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Monday, 22 December 2014

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Fell runner on how he broke Joss Naylor's Wainwright record

He was expecting hardship and it didn’t disappoint, his feet howling with pain on every downhill step.

Steve Birkinshaw photo
Steve Birkinshaw

But some discomfort was never going to stop Steve Birkinshaw from reaching his goal.

The 46-year-old fell runner took on the Wainwrights and triumphed, smashing the previous record for conquering them all by nearly 12 hours.

In themselves the statistics are incredible: 214 mountains and hills conquered, 36,000 metres climbed and about 520km (323 miles) covered, all in less than a week.

Winding his way through some of the highest Lake District peaks, his official time was six days and 13 hours, beating the previous best set by running legend Joss Naylor MBE in 1987.

Steve started from Keswick’s Moot Hall on Saturday, June 14, pounding his way up hill and down dale, before arriving, rather more fatigued, at the same spot six-and-a-half days later.

Along the way he raised more than £12,000 for the national Multiple Sclerosis Society and the Samson Centre, a local charity.

So how do you train for such an uphill task? The answer’s simple: you don’t.

Steve said: “It’s really a background of running on the fells for 20 years.

“I was always into orienteering and I came up here on holiday and started doing running on the fells.

“For that sort of distance you need the stamina and the ability to move quickly. I said I was going to do about 520km but it was a bit more.”

He began to form the idea of running the Wainwrights about a year ago, and to ask himself whether it would be possible to beat Joss’s long-standing record.

The route itself took a lot of time to plan, taking in each of the 214 hills or mountains featured in Alfred Wainwright’s famous seven-volume guide to the Lake District.

The weather was an unpredictable factor, but Steve, who works as a researcher at Newcastle University, says that the most difficult sections were descending from the peaks.

“I was expecting a lot of hardship and hard work. Day after day, doing it again and again, was completely exhausting and the sore feet was the worst bit.

“I thought about stopping in the back of my mind but I would have had to get a lot worse for that.

“A lot of people spent a lot of time helping me and I couldn’t just back out because I was a bit tired. As long as I could walk I could do it.”

During the run Steve received help from his wife Emma and a number of support runners, and was forced to dress his blisters and wounds on a regular basis.

The support team set up pit stops where he could refill with water and prepare for the next leg. They used a camper van to rest in, managing a few hours’ sleep each night.

Despite the fatigue and pain, the sunsets and sunrises brought him out of the gloom. The standout memories were descending into and climbing out of the Ennerdale Valley, and climbing the Coniston Fells.

And as well as the moments of beauty nature bestowed on him, he found support in other people.

Steve said: “The best thing was when I got to the Friday evening – at every top there were more and more people out encouraging me.

“At Keswick there were about 100 people and that was amazing, that kind of support. Gradually as I got out I realised that there were a lot of people that knew what was going on and offering me food and drink.

“There was euphoria because of the amount of people there, and complete exhaustion really. I had pushed it so hard and I was ecstatic.” He added: “I spoke to Joss before and he was really encouraging, and he’s left lots of messages for me. He knows how hard it is.”

Far from being disappointed at seeing his own achievement topped, Joss had kind words for Steve. He said: “I’m glad Steve has done it and it’s a tremendous achievement. Hopefully it’ll get other people to have a go. I always wanted someone to come along and be capable of beating it and I’m sure Steve would say the same. It’s a fantastic thing to do.”

For anyone who wants to make the record their own, Steve says: “Hopefully people will see that it’s a great thing to do and the more people on the hills enjoying themselves, the better.

“I’m really happy to help them out.”

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