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Sabrina Verjee // "It's not a record"

Sabrina Verjee // "It's not a record"

15th July 2020

If you haven't heard the name Sabrina Verjee this week, you have clearly not read the news. Among other amazing feats in endurance events that have occurred in the past 2 weeks, Sabrina's does stand out. However, the 39 year old vet who now resides in the Langdales, has shocked many in her claim that she is not viewing her amazing achievement as a record.

Sabrina set out with her sights on the record for completing all 214 Wainwright summits in the Lake District in the fastest time. Paul Tierney took the record from Steve Birkenshaw last year taking just 6 days, 6 hours, and 5 minutes to complete the 318mile route. With elevation gain equivalent of 4 times the ascent of Everest, the challenge is not for the faint-hearted and has never been completed consecutively by a woman.

So all eyes were on Sabrina's attempt last week, with high expectations. Completing the Gruelling Montane Spine Winter race early this year (First Female, and 5th Overall), she was bound to produce something special... and she did not disappoint, even if her own perceptions can be somewhat modest.

Despite completing the round in the 3rd fastest ever known time (including that of legend Jos Naylor), she is not classing her attempt as a record. In fact, she has been outspoken in the fell running forums in recent days clearly stating "It is not a record". Her reasoning for this is due to a knee injury during her attempt, she head to lean on some of her support runners to get down the hills safely. Due to this assist, she felt she could not in good conscience take a record, especially from others who have achieved this feat with no apparent support.

In spite of this, she is still the first woman to complete the Wainwrights round in this manner in an impressive time of 6 days, 17 hours, and 51 minutes. Sinead from Her Outdoors caught up with her 3 days after her attempt and seemingly in between naps and work!

Sabrina with Current Record Holder, Paul Tierney and Previous record holder, Steve Birkenshaw

Q. First of all, saying “Well done” does not seem to satisfy the enormous effort and accomplishment of your attempt. Are you recovering well and what does your post-attempt recovery look like?

Ha, recovery is going ok. I cannot remember much about Sunday evening but managed to get some sleep and Monday was hobbling around a little. By Monday night though, I had to take a few painkillers to settle. I even went to work on Tuesday! Luckily, due to the pandemic, there wasn't the normal volume of appointments. I also have a bed there so managed to get a few naps in between appointments. Becky, the receptionist at our practice and my personal caretaker, has been absolutely brilliant. Last night (Tuesday) was a bad night as the body is starting to go into repair. Hot flashes, burning up, etc. The main thing though was fluid retention, both on and after the attempt. I look at some of the photos from the round and think "Look at my legs". It was a lot of extra weight to carry around and took a few days to clear out! Overall, with the exception of my knee, I would say it's going well.

Q. You have had a great few years in terms of endurance-based events, with a 5th place overall on this year's grueling Spine event. It is reported that originally you looked to do this attempt in May, when did you decide that this is something you wanted to do?

6 years ago, when Steve Birkenshaw took the record from Jos Naylor. I didn't know him well at the time but I have got to know him well over the past few years. My husband supported his attempt at the time, and frustratingly, I couldn't as I at work. I remember feeling it was something I would love to do one day. Funnily enough, I was not even a long-distance runner at the time, I was more into Adventure Racing.

Q. How did a change of date from May to July affect how you approached your training?

It was hard. I felt "Ready to go, ready to go" but with the current situation, waiting for the rules to change, watching the weather turn, I started to come to terms with the attempt not happening at all this year. As things started to ease, I had the 3rd July as a start in mind, however, the constant rain over the beginning of July was making the ground saturated which was a little bit of a concern.

Q. You are undoubtedly one of the best endurance runners in the UK. Where did your running career start?

I wasn't a sporty child especially, and it wasn't until University that I got into the Modern Pentathlon. I have no idea how that happened, apart from they needed a representative for the sport and I was able to ride a horse. I competed for both Oxford and Cambridge and as the Modern Pentathlon contains a 3km run, I suppose it started from there.

From there, my attention turned to Triathlon, building right up to the Half Ironman, but strangely, I wasn't especially strong at running, in fact, it was my worse discipline. From there, I moved to Adventure Racing, and because of this, myself and Ben were spending most of our weekends driving up to Cumbria to either train or compete, we finally made the move up 7 years ago and the running took form there!

Q. You have quite modestly declared “this is not a record” due to assistance in descents for your support team and that you wouldn’t take the record of another person in that way. This falls very much in line with what most associate with the sport, a support of others, a humble approach, and respect for others efforts. How important do you feel that this is maintained and protected in this sport and could other sports learn from this?

When you are in the mountains you look after each other. This is the nature of this sport and what brings us together as a strong community. You want to see each other succeed, even if that person is trying to achieve your record. Having said this, there are unwritten rules of sportsmanship that I suppose comes down to your own ethics as there are no set rules for these record attempts. I felt as I was supported on the descents, I could not claim a record when I was technically helped. Some of the support team didn’t feel this was breaking any rules. I and others felt it wasn’t appropriate. Coming off Clough Head and down the Coach Road, with the aid of Dave, I came to terms that the record attempt was no longer an option and from there on out, I forgot there was a record to take, I went into survival mode.

I wouldn't want to take a record from someone in an illegitimate way. If the next lady to attack this challenge completes without assistance then she will deserve the record.

The other side of things is safety in the hills. I wouldn’t like people to be out in dubious conditions and not lend a hand because they feel they are jeopardising an attempt, safety is paramount. This sport is made up of people who understand this and have this respect for each other.

Photos Supplied by Sabrina Verjee

Q. As a vet, you are no stranger to long work hours. Did you find training for such an epic route was difficult to fit around your job?

You make time for things you want to do, if you look at the rest of my life, it's all I do. I rarely go to the pubs to socialise, I socialise while running. I have 3 cats that need little care, so when I get a day off, I take myself off for a full day in the Mountains. When I get bored, I come home. I feel a bit sorry for Ben. He might often ask "but are you coming home for tea?".

Q. How much of the route have you recced both as part of training and from living in the area over the years?

Living here for 7 years, I have Recced the whole lot at least once. The summits I knew I wouldn't see in the daylight, I made sure I recced in the daylight. I wouldn't have wanted to miss out on a view.

Q. What parts of the route did you highlight as concerns that may cost you time in your attempt and why.

 I am not strong on technical rocky descents and there are a few sections - particularly in the Langdales (home territory!) that I am weak on and I had to give myself double the time that Paul and Steve took across theses summits in my schedule. 

Going into the attempt, I was always concerned about the decent of Carlside due to the steep gradient and this proved to be the hardest descent when my knee was at its worst.

Q. You were strong and on target all week, but knee issues seemed to be the cost of actually setting a new record. At what point did you notice this as a very real factor and mentally, how did you deal with this to keep yourself motivated?

Clough head descent was when my knee really started hurting. However, prior to coming into Glenridding, I noticed some niggles. Paul (Tierney) took a quick look at this checkpoint and I think he felt it was to be expected so I just got on with it

Heading back up the Dodds, it swelled so much. I needed some painkillers which I would never normally take. They kicked in and managed to pretty much forget about my knee until the descent off Clough Head. It was agony, I had to lean on Dave to get me down to the Old Coach Road. Usually, I would fly along that section, but it seemed to take forever to get to Dockray. Steve Birkenshaw was running the next leg with me and came to meet us for the end of this leg. I felt bad for Steve, as by this stage I was a bit down in the dumps realising the Record was not on any longer.

Despite this, I was generally in good form. I was in the outdoors, in the hills with some great people, what is not to love about that.

Q. There seemed to be a number of deviations on elements of the planned route, one noticeable one appeared to be at Hartsop Dodd and Rest Dodd. How were these decisions being made, was it by yourself, as a team, due to weather or route choice, or was this always the plan?

I always set out with some subtle changes made to Steve's original route. One of the big things to the navigation was to adjust the route via Dale Head farm, there is no public access so I re-routed this section as I didn't feel comfortable going through Dale Head Farm especially during the current pandemic and to be honest I would hope that all future Wainwright challengers will adopt the detour I took. Hartsop Dodd to the Tarn was craggy and when I recced this section, I chose the option to go straight across rather than out and back. However, on the day, the weather forced us to take a safer option.

Q. You were really mindful in your attempt of the current pandemic and asked for minimal support. Having done long challenges before, would you say this made things easier or more difficult in terms of motivation?

I am pretty self-motivated so not having people dotted around the route didn't really affect me. However, I was overwhelmed with some efforts people went to offer their support. People climbed to some hard to reach places to leave little cards and notes of support for me. I would be running along in the darkness, then as I would approach the summit, I could see a glimmer, and there it would be. That was really special and so motivating.

Q. Did you have any moments of doubt of completing during the week, and if so, how did you overcome these to change your mindset.

The descents were getting harder with my knee. Skiddaw and Carlside were particularly low. I couldn't get down without assistance and it was really depressing. When it is harder to go downhill than uphill, it's a really difficult thing to not feel down about. Normally, I would tank down the fire road, I literally had to crawl, all I could do was limp. Once I got to the car park, I decided to take some time out and sleep. My slower pace was getting to me, I mean, there is a point where 0.5km per hour is silly. I felt much more positive after resting.

Q. There must have been many amazing moments on your attempt, were there any that really stood out?

I just had the best time all the way around. The people I got to share this with were just such a pleasure to be with. However, the last leg was so comical. I was just going so slowly, I just had to take the piss out of myself. My descents at that stage were just so pitiful. The guys supporting me were just so great! I tried to run and always ended in disaster. Everyone was taking the Mickey out of me and each other, it was just too funny.

Q. Thanks to women like yourself and some research starting to highlight women’s endurance at longer distances, we are seeing a rise in women being competitive with men at the same distances. In your experience, do you feel this is the case?

Yes! longer the better, totally feel that myself when racing. Take, for example, If I challenged some of the men in the Lakeland 100 in a 10k race, they will always beat me, but put me against them on a 100 mile race and I will have a better chance of beating them.

Q. More and more women are enjoying the fells, whether it is running or walking. However, some may still feel uncomfortable going out alone. What is a key bit of advice you could give them?

It is always important to be safe on the fell. I would always say learn the skills first, then your confidence will follow. I think that’s the key. Get yourself out with others, learn from more experienced people, and start smaller on trips out on your own.

Q. Some women feel they might not be safe alone on the hills. What are your thoughts on this?

While living in the city, I was always scared to be out on my own, especially in the evening. On a night, on my own, on the fell, I feel at my safest. No one is going to be up there that would cause you harm. 

Q. A lot of women would read this and say “I can’t run a mile never mind for 6 days”, what would you say to them?

One step at a time, there was a time I couldn't run a mile either!

Q. So, whats next?

Well, with the current pandemic, most races I was hoping to look have been cancelled. Hopefully, the Cheviot Goat will still be on in December. Otherwise, I will be focusing on the Winter Spine race in January and once again trying to get a record next May on the Wainwrights

SUMMARY

Speaking to Sabrina, was a personal privilege. I am constantly impressed with the outright modesty and respect that the Ultra and Fell running community display. Speaking to her did not dispel any of this. She was appreciative of the people who helped her achieve this goal, who got her through the days, but more importantly, she hasn't lost sight of her own moral compass in favour of claiming (what most would actually think she is entitled to) a record. The respect she has for others who have been on the same hills, run in the same direction and experienced the same highs and lows is why women like her should be adulated and emulated as positive role models in sport.

Thank from Sabrina go to those in her support crew: Her husband Ben, Kim Collison, Jacob and Sabina Snochowski, Simon Mills, Sally Fawcett, Tim Miller, Steve Birkinshaw, Tom and Astrid Gibbs, Paul Tierney, Dave Cummins, Charlie Sproson, Jeff Powell Davies, Joe Faulkner, Helen Jackson, James Thurlow, Victoria Rose-Miller, Ben Abdelnour, Shane Ohly, Josh Hartley, John Knapp, Neil Talbott, Nicky Spinks, Mike and Hazel Robinson, Lou Roberts, Bruce Duncan, Dave Spence, Peter Sowerby, Rob Bond, Giles Ruck, Paul Wilson, Gaynor Prior, Wendy Dodds, Jonathan Whilock, Dan Duxbury and Howard Dracup.

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