Out of the Bubble with Melissa Tolago, founder of Glamoraks
As many of us have turned to daily walks during lockdown I thought you might like to hear how previous Out of the Bubble guest Melissa Tolago found her new passion and purpose through walking.
Where did your love for walking begin, how long have you been walking as a sport/hobby before starting Glamoraks?
Not that long, I used to walk but when my kids were little it was more of a lesson of how many Haribo’s could i give out at any point to try and encourage them to walk! So I had a weekend free, I think it was about 2015, and my kids and husband were away. I thought you know what instead of going to a spa I’m going to go to a hiking shop, buy some boots, a backpack, waterproof jacket and I’m going to walk a stretch of the North Yorkshire coast. I was very excited about my plan and the forecast was for horizontal wind and rain with amber warnings, but I thought well I don't care I’m going to do it anyway. So I did, I had this clifftop path to myself, not another soul, no one else was stupid enough to go out in the weather! I stayed in a hostel overnight, in a shared room, which I hadn't done for years and years, then the next day I walked back again. I just absolutely loved it, it made me feel completely alive, I just thought this is incredible, I want to do more of it! So I started to do more walking with my friends, and it just became slightly more of a regular occurrence.
Having that sense of freedom must of been liberating, especially whilst having young children?
Yeah, so they were sort of ‘tweens’ at this stage and just at that point where they really weren't too fussed about doing anything with me, at all! So I’d done a lot of dragging them out to historic homes, that kind of thing and they were kind of over it. I thought well I can go and do something for me now, and I did; it was just such a brilliant, liberating experience that I just wanted to do it more and more. I didn't have any designs to become a keen, ardent hiker or take on incredible challenges, I just wanted to get out walking more.
How did you fit that in because you’re a busy lady, you're running your own PR business, mum of two children, how did you start fitting in longer walks at weekends?
I just put it in the diary, so I’d say to my husband, ‘right I’m going to go away this weekend, can you be here for the kids’. He worked away from home a lot so he was quite happy to come back and just stay at home, while I was desperate, because I work at home, to get out of the house. So I went off, I would just put it into the calendar. It was easier because I work for myself, I had the flexibility.
What tips could you give to other women to learn to take the time out?
If you can get someone to go with you it’s far more difficult to pull out then. I love walking on my own, there’s a real sense of liberation and it's slightly more adventurous when you go off on your own. I know a lot of women don't actually like walking on their own, they find it either scary or lonely, and I don't find it either of those things. But, when you have someone else to walk with, it gives you company it makes it slightly more fun. It also makes you stick to your plan, you can’t suddenly go ‘oh I don’t want to go anymore’ because you’ll be letting that person down. So if you can find someone to go with, all the better.
So you started walking with friends, and then from what I’ve read you didn't just do short walks, you gradually built up to some really quite epic walks across the UK, so what was the first long distance that you did?
The first one I did was the coast to coast, and that is 192 miles, and I got the idea for that after reading a book called ‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed. It was a story about a woman who had a fairly rubbish life and decided she was going to walk the Pacific Crest trail, which is a really really long way in America, all on her own, and it just to me sounded like the most amazing adventure.
So I bought the Coast to Coast book, took a photograph of the book, put it on Facebook saying ‘does anyone want to do this with me’, and my cousin who lived in South Africa said ‘I’ll come’. So she flew over, and we decided to walk it together! We had no idea what we were doing but it was brilliant.
A lot of people would say ‘ok we’ve achieved that, that’s fantastic’ and kind of leave it at that, you went on to then climbing Kilimanjaro which is on my bucket list of things to do, What was the of inspiration to do that, had you always wanted to do it?
No, it hadn't even been on my radar! So my friend fell of her horse a few years ago, she broke her neck, and she survived. But she was rescued by an air ambulance, and her local air ambulance was doing this climb Kilimanjaro fundraiser so she wanted to do something to give back.
Another friend of ours was turning 50 and she wanted to do something to celebrate her 50th so they said do you want to come with me and I couldn't think of a good reason why not! I just said sure, and just did it!
It was a challenge to get the training done because I live in York and the surrounding area is flat and I needed hills. I looked like a complete idiot, I used to go to Sutton Bank the one and only hill near me and I used to hike with a full pack on my back, I used to have a mask that I put over my face that restricts your oxygen flow so that you can get used to walking in high altitude. People would be out for their day stroll and there was me puffing my way through this oxygen mask! But it was the most incredible experience. I loved every minute of Kilimanjaro except for probably the last half an hour on summit day which was supremely challenging, but really worth it.
What did you learn about yourself doing that, I would imagine there is lots of soul searching during such a big challenge?
I learnt that if you keep a positive mental attitude, you can do anything. The minute you start doubting yourself, you will fail, and it is as simple as that. I’ve been riddled with lack of self-belief and low self-esteem for probably most of my life, but I decided on this that I was going to do it, I was going to get to the top, and there not for one second going to be a thing where I thought I can’t do this.
We were in a big group of 25, and quite early on there were people who started moaning, ‘ah I’m tired’, ‘I feel sick’, ‘I’m really feeling the altitude’, and they funnily enough didn't make it. Every time I felt the symptoms of altitude sickness and sort of breathlessness or anything like that, I just told myself this is your body’s natural response to it, it’s normal, you just keep on going and you’ll get there, you'll be fine. It made the world of difference! I didn’t have really any severe symptoms, I got there, it was absolutely brutal and exhausting but I did it. I think that's what I learnt, that if you focus on the positive you can do it.
Do you think that experience has changed your whole outlook and your self confidence?
I think it has, and it wasn't that I set out with that intention, I just came back thinking ‘of course I can do that’, and you know people saying ‘oh my goodness you climbed Kilimanjaro’ but really it wasn't that big a deal. It was hard, but it felt like yeah something that you can go and do.
I think my whole thing with setting up Glamoraks was to try and help other women realise that just because you’ve been doing whatever it is you’ve been doing, for however many years, whether it’s a career, or being as stay-at-home mum or raising kids, or looking after elderly parents, or whatever it is, you get stuck into a rut and you get shoe-horned into this way of thinking that you can’t challenge yourself. For some people going for a walk is the challenge, for others going for a walk with someone they don't know is the challenge, for someone else it’s going for a multi-day walk is the challenge, for someone else it’s wild camping. It doesn’t matter what the thing is, if it’s pushing you out of your comfort zone then its a challenge and all I would say is start small and keep on going.
I can completely relate to that because the women I’ve been talking to on the podcast have all said the same thing. It’s taking that one step to do something small and then you just build on it don't you, which is what you’ve obviously done through your walking, you’ve been building slowly the momentum of everything you’ve been doing to this point of then getting the idea of Glamoraks.
Yes exactly. Glamoraks happened by accident, it wasn’t something that I’d planned. I sound like a complete crazy woman that just lets life happened to her! But I didn’t plan it, because my background was in public relations, I saw a press opportunity that said ‘I’d like to talk to women about walking’. So I put myself forward saying ‘yeah I walk regularly’, and they wanted to interview me, they were going to do a big double page spread on me about all the walking that I did.
With my PR hat on I thought I can’t waste this PR opportunity, it’s ridiculous, its just mad. I had been thinking for a while that it would be great to have some kind of community that got more women out walking, because the Glamoraks, the original Glamoraks, were my friends, the mums at the school gate, and the reason the name is Glamoraks is because they're not your typical hikers. They were quite glamorous women, business women, we go out for cocktails and I see them all dressed up. I got them into hiking gear and I just gave them a nickname, I said you're wearing anoraks but you're really Glamoraks.
I thought well if l’m getting these women out, and we’re all having a great time, what if i just extended it and said who else wants to go out walking? That’s when I set it up, purely off the back of having a press opportunity. I had no plan for it, nothing really, it just sort of happened.
Have you been surprised by the positive response you've had to it?
Yes it's been quite overwhelming. I started in 2017, it started as a Facebook group originally and I encouraged people to share pictures of where they went walking and if they wanted to find people to go walking with. I found that people were having a hard time finding other people near them because Facebook didn't allow them to search. So I did some research and I thought well I’ll create an app, but it was going to cost me £60,000, and I was like funnily enough I don't have £60,000! So I found a company that you can use that enables communities to find other people near them, I moved people off the Facebook group onto to this new platform. You can use the Glamoraks app, search for members near by and it’ll show you who’s near you so you can connect with people with similar interests.
If you're a beginner walker you can find other beginner walkers near you, or if your a complete adventure seeker you can find people like that. The whole aim of it is purely to encourage people to set up their own walks, it’s not like a ‘on this day we’re going to be having a walk from this location’, it’s more ‘hey guys I’m going to go walking in the North Yorkshire moors this weekend, is anyone free to join me?’
What has been incredible is the number of people who join and they all say the same thing, they say ‘I want to go walking but I haven't got anyone to go with’, or ‘none of my other friends are interested’, or ‘my husband doesn't want to’, or ‘I’ve moved to a new area and I don't know anyone and I just feel as though I want to try something new’, or ‘I want to get fit’. It’s the same kind of messages that come up time and time again, and it’s just fantastic for me to see that it is around the world. It started in the UK, that’s obviously where it is largely based because I’m based here, but there are people in America , New Zealand, Hong Kong, South Africa and all over, and I would love to get those communities growing.
What’s the average age of the women?
I would say mid 40’s is the average age, but there is no age limit anyone can join. There are other groups that are aimed at younger, sort of 20 and 30 somethings that are slightly freer, ‘The Ramblers is an organisation , I know that they're changing, but they typically have an older demographic, whereas this is just the bit in the middle.
Which is actually the age group that I think often gets left behind, that kind of middle age group, so it’s refreshing to have this kind of group together working, I think it’s fantastic. Quite a lot of women I think would relate to this more because people are scared of starting a new exercise like going to a gym or throwing themselves into a swimming pool, whereas walking is a bit more relatable isn’t it, it’s an easier thing to start. What kind of equipment do you recommend people, if they want to go out walking tomorrow, what are the basics that they need?
If they’re going to be walking in an urban environment, or just in their local park or something like that, honestly just a pair of trainers and warm layers basically, and a waterproof jacket is probably all you’ll need.
If you’re going to go and do more of the beaten track type of walks, any of the national trails or country footpaths things like that, you’re probably going to need a good pair of boots. You can start with something reasonably affordable if you just want to give it try and you’re not sure if you're going to commit to it. It’s funny, people think that walking is a very cheap, free kind of exercise, and it is, but once you start looking at the gear you can get quite carried away. But honestly a pair of boots, ideally waterproof, because in this country it’s wet and muddy. If you want some basics, I mean a pair of either leggings, like warmer leggings for winter, or some walking trousers. You can get waterproof outers if you're likely to go out in the rain, if you're going to be a fair weather walker then its not necessary.
A little backpack, again doesn’t have to be big or expensive, but just something you can just carry your lunch in and a nice wooly hat. Ideally if you’re going to go out somewhere, that you haven't been before and it’s not an obvious way marked path, then you should take an ordnance survey map with you, or go with someone who knows where they're going.
See that’s the thing that puts me off, because I love walking, I’ve got a dog I walk everyday. But on longer walks, my sense of navigation is absolutely useless!
Am i right in thinking that at Glamoraks also hold events where people can go and learn a bit more about that?
Yes, I team up with a bunch of different walking groups and companies and one of them is a chap in the Yorkshire Dales and he runs navigation courses. I did his straight to silver course, where they teach you first of all how to read a map, and how to get more advanced and actually read the land so you can look for valleys and dips and things and figure out where you are. I’m still no expert but it does give you a little sense of confidence.
But I don't want people to get put off, and think well I cant read a map so I’m not gonna go walking. Honestly, there are so many walks that you can do that you can just Google and download. The other thing you can invest in for anyone who wants to go walking more is, ordinance survey have got an amazing app and you can just put it on your phone, plot your route before you go, and as you're walking it'll tell you if you're going off track.
Wow that’s clever, I like the sound of that, I could manage that I think!
Where does your drive come from, because you’re already running a successful business and a family home, and now you've got Glamoraks to contend with. Where does your inner drive come from because it’s a lot of work isn't it?
I think I’m just one of those people who doesn't like to sit still, I mean right now actually I'm in the process of separating from my husband, I’m selling my house, buying my new house. I have got a job and I’m moving back into full time employment, so I’m giving up my normal marketing business but I’m keeping Glamoraks going, so it is a juggling act you know, I’m doing all of it at the same time.
We’re coming towards the end of the year now and if I look back over the course of the year, if I look through my photo scroll, I wanna have a look and see lots of things that I've done, places that I’ve visited, and places that I’ve walked. If I look back at my year and I haven't done anything I feel like it's a waste. I suppose the drive comes from wanting to make sure that every year I'm making the most of it and packing it full of things that will make a really good story at the end of the day, rather than another day in front of Netflix.
What would you go back and tell your younger self?
I would say dump that idiot boyfriend when you were in your early 20’s, and go on a massive gap year and do a lot more of this adventuring because you're so much more capable than you think you are. Honestly, it’s taken me years and years and years to realise that I can go and do this.
I mean, it first started when I was 36 and my son’s were 3 and 5 and I decided on the spur of the moment that I’d had enough of doing the laundry and I signed up to do the clip around the world yacht race and I sailed from Hull to Rio, for 6 weeks, 18 strangers on a boat and I think that was the thing that gave me my kickstart, I thought I can do this, I can do what I want.
You don't know what will come from everything that you do, you don't know what it leads to. By trying something different, you might find that you get talking to somebody on a walk that wants to go off and do a slightly different adventure or a wild camp out and then you find yourself with a different group of women. I can imagine it opens up a whole free world really for women.
It does, but also more than anything it puts your life in perspective. I have never been on a walk with Glamoraks where I haven't been absolutely kind of jaw on the floor astounded at some of the life stories that I hear, you know the things that they're going through, the challenges they've faced, what they're doing, how they're feeling.
It just sort of puts your own life into perspective, and you go ‘oh gosh I’ve actually got it really easy compared to what a lot of people have’, and it’s so humbling to hear their stories and so interesting to hear their stories, I leave with a sense of being connected like we’re all in this together.
That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to set the podcast up, women supporting each other and hearing from lots of different women doing different achievements, it’s inspiring and it really helps motivate me.
What advice could you offer to women who might have an idea in their head but might be lacking in confidence to take that first step to get it going, in business or a plan in life?
Just do it. Honestly, say yes and figure out the details later, that’s the only thing I can say. You don't have to know how to do everything, I didn’t know how to sail across an ocean and I didn’t know how to climb a mountain and I didn’t know how to set up a business and I didn’t know how to set up a global community for women who walk. I still don't even know how to read a map properly, but it doesn't matter. It’s just about the start, and you can figure it out, and be honest with whoever you're doing it with, that you don't know everything but you're there to try and learn and people can’t argue with that really.
Last three questions, what song or piece of music motivates you?
Well, it’s probably not an uplifting piece of music, but the piece of music that really makes me feel like heart bursting is Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’, classical piece of music and I’ve always loved it. When I was climbing Kilimanjaro, I was walking along on my own and battling with lack of oxygen and I looked up and as I looked up the clouds cleared and the peak moved into view and at the same time that song came onto my headphones and it was just the most awe-inspiring incredible moment.
I thought wow I’m actually here, I’m actually doing this, and the music is just so soaring that it lifts me up. So now whenever I’m in a beautiful place and I need a pick me up that’s my go to piece.
What about a book that inspires you? I know you’ve mentioned ‘Wild’, is that one of them?
That was definitely the book that got me started, that got me into the walking bug and tapped into my sense of adventure, so I would definitely have that one on my list. There’s another one right now called ‘Roar’ by Cecilia Ahern, and it’s a collection of 50 short stories about women and finding their inner strength, and that’s a really good book as well.
Who inspires you?
There’s no one person I don’t think but anyone who’s prepared to just try things. Some of the mums who were at my kids school, who were in their 40’s and 50’s, rowed across the Atlantic 2 years ago, and they didn’t know what they were doing and they had every reason to say no, but they said yes and did it anyway. So I think anybody who is prepared to just say yes ok i'll give that a try and it doesn't have to be rowing the Atlantic or climbing Everest it can just be something that is a challenge for them and their prepared to give it a go. I think that's inspiring.
You can listen to the full podcast interview which took place in 2018 here-