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Guest blog: Steve Birkinshaw tells us what he'd do differently if planning a Wainwrights challenge again

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Having a five-minute powernap on the summit of Great Cockup on day six of the Wainwrights. Photo: Paul Dobson.

So you've set a new Wainwright record. You've covered hundreds of miles and run more than the length of two marathons every day for a week. But what would you do differently to avoid the blisters and tendonitis?   

Steve Birkinshaw shares advice for anyone thinking of taking up the Wainwright challenge.

Looking back at my run around all 214 Wainwright fells it is amazing how many things went well.

Initially the key thing was selecting a good route. Looking at the map of all 214 Wainwright fells and picking the route with both the least distance and climb was a major task but an enjoyable one. I spent many happy hours plotting various routes before I was satisfied I had picked the best route. After that the key job was trying to get together my support team. Jane Saul looked after all the logistics, and I had about fifty other people helping out on the fells and at the road support points. I sorted out who was doing which section with me as much as I could before I started, but once I was on the move Jane had to sort out all the many, inevitable changes to the plan. For me as I was going round, I felt the following things were a success:

•    The campervans and the support runners were in the correct place to meet me at the end of every section. It was great to be able to rely upon this as I was usually in desperate need by the time I arrived at each stop.
•    There were at least two support runners with me on every section, who were carrying essential supplies and also kept up my morale.
•    I did not miss any peaks and went to the correct Wainwright summit on each one.
•    I was never lost, and in total I lost less than thirty minutes in six days and thirteen hours, from taking the less than optimal lines. 
•    Whatever food or drink I wanted was always available. This included gels, bars and ‘normal’ food.
•    I always had dry, clean clothes and shoes to wear. I’d change at every support point; being able to have fresh socks so often was so crucial to my comfort.
•    I had a quick wash at the end of every stage and stopped at three friends’ houses for showers on the way round.
•    I had regular massages and work on my feet to help prevent injury.
•    I was always (or at least I think I was) grateful and thanked my support team and never got cross with anyone even when I was incredibly tired and desperate.

So what would I do differently? The short answer is very little. The thing that lost me most time was the blisters on my feet and tendonitis at the front of one leg above the ankle. At every support point from the third day onwards the dressings on my blisters were removed, Nurse Mel treated them and then put on some more dressing. This meant that instead of a stop of twenty minutes I was often taking up to an hour. My running speed was also slightly slower because of the pain of running on the blisters. However, the hour-long stop meant I was eating a lot of food at the support points. As Billy Bland said when he reviewed the book, ‘I actually think Steve’s blisters might have been a blessing, as they caused him to slow and rest and stopped him running himself into the ground’. Similarly the tendonitis slowed me down but was kept under control with massage treatment from Jim and Phil Davies.

So could I have done anything differently, to avoid the blisters and tendonitis? I am not sure I could have. Beforehand I was very worried about blisters – although I have never had bad blisters before – as I knew they could prevent me from finishing the Wainwrights. So I made sure I had twenty pairs of new Berghaus running socks and various different shoes, and I knew the sock and shoe combinations did not cause any rubbing. I also changed my shoes and socks at every support point. But because of the heat and humidity and the twenty-hour days on my feet, blisters started causing me problems from the third day onwards. So would different socks, different shoes or pre-emptive taping of my feet have helped? I do not know and I will never know. I would need to do three twenty-hour days in similar weather conditions over similar terrain trying different things and see if I got any blisters…!

Another thing that caused me issues was being violently sick towards the end of day one. I think this was caused by the amount I needed to drink because of the heat and humidity I was running in on that day. I was sweating profusely, but the sweat was just dripping off me rather than evaporating and keeping me cool. I think I drank about ten litres of liquid in the twelve hours before I was sick. In hindsight, I probably should have gone slightly slower and then I wouldn’t have sweated so much and so not needed to drink as much, and so perhaps not been sick. In the moment I was really keen to stay on schedule, whereas I now know that I could easily have taken a little more time from my schedule and picked it up later. However, the fact that I was sick did not really make that much difference, as by the morning of the second day my stomach was back to normal and hardly caused me any problems for the rest of the week.

A bigger problem was that I really struggled to sleep on the first three nights. The first night I was planning on a two-hour sleep and then I planned on four hours’ sleep on nights two and three. But in those three nights the only deep sleep I had was the last two hours of the third night. The rest of the time I was lying down but awake, in quite a lot of pain as my knees throbbed. If I could have avoided this problem I would have been much more refreshed during the day and the sleep I had ‘banked’ would mean I would have needed less sleep later in the week. I had a very similar problem on the Dragon’s Back Race, so I was not really worried about it but just frustrated, as I knew more sleep would have helped me. I am not really sure what I could have done differently as I am not really sure what causes the problem. I think it is some sort of nerve pain with the source of the problem my lower back, so I have been doing more core-strengthening exercises since then.  

When you are out running for twenty hours a day for seven days, however well prepared you are things will still go wrong. The important thing is to accept this and not get stressed when it happens, but to work out how to cope. This is when experience and a great support team helps, and for me meant I was successful in my ambition to break the record for running round all the Wainwright fells.
    

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