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Interview: Debbie Martin-Consani’s triumph in Montane Spine Race 2022

Written by Fiona

January 20 2022

Scottish ultra runner Debbie Martin-Consani revealed she was “shocked but delighted” to be the first female home in the notoriously gruelling Montane Spine Race last week.

The 46-year-old from Glasgow added: “It certainly wasn’t on my radar.”

Debbie at the finish line after an emphatic win. Credit: Adam Jacobs

Debbie was almost three hours ahead of the second placed female in the 268-mile foot race, which takes place on the full length of the Pennine Way and finishes in Scotland.

She arrived at Kirk Yetholm in 104 hours and eight minutes. 

Debbie’s plan when she set out from Edale on Saturday January 8, her second time running the race, was to run her own race and possibly make it on to the podium.

But the dynamics of the competition changed on the Monday when another top ultra runner, Sabrina Verjee, who is a previous winner of the Spine Race, pulled out. There were other strong female competitors, too, including Anna Troup, Elaine Bisson, Laura Swanton-Rouvelin and Nikki Sommers.

Debbie continued:  “I knew as I went into the race that I was up against the Queens of the Pennine Way: Sabrina Verjee and Anna Troup and some other incredible athletes like Elaine, Laura and Nikki.  I thought if I played my cards right, I could make up the podium. 

“So, I was surprised to be in second place so early in the race, especially as I covered the first section slower than in the race in 2020. This meant I knew I was still pacing myself well. But I never thought for a minute I’d be leading the race from the Monday.

“My mental focus changed to competitive mode and I started putting pressure on myself but I was really unsettled and unhappy about it.  

“So, I had to reframe and go back to just doing me. It took a good 24 hours to get back to this though. 

“However, 268 miles is a long way and you can’t race against someone else for that time or distance. I just stuck to my own plan – to stay within my own level – and it seemed to work.”

While the race had a very competitive field, one by one many pulled out. As well as favourites such as Sabrina and Anna in the men’s race, Kim Collison, Damian Hall and Eugeni Roselló Solé also retired.

Debbie said: “That’s just the nature of a long race like this.  Pressure and pace changes the make-up of the race.  The deeper the field, the bigger the drop out in my experience.

“Also, these athletes had all done some chunky FKTs in the summer, so might have been to do with underlying fatigue.”

Debbie collapses at the end of the ultra race. Credit: Adam Jacobs

From the Spine 202o to 2022?

Debbie finished second female in her first Montane Spine Race in 2020, behind Sabrina. She said it is not possible to compare the two races. (The 2021 Spine Race was cancelled due to the Covid pandemic.)

She explained: “You can’t compare year-to-year in the Spine Race as so many external factors play a huge part. 

“Last time, we had Storm Brendan, which hit on Monday.  And I spent more times in checkpoints weathering the storm.  

“This time the ‘bad’ weather was front loaded and as the week went on the weather got better. Both races were very muddy and sloppy underfoot. A nice permafrost would have been lovely. 

“In 2020, I was more comfortable in second place knowing there was a big gap to first and the same to third.  This time, I had to keep on toes to maintain my position.  It was really unsettling as that’s not how I prepared to tackle the race. 

“I had just wanted to focus on myself and do the best I could, with the experience I had.  With a finish under my belt from the last race I thought I could also afford to be a little less cautious.”

The Spine Race 2022 also had a 15-mile section that required vehicle transfer because of the closure of a forest area on the Pennine Way between Bellingham and Byrness. This is due to safety concerns after Storm Arwen felled thousands of trees in the area. The reduction in distance of the course means no official record time can be set this year.

Debbie receives her Spine Race trophy. Credit: Adam Jacobs

Debbie’s Spine Race

It seems incredible that runners can keep going day after day, non-stop on such a long race.

Debbie explains her strategy: “I just break it down into sections.  If you think about 268 miles, you’ll go crackers.  Sometimes I break it down by hour or hours of daylight or darkness. It’s just a big long adventure with lots of different sections, so I don’t see it as a chore. “ 

Debbie had only three hours of sleep over the four nights of racing. She revealed:  “I had about 30 minutes on the second night, two hours on the third night and about 20 minutes in a bivvy on the Cheviots on Thursday morning.”

The toughest parts of the race for Debbie came on Cross Fell on Tuesday night. She said: “It was really foggy and icy and I was so tired I could barely stay on my feet. Plus, I kept making frustrating navigational errors.

“Another tough time was on the Cheviots on the last day when my back had completely gone. It was painful but  I just had to suck it up for the last 26 miles.”

Debbie arrived at the finish line bent over to the side and obviously in pain due to her back. She said: “I think it happened due to a combination of the weight of the pack, time on feet, swinging poles and sleep deprivation. 

“It only started to impact from the Cheviots. It would have ended my race if it was before then.  The  muscles in my back and neck really ached and wouldn’t work.  I thought I was going to have to DNF with 0.5 miles to go to the end!  It got better as soon as I took my pack off.” 

There were several highlights, as well as reaching the finish line. Debbie said: “Sunset on High Cup Nick was lovely, as well as the sunrise and daylight on the Cheviots. I was in the dark the whole time last time.” 

 Debbie’s training plan

Many people will be curious to know how Debbie trains for such a long race. She had already completed the course in 2020 and she did one recce weekend before the 2022 outing. Her normal week of training is: Two easy runs, one tempo and one hill session. 

She adds: “Then at the weekend, I get out for some long hike/jogs with a heavy pack.  It’s just about getting time on my feet.  Also I spent time being uncomfortable alone in the dark and testing kit.

I didn’t do this as many times for this race as before because I was convinced the race would be cancelled again.” 

Who is Debbie Martin-Consani?

A veteran of ultra running, Debbie has set many long-distance running records and won races such as the North Downs Way 100 Mile Race, the South Downs Way 100 Mile Race, the Thames Path 100,  the Lakeland 100 Mile and the 145-mile Grand Union Canal Race.

She is married to another successful runner, Marco Consani and they have one child, Cairn.

Debbie is sponsored by sports brands Montane, Scott and Petzl and has recently joined Pyllon Coaching Team. She coaches youngsters at her local club, Garscube Harriers.

Read the race report for the Montane Spine Race 2020.

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