When Sabrina Pace-Humphreys’ GP recommended she take up running to help her battle her mental health issues, neither patient nor doctor could have predicted quite how effective that treatment would be.
Now, a decade later, Sabrina – a mother of four, and a recovered alcoholic – has transformed herself from someone who couldn’t run to a respected ultra-distance athlete. But above all, a runner who has turned her drive and passion into creating Black Trail Runners, a community that provides a safe space for black people whether they’re new to trail running, or experienced. A place to share lived experiences, to share runs, to share tips. A place to see and be seen. “Seven of us – a mixture of trail runners and outdoor specialists – got together to discuss this,” she says. “We looked at issues such as access, skills and representation of black people in trail running.”
Black runners are, of course, welcome but it’s important to understand that so too are white trail runners. Chatting with Sabrina is a fantastic experience as she can help runners of all backgrounds understand what diversity can mean in our world. “Take trail shoes for instance,” she explains. “At first glance they would seem obvious, but if you’re from a community who has never experienced them and never been running off-road, they’re unknown. We’re about addressing those barriers and discovering those differences.”
Her new book, Black Sheep, talks about rural racism and the problems she encountered from an early age in school. It then follows her path that eventually saw her turning to the world of trail running for respite. Initially a road runner, she finally entered our off-road world in 2016 and has never looked back, discovering for herself the beauty of running in the mountains. “I ran 18 miles in the Pennines last weekend and said to myself ‘this is why I’m here, this... what I’m doing’. And if I can be here, you can be here too.
“But I noticed that the majority of trail runners are white males,” she says, initially settling for the explanation perhaps many of us do: it is what it is.
But as we all know, the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement changed everything, quickening our journey of discovery. “Now, I want to see a multi-racial start line,” she continues, her passion evident in everything she says. “Following the murders of runner Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, many large and small sports brands came out in support of Black Lives Matter,” she wrote in September 2020. “They made statements of support, added black squares to their social media feeds, etc. But the problem was, and to a large extent still is, the lack of social action that was to that point, and currently, being taken. What are running brands, race organisers, influencers and policymakers actually doing to address equity and equality in trail running?”
Of course, let’s not forget one important thing here: Sabrina is also a magnificent runner. She chats about how her coach, Damian Hall, one of Britain’s top ultra-distance athletes is helping her achieve things she thought impossible. Again, she’s driven. Indeed, that 18-mile Pennine adventure involved a 3.30am start, a four-hour drive, the run and then the drive home. “I need to find an easier option,” she laughs, her eyes set on one major prize this year – the Summer Spine, which took place in June (note, Sabrina finished 50th overall in 149 hrs 33 mins 44 secs).
In her book, Black Sheep, Sabrina reveals how she got from there to here: about growing up in a home, a school and a town where no one looked like her and her subsequent struggle to understand and find her identity; about her lived experience of rural racism; about becoming a teenage mother and her determination to break that stereotype; about her battle with alcoholism and her mental health; about how running saved her life; and ultimately about how someone can not only survive but thrive, in spite of their past.
Sabrina’s experience will chime with anyone who has felt like an outsider. Poignant and eye-opening, and exploring themes of trauma, identity, mental health and addiction, Black Sheep is a tale of triumph: of grit and determination, of hope over despair. She finished the 250km, multi-stage Marathon Des Sables in the Sahara Desert (aka ‘the toughest footrace on earth’) as eighth UK woman over the line.
Main photo: Sabrina Pace-Humphreys (right) with other members of the Black Trail Runners team who took on the Ramsay Round last year (Credit: Inov-8/Black Trail Runners)