Thirty-two-year-old Holly Page from Yorkshire, England, has been playing sports and adventuring since her legs were first able to carry her. Ever curious about visiting new places, she has used racing as a vehicle to see more of the world and, almost incidentally, notched up an incredible running career along the way.
Page took the skyrunning world by storm in 2018, winning the Skyrunner World Series Classic and taking third overall in the Golden Trails World Series, winning the grand finale in South Africa. She has represented her country numerous times and continued to excel at an array of distances and disciplines — all without a coach, while cycling and hitchhiking her way to races, building a career in international development, and playing the violin.
Post-COVID-19 pandemic, Page is dealing with a complex injury setback and has had to press pause on her dynamic racing career. We took this opportunity to catch up with her and learn more about her background and her story so far.
She told iRunFar, “I grew up in the hills of Yorkshire. My parents were both teachers and I have a brother who’s two years younger than me. My parents were, and still are, really outdoorsy people. Lots of my childhood weekends would be spent standing on the side of some windswept, rainy hill, cheering on my dad in a fell race.”
During school holidays, the family would pack up the car with hiking, climbing, and camping equipment and head off for trips to Scotland, or further afield to the Alps and the Pyrenees, often joined by other teacher family-friends with kids the same age.
Page attributes a lot of her hardiness and stubborn determination to the healthy, active lifestyle encouraged by her parents. “It was just normal for me to be out in the elements. We would go on week-long bike rides in horrendous weather carrying all of our stuff when we were quite little. And at the time I don’t know that I necessarily appreciated it, but now I look back and I think those formative years helped to build my character today.”
Her fell running journey began as a junior, and Page quickly became quite competitive.
“I started doing local races and the Junior English Fell Running Championships from about the age of 10. I was doing cross country and track as well, but I always did best in the fell races. Saying that, I wasn’t very talented; my only talent was that I could push myself hard. There were lots of girls who were naturally gifted and would fly up the hills … I always preferred the more technical downhills.
“But I wasn’t racing to win, I was there to go as hard as I could and I’ve kept that mentality up to now. I would never be on the start line expecting to win anything and I’m always surprised if I do. It comes from a background of doing something for the love of it and not for any kind of glory.”
The young Holly’s enthusiasm and love for the sport did start to translate into solid results: “As a junior, I ran for England. I was never the best, I was just there or thereabouts.”
After graduating from school, Page went to Durham University in the North of England and did a languages degree. While at university, she discovered rowing and although she quickly got to winning national-level medals, she never felt at home with the sport and the culture surrounding it: “It wasn’t an environment I wanted to dedicate much time to.”
She continued to play football, run, and cycle alongside her studies, and also played violin in the orchestra, and music has continued to be an important part of her life.
For her next foray into competitive sport, after winning medals in national university cycling championships, Page bought a time trial bike and decided to try duathlons. She made fast progress here too, and won the Duathlon World Championships in the Under 24s category, after completing just three or four races.
Despite her successes in the sport, as with rowing, she still didn’t feel as if she’d found her groove in duathlon: “It was a lot about who has the fanciest bike, everything was very scientific, and that’s just not how I roll!”
After completing her degree, Page spent a year hitchhiking around South America before returning to the U.K., where she completed a teaching postgrad at Cambridge University in the southeast of England. She then began her career working for a charity in London, engaged in developing education and teaching methods for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
But before long she was getting itchy feet to resume her traveling, and in 2015 set off to cycle from Canada to Mexico. Along the way, she wild-camped or sometimes stayed with generous and accommodating locals, and found creative ways to stay safe when sleeping out in unknown places:
“I never stayed in a hotel or formal campsite. In Mexico, for example, I would just find a police station or a fire station and chat to the guys there and ask, ‘Can I pitch my tent here?’ Speaking Spanish helps!”
As she does on many of her travels, Page spontaneously rocked up to a number of running races along the course of her bike journey, taking several wins. This included one race in Mexico close to Christmas time, where she won a turkey, which she gifted to the local family she was staying with.
In 2016, work on a climate change program took Page to southern Africa. She continued to run a mix of road and trail races and began to rack up more and more wins. She was training hard, but the demands of work forced her to be flexible:
“I would just get up really early, get to the gym, go on the treadmill. I was doing sessions in hotel gyms in Ethiopia or Malawi, and then I’d quickly have a shower and then go have breakfast with the Minister for Agriculture, for example.”
She had set her sights on the Skyrunner World Series for 2017, but while on an impromptu trip to Chamonix, she joined an excursion up Mont Blanc with Emelie Forsberg, Megan Kimmel, and Ida Nilsson. They were going on a girls’ trip up Mont Blanc after the Mont Blanc Marathon.
The weather took a turn for the worst and the group had to turn back on the ascent. On the way down, Page took a nasty fall, sliding down the glacier and tearing the ligaments in her knee. “I ended up going back to the U.K. in a wheelchair from Chamonix, and my idea of doing the skyrunning series in 2017 was over.”
By the end of 2017, Page was back running and found herself in the Pyrenees, a mountain range between France and Spain, which separates the Iberian Peninsula from the rest of Europe. It was shortly before the Limone Skyrace in Italy.
She said, “I wanted to do at least one skyrace (on the World Series) and it was the last one.” Never one to rush a journey, instead of taking a direct flight, she cycled to the Spanish border, and then took a bus to Barcelona and a 20-hour ferry crossing to Italy. Once in Italy, she traveled via a mixture of trains and cycling to get to Lake Garda, arriving the night before the race.
She said, “I remember propping my bike up against the Skyrunner World Series banner and it fell over. And that was my entrance!”
Despite an unconventional and seemingly casual approach to racing, Page was already mixing it up with the best in the world. The morning after her arrival, she placed fourth in Limone, just behind Spanish-Dutch runner Ragna Debats and in front of Sheila Avilés of Spain — international household names in skyrunning. She said, “I looked up to all these people, they were athletes. Whereas I just ran — I always ran.”
From there she went to China and finished out the year by winning the Yangtze River Three Gorges 50k, which she sandwiched between solo trekking through the mountains of Western China. Before long, her thoughts turned to the next season, and revisiting the plan of completing the Skyrunner World Series for 2018.
“I wasn’t sure what races to do that year, so in a way, I did all of them. Every weekend I raced … They weren’t all very important races, I was just loving running and traveling around, I was mostly hitchhiking everywhere with my tent and my laptop so I could continue my international development work.”
Page was certainly getting noticed. And despite having not run further than 50 kilometers, she was selected for the highly competitive Team Great Britain to race the 85k distance at the IAU Trail World Championships, held at the Penyagolosa Trails in Spain. She felt daunted not only by the distance, but also by the pressure of taking a coveted place on the team.
“It was the first time in my life that I made a plan and trained for a specific race because I knew I needed to build up to that distance.” Despite the training going well and getting in some good longer races in the build-up, Page still had a lot of self-doubt and the all-too-familiar imposter syndrome:
“I still thought I was going to be at the back and that I would be the worst of the Great Britain (GB) athletes.” Instead, despite suffering stomach issues, she took a top 10 spot in the stacked field, placing ninth, and was the first GB runner home. She said, “I was in total disbelief.”
Page hardly stopped to catch her breath after worlds and did two local fell races the following weekend. She placed 1oth at the Zegama Marathon the weekend after that, and continued to notch up results and make memories throughout that season. The culmination of her year’s racing was winning the 2018 Skyrunner World Series Classic, a series she had set her sights on just completing in 2017.
She also took third in the Skyrunning World Championships, held at Skyline Scotland’s notoriously technical Ring of Steall skyrace and finishing third overall in the Golden Trails World Series after winning the final in South Africa.
She continued her tour de force into 2019, racing the Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica, and, despite an early-season foot injury, further Skyrunner World Series and Golden Trails World Series races. While ultrarunning was somewhat of a side hustle for Page, she won the 91k El Cruce Columbia in Argentina that year, getting in front of some 2,000 runners to take ninth overall; placed second in the 50k Oman by UTMB, and finishing in the top 10 in a spontaneous run at the CCC, after a head injury caused her to DNF a skyrace the weekend before.
She said of the journey:
“I have no regrets whatsoever. I had a great time. I took every opportunity I had. I met this amazing community of likeminded people. We were all racing each other week in, week out, but they are some of my closest friends now.”
Talking about how the competitive aspect of mountain racing differs from other sports, she continued: “When you’re in a mountain environment, everyone’s looking out for each other. If someone hurts themselves, they can be a long way from help; you’re not just going to run past them and say, ‘Woohoo, they’re down!’ You’ll stop and check they are ok.”
Page bounced back from another foot injury at the end of 2019, and was running well at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. “All through the pandemic I got really fit. I was going around Scotland, living in my van. I became a Munro bagger, which I said I never would!”
In Scotland, a Munro is defined as a mountain higher than 3,000 feet, with runners often testing themselves to see how many Munros they can summit in a set timeframe.
In February 2021, Page first noticed a pain in the arch of her foot and began rehabbing it. It was initially diagnosed as an ankle-tendon problem. But, after 10 months of treatment failed to resolve the issue, damage to two other ligaments was diagnosed by a surgeon. She opted for reconstructive surgery on her foot and ankle and began another lengthy rehabilitation process.
“I am seeing some progress, but I’m not setting any performance objectives.” she said. “My sponsors have been really good and they’re just like, ‘You’ll race when you’re ready.’ I still feel as though I have a lot to give to the running world.”
Currently, she is immersing herself in work on humanitarian crisis projects, which she says certainly puts problems like injury into perspective. Now that she can travel, she is also spending time with friends and teammates in the mountains, and taking joy in the small steps along the way toward recovery.
Time is on her side as a young athlete in a sport that offers great longevity, with podiums at major races regularly occupied by athletes more than 10 years her senior. About longevity and the future, Page says:
“I want to still be racing when I’m 60 or 70. And sure I’ll be nowhere near the front of the race, but you have your own people that you’re racing against. Not just yourself, but you’ll have your own 70-year-old rivals as well!”
For now, we’re going to watch this space, and keep our eyes peeled for the next part of the story of Holly Page.
Call for Comments
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