By Steve Birkinshaw
Vertebrate Publishing £12.99 207pp
In 1966, Alfred Wainwright published “The Western Fells”, the last of his renowned pictorial guides to the 214 fells of the English Lake District. It had taken him thirteen years to complete the task. In 2014, Steve Birkinshaw stood on the steps of the Moot Hall in Keswick feeling in his own words “quite scared”. His aim was to climb those 214 fells within seven days.
He had every right to be apprehensive for what he was about to attempt was, in its own way, the equivalent of making the first ascent of Everest while breaking the barrier of the four-minute mile. To accomplish the 322 mile journey successfully, he had to pull together many hours of training, every trick he had learnt from his previous attempts at ultra-running events and perhaps most importantly, enough luck to avoid injury.
The first half of “There is No Map in Hell” describes the development of the author as both a fell runner and as a person. He discovers very quickly that success as the former is inextricably linked to the latter. To meet Kipling’s two imposters, Triumph and Disaster, in the right frame of mind and to learn lessons from both is an essential key to success in any field and ultra-running is no exception. Steve recalls his personal Damascene moment. He was defending his own Lakeland 100 title, a 105 mile race that started and finished at Coniston. A moment arrived when he realised he was too far behind the leader to overtake him. Once this dawned he stopped running and sat down on the grass verge, utterly deflated.
This was not the first time he had given up – early attempts at the Bob Graham Round and its extension had ended in something less than glory. But this time the circumstances were different. There was no support team to whisk him to a pair of clean socks and a pint. He was in the middle of nowhere and had to reach the finish to get home. He started to first trudge then reluctantly jog towards Coniston. Gradually his stride lengthened and he even began to enjoy himself. It was then he realised his mistake and that the key to successful long distance races of any sort was not to worry about your competitors, records, split times and the like, but simply focus “on looking after yourself” and let the rest follow.
The second part is a blow by blow account of the Wainwright run itself. When Steve came to write this section, he must have been faced by a bit of a problem. If he had not been careful it could have easily descended into “I ran up a hill and it hurt, then I ran down the other side and it hurt even more” two hundred and a bit times, but he struck on a rather clever way of avoiding such endless repetition. His decision to wear a tracker meant that although he was out of sight, the members of his support team always had him in view, enabling them to react to situations as they unfurled. These reactions were then turned into words and interspersed between the various sections that describe the running itself.
The views of Steve’s wife, Emma, who had to balance work, small children and being ever present to offer physical and moral support, Jane Saul, i/c logistics, worrying whether the right people and sustenance would turn up in the right place at the right time, Mel Culleton-Wright tending Steve’s ever-worsening strains and blisters, and Al Lee, the film maker, frustrated at not getting camera and runner in sync or panicking at the thought that his motorised paraglider might have crashed, together, contribute to a sense of fearful anticipation. In many ways it is reminiscent of a NASA operation – members of Ground Control fretting over the possibilities of failure while the Mother Ship orbits silently above them.
The tracker was also picked up by strangers who would follow Steve’s every move, waking in the middle of the night to check progress or in the case of Ben and Gemma O’Dowd, aged 12 and 10 respectively, rushing after school to the top of Great Dodd to join the runners. Finally, there are the retrospective accounts of the support runners who witnessed first-hand the highs and painful lows witnessed on their watch. So rather than a dull plod, the reader is presented with a kaleidoscope of action and emotional reaction from a variety of viewpoints. The loneliness of the long distance runner, this was not.
Despite the elite nature of the achievement, this book deserves and should get a wide audience. For the young, like Ben and Gemma O’Dowd, it will act as an inspiration. For those still fell-bashing and hoping for great things, it gives practical advice on how to cope with the rigours of single and multi-day challenge runs. And for the rest of us who have hung up our antiquated equivalent of Inov-8 X-Talons, it offers a chance to recall, in the comfort of a blister-free armchair, our own attempts to “fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run”.
All in all, this is a remarkable book, written by a remarkable man.