The Spine 2020: First female Sabrina Verjee reveals her highs and lows
Although Sabrina Verjee’s training had not gone to plan and she suffered with a very sore ankle and hips for most of the race, the impressive Cumbrian athlete raced to a resounding win for the women in The Montane Spine Race 2020.
Sabrina completed the 268 miles from Edale to Kirk Yetholm on the Pennine Way in a superb 108 hours 7 minutes and 17 second. She was 10 hours ahead of second placed Debbie Martin-Consani. Sabrina placed fifth overall.
In the overall rankings for The Spine Race, which launched in 2012, Sabrina is second fastest female.
Why run The Spine?
Last year, Sabrina was the outright winner of the “summer Spine” (The Spine Fusion race). She said: “A lot of people said I shouldn’t do the winter race because I’m not good in the cold. But I thought, yeah, that’s a real challenge then.
“I thought the winter race could get really hairy, and it did get really hairy.”
As Sabrina recovers from the epic race, claimed as one of the world’s toughest endurance foot races, she told me: “The winter Spine chose me.”
She explained: “After winning the summer Spine I had an entry to the winter one. I am not good at saying no. I also wanted to challenge myself and I wasn’t 100% sure how well I would do in the winter conditions.”
Spine Race training ‘not as planned’
Sabrina, 39, of Ambleside, felt that she was not in good shape as she arrived at the start line of the Montane Spine Race 2020. She said: “The only training I had done for the race was competing in the summer Spine.
“Then, for three weeks in November I was in Nepal and not able to do any useful running. When I got back I was in bed with a chest infection for two weeks.
“I had hoped to do some training as well with the heavy pack but in the end I didn’t get the chance. All this meant that I did not feel on form for the race.”
Female lead in The Spine
Yet Sabrina led from the start – and despite a fall early on. She said: “In the first 30 minutes, I managed to fall over and smash both knees on rocks.
“I just got up and hobbled on but I didn’t realise I’d split them both open until I took my tights down to look at Hebden Bridge. It was a very slow start for me.
“Then my ankle swelled up after leaving Hawes and I hobbled up Great Shunner Fell (the third highest fell in the Yorkshire Dales) wondering if I should pull out.”
The weather was tough – with Storm Brendan causing strong winds and rain – but Sabrina discovered she didn’t mind it. She says: “I was expecting crazy weather for this race and I got it! I loved the wind. I was very grateful that it was generally a tailwind and very much enjoyed being blown up hills.
“When the wind really picked up and it was absolutely chucking it down I found it quite amusing, well, until the wind blew my headtorch off my head and I thought it was going to disappear down the hill. Thankfully, I managed to retrieve it. I was dressed for the weather so it was okay really.”
After Shunner Fell, Sabrina made it to Thwaite with another competitor, Simon, staying with her to ensure she was okay. She said: “He was very sweet and I was grateful for his support.”
Finding that there was nowhere in Thwaite to shelter, Sabrina hobbled into Keld and managed to get find somewhere to get warm and enjoy a hot drink and cake. She adjusted her footwear, tying the tongue of the shoe down and away from the swelling that appeared to be causing the pain in her ankle.
Sabrina also had tight hip flexors from the start of the race. She said: “I had not had a problem before with this so I am not sure what was going on.”
High points of The Spine 2020
Aside from the various pains and injuries, Sabrina enjoyed many highlights in the Montane Spine race 2020.
She said: “There were many good things, such as the section from Tan Hill with two other competitors, James and Simon, who I mentioned earlier. We were together through one night. They are lovely guys and we did a good job together of keeping a good pace and an eye on the nav.
“I used my map and compass, James was using his watch and Simon had a GPS device so between us someone always noticed when we were about to make a mistake.”
Another memorable section for Sabrina was meeting Steph Dwyer, Colin Green and Mark Clarkson on the way down from Cross Fell.
She said: “I was so pleased to see them as my ankle was so painful and I needed to get into a shelter and have a look at it. There was a lady called Annie in Garrigill and apparently she was desperate to have a Spiner visit. No-one else had wanted to stop because Alston was only a few miles away. Yet, I was very glad to oblige her.
“She made me a cheese and ham toastie and tea and we got my shoes and socks off, iced my ankle and elevated it. I managed to get the swelling down, then had some pain killers and it was amazing how good I felt after that – I could run again.”
Sabrina has a lot of praise for the race support. She said: “The race marshals were amazing – all of them. I have great memories of eating lasagne and garlic bread, too!”
Overall, Sabrina was surprised by how much she enjoyed the race, even in the winter conditions. She said: “To be honest, it’s all about the people you run with and the marshals at the checkpoints that make it what it is.
“I am becoming aware that I have a huge number of supporters out there, who are willing and cheering me on. There was a lovely guy at Slaggyford with his daughter Ayla, who were there at their house and then came out to meet me again on Hadrian’s wall.
“My fellow racers, who share the crazy experience with me; my family and friends who put up with me and my craziness; and some great sponsors, including La Sportiva – I’ve been running in Mutants since 2015; Petzl for their great headtorches; Berghaus and the amazing Hyper 1000 lightweight waterproof; and Mountain Fuel for post-race refuelling.
“I like a challenge and The Spine Race was certainly that.”
Non-stop racing and no sleep
While the race distance seems utterly unbelievable, it is the lack of sleep that strikes me as more incredible. How can the runners keep going day after day and with seemingly only a few cat naps?
Sabrina said: “I’m good at managing sleep deprivation. I wouldn’t recommend my strategy to others unless well rehearsed but the marshals always remarked at how awake and ‘with it’ I was.
“I only took an hour – in various 10 minute hits – until Bellingham at CP5 where I slept for two hours.”
Lack of sleep also causes people to hallucinate. Sabrina said: “I had fewer hallucinations than in the summer Spine but I did experience some. Rocks are often sheep, fallen trees black bears and there was one weird one which was a tractor tyre tread in the mud that I thought was a line of gardening trowels.
“In reality, the only way to run 268 miles like this is to be bloody minded. In the end, it is not that clever and not the best thing for my body. It will take me a while to recover. You have to want it.”
Sabrina’s Spine Race tips
Know your kit, test your kit, test yourself, know your limits, be as fit as you can. She adds: “This race is not about running fast but all about being on your feet for long periods so better to train walking with a heavy pack than trying to get a fast parkrun time.”
Sabrina has the Cape Wrath Ultra in May and then plans to take on the 214-peaks Wainwrights challenge.
…And the men’s Spine Race 2020
In first place overall in the Montane Spine Race 2020 was American John Kelly, who ran a men’s record-breaking time of 87:53:57. He finished more than 30 miles ahead of second placed Eoin Keith of Ireland. Third home was Swiss runner Simon Gfeller.
John’s time was superb considering the weather but he was still four hours behind the incredible course record set by Jasmin Paris, from Edinburgh, last year.
Sabrina commented: “Jasmin’s course time was phenomenal but you also cannot compare one year to another because the conditions are completely different. It’s not just the weather but also the ground conditions. This year’s ground conditions were very tricky with so much mud and I think John Kelly did an exceptional time in such tricky ground and weather.”