Her hood cinched tight against the unforgiving British winter, Jasmin Paris ran through the continual pool of light laid down by her headlamp. The horizontal rain blew into her eyes, obscuring the upcoming checkpoint where she would briefly rest, eat and pump breast milk for her 14-month-old daughter before racing on into the dark hills.
After 83 hours, 12 minutes and 23 seconds, Paris crossed the finish line Jan. 16 to become the first woman to win Britain's Montane Spine Race. She smashed the previous record, held by Eoin Keith, by 12 hours.
The Spine Race, along the Pennine Way National Trail that traces the backbone of England, is widely known as one of the most grueling endurance races in existence: a one-week, nonstop ultramarathon that covers nearly 40,000 feet of climbing. Competitors carry their own kits with everything they need to be self-sufficient, including a sleeping bag, bivy or tent, cooking stove, at least 3,000 calories between checkpoints (of which there are five), and a GPS for navigation of the route between mountains, farmland and heather fields. The only thing Parris didn’t have to carry was her breast pump; it was in the drop bag that was ferried between checkpoints.
She ran through the first night as planned, and slept just over two hours the second night. She planned to sleep the third night, but had pulled ahead of her closest competitor, Eugeni Roselló Solé. “I knew he’d catch me on the checkpoint so I wanted to be gone before he got there,” she said. “That was the clinching deal—I think that was the point when he lost his motivation for chasing me.” She finished 10 miles ahead of Solé at 7pm Wednesday evening. Sole was forced to pull out of the race with about 4 miles to go, suffering too much from the effects of the cold weather conditions to continue.
Paris isn’t a pro athlete. She’s a 35-year-old ambassador for inov-8, whose kit she wore for the race, but doesn’t want deeper ties than that. “I prefer to be free of any obligations, because running is a hobby,” she said. “I have a career of my own and don’t want running to become another career.” Paris is a veterinarian practicing small animal medicine; she trained for the Spine Race in the middle of completing her doctorate focused on acute myeloid leukemia. Her thesis is due at the end of March.
She is, however, an accomplished athlete with a strong passion for mountain trail running. She ran right up until her due date when she was pregnant with her daughter, Rowan, and won the British Championship just four months after Rowan was born. This September, Paris took silver the in the women’s Skyrunner World Series in Glen Coe, Scotland. She acknowledges that she was lucky to have an easy pregnancy and no trauma with birth. But even after winning the championship, she felt that her body wasn’t back to pre-baby fitness.
“It was the end of summer, and I was pleased to have gotten what I got,” she said. “But I felt I had a way to go. The long winter nights were drawing in, and I was training in the cold and dark, and I wasn’t sleeping with the baby. I was finding it harder and harder to get out of bed to train and just increasingly wasn’t doing so. I needed some motivation.”
The Spine Race had been on her radar since its inception in 2012. The start line in Edale, Derbyshire, is near her parents’ home where she grew up, and the finish line in Kirk Yetholm isn’t far from where Paris lives now with her husband and daughter in Scotland. She calls it a “natural line.”
“I’d followed the race previously, and it gets you really involved in watching the trackers,” she said. “There’s always been a little part of me wondering how well I could do. Whenever I saw the racers and the conditions they were in I thought, ‘Why would you put yourself through that?’ But there was always a little part of me wondering how well I could do. Deciding to run the race was a combination of the intrigue, the natural route and the need for motivation.”
She began training in the morning from 6am to 8am, leaving her daughter with her husband—a window when the baby was usually well-behaved and didn’t need milk. She soon started incorporating runs with the stroller, parking it at the bottom of the hill for hill reps or on the trail while she did speed intervals back and forth.
“I’ve found it’s been really enriching in all senses having the baby. It makes it more challenging, but it’s so possible,” she said. She credits the support of her husband and family, and the fact that Rowan is no stranger to the adaptability required by her mom’s passion: Last October, Paris and her husband raced the Els 2900, a route that follows huts over the seven highest peaks in Andorra in the Pyrenees. “I was still breastfeeding, and my mom came up to the first hut with the baby, and carried her up to the next one, too—so Rowan was a big part of that race. I would tell new parents not be frightened and give it a go. Everyone is incredibly helpful and accommodating.”
“I really love being in the hills. Hearing the noises of the animals and the wind in the heather, the quiet of the fog—that’s part of the magic of it for me. You think in a relaxing way. It diffuses all the worries you have when you run.”
Running has been part of Paris’ life since she discovered trail racing just out of university. Road running had never appealed to her, but the adventure of long stints through the mountains hooked her quickly, as well as the meditative nature of long runs. “I really love being in the hills. Hearing the noises of the animals and the wind in the heather, the quiet of the fog—that’s part of the magic of it for me. You think in a relaxing way. It diffuses all the worries you have when you run.”
In addition to completing her doctorate and taking her daughter into the mountains as much as possible, Paris aims to run La Petite Trotte à Léon in August, a nonstop ultra through the Alps, with her husband.
“He’s already assured me that he wants more sleep than I chose to get in the Spine Race,” she said with a laugh.