© www.inov-8.com/ James Appleton
Rewind to 2009 and Sabrina Pace-Humphreys was looking for a way to get fit after her fourth child. Despite hating the idea of running, she gave it a go anyway, running for a minute then walking for a minute. Eleven years later, the British 42-year old mum of four and grandma of two is a Marathon des Sables finisher and has just completed her first 102-mile run on the Cotswold Way!
Sabrina is also co-founder of Black Trail Runners which was launched in July to create a safe, open community for black trail runners and campaign for greater access, skills and representation within trail running. We dive into this further in the Q&A below, where Sabrina also recalls her experience and preparation for the multi-day desert ultra, the Marathon des Sables (MdS), and her recent, epic Cotswold Way 100-miler (extreme nausea included).
You went from unfit non-runner in 2009 to running 10Ks, marathons, then ultras, and then signed up to the 2018 Marathon des Sables. What inspired you to enter?
My lord. When you say it like that, it sounds quite impressive. I knew that I wanted to challenge myself even more than I was with road racing. I was looking for something BIG to do to celebrate becoming 40. Something amazing. Something that would really take me to what I believed would be my limit.
You’ve mentioned using your life-long anxiety as a tool to help you prepare – what did this involve?
I have developed a 10-step strategy to use my anxiety to help me achieve sporting and personal goals in my life. It’s something that was quite loose in terms of steps to start with but which I honed when training for the MdS. It all started with getting really focused on what it was I wanted to achieve. Then researching people who had done it before – what they had done, stories they had told, the kit they had used, issues they had experienced. I absolutely immersed myself in all things MdS for months before I actually signed up.
That ‘commitment’ [of signing up] was step two of the process. And once I had committed, I knew that the only person that I wanted to guide me through the process of training was someone who had been there and done (or won) that… and that was Elisabet Barnes (two-time MdS winner). With her as my coach, helping me develop an 18-month training plan that fitted in with my family, work and social commitments, I knew I had a real hope of getting to that start line in the Sahara Desert. From that moment on it was absolute focus and eyes on the goal.
How did you approach your training and preparation?
It was important for me to break the big goal down into smaller manageable chunks – mini wins that I could reach for and achieve on the way to the big goal. This included experiencing racing other ultramarathons – multi-stage and non-stop – and attending training camps too. I knew that training was going well when I placed high in these ultramarathons. It gave me that confidence in the plan, our approach to it and the mental strength that I was developing in order to go long.
You’ve suffered from anxiety for much of your life. Does having a laser-focused approach help?
Absolutely. Getting ‘focussed’ is absolutely key to me managing my anxiety when planning for achieving my goals. I get obsessive. I have to create time to ‘be’ in that space where all I can think about is the challenge at hand. If I don’t have that tunnel vision then I become flustered and it all seems ‘a bit too much’ and then things can get dark very quickly. I know this about myself so I have developed a plan to address this head-on.
What were the high points of your Marathon des Sables experience?
The high point for me was standing on that start line on day one, knowing that watching a documentary on the Discovery Channel called ‘The Toughest Footrace on Earth’ had ultimately led me here. Knowing that so many people who dream of this don’t make it. Either because anxiety or life gets in the way, or they get injured during training and don’t make the start line. Just getting there is a feat in itself. I can remember just taking it all in. Seeing the sand. The dunes. The sky. Looking around me at everyone prepared to put themself in this situation, and thinking ‘I made it’. I was so proud of what I had achieved.
What did you find the most challenging aspect of running the Marathon des Sables?
The last 20 miles of the long stage was really dark for me. I had made the mistake of forgetting to take a foil windbreak for my stove and when in camp, got away with loaning my tentmates’. I also made the bad decision of deciding not to pack my lightweight down jacket as I thought I’d be OK without it. BIG mistake. When it came to heating my food at dinner time on the night of the long stage, it was so windy, I couldn’t get my stove to light. This meant I had no hot food. I had to delve into the next day’s rations for cold snacks that I could eat. I needed more than that, more calories than that, and I knew I’d pay as the temperature got colder and my body needed more energy to keep warm and moving forward.
I basically death marched the last 15 miles. Cold, hungry and ever so low in mind. I started to ask myself soul searching questions about why I was here, what I had sacrificed during training, time not spent with my children, the meaning of my life. You know, the usual low ultra-mood stuff. I sobbed into the night for many miles. I think, at that time, the only thing that kept me going was seeing my GPS tracker sending its signal out to the world and knowing my husband would be at home watching out for me.
What did finishing the Marathon des Sables mean to you?
It meant everything. It was a physical and mental ‘flipping the bird’ to everyone I had come across over my 40 years – from the racist bullies to the naysayers – who said ‘You can’t do this – you’re not white enough, fit enough, strong enough’. It showed me that whatever I put my mind to, I can achieve.
I am quite strong of mind but I remember standing at the top of a large descent and seeing the finish gantry in the foreground and just losing it. Because it meant so much. To have got there, to have made it through the night stage, to still be able to run. To have achieved a dream. I visualised all of the people who had helped me get there running alongside me. I totally lost the plot when I looked down and saw my dog Albi – my training partner (a lab crossed with a springer) – running alongside me with his ears flapping. I was pretty delusional by then. Getting a hug from the daddy of MdS, Patrick [Bauer, race director], was the icing on the cake. That finish line photo is one of my absolute favourites. It says everything.
Finishing taught me that I am stronger than I ever believed and that everything I had gone through to that point was a lesson and had a part to play in that moment.
More recently your focus has been on mountain races. Can you share a typical training week?
A typical week will consist of a mixture of speed training (intervals), easy rest day sessions, some tempo work and then some really specific miles on the terrain where I will be racing. My nearest mountains are the Black Mountains and the Brecon Beacons so, more often than not, in the run-up to a race when I want to get some serious ascent and descent in, you’ll find me and the dog – and kids and husband if I drag them along – in the Welsh mountains.
Strength and conditioning is also super-important to keeping injuries at bay. I am a personal trainer and design my own programmes to challenge those areas that will be put to the test in races and ensure good stability, balance and flexibility. Two one-hour sessions a week works for me.
In July you co-founded Black Trail Runners. Can you tell us more about this?
Trail running has a problem with diversity. This is shown in the severe lack of black people who trail run. Seven of us – a mixture of trail runners and outdoor specialists – got together to discuss this. We looked at issues such as access, skills and representation of black people in trail running.
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. 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 is currently being taken. What are running brands, race organisers, influencers, policymakers actually doing to address equity and equality in trail running?
We knew that questions needed to be asked, sometimes uncomfortable questions. We believe without real conversation – which, of course, at times will be uncomfortable – there cannot be change. We have to challenge what is seen as the norm. I want to experience trail running in a world where the norm is to see black people on trails too.
What is your aim in founding Black Trail Runners?
We are a community and campaigning group. Our aim is to provide a safe space for black people who are new to trail running or are experienced. A place to share lived experiences, to share runs, to share tips, race experiences. A place to see and be seen. Our campaigning arm stems from that. We know that we need to work on campaigns that people can get behind, feel involved and empowered by. Our first campaign, an open letter to race organisers which asks them to integrate ethnicity questions into their race registrations, has been met with a positive response and has led to many other meaningful relationships being developed which helps us address the three tenets of: access, skills and representation.
What are your own experiences of racism in trail running?
Racism takes many forms. You do not have to be running through the woods and be verbally abused in order to experience it. I feel that racial unconscious and conscious bias when I’m running on trails and, even though I indicate I am coming through, people almost jump in the bushes to dodge me. It’s in the looks I will experience being in a mainly white crowd on a start line. Being seen as an oddity. Being perceived as different.
It’s slipping off the side of a snowfield on an alpine mountain face and hanging on for dear life, shouting for help while you cling on and white runners ignoring your cries. In that moment, when all you can think is ‘I don’t want to die here’ you just want to be treated as any other human. Thankfully a man came out of nowhere – my guardian angel – and pulled me back up onto that ledge. While calming down, I said to myself, ‘maybe people like me don’t belong here’. That was a moment.
How has Black Trail Runners been received so far?
The response since we launched in July has been really encouraging. Our number one priority was to create the community – the safe space – and that continues to grow as black people and white allies find us daily. All race directors who have responded to our letter so far, and this is by no means all of them, have responded in a positive manner. They have been honest, taken on board our comments and responded well initially. There is much more work to be done and this is where members of our community are stepping in and helping to ease the load by questioning race directors/event organisers about what their stance is regarding creating equity and equality for Black Trail Runners.
What feedback have you received from the black trail running community?
The comments we get via our social channels, emails and in person is what makes us know that what we are doing is needed and – from a trail running perspective – long overdue. My inbox has certainly been full of messages of encouragement, pride and inspiration concerning the work we are doing. It’s these messages that keep us going during more difficult times. Because there are still those times, and there will be during this journey, [where you get] the naysayers who quote the old adage ‘running is for everyone’ and ‘all you need is a pair of trainers’.
You’ve just run the 102-mile Cotswold Way – congratulations! Did it live up to your expectations?
My god. It lived up to my expectations and more. In both good and bad ways. I have grown up with this trail on my doorstep, I am fortunate. I know this. Many aren’t. Everyone who had run it in one go told me not to underestimate it, and I didn’t, but MAN it is a beast of a trail. My coach gave me some very wise words and amongst these was the mantra: don’t be a dickhead in the first half, and don’t be a wimp in the second. I kept repeating this to myself in the first half, ‘don’t be a dickhead, don’t be a dickhead’… and then when the nausea hit at mile 20 it changed to ‘please settle stomach, please settle stomach’.
The beauty of the Cotswold Way is almost heavenly at times. It takes you along the Cotswold escarpment and some of those views are mind-blowing. You have real ‘I can’t believe I get to run here’ moments. While I loved this, also in my mind was: I want more black people to experience this.
You mentioned experiencing nausea from mile 20. How bad was it – were you able to eat?
I experienced mild to severe to almost challenge-ending nausea from mile 20 to about mile 70. I had trained with all of the food I used and the electrolytes I used too. I felt my nutritional strategy was absolutely nailed. So, when I started feeling slightly sick from 20 miles, I thought, ‘what is this?’ The feeling of nausea would ease slightly on descents and flat sections (there wasn’t a lot of them for the first half) but then on ascents, the nausea would get significantly worse.
My pacers were in contact with my coach who said I could be dehydrated or needing more salty food but my appetite was non-existent. I was taking so long to eat even small morsels of food. It felt like such an effort to chew and swallow. I got to the point where I was at the bottom of a 2.5-mile climb and I just felt so nauseous that I couldn’t stand it. I tried to make myself sick but nothing was coming up – I mean there was nothing in there. All I did was strain my abdominal muscles. I felt absolutely hideous.
That climb was the worst I have felt in any ultramarathon – even MdS. I became a tad delusional and didn’t even recognise my own voice when I was giving one-word answers to pacers. Let’s just say that the checkpoint at the top of that climb was make-or-break time. I could tell people were worried but I had given strict instructions to my crew to not feel sorry for me if I looked broken as they’d know whether I was fit enough to go on. One of my crew is a midwife and she treated me very tenderly, but sternly. It was a 20-minute stop in which I was spoon-fed Pot Noddle and hot tea and ordered to take it step-by-step and ‘stop worrying about time’. Part of me wanted someone to pull me out – that’s how bad I felt – but no one did and they sent me on my way. The beasts!
What mental strategies do you call on during tough moments in racing and training?
I have always used the mantra ‘the pain is temporary but the beauty remains’. That helps me remember the bigger picture. I don’t want to get all David Goggins on you, but I believe that I am on a journey to push limits physically, mentally and spiritually. Change does not come easy. I see this in all aspects of my life. At the end of the day, I CHOOSE this. It is not a ‘sacrifice’ to be doing this and anyone that says sport is a sacrifice needs to check themselves. We choose to enter these pain caves, these challenges that to many others seem crazy. We chose to enter them and at any time we can choose to leave. Knowing I choose this, when the option isn’t easily available to many people, keeps me pushing on.
What are your favourite items of kit for racing and training?
I really love my Inov-8 Ultra Pro 2-in-1 vest. It has loads of pockets, mesh holders, a space for everything. I always struggled with race packs before but this one fits me like a glove and gives me all the storage I need.
I also have really wide feet for a woman and struggle with trail shoes, but the Inov-8 G270 TerraUltra are great. They give me the grip and toe-box space I need and are also more cushioned. I did take an extra pair of shoes to change into but I didn’t need to. No blisters, no bruised toes, no issues.
Dry-Max socks – my god. I LOVE these socks. I have so many pairs and honestly, I would never wear anything else. I don’t get blisters; my feet don’t get too hot or too wet. There is nothing bad to say about these socks. Total game-changer.
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
I’m not sponsored by anyone. I am a brand ambassador with Inov-8 due to us speaking earlier this year about Black Trail Runners and diversity in trail running, and I decided I liked their honesty and their willingness to work with me to create more access, skills and representation for Black Trail Runners. I also really like working with smaller companies who can be more fleet of foot when it comes to making decisions which lead to action. I had been buying inov-8 products for years, so already liked their kit. It was a no-brainer for me to want to work with them on opening up this outdoor space further.
Keep up with Sabrina’s adventures in ultrarunning at www.instagram.com/sabrunsmiles and follow Black Trail Runners via www.instagram.com/blacktrailrunners. Join the Black Trail Runners Facebook community and visit www.blacktrailrunners.com to learn more.