The forests hid the embarrassment at her lack of fitness when she started out, but ultramarathon runner and mum of five Kelly Ruck has more than earned her time in the sun.
When I started running it was the 10-year anniversary of losing my son,” explains Kelly Ruck. “I realised I hadn’t ever really dealt with his death and the grief properly.
“I found that, even after 10 years, I was suddenly able to process my grief a lot more by running. I became more balanced and I could think about things as I did my training. It wasn’t that I was always consciously thinking about him. But running somehow allowed me to feel how I was feeling.
“When I’m at home, I have to be this strong person and when I’m out running I can really just let it flow.”
Kelly is a mother of five, a runner and an influencer. Having been a PE dodger at school, she started running four years ago – as a way to get fit after her fourth child and also because she’d reached a point where she was being mum and nothing else. Also, she was getting fit for a challenge she’d set up in memory of her son who’d died as a baby and whose 10th birthday it would have been that year.
”As a group,we’d set up a challenge to do the National Three Peaks in 24 hours, So I thought I’d use the Couch to 5K app to get fit and in a position to take on the challenge. It was meant to a grpup of friends doing it all of us mums and none of us very fit” But life happens, and one by one people pulled out due to injury, so when it came to D-Day, there were just two of them left! “Pretty unbelievably, my friend then broke her leg on the first mountain and had to be air- lifted off. So the mission was aborted.” So Kelly went bak again the following weekend and did it solo. It wasn’t exactly plain sailing because she slipped on the way down the first mountain and broke her wrist, although she carried on and did the challenge in the 24-hour limit before going to hospital.
“I didn’t find it tough to be honest. I remember a moment on Snowdon when it was dark and I’d lost my way and I just sat down and cried: my wrist was hurting, my headtorch had gone and I had to have a stern word with myself: ‘No-one’s going to get you off here, Kelly, you need to get moving.’ And I did.”
Completion was so important to Kelly because of the challenge. She was carrying a great big banner emblazoned with the name of her son and the names of other babies who’d passed away – to wave at the top of each of the three peaks. “People were relying on me to take their babies to the top of the mountains. When it got tough, I thought of what we’d been through with my son, and of the other parents and what they’d been through as well.”
“It was funny in a way. There I was with the huge banner, but I couldn’t get it out of my bag and hold it up because of the awful weather conditions and my broken wrist! There were lots of other climbers luckily who helped me do it
Run, forest, run
So Mission Three Peaks was complete and Kelly had a new-found passion: running. She’d started training in February and did the challenge in July, by which time she was hooked.
“I ran alone in the woods as opposed to round a track. I was too embarrassed to run with friends so I thought if I did it in the woods, no-one would see me huffing and puffing and going bright red.
I didn’t want the pressure and knew if I was alone I could walk when I wanted.”
She wasn’t running far at that point.
“I did a 10K before the Three Peaks and thought it was horrific: I never wanted to run that far again! As it is, I don’t think I’ve done another 10K. It’s all been marathons and ultras since then!”
Kelly’s next challenge was a personal one too. Her and her brother both have type 1 diabetes so she secured herself a spot in the London Marathon, raising money for Diabetes UK.
“I did a couple of half marathons as part of my training. I did most of it in the woods, although people kept telling me I needed to get some road- running miles under my belt. Where I live, though, it’s woods or nothing and I loved being out on long runs. I found it hard and I ended up getting an injury. But I enjoyed the process as well as the benefits I saw each week.”
Finding her groove
ATher London, Kelly signed up for the Berlin Marathon, which was in the autumn of the same year. “I go through stages,” she says. “Sometimes I want to run a fast marathon and sometimes I want to increase my distance. ATher I’d run Berlin, I fancied seeing how far I could go instead of checking on times all the time, so I signed up for Race to the Tower the following June.”
Race to the Tower is part of a collection of UK ultras, this one being a double marathon ending at Broadway Tower in the Cotswolds. It’s 53 miles and lots of elevation, but for Kelly it felt like she’d found her groove. “For me, I like the solitude of running on my own and I found I loved doing an ultra on my own, being out there for 14 hours by myself.”
“I had a painful blister for the last three miles so rather than being a hobble home, it was almost a crawl! Apart from that, I found the experience easier on my body in the sense that you go a lot slower for an ultramarathon; my tactic was to walk up the hills and jog the rest.”
However, managing her fuelling and her diabetes over a longer distance was a steep learning curve for Kelly.
“Although I did a lot of research and tried various solutions during my training, I ended up having a couple of hypos on the day. I needed to stop a couple of times for half an hour or so each time to get myself back on track by getting some quick-acting sugar into me. That obviously affected my overall time.”
Kelly knew what to do for a marathon and knew exactly when to take her gels, but in an ultra you can’t as easily survive on gels to get the energy you need, as they start to play havoc with your gut at some point. “In training, I tried different foods that would fuel me and keep my blood sugars stable, but on the day I just didn’t get it right.”
Credit: Andy Astflack
Despite the issues, Kelly loved the ultra. She remembers relishing the idea of it and the reality of spending the whole day outside. “I knew I was in it for the long haul and I loved that. I’ve never been so drained, but I loved it.
“I was supposed to get back before it went dark, but I didn’t manage that because everything went wrong! Mentally it’s harder because it goes on for so long. I cried, I spoke to a tree at one point – honestly, I went through the complete range of emotions.”
Kelly attacked another ultra a couple of weeks later – yes, a couple of weeks later! For Race to the King in Portsmouth, she made sure she had all the right fuel with her – Nutella sarnies on white bread, biscuits, That cola and watermelon slices are her top tips for fuelling. “I was quicker and the fuelling worked better. I was still tired from the Race to the Tower and it was a hotter day, but the previous race was fresh in my memory so it was a known quantity. I loved it!”
Mentally it’s harder because it goes on for so long. I cried, I spoke to a tree – I went through the complete range of emotions
Baby on board
Kelly has just given birth to her baby son, Harry, and this was her first pregnancy and birth as a runner. She continued to run during her pregnancy, even taking part in a trail half at 26 weeks. “I did it with a friend, we packed Percy Pigs and we decided to run/walk it and just get round and enjoy. I loved that run. I got a medal for me and for the bump as well.”
And when it came to 30 weeks, she stopped running: “I knew when to stop. My body told me straight away, because it was uncomfortable, I felt pressure everywhere, and there was no enjoyment. I carried on walking the dog, but running was too high impact.”
In terms of postpartum recovery, it’s a learning curve. Kelly is the type to go at things hell for leather and, having had running as a key part of her mental health regime for four years, it would have been tempting to return too quickly. It could also be tempting to get frustrated with her performance when comparing it to the past. She says: “My partner is a coach and is keeping an eye on me, making sure I take a cautious approach to my return. Within a week of Harry’s birth, I was walking short distances with the pram, and I built that up each day until my six-week check. By that stage, I was walking up to an hour, on all sorts of different terrains and hills, and I knew I was fine. So once I’d had the doctor’s check, I was confident enough to start running again.
“I started with a 30-sec walk/30-sec run combo and it was bizarre to find I had no core at all! I kept going for three or four weeks, then built up to 5-min run/1-min walk and from last week I’m back to normal, upping the mileage each week
“I’m treating it as a whole new challenge. I’ve been calling achievements my ‘postpartum’ 5K PB, rather than comparing them to how I was before. I set myself small goals so it’s more encouraging and I try not to think about how my current times are very slow compared to last year’s times.”
Kelly met her partner Matt after her marriage ended a few years ago. He’s an elite runner himself and she really appreciates the common interest they have in running.
“He’s much better than me. He’s the fast speedy type and I’m the enjoyment more-bang-for-my-buck type of runner. But we were both Asics Frontrunners and we met at a run meet as part of that. It’s great because, although we’re completely different in terms of the running we do, we both just love it. He understands my goals and he understands about the mental health benefits too, so we support each other in being able to combine running with a demanding family life.”
Kelly ran with Matt last year in the Manchester Marathon, and it’s one of her running highlights from the last four years. “I set out wanting to get quicker and although that all went wrong from about halfway round, it was such an emotional experience running with him and crossing the line together, that I just loved it.
He normally does marathons in around 2hrs 25mins so he definitely did his Personal Worst when he ran with me! It was a different experience for him – he’s used to being at the front and he thought it was carnage at the back. There was water everywhere, people walking and crying and everything. He loved it though – it’s real life back there and a lot more jovial than the serious end.”
Out of the woods
Kelly has come out of the woods metaphorically and physically these last four years and it’s all down to her running. Running has given her a way to deal with her grief, to gain confidence in her physical and mental strengths, to survive the onslaught of being a mum of a young family, to be something in her own right, and to meet the love of her life.
“My life has totally changed through running. I’m with my partner, we’re incredibly happy and we have a son now. I wouldn’t have had all that if it wasn’t for running.
Essential running kit
The eight key bits of kit that helps Kelly ace her ultras
1. My coach/ running partner
I’m incredibly fortunate that Matt is a run coach. It keeps me motivated when I’ve no idea what to do and helps me chase down my goals. He’s also the person I feel happiest running with and I love our quality time together when we can get out.
2. My dog
Freddie. He is just the most fun to run with, and loves spending time running miles on the trails with me. He’s so happy to be out, you can’t help but be happy with him.
3. Garmin Forerunner 945
I love the features on this watch, from the maps and music feature, to being able to record all the different activities I to do.
4. Garmin heart rate chest strap
I use heart rate data for my runs; so find this invaluable for providing accurate readings while I’m out running.
I never run without my this. I always take jelly babies out with me in case of hypos, and it fits all the essentials, gels, phone, keys and so on while being incredibly comfortable.
6. Audible app
Audiobooks are great for low intensity runs, so I can read/listen to books I otherwise haven’t got time for.
7. Science in Sport Rego Strawberry
Great for after sessions and longer runs, it’s easy to grab and make up, delivers a great balance of carbohydrates and protein, and tastes lovely
8. Jaybird Tarah Pro headphones
I love these. They are wireless, the fit is amazing, they don’t budge. Great sound too, with customised audio settings.
Follow Kelly on Insta: kellogs ontherun
I’m with my partner, we’re incredibly happy and we have a son now. I wouldn’t have had all that if it wasn’t for running
Kelly is goal driven and definitely experiences moments where it’s hard but she’s focusing on the simple joy of being back to running. “I have to be ready to go whenever I get a little window of freedom and sometimes I use the exercise bike with the pram next to me.
I’m excited – my partner is going to pace me to a PB at the Amsterdam Marathon this autumn, so that’s my target for this year.”