Mountain Days | Walking The Wainwrights

Talking Wainwrights With Steve Birkinshaw

Steve Birkinshaw, Wainwrights, Chronic Fatigue & Blencathra

If you are Walking The 214 Wainwrights, you may appreciate that Fell runner Steve Birkinshaw has been a personal hero of mine for the last 5 years but there’s more to it than you think. We spent the day together recently, along with John Beamson, climbing Halls Fell Ridge on to Blencathra and descended Sharp Edge. I’ll tell you exactly why Steve’s ‘journey’ is such an inspiration to me.

With Steve Birkinshaw after descending Sharp EdgeWith Steve Birkinshaw after descending Sharp Edge
After descending Sharp Edge

We spoke about Steve’s 214 Wainwrights fell running record, chronic fatigue syndrome and the awaited record attempt of Paul Tierney, as well as family life, head fog and not knowing where you are! I saved this blog for today as it’s Steve’s 51st birthday.

Steve is a quiet, unassuming, well spoken man who you’ll warm to quickly when you meet him or, as did many walkers on Blencathra when we were there, you may simply walk past him not knowing who he is, he’s a legend but he doesn’t shout it from the hill tops.

Mountain running and orienteering is in the family, he started when he was 5 years old. He competed in many fell running and orienteering events including winning the Original Mountain Marathon 7 times and did the Bob Graham Round in 17 hours 9 minutes in 2005, as well as winning many other fell races.

Steve’s Achievements To Date (list courtesy of Berghaus)

  • Record holder of the fastest time summiting all 214 Wainwright Fells
  • Winner of the 2012 Dragons Back Race across the spine of Wales
  • 7 times winner of KIMM/OMM elite
  • Winner at several elite mountain marathons
  • Winner Lakeland 100 (UTLD) – 105 mile trail race
  • 2 times winner British Adventure Racing Champs
  • 7th World Adventure Racing Champs
  • Winner Hebridean Challenge
  • British 35+ Orienteering Champion
  • British Night Orienteering Champion
  • Bob Graham Round (17:09) 10th fastest
  • Charlie Ramsay round (21:02) 9th fastest -fastest solo round
  • Paddy Buckley round (20:27) 9th fastest

Steve assisted fellow fell runner Kilian Jornet last year on his record breaking Bob Graham Round of 12 hours and 52 minutes, of this he said, ‘That’s what you do.’ There’s a good community spirit in fell running in the Lake District. He also said that Paul Tierney is using a very similar Wainwright route that he devised in 2014, which not only attempts to cover a shorter distance with the least ascent but needs to avoid tricky areas such as bogs, boulder fields and river crossings.

Steve Birkinshaw’s Wainwrights Route InfographicSteve Birkinshaw’s Wainwrights Route Infographic
Steve’s Wainwrights Route Infographic

The ascent by the way of all those Wainwrights in one go is like climbing Everest 4 times! The distance covered on Steve’s Wainwright route was 323 miles and of course topped each of the actual 214 Wainwright summits detailed in Alfred Wainwright’s Pictorial Guide To The Lakeland Fells.

Our Day Up Blencathra

The start of the Halls Fell Ridge ascentThe start of the Halls Fell Ridge ascent
The start of the Halls Fell Ridge ascent

So we met at The White Horse in Scales in the Lake District, along the A66 between Penrith and Keswick, and took John’s car down to Threlkeld just near Ken Hebson’s for our steep ascent of Halls Fell. The weather was stunning, not a whiff of wind and you could see right across Lakeland as far as the Southern Fells. I’d not been up Blencathra this way so I was quite excited. I was hoping Steve was as excited about his first ever descent of Sharp Edge.

Climbing Halls Fell Ridge with Steve BirkinshawClimbing Halls Fell Ridge with Steve Birkinshaw
Climbing Halls Fell Ridge

As we climbed the fell-side I needed a stop now and again. My chronic fatigue syndrome really makes it hard for me to ascend at speed. My muscles burn and eventually anxiety takes over, my heart racing and chest pounding, with Robustours John and this running Lakeland Legend I might have been in trouble but they were both very patient.

Blencathra Summit with Steve BirkinshawBlencathra Summit with Steve Birkinshaw
Blencathra Summit with Steve Birkinshaw and John Beamson

Steve’s condition, starting shortly after his Wainwrights round, was very different to mine. He says that he would wake up in the morning with the worst hangover ever, sometimes not even knowing where he was! Nearly 5 years on, he’s very fit it seems, he’s out running every day and up Blencathra (his local) once a week, although he prefers Doddick Fell for running up to Halls Fell due to the easier terrain.

The New Blencathra Summit StoneThe New Blencathra Summit Stone
The New Blencathra Summit Stone

We’re back on Blencathra summit where we laid The New Blencathra Summit Stone a week previous. Steve kindly joined us the morning after to help promote the event. A couple of ladies on the summit take our photo between them as I do theirs and off we head for Sharp Edge. the conditions even at the 800m top of this arête are perfect and we drop down the gully with ease and onto The Edge.

Steve tells us about his commute to Newcastle University once a week and how he juggles running, his working hours and the remaining symptoms of his CFS. Like me he works better in the afternoon and working from home can move things around when needed.

I still have to run a company through my chronic fatigue (the hiking business, WildFire, is part of my exit strategy to this company). Even though I have some flexibility it’s very difficult to keep up, this is why Steve Birkinshaw has been such an inspiration to me. Steve has battled through and came running out the other side.

Steve Birkinshaw descending Sharp EdgeSteve Birkinshaw descending Sharp Edge
Steve and John on Sharp Edge

We dance down Sharp Edge, the rock is as dry as Ghandi’s flip flops and we level off at the mouth of Scales Tarn. I ask if he takes anyone out running, does he have any interest in becoming a Mountain Leader. Interestingly, he really fancies the idea. I’m sure being a Research Hydrologist pays better but money isn’t always what motivates, Steve loves the mountains. Watch this space!

There is No Map in Hell

Steve Birkinshaw’s book – There Is No Map In HellSteve Birkinshaw’s book – There Is No Map In Hell
Steve’s book – There Is No Map In Hell

Arriving back at the pub Steve signs a copy of his book, There is No Map in Hell, for John’s girlfriend Emma. In the book, Steve talks about how it all began, running and orienteering with his family. Of course, it’s all about beating Joss Naylor’s 27 year old Wainwright record really (Joss actually helped Steve plan the new route! and wrote the ‘foreword’ for the book) and how he went about planning and executing such a mammoth task. You can buy Steve’s book from Amazon below for less than a tenner.

Here’s the moment Steve completed the 214 Wainwrights Record reaching Keswick…

Steve actually ran the 214 Wainwrights in 6 days, 12 hours and 58 minutes.

So now you see anyway why I like the guy so much and really enjoy spending time with him, hopefully something here rings for you as well. It’s overwhelming when someone tells you that you are an inspiration, I do know how that feels but this for me is on another level.

Happy birthday Steve.

Further Reading / Listening

Steve Birkinshaw’s Running Blog

John Beamson Interviews Steve Birkinshaw

Steve Birkinshaw – There Is No Map In Hell