Left: Sabrina Verjee, Paul Tierney and Steve Birkinshaw. Photo: Chris Lines and Berghaus.
Sabrina had a plan to break Paul Tierney’s record for a Wainwrights Round of six days and six hours and my previous record of six days and thirteen hours. The plan was that she would be moving a little slower but have fewer rests and less sleep. I chatted to her a few times about it before she started and it seemed sensible. However, when she sent me the schedule a couple of months ago I had a look through it and thought it was really brave. Sabs had set herself a schedule of just under six days and instead of going for a little less sleep she had taken it to the extreme. No sleep on the first night, one and a half hours on the next four nights and thirty minutes on the final night. However, I knew if anyone could cope with so little sleep it was Sabs. She has massive experience of doing multi-day continuous adventure races and ultra-running races like The Spine. She knows she copes well with minimal sleep and what her limits are. She is also mentally tough enough to do it.
For the first four days Sabrina was going strongly despite some wet weather on a couple of days. On her fifth day I ran from my house to see her coming off Clough Head. She was clearly struggling descending with a lot of pain in one of her knees. However, other than that she had no issues, no other pain, eating and drinking well and she seemed really coherent on very little sleep. Sabs could remember all her planned routes and who was going to support her on the subsequent sections. On my Round I could not remember any of these details despite having had three times as much sleep.
Over the next two sections I was with her it was clear her knee was getting worse and worse despite taking some painkillers. The flat and climbs were fine but the descents obviously agony. For me it was very similar except the descending pain was due to blisters. This is a really tough point in the Round, over 200 miles done and yet still 100 miles to the finish. If her knees got worse it was going to be a long tough battle to get there although Sabs was determined to make it whatever happened. You also always have to hope when doing something so extreme that you can somehow got through whatever is causing the problem. We hoped that taping her knee might help, but was certainly no chance of resting and letting it recover.
I left her at Mosedale Road End, she was still only two hours behind her six-day schedule but it was going to be a long tough night over the Northern Fells. It is these long night sections where the lack of sleep has a big effect, you speed goes right down, moving quickly becomes so hard even with the brilliant support team Sabs had.
Sure enough when I looked at the tracker the next morning she had lost a lot of time on her schedule, unless she could speed up Paul’s record was not going to be broken. She seemed to pick up a bit during the day but on the final night that her really painful knees and the lack of sleep caused a massive drop off in speed.
Later that day it was great to see Sabrina coming up to the Moot Hall in Keswick to finish in six days seventeen hours fifty-one minutes for the third fastest completion of the Wainwrights and the first by a women. It was a brilliant and inspiring run.
Sabs had only fifteen hours rest and seven to eight hours sleep in seven days. I had forty-two hours rest and around twenety hours of sleep. She was not only sleeping less but more efficient at support points. Generally the more sleep you get the faster you move. So there is a balance and an optimum, but for each person it is probably different. I know I could not cope with the amount of sleep Sabs had but I could perhaps have not stopped the first night and ended up faster.
Since Sabs completion of the Wainwrights she has said she does not want it counting as a record. This is because she was given support on some descents due to her really sore knees. On some she was walking backwards holding onto her support team, who were showing her which way to go. This decision shows amazing integrity. I briefly talked to Sabs and her husband Ben Turner at the finish in Keswick. They mentioned the issue and my instinctive reaction was that I did not have a problem with the support she received. If someone was pulling her uphill on a bungee (as happens in adventure race) or carried her downhill then that would be wrong. But if they are providing support so she does not fall over then it seems OK to me. It is hard to know where to draw the line. For example, Sabs, Paul and me all used poles at various point but they were carried by our support team the rest of the time, whereas Joss did not use them. I found them helpful at times on steep descents with really sore blisters. With this request from Sabs it seems the rules are now better defined in that any assistance from another person such as holding onto them or pulling or pushing by them is definitely not acceptable.
It was amazing watching Sabs over the week. She is so tough and an incredible athlete. Hopefully everything goes to plan and she has another attempt in May next year.