Sabrina Verjee wins 268-mile Montane Spine Fusion Race outright
Sabrina Verjee reported that she was the proudest she has ever been of a race performance when she triumphed at the Montane Spine Fusion Race 2019 recently. The 38-year-old Cumbrian ultra runner from won the 268-mile non-stop race outright finishing in 82:19:07.
She was an impressive six hours ahead of the first male athlete, Esteban Diaz Castaneda.
What is the Montane Spine Fusion Race?
The sister summer event of the winter Montane Spine Race, the 268-mile Montane Spine Fusion race takes place each June. The route follows the Pennine Way National Trail from Edale in Derbyshire to Kirk Yetholm, Scotland, along the so-called backbone of England.
It heads through the Peak District, the Yorkshire Dales, the North Pennines and crosses over World Heritage-listed Hadrian’s Wall before journeying into the remote Cheviot Hills and finally across the Scottish border.
Sabrina’s finish time is the fastest recorded for a female athlete, beating the previous summer female record by almost 48 hours. The overall course record is held by Mark Denby in a time of 78:04:14.
The winter record for the course was set in January this year by Jasmin Paris in 83:12:23.
Sabrina’s winning Montane Spine Fusion Race
Sabrina ran most of the Montane Spine Fusion race in the lead and for more than 125 miles (200kms) alongside Cees van der Land, who sadly had to pull out after 146 miles (236kms) due to a medical problem.
Yet, Sabrina had not planned her race to be like this. She says: “When I started the race I had no intention of being in the lead. In fact, I was very worried I would not be fully recovered from other events this year, including the Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race, which hadn’t exactly gone how I had hoped, and a Charlie Ramsay Round just two weeks before.
“I had wanted to take it steady and my aim was to enjoy myself and finish.”
Sitting in third place in the first stage of the race, Sabrina reports that she was surprised to find that by Stoodley Pike she was catching the two front running men Cees and Esteban.
Sabrina says: “I came to the food station at Stoodley Pike and both men were there. They were taking longer than me to eat and sort themselves out and so we ended up leaving there together.
“For the next stage it was great to have the company of both men and we ran on to the first CP at Hebden Bridge.”
Again, Sabrina found she was faster in and out of the CP. She says: “I have a lot of experience in adventure racing and I just want to eat, pick up more water and get on with the running. The men seemed much slower and they wanted to sit down for much longer.
“At Hebden Bridge I asked them both who was ready to go and Cees said he was so we started running together.
“I know that Cees is a faster runner than me but he seemed happy to run at my pace and it was great to have the company. I had never met Cees before but he is a lovely guy and when you are doing these long races the company is great.”
Sabrina was also keen to have someone to run with during the first overnight section. She was on the race course for more than three days and slept only once.
She says: “It is better to be with someone else when you are running in the dark and through the night. I was happy to run alongside Cees.”
Cees starts to suffer
After Pen-y-gheit and into the village of Horton in Ribbleside, Sabrina was concerned to see her running friend suddenly vomit. She says: “Cees was tired and he was sick. We walked for a bit and I knew he needed some proper food.
“We had been running for about 22 or 23 hours by this point and Cees was suffering.”
Cees insisted he would be okay and I ran on a bit knowing that he would catch me in due course. He did so after Hawes, where Sabrina had stopped to buy a cheese and ham toastie.
She says: “I knew from previous races that it was crucial that I maintained my calorie intake. I wasn’t able to do that during this year’s Dragon Back Race and that affected my final day.
“The food stations at the Spine Race were amazing, with lots of great hot and savoury food. At Hawes I knew I needed more food and it ended up being my longest pitstop – more than 15 minutes – while I waited for someone in a cafe to make the toastie.”
As Sabrina had predicted, Cees caught her up just after Hawes.
A slower checkpoint
At CP2, Hardraw, Sabrina waited while Cees had his feet taped. She says: “For some strange reason I also decided to get my feet taped. This took ages and I regretted it afterwards. I don’t know why I did that.”
The pair left Hardraw some 27 hours into the race and they ran together to Middleton, where Sabrina had planned to have her first sleep.
She says: “It was 10pm when we arrived and we agreed to start off again at 3.30am. I got into my sleeping bag and fell asleep but I woke up again at 1.30am feeling very hot. I think someone had turned up the heating in the bunkhouse and I couldn’t get back to sleep.
“Cees was still asleep and I wasn’t sure what to do. I wanted to get up and get going. In the end, I decided to wake him to say what I planned to do and he said he would go with me. There was quite a lot of faffing after this but we did set off together.”
Sabrina was thankful that they had made it to Middleton before a storm hit. She says: “Esteban and another runner Greg Crowley came in after us and they were soaked with the rain of the storm. I was pleased that we had not faced that.
“But as we left Middleton it was clear we were going into some bad weather.”
The pair headed into a slower and more technical stage of the race and Sabrina noticed that Cees was getting cold. She lent him her poncho. She says: “I wanted to make sure Cees was okay.
“As much as I wanted to win the race, I also wanted to enjoy it and so I was keen to keep running with Cees. It is more enjoyable being with another person in a race.”
But Cees was struggling to stay awake. Sabrina says: “He started this strategy of running faster and pulling ahead, then lying down for a rest. Then, as I caught him up, he would get up again.
“It seemed a bit crazy but I admired hat he could put on such a strong pace.”
Cat and mouse running
The pair then ran into a thick mist and they lost sight of each other. Sabrina says: “I couldn’t see Cees anymore. I presumed I had missed him and that he would catch me up. I was worrying about him but I couldn’t do anything so I kept going.”
At Dufton, Sabrina was surprised to discover she was 3kms ahead of Cees. However, by now she was suffering with her own sleep deprivation. She says: “I kept seeing cairns ahead and thinking they must be Cees. I thought he must have got ahead of me. I was hallucinating.”
Then, suddenly, Cees had caught up with Sabrina. They descended to Garrigill together. Sabrina says: “It was a long descent over rubbly type trail and it was slow and painful. It was good to be back together and running with someone but I did find this section the toughest of the race.”
By CP4 at Alston, the pair was still together. Sabrina reports that she enjoyed the lasagne and garlic bread on offer. She says: “The race crew could not do enough for you at all the CPs. It was impressive and the food selection and offerings were amazing. At CP4 they even warmed my soaked waterproof socks in the oven for me!”
Just after the CP, Cees discovered he had put on the wrong footwear and while he returned to change it, Sabrina carried on.
Again Cees caught up. Sabrina says: “We were both struggling during this stage. We were lethargic and had less motivation. I started to feel bad and I realised that when I tried to pee I couldn’t. So I drank loads of water and then I had to keep stopping to pee all the time.
“I told Cees about this and he confided that his poo was black. This was a real concern because it meant he probably had digestive blood in his poo.”
Sabrina made a call to HQ, where official said Cees should consider pulling out. he says: “Cees called his wife, who told him it might be a good idea to stop.
“This was a sensible decision but I felt sad to leave Cees there once the race team had rescued him. I knew that I was now going to be on my own for the rest of the race.”
Sabrina’s final solo stages
Sabrina enjoyed crossing Hadrian’s Wall “because I had never been there before” but she was about to face her second night of the long-distance race on her own.
She says: “I was really sleepy by this point and then I came across so many cows. I was worried about shining my head torch towards them and that they might trample me.
“I had to do a lot of circumnavigating the cows and on tricky ground, too. I was tired and it took me ages to get to what I thought was the next food station at The Sill.
“It seems I was ahead of the race team at this point and so they agreed to meet me at the next road so I could fill up on water.”
It was dark and “clagged in” as Sabrina headed into Kielder Forest and in her exhausted state she reports that she kept losing the path. She says: “I was falling asleep on my feet.”
Towards Bellingham and CP5 Sabrina says she had a strange experience. She explains: “I had seen this bright yellow hose pipe as I was running between the forest and Bellingham. Then, I saw it again. The same pipe!
“I think I’d fallen asleep on my feet and somehow turned a full 180-degrees and then I’d run back the way I had come. With a GPS you are just following a line. I should have checked more carefully but I was tired.
“I had also planned to have another sleep at Bellingham but I was so frustrated with losing time by running back the wrong way that I decided just to push on.
“I told myself I needed to pull myself together. I ate well and had a coffee.”
After this Sabrina felt good. She says: “I began to run really well again. I was going at a good pace and I did the next 28km in four hours. This felt good to me.
“I thought that it was only the Cheviots to get through now and there was no stopping me. I pushed well up the hills and I tried to concentrate on my direction despite being very sleepy.
“It was very tough and my mind was playing a lot of tricks with me, especially about how long I had been running for, but I was determined.”
Sabrina said she was grateful for the strong winds at Windy Gyle. “They kept me awake,” she says. “I was also focusing on making it to Mountain Hut 2 where I knew there would be more food.”
After a cheese sandwich and tea Sabrina set out again with renewed energy.
She says: “I was so close to the finish and the sun started to come out and I knew I was going to be first. I crossed the finish line and I was absolutely elated. I’d finished strong and I was very pleased with my race.
“It was also good to be a solid six hours ahead of second placed Esteban.
“I am proud of myself. I am the most proud I have ever been of a race performance.”
See Spine Race.