In mid June ultra-runner Paul Tierney completed a record breaking round of all 214 of Alfred Wainwright's Lake District peaks, in an astonishing time of 6 days, 6 hours and 5 minutes. How on Earth did he do it, and what was it like to be in the go for nearly a week? Fiona Russell catches up with him to find out more.
When Paul Tierney ran into the record books on 19th June, with his fastest time for summiting all 214 of Alfred Wainwright's Lake District peaks in one go, it seems he was the most surprised of anyone.
For Paul, originally from Cork in Ireland, the Wainwright challenge had been only "possibly doable". He says: "I wanted to do a run that was a bit out of the ordinary. I didn't think I could do a fast challenge, such as running to the most Wainwright summits in less than 24 hours, but I thought I might be able to finish the 214 Wainwrights.
"I wanted something longer that would take more time and endurance rather than something shorter and faster.
"I also thought, once I looked at the route and reccied some of the sections, that it might be possible to beat Steve Birkinshaw's record time of six days and 13 hours set in 2014 if I took fewer rest stops.
"But mostly I thought the whole thing might be beyond my ability – and that was a good challenge for me. So, when I did finish it and I had broken the record, I was very surprised."
History of the Wainwrights list and records
More than 50 years ago, Alfred Wainwright spent some 13 years creating a series of seven books known collectively as A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells. They include well-known Lake District mountains such as Scafell Pike, Helvellyn, Great Gable and Skiddaw, as well as some of his favourites, Cat Bells and Latrigg.
The 214 "Wainwrights" have since provided inspiration to many people, including walkers and runners. Inevitably, where there is a list, there are people who are keen to tick off all summits.
In 1985, one runner, Alan Heaton, decided to reach all 214 peaks by a single route, rather than book by book. He started and finished at the now famous Moot Hall in Keswick. Alan was hit by problems with his feet and ended up in hospital some five days into his Wainwrights challenge. In the end, he finished in nine days, 16 hours and 42 minutes.
Next came fell running legend Joss Naylor, from Wasdale. In 1986 he added the 214 Wainwrights record time of seven days, one hour and 25 minutes to his many other endurance running records and fell racing wins.
His record stood 28 years until, in 2014, Steve Birkinshaw, of Threlkeld, set out to beat it. The 2012 winner of the Berghaus Dragon's Back Race completed the route of over 318 miles and including 36,000m of ascent (equivalent to four times up and down Everest), in 6 days, 12 hours and 58 minutes.
Paul's Wainwrights run
I am not really sure how much rest I got through the whole challenge, perhaps a couple of hours maximum every 24 hours
Paul, who has lived in Windermere since 2013, believes his completion of two Tor des Géants races were key to his mental and physical ability when attempting the Wainwrights challenge.
He is also a previous winner of the Lakeland 100 and has represented Ireland in the Trail World Championships four times.
The 36-year-old says: "Doing two Tor des Géants, which are 330km long and take days to complete, showed me that I was capable of longer-distance runs. It gave me the knowledge and confidence to be able to think about the Wainwrights challenge.
"It was obviously going to be further and longer but I thought it might be possible for me to do.
"In fact, when I look back I think I struggled more with the lack of sleep and motivation to keep going in the Tor des Géants compared to the Wainwrights."
Paul explains that during the Wainwrights challenge he was never alone. "That made a big difference to how I felt," he reveals.
He adds: "In unsupported races, like the TdG, you are on your own with your own thoughts and I definitely felt more sleepy at times even though the race was shorter. With the Wainwrights, I always had people there to keep me company and support me.
"All I had to do was to keep going while others looked after my every need."
The toughest part of the Wainwrights was getting back out on the run after each short rest, he recalls. The plan was to get a short sleep after every day stage and at some point in the later evening.
"This didn't always go to plan but the aim was to have a van waiting for me at a road at each stage end for some rest" he says.
"The timings weren't accurate because of things that happened on the hills, such as weather conditions and my speed, but I did try to rest each night. I am not really sure how much rest I got through the whole challenge, perhaps a couple of hours maximum every 24 hours.
"But the hardest part by far then was getting up and out of the van again. Walking down the steps of the van made me feel like I was an 85-years-old with two bad knees. Everything hurt and mentally I wanted to stop. After about 10 minutes these negative thoughts left me and I could focus on keeping going to the next summit."
Another low point for Paul was after stormy weather on the Sunday of the challenge. He says: "The rain and wind had been battering me and my fellow runners on the Sunday evening and when I tried to sleep later on my knees were throbbing really painfully. This worried me and I wondered if I would be able to finish.
"Luckily the knee pain did not worsen and I did carry on."
A critical decision
On the Monday night, some 3.5 days after setting off from the start point in Keswick, Paul made a decision that he believes was critical to his eventual success.
He says: "I arrived in Martindale on the Monday night and I needed to choose between a sleep or pushing on to do the next leg. I was so tired and I really wanted to rest but I knew that if I did the next leg it would put me a leg ahead of where Steve would have been.
"I did go on and although it felt horrible at the time it gave me a boost to know I was ahead of schedule."
Yet even then Paul, a former policeman and now a full-time running coach, did not allow himself to believe he would break the record.
He says: "I could never take for granted that I would finish the Wainwrights let alone break the record. My knee was very sore and it slowed me on the downhills. I also knew that it could stop me at any point or I could fall and be out of the challenge.
"In long distance events you just never know what will happen next."
Reaching the finish was like an athlete dreaming of winning an Olympic gold... and then it actually happens
The highs of the challenge
Despite the lack of sleep and knee pain, Paul recounts many highlights. He says: "On the Tuesday evening my friends from Ambleside AC came to run with me. There were about 30 of them and it was lovely to have them there with me. I think they made me run faster for that stretch.
"Seeing my parents on the route was great, too, and my partner Sarah McCormack also ran with me when she could. She was helping a lot with the support and organisation so she couldn't run as much as she wanted with me but it was good to see her when she could.
"In fact, all the many people who ran with me made the challenge so much easier. I am so grateful to everyone."
Paul also felt huge elation on the final leg as he returned to Keswick at the end of the challenge.
He says: "In the final couple of days I had allowed myself to believe that I might break the record. I had a cushion of extra time and it seemed possible to run faster than Steve's overall time. Then Sarah and our dog joined me and I was stunned by all the people who had come to Keswick to welcome me back. My parents were also there, which was a huge surprise because I thought they had returned home, as were Joss and Steve. It felt amazing to have them there supporting me.
"Reaching the finish was the stuff that dreams are made of. It's like an athlete dreaming of winning an Olympic gold and then it actually happens.
"I don't think I could have dreamed of anything better than how I felt when I finished. I didn't expect to break the record and it was all such a huge surprise."
In memory of Chris Stirling
Paul also believes that completing the Wainwright challenge is a fitting tribute to his friend and fellow runner Chris Stirling, who passed away suddenly earlier this year. He says: "The run was a way to raise funds and awareness for MIND UK. We are set to break the target of £30,000, which is brilliant.
"Chris suffered a lot with mental health problems and while I was doing the Wainwrights challenge I reminded myself that the pain Chris suffered was worse than anything I was inflicting on myself. I said to myself that I could deal with the pain – and that what I was doing would hopefully raise more awareness for those who suffer bigger agonies with mental health."
- Donations can be made via Paul's Justgiving page.
The exhaustion continues
It's almost a week after finishing the 214 Wainwrights in record-breaking time when I talk with him, and Paul, an Inov-8 ambassador, is still exhausted.
He says: "I have never felt tiredness like this after any running event. My Achilles is sore and I have swollen legs. I keep falling asleep and I am struggling to get back to a work routine.
"I have no idea what I will do next but I expect I will just keep on doing races. I am not the most talented runner but I do like competing, even if I sit in the middle of the field in most races, and the social side of being part of a racing scene.
"I am also still letting the dream of breaking the Wainwrights record sink in. It feels amazing."
- Paul and his partner Sarah McCormack run Missing Link Coaching together.
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