Montane Spine Race 2020: Q&A with Debbie Martin-Consani
As Scottish ultra runner Debbie Martin-Consani recovers from the Montane Spine Race 2020, I caught up with her for an insight into her latest epic challenge. Debbie, 44, from Glasgow, was the second female – and the first Scot – to finish the gruelling 268-mile Spine Race 2020. It took her 118 hours 36 minutes and 23 seconds to run the Pennine Way, from Edale in England to Kirk Yetholm in Scotland.
The race took place during a week of brutal weather, including Storm Brendan, last week. This was Debbie’s first Spine Race.
You can also read about the winning female:
Q&A: The Spine with Debbie Martin-Consani
First, how is the recovery? (It is 5 days since she finished.)
Debbie: Where do I start? I think the end of an ultra-ultra race is when the real discomfort starts. Swelling, fat feet, fatigue, night sweats and the trauma of waking up in the night still thinking you’re in the race.
I’ve got a real problem with inflammation on my shins. The medics said shin tendonitis has been a real problem in this year’s race due to runners having to pull their feet out of so much mud.
Why did you choose the Spine Race this year?
I’ve always followed the race, but as an avid dot watcher. I enjoyed is as a spectator sport, but never as a dot. But I guess I became more intrigued by it.
With many years of ultra-running under my belt, I’m always looking for new challenges and ways to push the boundaries. It scared me – and that’s why I wanted to give it a try.
How did you train?
I didn’t really have a whole lot of time to think it about. I only signed up in the autumn. I was lucky enough to get a place as an ambassador for Montane. The only thing I changed in my normal training was to go out with a heavier backpack. For example, I incorporated a weighted pack into my easy run commutes to work.
Plus, I went to England and spent five full days on the course. That was a real eye-opener. The Pennine Way in winter is like nowhere I’ve ever run before with bogs, flooded fields and faint grassy tracks everywhere.
Self-navigating is one of the key elements of the race. It was good to get on the course, as acceptance was a key factor in me finishing the race.
The essential kit list makes for a heavy pack. How did you cope?
I didn’t weigh my pack because ignorance is bliss, although I did spend a small fortune buying the lightest kit I could get away with.
The kit list is quite extensive and very specific and passing kit check was a feat in itself. I admit I got a bit of a shock when I started training heavier because I weigh only 50kg myself.
But I started building up and did my route recces with the pack. I only did one full pack run with 30 miles on the West Highland Way as my last long run. It was actually okay in the race, you get used to it.
However, there’s no way I could run up a hill with the pack on. That was just as well because I had no intentions of running up any hills.
How much can you/do you run on the course?
It’s hard to say. The first section is fairly runnable on nice trail with fresh legs. This year, there was a lot of mud and flooding. Someone told me that record pace is around 14/15 minute miling, so that puts it into perspective. In fact, some people don’t run at all.
I ran the downs, most of the flats and nothing with an incline. I was still running sections on the last day, but not a lot.
To be honest, I wasn’t running too much in my recces either, so I knew how slow going it was going to be. You waste too much energy running on soft ground but not going any faster.
However, I would describe it as fast packing, not rambling; like hiking with purpose.
What were you expecting in this race?
Misery and macerated feet.
What was it like in reality?
Overall, it was an amazing personal adventure and that’s what I enjoyed the most. There are checkpoints, but on a whole you have to be self-sufficient. There were some breath-taking views but most of what I saw was darkness or my feet in the mud.
It was overwhelming to be a part of something so gruesomely enormous and I kept reminding myself of that.
What were the toughest parts?
Storm Brendan was definitely the lowest part for me. I didn’t manage myself very well and I did not put on enough clothing before the storm hit. When faced with 100mph winds it impossible to stop to put on extra layers. Plus, I didn’t eat.
When I got the next checkpoint I was a complete mess. I took a few hours there to eat lots, sleep, change and heat up before going back out. I think the biggest drop outs happened just after the storm.
After that, I used my feelings during the storm as a benchmark for when things got tough later on. Nothing was ever as tough as Monday night, although Tuesday night in the snowstorm was a close second. I got lost and way too cold.
Did you suffer physical pain?
Yes, my shins! I really struggled to descend the last hill. I keep sliding in the mud, which caused shooting pains up my shins. I had to shuffle in the last few miles, but after 265 miles I’m sure most people were shuffling.
I didn’t get any blisters, much to the amazement of the medics. I was also very surprised by this because my feet are usually a car crash. I think the £200 I spent on waterproof socks was worth it!
What about sleeping?
I think I maybe managed about six hours. I tried to sleep at every checkpoint from CP2 onwards. The way it worked though, I was getting to CPs during daylight, which is really frustrating as you want to maximise precious daylight hours for being on the course, so I probably slept less than I wanted/needed to.
I also ended up using an emergency bivvy to sleep out twice, which was not ideal, but I just couldn’t stay on my feet.
Did you experience any hallucinations due to sleep deprivation?
I saw lots of animals and faces on the ground, which is a pretty average hallucination. In the last stage I also saw a naked man but it was actually a tree stump. During the last few miles, I had also managed to convince myself I wasn’t in the race. I thought that I hadn’t run the full route and I was just cheating.
Who supported you at CPs?
The volunteers. The race changed the rules a few years ago and no support is allowed. I prefer it that way because it makes is fairer for everyone.
How do you fuel such an event?
As best as you can really. I really wanted hot food – soups, stews, potatoes and bread. The noodles at the race’s famous Greg’s Hut noodle bar might be the best and most rewarding meal I’ve ever had.
Every year John Bamber makes noodles at the bothy off Cross Fell (the highest point on the course) and it’s become a bit of an institution. I may have been a bit overly excited when I got there!
A non-stop foot race of 268 miles seems unbelievably hard – and in mid-winter. How did you keep going?
One foot in front of the other. That’s all I kept saying to myself. Plus, you have to really want it. If you’ve got an excuse or a reason to stop, you’ll use it.
Any tips for success in The Spine?
Waterproof knee-length socks.
What do you think of this year’s female winner Sabrina?
Amazing and so inspiring. Sabrina was a massive motivator for me during the race. This was not because I was competing against her, but every time I got low or scared, I knew she was out there running into the storm full pelt. She’s fearless!
And Jasmin Paris’s overall win last year?
I think most people in the race this year must have thought about Jasmin’s time quite a lot. It’s insane! And she looked so fresh at the end. You can’t compare times from year-to-year though, as conditions are so different.
Dare I ask, what next? How will you top this?
I doubt I’ll do anything else that will top this. This year, I have Arran Skyrace (loved it last year) and Lakeland 100.