She Summits: Irish Women Reaching Higher

A profile of She Summits, an all-female trail running community in Ireland.

By on December 15, 2022 | Comments

The island of Ireland might be a dot on the map at the edge of Western Europe, with a population of circa seven million people, but it packs a variety of mountainous terrain and a robust off-road running community into its small footprint.

From the steep Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland, to the technical MacGillycuddy’s Reeks in the south west, to the rolling hills of Dublin and Wicklow in the east — it’s no wonder that this small country has produced more than its fair share of top mountain runners down through the years. These include former World Mountain Running Association World Cup winner Sarah McCormack, prolific uphill racer Zak Hanna, and the now-legendary John Lenihan — who was crowned Mountain Running World Champion back in 1991, and still holds fastest known times (FKTs) on many of the country’s peaks.

The sport’s national governing body,  the Irish Mountain Running Association (IMRA), hosts a packed calendar of races and leagues, and there are also a number of commercial and independent events throughout the year.

However, indicative of the sport as a whole, participation numbers for women in Irish mountain running are far lower than the numbers of men taking part. This was an imbalance that Boston native and Wicklow resident Alicia Christofi-Walshe sought to remedy when she established She Summits back in 2019.

Alicia Chirstofi-Walshe on a snow-covered mountain.

Alicia Chirstofi-Walshe on a run in her local mountains, near Donard, Wicklow. Photo: Alicia Christofi-Walshe

She told iRunFar, “I had a little bit of a bee in my bonnet that there weren’t more women involved in trail and mountain running, that I was seeing. I felt like it was probably a sport that a lot of women would like and enjoy, but I wasn’t seeing equal representation between men and women at all. Then I saw Girls on Hills, a guided trail running company in Scotland, on social media, and straight away I was like, I have to do this!”

Christofi-Walshe contacted the women behind Girls on Hills, who were happy to answer any questions and encouraged her to set up something equivalent in Ireland.

She continued, “I felt that I could make the change, bit by bit.” Christofi-Walshe enlisted the help of her friends — fellow experienced trail and mountain women — who all undertook first aid training in Rescue Emergency Care (REC) and any other training needed to act as run leaders.

It started small — Christofi-Walshe said, “The first run I put up, I was so nervous, I kept checking to see if anyone had booked it!” But from its tiny acorn, She Summits has grown and is now held as an integral part of the mountain running scene in Ireland. So far it has provided a launching pad for thousands of women to take to the trails.

Grey collage of She Summits run leaders.

She Summits run leaders (top, l-to-r): Maggie Lawler, Tara Creighton, Sarah Brady, Alicia Christofi-Walshe, (bottom, l-to-r): Avril Challoner, Karina Jonina, Gail Nicolson, and Niamh Gaffney. Photo: She Summits

One such runner was Marie Boland, a Specialist Registrar in Rehabilitation Medicine from Dublin, who first joined She Summits to get an introduction to trail running prior to moving to England’s Peak District. She said:

“My background was in triathlon, and I did that quite competitively. Then I got injured and when I tried to get back into it, I just didn’t have the love for it anymore. And I’d always enjoyed the triathlons that were more off-road, so that was where I got the idea to just do running, and particularly trail running, as a way to keep fit and have fun.”

She continued, “I was planning to go to the U.K. for work and I wanted to gain confidence to go out on the trails before I went, and I saw She Summits through Instagram and thought that might be a good way to get in a few trails runs before I left and see if I liked it.”

Boland attended her first She Summits events, an improver-level evening run in the Dublin Mountains, in the summer of 2021. She said, “Straight away I loved it. I loved being outside, exploring nature and places I wouldn’t get to see otherwise and the social element as well. It was really welcoming, and the run leaders are all really good at keeping to the pace of the slowest person in the group.” She went on, “I booked another one three days later to go out again!”

She Summits group run

Marie Boland, second from the left, on a She Summits group run. Photo: Sarah Brady

Upon moving to England, Boland’s newfound hobby opened doors for her to a social life she wouldn’t have had otherwise. She said, “It was definitely a huge asset to have when I moved, as I didn’t know anyone there, but I could fit right into the trail running community. I looked up a company that did guided runs in the Peak District, and through that I got to know another group. That was my social outlet for the year.”

Before long, Boland had gotten involved in local fell and trail races, picking up a few podium spots along the way, and quickly signed up for her first ultra — the mountainous Ultra-Trail Snowdonia by UTMB 50k, in Wales in July of 2021 — just one year on from her first-ever trail run with She Summits.

Marie Boland running Ultra Trail Snowdonia by UTMB 50k.

Marie Boland running the 2021 Ultra-Trail Snowdonia by UTMB 50k. Photo courtesy of Marie Boland.

She Summits now has eight run leaders, and while in the early stages the runs often only had three or four participants and one leader, the events now sell out fast — with numbers generally capped at around 20, often with two or three leaders, so that the group can stay together as much as possible. On the runs, there are regular stops to regroup, to allow for differences in ability and pace. While all the runs are relaxed and sociable, there are different levels for absolute beginners, beginners, and improvers — with some runs on more challenging terrain flagged as requiring experience.

Run leader Avril Challoner, an experienced ultrarunner, has been guiding runs with the group since the summer of 2019, now often taking groups out on the trails of Howth, a stunning peninsula near her home in the North of Dublin. She said, “I would always advocate for women in sport. And I did notice that they were largely absent from long-distance trail running.”

The first run that Challoner was invited to lead was a 30-kilometer trail run on the Wicklow Way, Ireland’s most popular long-distance trail, which extends 80 miles from Marley Park in Dublin, across the Wicklow Mountains, to finish in Clonegal, County Carlow. She said, “Alicia needed a guide who would be good for that distance, and also someone who could talk for that long, which I’m definitely good for!”

She said, “I think that women generally have less confidence about putting themselves out in the mountains, but I also think that Irish women are quite adventurous. So there’s a disconnect there. A lot of them really want to try mountain running, and are quite excited by it, but they don’t really know how to or where to start. Also, there’s the community aspect to it, they come and make friends — friends who think that being out in the rain in the mountains on a Saturday morning is a normal thing to do!”

Avril Challoner on a foggy mountain run with her dog, Lexi.

Avril Challoner on a foggy mountain run with her dog, Lexi. Photo: Avril Challoner

As part of Her Outdoors Week, an initiative by Sport Ireland in August 2022, She Summits hosted a trail running workshop for Dublin athletics club Donore Harriers. The club has a strong foundation in road running and cross country, and the women who attended the workshop were all accomplished in other areas of running and were eager to get to grips with trail running.

One such participant was Sorcha Loughnane, an elite marathon runner who holds the over 45 world masters record for 50k — 3:20:34 — and placed sixth at this year’s IAU 50k European Championships. She told iRunFar, “For a trail-curious road runner like me, doing a She Summits session was an invaluable intro to mountain running. As an experienced runner, my big skill gaps are navigation and certain mountain running technique — so it was great to get that kind of insight in a practical, guided way.”

She continued, “It’s also pretty daunting to be heading out into the hills as a woman on your own when you’re not fully confident in your mountain skills. Having this kind of resource gives a newbie like me the opportunity to safely run the trails. Being able to target that learning for specific races through recce runs or guided night runs is also hugely valuable, and I’ll definitely be availing of that in the future.”

Following on from the positive experience with She Summits, Loughnane went on to run her first mountain race, IMRA’s Powerscourt Ridge, where she took first place.

Women from Donore Harriers on a trail with a blue sky.

Runners from Donore Harriers at the She Summits event as part of Her Outdoors week in 2022. Photo: Sarah Brady

While She Summits has launched some competitive women into trail running and mountain running, the ethos is firmly focused on participation, with all ages and the full range of abilities catered for. Marie McDonagh-Craig, a lifetime runner in her 60s, joined the group a number of years ago, after returning to Ireland following many years of living in West Africa. She said, “I grew up on a farm in the country and I was one of eight kids. My way of getting space was always to go outside. I loved the outdoors, to restore myself and get some personal space.”

McDonagh-Craig pursued road running in her 30s, but took some time out when she had her three children. She resumed in her early 50s, but struggled with injuries from running on the road, and so turned to trail running. She completed a number of trail half marathons, but found she always had to be mindful of choosing races with generous cutoffs.

She said, “I looked for half marathons where there is a marathon and an ultra on the same day, so I’m not keeping anyone out and I’m not stretching myself too much.” In November 2019, she completed Run the Line — now Ireland’s largest scale trail running event, hosted by Dublin Wicklow Mountain Rescue — and said, “I came in last, and I was apologising to everyone for delaying them, and they said, ‘Not to worry, some of the She Summits women were just before you!’”

This was McDonagh-Craig’s first introduction to She Summits, and she hasn’t looked back since — becoming a regular on the runs, where she can enjoy the social aspect of running with a group, without any time pressures or concerns about cutoffs.

“I do the runs regularly,” she said. “I do the beginner runs, and sometime if I do the next level up, Alicia is very good and she makes sure that she doesn’t lose me! They are such a lovely encouraging group of women.”

Distant runners in the mountains under blue skies.

Marie McDonagh-Craig running in the Knockmealdown Mountains, in the South East of Ireland. Photo courtesy of Marie McDonagh-Craig.

McDonagh-Craig also completed one of the Navigation for Mountain Runners courses hosted by She Summits, which gave her the confidence and foundations in map reading and compass use to explore further on her own.

Christofi-Walshe, herself a keen navigator, sees the navigation training as an integral part of what She Summits offers. She said, “From what I’ve experienced, some women, and me myself, do better in all-female learning environments, and so that’s what I wanted to provide. We have run six or seven Navigation for Mountain Runners courses, and they’re really popular. It gives women the skills so that they can navigate for themselves on the mountains.”

The courses are delivered by Paul Nolan of 1 Step More, who has a wealth of experience in mountain navigation, and Christofi-Walshe says, “We are very grateful to have his knowledge.” A She Summits leader is also present at each course to introduce and coordinate the event. As many of Ireland’s mountain races are unmarked and off-trail — and signage in the mountains is generally nonexistent — competence at navigation opens up a lot more possibilities to the runners.

A She Summits night navigation course underway.

A She Summits night navigation course underway. Photo: She Summits

Earlier this year, Irish mountain running was brought into focus as the 30-kilometer Seven Sisters Skyline was the opening race of the 2022 World Mountain Running Association World Cup. The race traverses the Deryveagh Mountains in Donegal, in the north west of the country, and is run on predominantly open mountain, with sections of rough scree and packs in 2,134 meters (7,000 feet) of climbing.

For 2023, She Summits — with the support of Seven Sisters race director Eunan Quinn — will offer places in the Seven Sisters Skyline to two deserving women, and support them in their preparation for this aspirational race. The support package will include individual coaching for the event by elite runners and experienced coaches Sarah McCormack and Paul Tierney.

Olivia Amber - 2022 Seven Sisters Skyline champion

The USA’s Olivia Amber took the win at the 2022 Seven Sisters Skyline, the first event in the 2022 World Mountain Running Association World Cup. Photo: World Mountain Running Association/Richard Bolt

Similarly, Gaelforce Events, who organize adventure races and trail races in Ireland, have offered up two spots in each of their trilogy of 10k trail races to women nominated by She Summits. The group will also be launching a mentor program, where young women who are new to the sport will be paired with one of the She Summits run leaders for individual mentoring and support for a six-month period.

As Irish mountain running continues to grow and prosper, new names are appearing all the time in the results lists from trail and mountain races. On the women’s side, many of these will have She Summits to thank for their first steps on this great adventure.

Call for Comments

  • Have you joined a She Summits run in Ireland?
  • Do you know of any similar communities in other countries or regions?
A She Summits adventure on the Dublin Seven Summits route

A She Summits adventure on the Dublin Seven Summits route. Photo: Alicia Christofi-Walshe

Sarah Brady

Sarah Brady is Managing Editor at iRunFar. She’s been working in an editorial capacity for ten years and has been a trail runner for almost as long. Aside from iRunFar, she’s worked as an editor for various educational publishers and written race previews for Apex Running, UK, and RAW Ultra, Ireland. Based in Belfast, Ireland, Sarah is an avid mountain runner and ultrarunner and competes at distances from under 10k to over 100k. When not running, she enjoys reading, socializing, and hanging out with her dog, Angie, and cat, Judy.