Written by Katy Parrott
It’s funny how one thing can lead to another, throwing you off track and sending you on a totally different path.
As a child I had aspirations to be an artist, a clown, or a police dog – it’s great to have ambitions but clearly I was never going to achieve the last one! At the age of 7, while having a tantrum, I even wrote my mum a letter saying I was running away from home and going to art college. I left the house, walked down the path, turned right and very quickly got distracted by what looked like a miniature furry Jabba the Hutt. It was in fact my overweight cat called Marbles (RIP). We shortly returned home for feeding time. I never achieved any of my childhood dreams – I occasionally paint now and many would say I constantly clown around. But one thing is certain – I will definitely be a crazy cat lady when I’m ancient.
I learnt early on that it’s okay to not have one clear career or goal in life. I’m 27 now and still can’t define myself as one thing when people ask ‘what do you do?’. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a total loose cannon. I loved my degree in Biology and Masters in Wildlife Filmmaking and had a great time working for Monty Halls for 2 years. But If I hadn’t said yes to unexpected opportunities beyond my ‘chosen career path’, I wouldn’t be on the journey I am today.
The major turning point for me was going on the BBC series, Special Forces: Ultimate Hell Week (Season 2), filmed in 2016. I had always been pretty active but had never attempted anything like this before. I hadn’t even run a half marathon before applying for the show. Why apply I hear you ask?? A friend of mine had suggested I give it a go, and it seems I have the inability to say no to anything, (within reason) especially a challenge – I’ve not figured out if this is a blessing or a curse yet. You never actually think you’ll get on to these things but after a 3 month application process of interviews, fitness testing and psych analysis – I got the call. I was flying to South Africa as a recruit. I returned to the UK as a different person. It sounds like a total cliché, but it’s true.
I didn’t start the series as a billy-big-balls thinking ‘I can win this’ because in all honesty I had no idea how I would fare. I trained physically really hard for it, but mentally you can’t really prepare yourself for the sleep deprivation, interrogation and the constant unknown thrashings – unless you forced yourself to stay awake for 4 days straight or asked a friend to spontaneously kidnap you in the middle of the fruit and veg isle of Tesco.
The first night was a great test of this and I remember it vividly. Hooded, cable tied, sat in stress positions out in the bush, shivering with mild hypothermia, totally sleep deprived all night. I came out the other side still smiling and an attitude within me had changed. Rather than questioning ‘can I do it?, I would say to myself ‘I can do this!’. I then went from strength to strength, enduring a further 11 days of brutal physical and mental testing, including being singled out to get locked in a coffin for hours one night. Despite the instructors simulating that I was being buried alive, pouring water inside to start filling the coffin and having to pee myself because I had been locked in for so long, it was actually quite relaxing. It was the first time I had been on my own for 6 days so took the opportunity to get some shut eye – much to the annoyance of the producers.
It reminded me a great Martin Luther King quote: ‘The ultimate measure of a man (or tiny lady) is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy’.
Against all the odds, I made it to the final episode and came joint 4th overall. I was the smallest there, only 24 at the time, competing against men basically triple my height. I had totally exceeded my expectations. Going on the show had revealed this physical and mental resilience that I didn’t know I had and has opened up an entire world to me – a world that makes me intrigued to push those limits. Where my mind wants to take me, hopefully my body will follow!
Apparently gamers call it ‘snowballing’ – you achieve a few objectives and then you get better and better until it becomes impossible to stop you.
You can do that in life too. And boy, have I been snowballing since!
Which was a bloomin’ good job! Straight after the show (literally 2 days) I had to roll straight into an expedition I had already planned – a self-sufficient 400km trek along the entire Rhodope Mountain range in Bulgaria, carrying 30kgs of kit and wild camping in brown bear territory with 2 other scientists (this is a whole other story in itself). Walking that far and being out in some of the purest wilderness I’ve ever seen gave me chance to re-set after 2 weeks of essentially getting abused in South Africa. It gave me a lot of time to think. I genuinely had the time of my life on Hell Week and was so inspired by my experienced that I signed up for the Army Reserves as soon as I returned home from Bulgaria.
In my 2.5 years of service I’ve completed basic training, qualified as a Class 1 Combat Medic, undertaken Mountain Leader training in Scotland The Alps, Caucasus Mountains, summited Mount Kazbek in Georgia and deployed to Armenia. I’ve grabbed every opportunity and loved every minute of it (except perhaps trying to get ‘sleep’ in a muddy, cold, wet ditch whilst on exercise in the middle of winter).
More importantly I’ve worked with and learnt from people from all walks of life that I would never have crossed paths with otherwise. I’m a stronger believer that you can’t get far in life without the support and motivation of others and it can be refreshing to jump on someone else snowball ride. A couple of fellow soldiers inspired me to take up ultra-running after we ran a 24 hour relay race to raise money for veterans in need during summer 2017. A couple of months later I ran my first ultra – 50km across Dartmoor.
However, life can also throw you some bad snow-curve-balls too but it’s how you deal with them that really counts. Two years ago, a close family friend took her own life. She was 28, beautiful, kind, funny. For an entire year after her death I didn’t speak out about it at all. I finally decided to do something about it. I would run a 100km ultra-marathon dedicated to her. What started as a very personal challenge turned into so much more. It gave me the chance to reach out, grieve, focus, and the response and support I had was incredible.
It was one of the hardest things I had ever done – physically and emotionally. I’ll set the scene – it was middle the 2018 summer heat wave so had to I had to battle highs of 30 degrees, climb a total of over double the height of Snowdon and from 30kms onwards I was in agony. At 50km I took my shoes off and already had blood blisters under 3 toenails, putting those shoes back on was horrendous.
I had originally just set out to complete the ultra, but I was being tracked live on the day. At the 75km pitstop my best mate messaged me saying I was 3rd female – which hadn’t even crossed my mind. And my competitive side got the better of me, so I looked around the tent and saw another female or two and that was it… I wasn’t going to waste time eating pizza or getting a sports massage, I was off and would not let another woman get past me.
That mindset also took me to some strange places. At about 85 km it was getting dark and I had created this entire make-believe world in my head to keep me going – I was now known as Lady Ploddington from Plodshire, who must not stop plodding or the big bad monsters will get me. I had turned into a total fruit loop but I couldn’t give up because of my personal motivations not to let anyone down, but now with the added pressure of getting on the podium!
The last thing she said to me, only an hour before she took her own life was ‘I’m so proud of you’ and that kept me going throughout the entire thing. And also knowing that although I couldn’t help her, hopefully I could help others with the money and awareness I had raised. I am a strong believer that the outdoors and adventure is the best things for physical and mental wellbeing – and you get to make amazing friends.
It took me a total of 16 hours, 55 minutes, I lost 9 toenails in the end, and I somehow claimed 3rd placed female. From having never run a half marathon to coming 3rd female in an 100km in less than 18 months was something I never dreamed of. And I’ve been lucky enough to now have the support of Montane as a brand Ambassador. I swore so many times during that 100km that I would never run an ultra-again. But now I’m part of the Montane team I kind of have to! And guess what, I’ve done 2 since! It’s the classic type 2 fun. At the time it’s awful, but that moment you cross the finish line and you realise what you have achieved – there is no replica for that feeling. Despite then walking like a tin man for a few days after, that feeling continually spurs me on to see how much further my body will go.
Saying yes to a TV show application led to becoming an ultra-running, mountain climbing, combat medic human (some may argue hobbit) snowball. Perhaps I’ll say that from now on when people ask ‘what do you do?’.
People often say I’m mad (I get a little twinge of satisfaction at that) and ask why do you climb mountains and run ultra-marathons? The simple answer is because they are there and I can. One day the views may not be as beautiful and my body will be too knackered. It’s not always pleasant, and it can be uncomfortable, but attitude is the difference between an ordeal and an adventure. I’m now on an amazing adventure I never planned to take.
So what’s next? I’m currently prepping to deploy with the military for 6 months (something I never thought I would do), and after that? Definitely more mountains, more ultras, but exactly what, I’m not sure… I’ll see where the snowball takes me and that’s what I find most exciting.
Katy Parrott is a BBC Ultimate Hell Week Finalist, ultra marathon runner, tri-athlete, serving combat medic with 6 Rifles, an adventurer, Montane ambassador and all round mountain dominator.