Would you love to swap the footpath for a mountain trail, but don’t know where to start? Maybe you’d like to test the terrain with a buddy, but your road-running pals can’t be swayed? Or perhaps you’d like to blow the dust off that map you bought last year. If you tick even one of these boxes, then SheSummits is just the thing for you. Bernie Commins went on her maiden mountain-running voyage with SheSummits recently and spoke to its founder Alicia Christofi-Walsh about its inception and its aims.
Having just turned one, SheSummits has a thing or two to celebrate. The female-only mountain-running crew has been guiding gals around the hills and mountains of Wicklow and Dublin since March 2019 and demand for its service continues to grow stronger and stronger. Chatting to its founder, Alicia, about this project could easily have turned into a day-long conversation topped off with a mountain run, such is her passion for the sport, and her desire to share it with others. She is the perfect person to reach a summit with.
“One of my absolute favourite things to do is to run down the hill and then look back and think that you were just up there! It is amazing, it gives you goose bumps,” says Alicia. “Mountain running kind of forces you to be in the moment and in a way, to get out of your head, because you just have to be focused on what you are seeing in front of you.” In a world that has gone slightly askew recently, getting ‘outside your head’ sounds like just the tonic.
Brought up in the Boston suburbs, there were no mountains calling to Alicia when she was young. She trained at the Boston Conservatory to become a professional dancer and performed for years in New York where she met her now husband, Fred. When they moved to Ireland about 15 years ago, Alicia started working as a dance teacher and choreographer but three children later, she decided to give her dancing feet a break. Running was always there in the background, however, and with home being just a stone’s throw from Lugnaquilla, the mountains were now calling.
“When I stopped working, I got more into the running – that was about four and a half years ago. I started on the mountains and trails, then I started more into the navigation side of things, I decided to do a Mountain Leader 1 training course. One thing led to another.”
Learning to navigate became an essential tool for Alicia who realised that freedom to run in the hills and mountains around her came from acquiring and perfecting such a skill.
“Many of the trails near me are lesser known and not marked, so I needed to learn how to navigate to get around them. I started off not knowing and now I know more. So, I see myself in normal women who want to try running on this mountain terrain and have more of an adventure. I can see that they can do that if they want to, because I did it.
“In trail running, there are fewer women involved than men and as you move up the distances, that gap widens. That really bothered me and I wanted to do something about it but I didn’t know what.
“Then, I saw what a Scottish company, Girls on Hills were doing in Glencoe and I had a lightbulb moment. I just thought, this is me! This is what I need to do here.”
Sharing the hills
SheSummits was born – set up by Alicia not only to share the hills with other adventure-seeking female runners but to do so with those who didn’t have the company, or more importantly, the knowledge to be able to do so. And so, commenced a business that has developed into a true running community. You can sign up to join a SheSummits run for a minimal fee through Eventbrite. But once you join a group run, you immediately become part of a community of female mountain runners who are happy to welcome, support and encourage you. You are added to a WhatsApp group where trail chat and running advice continue long after the hot bath and in advance of the next adventure. You are instantly connected to others who can accompany you on a run, independent of SheSummits, if you so wish. And, you are linked with experienced and accomplished runners who can give you expert advice. And there is no shortage of that with names like Sarah Brady, Gail Nicolson, Avril Challoner, Caroline Harney-Ayton, Karina Jonina and Niamh Gaffney joining Alicia as SheSummits leaders. To put some context on that, Alicia is attempting to complete the Wicklow Round this year, a 100km, self-navigated run incorporating 26 mountains, with an elevation of more than 6,000m. Last year, she completed 17 of the 26 mountains but, with the help of her coach, international mountain runner, Sarah McCormack, she is determined to tick all 26. Karina is one of just two female runners to have completed the same challenge and Sarah was first female finisher of the Art O’Neill ultra in January 2020. But all leaders have extensive running CVs that include ultras and marathons, off-road and on.
“The leaders have helped to make SheSummits what it is. We are just all women on the mountains together. They love running, they have a passion for it as much as me, and they are open and generous in sharing what they know with others.”
“If a woman is coming out with SheSummits, then there is certain kit they would require: coat, hat, gloves, trail runners, enough food and fuel, water, no cotton clothing. People should also have a fully charged phone.
“Other items you can bring are a map; a bivvy bag or shelter; and running poles. You should always tell someone where you are going, what the route is and what time you will be back. Once you are prepared, you will be OK for any eventuality.”
In addition to the straight running events, SheSummits has advanced its offering to include navigational courses; wilderness first aid courses; mock navigational challenges, which prep runners for similar races held by the Irish Mountain Running Association (IMRA); night runs; and talks and seminars around running, nutrition and health. But at its core is running and women.
“I have always been a cheerleader for women, it comes naturally to me. I grew up with my mom and my grandmother and my three sisters; it was always women and I was always comfortable with them. I was always active as a kid and always into sports. My mom was a track coach and a hockey coach, so it was very natural for me to see women being active. It seemed normal.”
And there is no better woman to normalise mountain running for women in Ireland. Girl power at its finest and fittest.