In 1986, the legendary fell runner Joss Naylor completed a continuous circuit of all 214 Wainwright fells in the Lake District, covering a staggering distance of over 300 miles – plus many thousands of metres of ascent – in only seven days and one hour.
Those in the know thought that this record would never be beaten. It is the ultimate British ultramarathon. The person taking on this superhuman challenge would have to be willing to push harder and suffer more than ever before. There is no Map in Hell tells the story of a man willing to do just that.
In 2014, Steve Birkinshaw made an attempt at setting a new record. With a background of nearly forty years of running elite orienteering races and extreme-distance fell running over the toughest terrain, if he couldn’t do it, surely no one could. But the Wainwrights challenge is in a different league: aspirants need to complete two marathons and over 5,000 metres of ascent every day for a week.
With a foreword by Joss Naylor, There is no Map in Hell recounts Birkinshaw’s preparation, training and mile-by-mile experience of the extraordinary and sometimes hellish demands he made of his mind and body, and the physiological aftermath of such a feat. His deep love of the fells, phenomenal strength and tenacity are awe inspiring, and testimony to athletes and onlookers alike that ‘in order to attain the impossible, one must attempt the absurd’.
- Have a background of running over the fells for many years – decades preferably. You are less likely to get injured and will be able to move faster, especially when tired, over the rough Lake District terrain.
- Recce good routes between as many of the Wainwright fells as possible. Alternatively, find supporters to help on sections they know really well.
- Find a lead support person who is happy to drive round the Lake District for a week with very little sleep (!), who will sort out your every need, and also the needs of up to fifty people who will be running with you. They need to put up with continual stress and hassle for the whole week, and yet stay calm and be able to make good decisions. A pretty big ask.
- Find up to fifty people who are happy to be out with you at any time of the day on sections of up to ten hours. If there are at least two on every section it makes it much easier.
- Eat as much as you can while running the Wainwrights. On a run of this length with twenty-hour days, you will never be able to eat as many calories as you consume. The pace is slow, so the type of food is not really important. All that matters is finding something you can eat – that you fancy. At the support campervan I enjoyed pizza, onion bhaji and tepid soup. Whilst running, Torq gels went down well. But everyone is different in what they feel they can stomach at times like this.
- Make sure you stay hydrated. With a support team carrying water for you this should not be an issue.
- Avoid getting blisters or any over-use injury. I changed my socks and shoes regularly to keep my feet dry and I still got really bad blisters – even though I have never had bad blisters before. I also got tendonitis in the front of one of my legs above the ankle, despite decades of running long distances over similar terrain.
- Accept that things will go wrong, and don’t stress about it when they do. I was badly sick at one point, which I could have got quite stressed over, but I took it easy for the rest of the section and after a rest in the campervan my stomach was OK again.
- Make sure all the shoes and clothing items have been tested beforehand and do not rub.
- Have a campervan (or even two like me) at every support point. This allows for hot food to be made easily, provides a nice place to change away from midges and also gives the possibility of sleeping if necessary.
- Remember that everyone out helping you has volunteered and given up their time to be there for you. So be nice to them and thank them.
- Pick a week with a really warm, dry weather forecast. It will make your support team much happier and everything easier to organise. If only it was that easy! By the time fifty people are sorted and ready to help it is very hard to change the date, you just need good luck.
Good luck to anyone that does try and run round the Wainwrights. The key things are to have run long distances for many years on the fells and to find a great support team so that all you need to do is think about putting one foot in front of the other.
So there we have it, some tips from Steve and Day 4 of his 9 day running blog tour. Next up, a post on Andy Mouncey’s blog tomorrow.