Book of the Month: There is No Map in Hell
- Friday 5th July 2019
Steve and Paul on Stybarrow Dodd. © Steve Birkinshaw.
The Wainwright record is back in the media spotlight following ultra runner Paul Tierney's successful attempt to beat Steve Birkinshaw’s 2014 record last month.
Steve, who accompanied Paul on the first leg of the race, said, '[I] was really chuffed to see Paul break the record. The video of him at the Moot Hall brought back many happy memories for me. He and his support team, including his parents were so happy and Paul was obviously happy but completely shattered. So similar to how I felt five years previously.'
In this extract from There is No Map in Hell, Steve’s bestselling account of his own Wainwright record, we’re taking a look back at the history of the race and the three previous record holders who inspired Steve to take up the challenge.
Once Wainwright had published his guidebooks, walkers started to attempt to reach the summits of all 214 Wainwright fells. The challenge was to complete them all rather than do it as fast as possible. But that soon changed, first with Chris Bland in 1981, followed by Alan Heaton in 1985 and Joss Naylor in 1986. These are three legendary fell runners, and they each attempted fast runs of all 214 Wainwright fells.
Chris Bland was from Borrowdale and he was a great runner although not as fast or well known as the other Blands, his cousins, from the same valley – Billy, David and Stuart. I knew Chris for many years as we were both members of the West Cumberland Orienteering Club. He was a great guy and I always enjoyed chatting to him. He also made the best ever trophies out of local stone and I was lucky enough to win some over the years; they are still proudly displayed in my house. In 1981 he had a go at doing a Wainwright book each day for seven consecutive days, and as he was raising money for the church roof in Borrowdale he started and finished each day at a church. In the usual fellrunner’s understatement, he wrote in a pamphlet entitled Seven Books in Seven Days that ‘For any one in Britain, any of the books in twenty-four hours represents a real challenge. That I failed to complete the entire programme no longer worries me. Before the event I was so terrified of failing miserably, that when things went so well, this was the greatest mental and physical boost I could have hoped for. I learnt much on days two and four, the latter being the worst for weather. These two days give someone else room to improve on my performance.’ I remember ten years after his amazing achievement his pamphlet was printed over the course of a year in the West Cumberland Orienteering Club bimonthly magazine. Reading it at the time I found it very inspiring and amazing that someone could run so far in a single day, let alone day after day for a week.
Unfortunately Chris suffered from depression during and after the Foot and Mouth crisis of 2001. He died in March 2003, a sad loss for the Borrowdale valley and the fell running and orienteering communities.
I don’t think I have ever met Alan Heaton. However, his achievements are amazing and he has inspired me and many other runners over the years. He is member number one in the Bob Graham Club (I am number 1,244) – the first person to complete the Bob Graham Round after Bob himself, in 1960 in a time of twenty-two hours and eighteen minutes. He extended this round on several occasions to hold the Lake District twenty-four-hour record with a best of sixty peaks in 1965 with a time of twenty-three hours and thirty-four minutes. He also did sixty-four peaks in 1974 but was thirty minutes over the allowed twenty-four hours. Overall, Alan made three successful and nine unsuccessful attempts at the Lake District twenty-four-hour record. On 29 June 1985 at 3 a.m., twenty-five years after he first completed the Bob Graham Round, he set out to complete a Wainwrights round starting and finishing at Keswick Moot Hall. He decided not to consider which of the Wainwright books the fells were described in but to join all 214 tops up in the best way for a continuous traverse. By the fourth day he was beginning to suffer with his feet: ‘The descent from Clough Head was in the full heat of the afternoon sun and my feet felt like they were on fire by the time I got to Wanthwaite. When my shoes were removed it proved to be more than the heat that was causing the pain. The fourth toe of my left foot was swollen and very tender.’ Later that day he says, ‘The thought crossed my mind that this might be the beginning of the end’. On the fifth day he went to Keswick hospital to get a course of antibiotics, so he did not start day five until 12.50 p.m. By day nine he was having real problems with his feet: ‘I was still climbing well but the downhills were very painful and traversing the worst of all’. On the tenth day his feet were getting really bad and he says, ‘Whilst traversing Causey my feet gave me so much pain that I flopped into the wet grass for a few minutes to regain my composure’. He finished at 8.12 p.m. on 8 July after nine days, sixteen hours and forty-two minutes. He notes there were ‘not many people around’.
Following the fellrunning tradition, other top fell runners of the era helped him. Chris Bland supported him on the fells for a couple of sections, and he also stayed in a caravan parked at Chris and Sheila Bland’s house on several nights and on another night he stayed at Joss and Mary Naylor’s house.
He concludes in the pamphlet he wrote entitled The Wainwright Round that ‘I would say that the twenty-five years of endeavour on the hills has brought me much frustration and disappointment but these are far outweighed by the rewards I have had. These come in different forms. Some comes from having the help and companionship of many willing people who have given a large amount of time and effort in supporting me, and some from the satisfaction which stems from testing yourself and succeeding in mastering your fallibilities in an environment where you like to be.’
Joss Naylor MBE is the most famous fell runner in the UK. A man known as ‘Iron Joss’ because of his legendary exploits and his ability to carry on however tired and however much he is suffering. He is a complete inspiration to me and loads of other fell runners. He has broken the Lake District twenty-four-hour record three times, including completing seventy-two peaks in 1975 in twenty-three hours and eleven minutes. Other records he has broken include the Pennine Way and the Welsh 3,000s. He has also won the Ennerdale Horseshoe fell race nine times in a row, and has ten victories at the Lake District Mountain Trial.
I know Joss fairly well and I still see him, now in his eighties, out on the fells helping his son gather in the sheep. He also regularly helps out at fell races giving out the prizes or giving out water on the longer races such as the Wasdale Fell Race, which passes next to his house. It is interesting to note that when Alan Heaton claimed a record, Joss would often come along a year or two later and beat it. The Wainwright fells record is no exception – Alan made his attempt in 1985 and a year later Joss had a go. He set off at 4 a.m. on 26 June 1986 from Keswick Moot Hall. He chose a similar route to Alan, with the order of the tops best suited to a continuous circuit, but with some modifications to Alan’s route. The weather started off really hot and over the course of the next four days this caused Joss to really struggle. In his account of the week, Joss Naylor MBE was Here, the level of suffering that Joss encountered is easy to appreciate: ‘Such great heat would drive me and my support team so close to submission. During the period we had to drag from ourselves not only our accumulated fitness and basic strength, we had to reach even deeper into ourselves when natural physical abilities had been drained, deeper than I had ever had to reach.’ But early on in the week he also had some great times such as sitting in a river at the end of the first day drinking a beer where he comments, ‘Happy days’.
His love of the fells shines through the whole of his account. Talking about climbers, fell runners or walkers, ‘our bond is the love for these beautiful hills’, or ‘the finest sunrise I’ve ever seen in my life, views so good you could almost identify the smit mark on the sheep across the valley’. He even rescued a lamb on the third day.