If you’re a keen follower of the UK’s toughest endurance races, such as TheDragon’s Back or The Spine Race, the name Sabrina Verjee will already be familiar to you.
But most runners probably have not heard of her. Verjee has a habit of being the first female athlete home, of placing in the overall top five, or winning them outright – all while referring to these punishing tests of physical and mental endurance as ‘holidays’ from her demanding day job. And as the nation locked down this summer, the 39-year-old small-animal veterinary surgeon scaled up her ambitions, becoming the first woman to complete a nonstop 326-mile round of the 214 summits that make up the Lake District’s Wainwrights. It’s a feat that also packs in some 118,000ft of ascent and has only been completed four times. A few weeks later, she set a new women’s record on the 268-mile Pennine Way. RW caught up with Verjee on the trails around her Lake District home to talk hallucinations, projectile vomiting and enjoying the journey.
RW: Growing up in Surrey, your school experiences of sport weren’t particularly positive...
SV: My parents weren’t sporty and I never did any sport at my (all-girls) school, because I was rubbish, which obviously makes you more rubbish. You could only play tennis if you were one of the top three players in the school; the same with running. I really wanted to do the 1500m, but I was too terrible. But there was a 400m grass track and sometimes after school I ran on it with a friend. I remember really enjoying it. I would go round quite a few times; a slow four or five laps, which seems quite a lot when you’re 12.
When I was 16, I went to another school and I started running. We were encouraged to do everything there, and so I did: rock climbing, hockey, football, basketball, rowing, horse riding, cross-country. I did as much as I possibly could. And the more I did, the more I liked it.
You studied Human Sciences at Oxford University. Were you sporty while you were there?
Yes. I started rowing for the lightweights, which was 11 training sessions a week – mental, really. It was really cool, though. I got so fit, so quickly. Then I found modern pentathlon [running, pistol shooting, fencing, horse riding and swimming]. I wasn’t the best at any one discipline, but I was just proficient at all of them. Not many people could horse ride – I’ve always ridden horses – and I wasn’t bad at the running.
So did you find your feet on the trails after university?
I worked as an investment banker for three months and realised it wasn’t for me! You’re indoors all day, sat at a desk. I needed to be outside, using my brain. So I studied Veterinary Medicine at Cambridge University. I did modern pentathlon, but I was also a member of the Hare and Hounds running club. The club got an email trying to drum up interest in adventure racing and I was curious, so I met a guy called Russ in a pub. He mentioned the Hebridean Challenge, a five-day stage race he was planning to do. ‘Ooh, I want to do that!’ I said. He said, ‘Maybe you should start with a two- or three-hour one?’ but I was like, ‘Nah, that doesn’t sound so fun. I want to do this one. I want to be in your team.’ He said no, which peeved me right off. So I thought, ‘I’m going to find my own team and we’re going to beat your team.’
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