild place accessible only by boat and on foot. Exciting collaborations have included ultra running courses with record-setting fell runner Nicky Spinks (watch her film Run Forever) who also offers bespoke planning and training for those looking for help with specific events.
To find out more visit Girls On Hills.