In this first in a series of three interviews with Kerry Sutton, we talk to the inspirational ultra-running mum of four about how it all began, how she created a business out of running and her attitude to keeping her children active and imbuing them with their own sense of fitness and well-being – particularly during school holidays.
Kerry has travelled all over the world, growing up in South America and living and working in Chile and Sydney as an adult. She settled in the beautiful West Country city of Bath in 2011 and that’s when she decided to shift her activity up a gear (in fact several) and enter her first – and perhaps the most famous of them all – ultra run. Today she runs her own business, Perpetual Motion, as a personal trainer, mentoring up and coming endurance athletes and talking at ultra expos.
“Prior to running I was a rower. I loved team sports and the comradery of working together to achieve the same goal. It was while in Edinburgh and when I had my second child (now 14) that I found myself pulled to do an endurance walk of 52 miles. It was the first time I had done anything like this but I was confident in my ability to keep on walking. I LOVED IT. It hurt, and tested me mentally but I really enjoyed it but a move to Sydney and the birth of another child slowed me for a while. However, it wasn’t long after moving there I found another endurance walk – same distance, different terrain and most significantly, I was walking as a team of four. This is where I started to learn about how important my mental state was during these events. Not only were we thinking about food and nutrition, keeping ourselves well-hydrated etc but also about achieving and maintaining a positive mental attitude. I studied how to use mantras and other mindfulness tools and really wanted to maximise the opportunity to do the very best out of the challenge.
“This was a way of getting back to ‘me’ and it was blissful escapism!”
Critically, I learned a lot about myself . I love the challenge of keeping myself going over a long period of time working to a schedule that I know my body can cope with … and then pushing those limits.”
Kerry, how did you pick up the pace?
With two endurance walks under my belt I decided I wanted to do a triathlon before I was 40. I had never been a runner so I started in exactly the same way as I coach my clients – two mins of walking, two minutes of running. It’s important to say right now that I had always absolutely hated running. But that was due to taking the completely wrong approach, going out running hell-for-leather for 20 minutes, coming back panting and wondering what all the fuss was about. It was in realising that slow and steady was the secret. Take the pressure off and I quickly built up stamina and enjoyment.
My first running race was a women’s ‘enticer’ triathlon which included a 2.5k run which I couldn’t entertain doing – to me it might as well have been an ultra. I stopped once in the middle of it. I felt heavy and laboured with no thirst for running. But there was a moment in that race when my daughter was watching.
“I stopped to give her a hug and as I left her, I felt completed empowered by the fact that I was a mum and doing a triathlon. You can’t underestimate just how powerful that is – you see it up and down the country with all these incredible running groups full of wonderful women egging each on. Truly life-affirming.”
So, I tried to keep the running going and went to for a 5km race coming third in my age group but again it was nothing flash – my running was very ordinary and there were no moments of light-footedness at all. It was a grind and grunt to the end – not poetry in motion. BUT I kept at it.
And do you know what? Running is easy – pair of daps, leggings and off you go straight from the front door. Music on loud and bad boy songs on that I couldn’t play in front of the kids. Its interesting though that I could run, but I didn’t feel I was entitled to call myself a runner. I didn’t feel that for a long time.
Kerry comes back to Blighty
I came back to England in 2011 with four children and the bit between my teeth. I saw this amazing programme on the Marathon des Sables and I don’t know where it came from but I thought, that’s it, that’s what I’m going to do. It was absolutely from within – clearly, I was looking for a change and a challenge and different from my every day. I wanted to show that there was more to me than ex-teacher, mother of four, Kerry. Being a mum is the hardest job in the world, unquestionably, and above all else, it is how I want to be defined. I guess I saw entering the MDS as testing me on another level. So, I rang up the organiser and I asked if I could join in. He laughed at my naivety with no clue that there is a waiting list of endurance athletes wanting to take part but, passion over protocol, I jumped that queue and when the opportunity of a charity place came up, I grabbed it.
Without one inkling of an idea what I was doing I just went out and ran a lot, the majority on running machines and never for more than a few hours.
” And I did some heat training in somewhat of an unconventional way – fully dressed, I used to sit in a sauna reading for an hour at a time. Parenthood is the mother of invention – you fit in what you can between nursery/school drop offs and pick-ups and this was something I could do quickly.”
I remember saying goodbye to my family with a rucksack on my back, the basis of my expert knowledge from a specialist supplier for MDS but I had no idea what I was facing. But this was back to basics – it was me, on my own and doing this for me with a huge anticipation of excitement. It never crossed my mind that I wasn’t going to finish – self-doubt is your enemy. All I had to do is get from A to B. The raw anticipation of crossing the finishing line with all the incredible words of encouragement people had given me ringing in my ears, popping like speech bubbles all around me.
Before I went to MDS everything I knew had come from reading. All my knowledge on food and nutrition and feeding my body for the extremes it was to endure was fairly basic. However, undeterred I kept reading and practising. Finding out for myself, testing different foods and working out what best suits my body both during recovery, while training and then out on a run.
“The MDS was UNBELIEVABLE. A strong word but it was. It was enriching, incredibly demanding, and quite literally life-changing.”
I started the first day doing what felt right but with no real aspirations as to my place in the race. That first evening, whilst queuing for my blisters to be seen, to I glanced at the table of results posted on the notice board by the medical tent. I was slightly shocked to see I was placing well. I returned to my sleeping bag feeling motivated! I went on to finish the race fairly broken but having done far better than I had ever imagined and having absolutely loved the whole experience I knew I had found something I wanted to do more of!
Coming back from the MDS, I was keen to get something else in the diary to avoid the post-challenge comedown. Bearing in mind I still hadn’t run a half marathon or full marathon, I knew road events weren’t my thing, trail running rocked my boat. So I looked for different multiday ultras and long runs here at home.”