We are in an age where limits no longer apply. Runners are going further, faster, for longer, in colder and darker conditions. Races are run over days and weeks, not hours and minutes. Athletes are enduring physical and emotional torment beyond what was ever thought feasible.
Steve Birkinshaw is one of those remarkable runners who know no limits. No longer content to ‘just’ win the Original Marathon Mountain and the relentless Dragon’s Back Race the length of Wales, in 2014 he set out to break Joss Naylor’s ‘unbreakable’ record of traversing the 214 Wainwright peaks in the Lake District in just over seven days.
The Wainwrights are a set of mountains described by Alfred Wanwright (1907-1991) in his seven volume Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells. Many fell walkers and runners try to ‘bag’ these 214 summits as a personal challenge, typically over several years, sometimes over decades. Few however try to complete them within the space of a week.
Steve Birkinshaw’s soon to be released book, There is no Map in Hell details his week of Wainwright fell running. It is remarkable feat, hard to even begin to fathom. For seven days, he ran two marathons and climbed over 5,000 metres on a daily basis, over some of the remotest and most difficult terrain mountains can conjure up. And what makes it even more impressive is that fact that he did it on little or no sleep, with blisters bulging out of his feet, vomiting up along the way the little nutritional energy he could consume.
Steve suffered a lot during those seven days. But what comes across time and again in the book is how he is able to endure thanks to the fortuitous team of family and friends that accompany him on his journey. Various friends accompany him up, over and down those 214 peaks. He has the good fortune of having Jane Saul, his long suffering logistician, who organises all the runners, food, campervans and support along the 300 mile course. And thanks to his amazing wife, Emma, and children, Steve is allowed to go AWOL for the week.
But what leaves the greatest impression is the hundreds of supporters who appear out of nowhere as he finishes his record-breaking run, people who he has inspired with his dogged determination to conquer all of those Wainwright hills in the fastest time ever.
What I most appreciated in the book was the final section, entitled “The Aftermath”. Ultra running takes an enormous toll of individuals, both physically and mentally. And ultra runners are not renowned for prioritizing recovery. Steve struggles to get back to racing form and, though he finished the Wainwrights with no apparent injuries, he is eventually diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. His account is a pertinent reminder of the peaks and perils of ultra fell running.
For those thinking of giving the run a go, a list of all the Wainwrights and the times Steve hit them at are given at the end. And for those of us who are mere mortals, Steve’s book about his extraordinary excursion is available to read from 4 May onwards in the comfort of our own living rooms.