Sabrina Verjee interview

We caught up with Montane Spine Race winner Sabrina Verjee after her epic year of challenges

Sabrina Verjee

by Paul Halford |

“Do I sound really terrible?” Sabrina Verjee asks as she expounds on her loathing of the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB).

It’s almost sacrilege in these circles to confess to not liking trail running’s equivalent of the Tour de France, but this top ultra runner does not look back fondly on her run in the event. Then again, though, the Cumbrian-based runner is not your typical FKT-breaking, race-dominating trail star.

For a start, she claims she doesn’t call herself a runner. She also says she doesn’t have a great competitive instinct.

Considering that, she’s done rather well. Earlier this summer she became the first woman and third fastest overall to complete a continuous loop of the Wainwrights. Then just a couple of months later, she set a Fastest Known Time (FKT) for the Pennine Way. She is defending champion of the Montane Spine Race and Montane Spine Fusion, which take place over the same Pennine route. She’s also a former winner of the Cumbria Way Ultra, the Grand Tour of Skiddaw, the Lakeland 100 and the Lakeland 50.

At the UTMB in 2017, she finished 21st, a mightily impressive position among arguably the deepest field of the world’s best trail runners. However, she’s in no hurry to return.

“There’s thousands of people... but I don’t like massive crowds and I don’t like the noise,” she tells TR. “You climb to the top of the hill and all you can hear is these banging cowbells and shouting people, but it’s so foreign to me because I actually go to the hills for peace and quiet. I just hated it.” The weather in 2017 was so bad that she didn’t see Mont Blanc at all.

Races aren’t really Sabrina’s thing, though. Despite the fact that her International Trail Running Association profile lists 15 wins for her out of 19 races since 2014, she says: “I much prefer the challenges, the FKTs. I think it’s really cool to have a team of people aiming for the same thing... I probably lack that aggressive competitiveness that gets people those results.

“Other people will thrive in that environment where they’re really trying to beat other people. I just don’t have that. On these challenges I’m quite good at pacing myself and getting it right so I probably do better on those.”

It’s no surprise therefore that Sabrina excelled during the 2020 ‘summer of FKTs’ when the pandemic obliterated the racing scene. First up was the Wainwrights, the circuit of 214 Lakeland peaks listed in Alfred Wainwright’s Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells. Ever since Steve Birkinshaw set his record for the 320-mile hike in 2014, it had been her goal.

Only Steve and, last year, Paul Tierney have been quicker than Sabrina’s time in July. However, it wasn’t a record as she required too much assistance due to an inflamed bursa on the inside of her knee that she experienced around two thirds of the way through. Casting her mind back to when she had to physically lean on some of her support team on some of the descents, she says: “At that point I’d done four whole days, the equivalent of four Bob Grahams back to back; you’ve broken the back of it. But then, well, you look at what you’ve got to do; you’ve still got to do two more Bob Grahams, which is epic, on an injured leg. You couldn’t see the different parts of my legs – they just looked like swollen trunks.

“You’ve invested all that time so it’s like, ‘What do we do with this?’ That’s when you need really great people around you who help you to make the right decision. And the fact that they were all so committed... I was like, ‘I’ve just got to get this done now.’ Although it was quite hard because it was so slow and incredibly painful, and also painful for everyone around me because it was so incredulously slow. But I was still having a really good time.”

Having described it as probably the best week of her life, she is keen to have a go next May at improving on her time of six days, 17 hours, 51 minutes. Mel Steventon has since officially claimed the record at 13 days 12 hours 16 minutes.

Compared to the Wainwrights, her Pennine Way FKT in September was “really easy.” Talking to us just eight days after completing her hike from Kirk Yetholm in Scotland to Edale in Derbyshire, she says: “The Wainwrights is really tough because you’re constantly up down up down, on rough ground, you’re really at the mercy of the weather. There’s nowhere to hide, you’re on the tops all the time. Whereas the Pennine Way is low down – even though I had some pretty severe headwinds, I wasn’t on the tops of mountains.”

Following on from FKTs on the route by John Kelly and then Damian Hall earlier in the summer, she was chasing her own time of 81 hours, 19 minutes which she had set when winning the Fusion last year.

After being on target early on to finish in less than three days, she hit strong winds in the Pennines. “I got to Tan Hill and I was pretty fed up of the wind,” she says. “I’d just done like a four-and-a-half-hour section into this strong headwind.” She considered quitting but some encouraging words from Mike Hartley, the previous men’s record-holder, helped keep her going.

She explains: “He was there at Tan Hill and I said, ‘I’m so fed up I could really throw the towel in,’ and he said, ‘You say that but you’re not going to, are you?’ and I was like, ‘No, you’re right.’ I got out of Tan Hill and this is where your support team do make a huge difference.” She then ran with two runners she barely knew and chatting to them en route was another thing that helped.

“You might be in a mentally tough spot but then a new bunch of people pick you up and you just feel uplifted,” she says.

Sabrina, who is originally from Surrey and did not come from a particularly sporting family background, did some running in secondary school but claims she was “terrible” at it when she began.

She competed in modern pentathlon (fencing, swimming, show jumping, shooting and running) for both Oxford and Cambridge Universities but says the 3km distance was too short for her. She also rowed for both universities and it was during weekly running training with Oxford Lightweights that she says she went from being one of the worst in the squad to the best.

Even so, when she later switched to off-road adventure racing, she confessed to being poor on the technical descents.

“In my adventure racing team, I was the worst on foot, I would always slow everyone down,” says Sabrina, who works as a veterinary surgeon. “I would be put on a tow rope to be pulled up; they’d have to wait for me on downhills because I didn’t have the skills to run technical hills. I was really strong on the bike, though. Through that, I worked on my running and I got stronger and stronger and really enjoyed it. Through 10 years of adventure racing, I found I was so strong on foot that I was leaving the team behind on the foot stage and I was bad on the bike. That’s when I thought, ‘I’m quite good at the endurance thing.’”

It was in 2014 that she ran her first ultra, the Grand Tour of Skiddaw, which she won. That year she moved to the Lake District and now lives in Langdale.

It’s the perfect location for the 10-12-hour training days she needed to undertake for the Wainwrights. The coronavirus lockdown in the spring of 2020 meant you could only run from your house, but that was no problem for Sabrina as she tried to recce every part of the Wainwrights route at least once – she just ran about three hours to get to the section in question, did her reconnaissance and then ran home!

There were certainly no cowbells and no cheering masses on those occasions – exactly how Sabrina likes it.

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