Interview: winners of the 2020 Montane Spine Race

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 22/01/2020
John Kelly pushing through the night during the Spine Race. Photo: Jimmy Hyland

The notorious 268-mile (430km) Montane Spine Race started on Sunday 12 January 2020 at 8am. Competitors had seven days in which to complete the whole Pennine Way, resting when, and if, they needed to. This year, Storm Brendan's 80mph winds left some entrants navigating in the dark on their hands and knees. Bristol-based American, John Kelly, won the race overall in 87:53:57 while Sabrina Verjee (GBR) took home the women's trophy in 108:7:17.

Last year, despite stopping to breastfeed her baby at checkpoints, Jasmin Paris broke all the Spine Race records, and her time remains unbeaten by 41 minutes: BMC interview here.

Since its inaugral event in 2012, when just 11 competitors entered and only 3 finished, the Spine Race has grown dramatically and is now renowned as one of the must-do tough endurance races in the British Ultra calendar. The overall ascent is 13,135m, the overall descent: 13,255m. 

Aside from five main check points where competitors can sleep, eat hot food, access a drop bags and get medical attention, there are three minor check points. Racers are allowed to be at these for up to 30 minutes.

The 2017 winner of the notorious Barkley Marathon, John Kelly, is a rising force in the world of ultra trail running. He led the pack from the start in Edale to the finish in Kirk Yetholm, often by a huge margin.

Sabrina Verjee, meanwhile, took home the women's trophy. This follows her overall win in the Montane Spine Fusion race in June 2019, the summer edition of the Spine Race, which follows the same 268-mile course.  


Sabrina Verjee enjoying a spell of sunshine on the Spine Race. Photo: Mick Kenyon


INTERVIEW: John Kelly and Sabrina Verjee, male and female winners of the 2020 Spine Race

BMC: What was your favourite section of the Spine Race?

JK: The final checkpoint up until nightfall in the Cheviots. Jayson Cavill (GBR) was hot on my heels, and I put down what felt like an impossible effort to re-establish my lead. When darkness fell I was able to look behind me and confirm that there wasn't a light from a pursuing runner anywhere in sight. Unfortunately he had had to drop out due to tendonitis just before the Cheviots, but I didn't learn that until hours later.

SV: For me it was the ascent up to Green Fell in Cumbria - it was very pretty with all the snow.

BMC: Worst bit?

JK: Leading into the final checkpoint, starting with Hadrian's Wall. I hit a really low point in terms of sleep and felt like I just couldn't keep my eyes open, and that getting caught by my pursuers was inevitable. Although another lowpoint was coming out of checkpoint 2, when I was also at a bad spot on sleep. I went the wrong way twice, and essentially completely gave away the lead I had worked to build. It was pretty discouraging.

SV: The worst bit for me was the descent into Garigill - my ankle had swollen up after stopping in Greg's Hut (a bothy in the North Pennines) for an hour and it was so painful and slow getting down.


WATCH Epic weather on this year's Spine Race:


BMC: Why did you want to run this race in particular?

JK: It's always appealed to me as a unique challenge, with tough conditions and terrain that I haven't experienced much of before. It's also a great way to see a huge beautiful stretch of England (and a bit of Scotland) while I'm in the UK.

SV: I wanted the challenge of the winter conditions. And I had enjoyed the Spine Fusion (summer version) in summer so much that I just wanted the experience again. It's obviously harder in winter but not necessarily less enjoyable. The ground conditions were particularly tough this year. I thought I would, but I didn't mind the darkness.

BMC: What was your pack list for the race?

JK: Quite extensive. The race has a thorough kit list that would be a bit much to share here in its entirety. Base layers, insulation layers, waterproof layers (I took mostly XOSKIN and La Sportiva) as well as emergency kit like a bivy bag, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, stove, etc. (never used, but carried nonetheless). Then of course a lot of calories, with my normal Hammer fuels as the foundation and a whole slew of calorie-dense 'normal' food on top of that. I fit it all in the new Ultimate Direction Adventure Vest 5.0, paired with a race belt.

SV: Essentially I brought the mandatory kit plus extra warm layers! Petzl Nao + headtorch but I also used the Swift for the first leg. Dexshell dry socks. Lots of different warm and waterproof gloves. Three types of waterproof - I wore a lightweight Berghaus Hyper 100 over the first two stages. I also carried a medium-weight Haglofs Gram Comp and a bombproof Montane Air Jacket. Plus lightweight disposable ponchos and one thick meaty one for Storm Brendan - it did the job! A Suunto Ambit 3 watch for navigation, plus a compass and Horizon GPS device (which incidentally is the most useless piece of kit I have ever had the misfortune of owning but at least it was light!).


WATCH the finale of the Spine Race:


BMC: John, how do you juggle training for long distance with fatherhood? I understand you run-commute?

JK: Yes, run-commuting has made up the entirety of my weekday mileage for years. Longer weekend runs are fit in whenever time permits, whether that be early in the morning, during nap time, or late at night on the treadmill. Quality and efficiency are key. If I have an hour to run I'm going to run for an hour, not plan my run, drive somewhere, and drive back, wasting half my available time in the process.

BMC: And Sabrina, what's your day job?

SV: I am a vet (that's the magic job right!) [Jasmin Paris is a vet] For me work is very stressful and running brings me relief - the harder I work the more I run - it's just that relationship. Running is easy to fit around anything as there is little faff - just put shoes on and go.

BMC: What do you like about running a really long way in adverse conditions?

JK: It's a great opportunity to test myself, learn and improve, all in a way that I find enjoyable.

SV: I enjoy the journey, the company of my fellow racers but also running on my own, the variety of terrain, weather, experiences, the marshalls, the checkpoints, the independence, the self-support, the challenge.


The Spine Race route


BMC: John, you've said you're not afraid of failure, why not?

JK: If I never failed then I wouldn't be testing myself, learning, and improving as mentioned above. Any goal, or challenge, must by definition include the possibility of failure. Otherwise it's just a task. People should be more afraid of never failing.

BMC: Sabrina, did you ever think of giving up?

SV: When I left Hawes my ankles had started to swell and was very painful - I did question whether I should return to the checkpoint to sort it out before heading up Shunner Fell ... but I don't like turning back! Coming off Shunner Fell was very painful and slow and I did wonder if I would have to stop but I managed to ice the ankle in Keld reading room. The same thing happened coming down from Greg's Hut but I once again managed to ice it and sort it in Garigill.

BMC: John, you're an American living in Bristol, what do you like about living in the UK?

JK: It's been great to learn about and explore a new place and culture, and to essentially have a base camp that makes a whole slew of other places accessible that I would never visited before.

BMC: What's your next race, and why?

JK: I'm going to give my Grand Round project another go sometime this summer. I'm attempting to do the three classic UK fell running rounds (Paddy Buckley, Bob Graham, Charlie Ramsay) consecutively, riding my bike in between. I fell a bit short last year, learned a lot, and established that it is one of those perfect goals for me: right at the edge of possible.

SV: I'm keen for the Cape Wrath Ultra. I've wanted to do that journey for a while - to see the landscape.

BMC: Thanks both and best of luck for your next challenges!


Follow John Kelly: 

Blog:; Twitter: @RndmForestRunnr; Strava: John Kelly

Follow Sabrina Verjee:

Strava: Sabrina Verjee


WATCH Cape Wrath: inside Scotland's epic ultra race on BMC TV:

WATCH Fell running's ultimate challenge on BMC TV:

WATCH Why She Runs on BMC TV:

We want to say a big thanks to every BMC member who continues to support us through the Coronavirus crisis.

From weekly Facebook Lives and GB Climbing home training videos, to our access team working to re-open the crags and fight for your mountain access, we couldn’t do it without you.

Did you know that we've launched a U27 membership offer for just £1.50 / month? And with full membership from £2.50 / month, it's never been easier to join and support our work:

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