This is probably the longest it’s ever taken for me to write a post for anything. It’s also probably the most difficult to put into words. Nearly a full week of nearly the entire Lake District, revisiting some of my favorite places with some of my favorite people snacking on some of my favorite foods. Ok, actually I guess that pretty well sums it up. No need to read any further.
The truth is that between recovering from the Wainwrights, moving back across an ocean to a fully unfurnished house in need of repairs, and preparing for my next big challenge, there hasn’t been time to do a Wainwrights post justice. But I don’t want to be two posts behind, so I needed to get this out before Hardrock, where Wainwrights is the preeminent example of my biggest credential of “being very comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
This was my second attempt at the Wainwrights. With few exceptions I’ve found that my biggest challenges have all taken multiple attempts to get right: Boston Marathon qualification (3), Kona qualification (2), Barkley (3), Grand Round (2), Pennine Way (2), Tor Des Geants (2 and counting). The best and most quickly gained experience is often a failure. Plus, some better weather and less bracken can help too.
This post is largely an expansion of my original Instagram posts. If you prefer the more concise version, those posts can be found at the links below:
Days 1-2: https://www.instagram.com/p/CdgivF5rFIi/
Day 3: https://www.instagram.com/p/Cdi7NYFsG2x/
Day 4: https://www.instagram.com/p/Cdld5jsMiR-/
Day 5: https://www.instagram.com/p/Cdn-7XysKPu/
Day 6: https://www.instagram.com/p/CdqqIrzslps/
About the Wainwrights
The Wainwrights are a set of 214 “peaks” in the Lake District described by Alfred Wainwright in his series of books “A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells.” It’s not all the fells (but it’s close) and some are little bumps on a ridge or just one of his favorite viewpoints rather than real peaks. Whatever someone wants to refer to them as, connecting them all in one continuous round (starting and finishing at the same point) requires over 350 miles / 570 km with over 120K feet / 37K meters of ascent (and descent). Previous estimates of around 320 miles were based on GPS data that only recorded once every two minutes, which misses switchbacks, terrain undulations, etc. Mine and another recent attempt with data recorded every second were both over 350. This is roughly equivalent to five Bob Graham Rounds plus a flat 50K to finish things off.
It was not Wainwright’s intention that they be completed as one continuous round, and it is a lifetime goal of many hill walkers to visit them all as he envisioned. Unfortunately, some of us don’t have time for that, and I would rather see some of all of them than all of some of them. Alan Heaton and Joss Naylor, two legends of fell running, were the first to complete them continuously. The continuous Wainwrights Round then went dormant for nearly three decades until Steve Birkinshaw set a new record in 2014 of 6 days, 13 hours. Steve put an immense amount of time and effort into studying, designing, and exploring the route before his attempt. The complexity of optimizing a route involving 214 points is a logistical nightmare, enough to bring a supercomputer to its knees even before taking into account terrain and underfoot conditions. I can’t overstate the importance of Steve’s efforts in paving the way for future attempts, all of which have used slight variations of his route.
Steve’s record stood for five years before being broken by Paul Tierney in 2019 with a time of 6 days, 6 hours, 4 minutes. Sabrina Verjee then set a new record of 5 days, 23 hours, 49 minutes in 2021. There have been numerous other completions over the past eight years, including Chris Gaskin’s fully unsupported round (carrying everything he needed from start to finish except water from natural sources) in 11 days, 10 hours, 58 minutes and James Gibson’s winter completion in 8 days, 6 hours, 44 minutes. The spirit and support of the fell running community is incredible, and many of these people supported each other, a tradition which continued with my own round. Mine consisted of 5 days, 12 hours, and 14 minutes of my amazing support crew feeding me, pointing me where to go, caring for my battered feat, dealing with my whining, and passing me along like a baton.
Maybe the next person who will hold the record was out there too, or hopefully at least watching the tracker. And hopefully many more will take this on as a personal challenge – enjoying many lesser known corners of the Lake District and experiencing the magic of a multi-day run or hike through the mountains. Much like the Appalachian Trail, an early source of inspiration for me, the number of speed attempts should be dwarfed by the number of people casually enjoying thru hikes or section hikes.
Run support: Steve Birkinshaw, Andy Simpson, David Fort, Martin Wilson, Eddy Prince, Emma Stuart, Martin Bergerud
Road support: Charmian Heaton, Jen Scotney
Hill support: Lisa Bergerud, Martin Bergerud, Charlotte Killick-Cole, Clare Killick-Cole
After again enjoying the hospitality of Charmian Heaton and Steve Wathall for a weekend (I try to never travel the day before starting a big run), I set off from the Moot Hall in Keswick on Monday morning at 10 AM. When something is multiple days there’s no sense setting off at sunrise in an attempt to maximize daylight; maximizing sleep is far more important.
As with my first attempt, Steve Birkinshaw joined for my first leg. My planned schedule was aggressive, and I knew that would be tested early on. I was slightly ahead of schedule at the end of that first leg, which covers some of the lower fells, but the next four sections contain three of the entire route’s toughest – covering the long rocky portions of the southern fells including England’s highest peak, Scafell Pike.
I have a pretty effective method for calculating my target splits for these challenges, but that method doesn’t (yet) properly account for weather and underfoot conditions. With wet and slippery rocks coming, I knew I would lose time on my schedule. I told my crew to expect it. I’ve learned my lessons on trying to push to catch up or keep to the schedule in bad conditions, especially that early in something that long. The cost and the risk aren’t worth it. I focused on staying steady and relaxed, putting any extra energy in reserve for when the conditions improved. Starting out on that tough stretch I was led by Martin Wilson, who has been with me through many of the most horrible conditions and lowest points in previous adventures, and when we arrived in Loweswater at dusk I was feeling great. At that point during my failed attempt last year I had been puking my guts out already wondering how I could possibly continue.
I did have a bit of extra buffer built into my schedule at some support points. After a fairly uneventful leg 3, I took advantage of that extra buffer at Ennerdale to get back on schedule. I still even managed to catch my first sleep, about 45 minutes. A lot of people push through the 1st night on multi days, but I thought banking a bit of sleep here could really pay off later and prevent a night 2 crash. I was about 64 miles and 35 peaks into the round.
Run support: Gareth Davies, Claire Davies, Mark Fuller, Jasmin Paris, Harry Bolton, Steve Wathall, Gavin Lloyd, Tom Hill, Nathan Ball, Charlie Day, Dan Bell, William Laye
Road support: Charmian Heaton, Jen Scotney
Hill support: Jason Livesay, Charmian Heaton, Charlotte Killick-Cole, Clare Killick-Cole
The next leg was also one of the longest, with some of the roughest and highest terrain. I lost more time on my schedule as we moved over the rocky terrain from Scafell to Crinkle Crags, but with the terrain and the conditions I knew it was the right level of effort.
I had done most of these tops many times on Bob Graham Rounds, but in the reverse direction. Lord’s Rake and the West Wall Traverse, my usual route between Scafell and Scafell Pike, seemed intimidating in this direction – moving down a steep rocky gully that also happened to be wet at the time. We steadily made our way down, and I took a moment to enjoy the highest point of England. It was all downhill from there.
I continued moving pretty well through the 2nd day and into the night. The Old Man of Coniston came and went quickly, and we continued on to Tilberthwaite without issue. The dense bracken that was in the area in July last year was still dormant and we moved through the forest much less impeded.
Then we passed midnight, and I had my first battle with sleep deprivation. I desperately started trying to grab nettles hoping that their stings would keep me awake (unfortunately it seems Cumbrian nettles aren’t as strong as the Somerset nettles that at times left my legs burning and itching for days). A light drizzle started, dampening my spirits further but in all likelihood probably helping keep me awake.
With the help of my support runners, I stayed awake long enough to reach Langdale just after 2:30 AM (nearly 41 hours in) for my first “real” sleep. I was a bit behind schedule, but hours ahead of last year’s attempt and feeling much better. About 133 miles and 74 peaks were behind me.
Run support: Jean Brown, Michael Rabinovitz, Simon Klos, Dougie Zinis, Sam Booth, Darren Moore, James Gibson, Sabrina Verjee, Sam Booth, James Chapman, Emma Stuart
Road support: Charmian Heaton, Jen Scotney
Hill support: Jason Livesay
About a third of the way through these long adventures is when things get real. Fatigue and sleep deprivation kick in, small issues can quickly spiral into disasters, and greater focus is needed to keep a steady pace. The freshness and excitement of the start is gone but the lure of the finish is not yet in sight. This is the point last year when I had hobbled down from Steel Fell to quit at Dunmail Raise with massive underfoot blisters. This year it wasn’t as warm and we had also been investing time at each stop for foot care.
I was over 3 hours ahead of last year’s splits and had no underfoot problems – just some toe blisters, which are much easier to treat and tolerate. I was thinking that it was somewhat fortunate I had been unable to continue last year. Had I finished I probably wouldn’t have returned this year for what was looking like an opportunity for a much better time. I also probably wouldn’t have been feeling as well if I hadn’t stopped at Barkley two months earlier after losing my pages.
My thoughts were interrupted by a loud yell behind me. One of the support runners slipped on a descent and got a bad gash on his hand, but fortunately we were near a road where he could leave and get proper treatment. It was a reminder how quickly it can end, even if things seem to be going well.
After reaching Rydal we began one of my favorite sections, with Stone Arthur and Low Pike looking down through the valley towards Windermere, England’s largest natural lake. I was also joined by a nice crowd who injected a lot of energy, including three recent or soon-to-be Wainwrights finishers in Sabrina, James Gibson, and Dougie Zinis, as well as Darren Moore who I think has joined me on every supported UK challenge I’ve taken on, and Nathan Ball who was returning for a second stint after the Coniston range (he really got some nice sections 🙂).
I was in good shape floating down the eponymous scree chute of Red Screes and moving strongly up from Kirkstone Pass into the next section, but once night fell I quickly slipped into my lowest of lows. I was having enormous difficulty staying awake, even with the pain in my feet to jar me on descents. Many ultrarunners suffer from hallucinations on multi-day events. I wish I was so fortunate. I could deal with flying purple unicorns. Instead, it’s as if I become narcoleptic. I can hit the ground while running and instantly be asleep. For power naps, it can actually be a good strategy. No wasted time trying to fall asleep or get in and out of a sleeping bag. Fifteen minutes stopped, fifteen minutes of sleep. For more substantial sleep, though, like I planned on getting at the next support point, it’s a terrible idea.
I devolve into yelling at myself, sometimes singing made up gibberish, and generally either being really miserable to be around or really entertaining. Or maybe a combination of the two. My normally quiet, mild mannered, and even keeled demeanor transforms into a caricature of a drunken, angry sailor. The best defense against the drowsiness is to have someone talk to me, whether I’m responsive or not. Anything to keep me mentally engaged. At one point my support runners and I intentionally tried to find things to argue about. They probably remember that stretch much better than I do, and somehow they tolerated me until Troutbeck, where I went down for an earlier than planned sleep 64 hours in at 2 AM. I had finished off 115 peaks and about 188 miles (over halfway there!).
Run support: Sam Booth, John Samways, Nicky Spinks, Andy Ford, Paul Swindles, Steve Rhodes, Michael Nasralla, Ross Jenkin, Kevin Walker, Steve Wathall
Road support: Charmian Heaton, Jen Scotney, Sharon Dyson, Rachel Platt
Hill support: Charlotte Killick-Cole, Clare Killick-Cole
After my emergency sleep at Troutbeck of about 2 hours (bringing me to ~5 hours in the 66 hours elapsed), I continued on at first light into the far eastern fells. I felt refreshed and was moving well, but I had been a bit overzealous eating before my nap. I still felt fairly full, and was temporarily unable to continue the slow and steady drip of calories I had been aiming for.
I started eating again towards the end of the leg (a short one), but unfortunately there was a bit of a communication and timing issue that caused us to miss the support crew for the next leg. After already leading through the horrible night leg before I slept and then sticking around through my nap, Sam Booth carried on with me into the next leg until the next set of support runners could catch up. Sam has probably eaten up more miles on my adventures than anyone – joining for large stretches of both Pennine Way runs and even doing a cycling section with me on my successful Grand Round.
A couple of hours and a few bogs later, just as I was starting to get worried about our remaining food, the next support runners found us. As they say, it’s not an adventure if everything goes to plan. It was almost right at 200 miles, and at that point my main concern shifted back to my feet. The toe blisters continued to grow, and were really causing problems on steep, grassy descents.
They were largely a result of my own taping job. I overpronate a bit and tend to get corns and calluses on the inside of my big toes and heels, so I usually a wrap a piece of tape around my big toes and that takes care of it. I had never been on my feet for that long, though. As my toes swelled and were constricted by the tape the ends of them essentially just blew up like balloons.
Jen Scotney popped and drained them at Patterdale while I grimaced through it and tried to keep myself distracted by dogs and ice cream. With “fresh” feet, I was headed up onto the familiarity of the Helvellyn ridge. It was appropriately claggy up top as night fell (the Hellvellyn ridge wouldn’t feel familiar to me any way other than dark and claggy), but we made good time and arrived in Glenridding just before midnight and 86 hours from the start. I went down for another sleep, this time making it into bed before the worst of the sleep demons arrived. By distance I was roughly 2/3 finished, 240 miles and 151 peaks into the round.
Run support: Bill Johnson, Jon Underwood, Brian Melia, Tim Ripper, David O’Brien, Sam Green, Charlie Day, John Parkin, Elaine Bisson, Steve Birkinshaw, Steve Wathall, Paul Wilson, Mike Holliday
Road support: Charmian Heaton, Jen Scotney, Sharon Dyson, Rachel Platt
Hill support: Lisa Bergerud
After a couple of hours, I awoke at Glenridding incredibly confused. I was convinced I had gone to the sleep store and returned with the wrong type of sleep, like going to the grocery store and getting cereal only to return home and find out it was milk that I needed. But there was no time to go back to the store.
After finishing off the Helvellyn ridge we moved on to Gowbarrow and the Mells – three little fells off by themselves in the northeast corner of the Lake District that add significant distance and hardly feel like a part of the Cumbrian Mountains. At the time, I wasn’t very happy about such a large amount of effort to hit three little bumps. Who am I kidding, I’m still not very happy about those three. 😅
But I had no room to complain about my usual Lake District nemesis – the weather. At times it had been a bit warm, cold, claggy, or drizzly, and wet rocks had slowed me down early, but there had been nothing extreme. Without at least one stretch of truly bad weather I might have felt like I cheated. Fortunately the forecast indicated I would get an authentic experience. I put on my full waterproofs, enjoying kicking the nettles with my protected legs as I moved across the fields from the Mells back towards the high fells.
As we returned to the heights of the northern fells, the rain and wind moved in. The climb up Blencathra and along the following ridge brought steady rain and wind. I’ve been in the Lakes in much worse, but in my body’s depleted state my core temperature started dropping. I began moving quickly, trying both to stay warm and to finish the leg fast so I could dry off. Unfortunately it’s often difficult to remember and prioritize eating in those conditions. We made great time, but it took a lot out of me and I needed nearly an hour to warm up and refuel in the support van.
It’s these points at which prior experience is the greatest asset – I knew that nothing that remained could compare to climbing Aonach Beag in the Scottish Highlands 5 days into my Grand Round with severe tendonitis during a named storm. Steve Birkinshaw was also back at the helm to lead me over the next section, along with John Parkin and Elaine Bisson, both grizzled veterans in the art of dealing with me at a low point.
So on we went. Gradually the rain lifted and the clag began to clear. As we got above it and I started to slightly dry off I warmed up and started stripping off the many layers, freeing myself from their weight and feeling the fresh air against my skin again. After a support runner changeover and resupply at Whitewater Dash, complete with a cream tea (just the scones, not the tea 😅) I continued on with new energy.
As we approached the Bakestall summit the perseverance through the rain was rewarded with one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve seen. I couldn’t help but continually look back and occasionally pause to admire it, the sun dropping into the clouds that were now below us. It gave me a boost up and over Skiddaw, the last of the “big” fells.
I started to battle sleep deprivation again, this time trying to engage my brain by temporarily taking over navigation and bashing my way straight down a heather covered hill. I arrived at the Dodd Wood support point for my final real sleep 110 hours into the adventure. I got about 1.5 hours – putting me at around 9 total. At this point I was tantalizingly close to the finish at Keswick, but I had to loop back out one more time to visit the northwestern fells. I had traveled over 300 miles and visited 185 tops… less than a Bob Graham Round left!
Run support: Kirsty Hewitson, Arturas Volianskis, Scott Newburn, Andy F, Emma Stuart, Jeff Roberts, Nicky Spinks, James Chapman, Clare Killick-Cole, Sabrina Verjee, Sam Green
Road support: Charmian Heaton, Jen Scotney, Sharon Dyson, Rachel Platt
Hill support: Martin and Lisa Bergerud, Jessi Kelly and kids
Wainwright probably never even considered people doing his peaks in one go, but if he did then Binsey is an intentional deterrent. Around 20 km on the road for one summit. On its own, it’s a great little hill: a short walk up from the road with an unobstructed view to the north as the fells level off to the sea. Instead, it was 20 km of me whining while my support runners again kept up a conversation to keep me distracted. As we headed back down the sun came up, and I hoped that I had seen the last of the night.
Some people are revitalized by the sunrise. I actually tend to get a dip in energy at that time of day before surging a few hours later. Understanding my own circadian rhythm has been important in multi-days, and I wanted just enough extra energy to get through that lull. I caught a power nap, partly between bites of pasta and while Rachel Platt, Hendrickson Method massage therapist extraordinaire, tried to revive my legs one last time. They had started to get legitimately tight and tired, battling my mental exhaustion for the title of current biggest limiting factor.
Relatively speaking, I was strong on the next two sections, through the Whinlatter Forest and then over Grisedale Pike to Rannerdale where I would start the last “real” leg. The actual final leg is fairly short, and I’d be running on adrenaline by that point anyway. It’s the next to last section that’s often mentally the most difficult. Fortunately I had a number of boosts to keep me going through that stretch, starting with seeing my family at the Rannerdale support point.
It was odd at that point seeing so many people out, a Saturday afternoon with everyone enjoying the Rannerdale bluebells in full bloom. I had been in a separate bubble for 5 days at that point. Leaving those crowds and pushing up the last big climb from the valley floor, as I was starting to fade again, the leaders of the Buttermere Sailbeck fell race came flying past. It was exhilarating. One after another they continued, careening straight down the slope with reckless abandon. It was and still is one of my regrets that I was never able to run in a proper fell race while in the UK – I just never could fit it in with Covid restrictions, living nearly five hours from the Lake District, and then having some major challenge to do or support every time I did make it up there.
The boost of excitement got me most of the way up Grassmoor, before I again started to struggle. Someone left me an encouraging note and present at one of the summits, and then Lisa and Martin Bergerud brought my family up to meet me one more time. As the energy from their cheering inevitably faded I used my last resort, what I’ve started referring to as my “cheat mode.” I fully detached my already delirious mind, my head drifting off to some happy place in the clouds after putting my legs on cruise control. I flew into the final checkpoint, probably with a bit of a crazy look in my eyes, before pushing up towards Robinson, the final top on the Bob Graham Round and the first one on my final leg of the Wainwrights.
Unfortunately my cheat mode can only last so long, my legs eventually screaming loud enough to snap my mind back to reality. Once that happens, and my body realizes what I’ve tricked it into doing, it’s not happy with me. All my reserves are gone, and there’s nothing I can do other than slog my way to the finish.
I was in great hands to get to the finish, with people I had largely chosen specifically because I knew they wouldn’t put up with any whining or excuses. Nicky Spinks, one of the toughest people out there, was continuing with me. Emma Stuart was on her 5th leg and probably now has a better knowledge of all my ultrarunning states (happy, sleepy, delirious, angry, etc.) than anyone. Sam Green was rejoining after making it through the bad weather Blencathra leg with me. And I had Sabrina Verjee, who at that point still held the Wainwrights record and had been an unbelievable support throughout my planning, preparation, and now running of the Wainwrights.
Part of the brilliance of Steve’s route, whether intentional or not, is finishing right through the center of the route. It was a remarkably clear and calm evening. I could look around to a 360 degree view of most of the Lake District, knowing that I had been up every hill in sight. I was there on Monday, over there on Tuesday, and oh I remember that spot on Wednesday… all leading to right here on Saturday. Despite the overwhelming fatigue, the nausea, the aching body, and the incoherent mind, I knew I wanted to capture that moment, to be able to call on it when I’m decades older and thousands of miles away, the Lakes and my time there a persistent vivid dream.
The final summit, rather than the actual end, is normally the big emotional spot and finale in my head. From there, the easiest way to quit is to just go ahead and finish. It’s a formality at that point, but it’s largely due to that knowledge that the last little stretch can be such a struggle. The focus is gone, pains that had been buried start to resurface, and it’s easy for attention to become fixated on the finish rather than on what it takes to get there.
So instead of looking forward towards the finish, I try to distract myself by looking back over the experience. It had been an incredible five days, and something I knew I would grow from and always cherish. I hoped the experience would leave a lasting impression on my kids too, for them to see me pursuing a passion and to succeed where I had previously failed. The thought of them running to the finish with me had been a big boost during many of my low points. Once that time finally came, I had to ask my oldest to slow down so I could keep up.
Arriving after 10 PM, it was incredible to see a crowd waiting there in front of the Moot Hall. The densely concentrated support for these big adventures in the Lake District is a unique and amazing experience. I savored the moment, and I think managed a bit of mental clarity. For the first time I even got to enjoy a bit of the traditional round from The Round – my Bob Graham finishes had come well after midnight, with everything closed and the market square empty. And my support crew came through for me again, grabbing some gelato from Casa Bella before it closed.
Eventually, I made the slow walk back to the Bergeruds’ house, where I had first been taken in as a complete stranger three years earlier when they heard that some cheeky American had the audacity to try to do the three big rounds and ride his bike between them. I went to the shower and sat in it eating a pizza before hauling myself into bed where I could finally return to the sleep store and make the correct purchase.
It was a restless night of sleep, though. The first night always is. It’s often the assumption that it’s the legs, or other physical issues, that are the toughest parts of recovery. If extrapolating from challenges of reasonable distance, then that would probably be right. But in reality, by the time the mind is recovered, hormones and biomarkers are back to normal, and sleep deprivation and brain fog are gone – the sore muscles and joints have been waiting around impatiently wondering when I’m going to get back to it.
Of that mental recovery, a big part is simply the soul searching of why on earth did I just do this (a question that can also come up often while doing it). People assume that I’m sitting around basking in the accomplishment and soaking it all in. The truth is, I just took a week off from a busy life. I’m now playing catch up on everything, trying not to get overwhelmed, and I haven’t had the time yet to fully process the experience and weigh the outcome’s benefits against those very clear and immediate costs.
For this process, I always fall back to the same basic questions that I ask myself before deciding to take on a challenge in the first place:
- Is it hard enough to force me to learn and grow in unique ways that extend into those other areas of life that I’ll be temporarily sacrificing?
- Is the possibility of success high enough to keep me sufficiently motivated for 1?
- Is there a worthwhile benchmark that can help me and others with 1 and 2?
- Is it an activity I enjoy (even though it’s necessary to push well past the level of comfort to optimize 1-3)?
If I can answer yes to all of those, then I know that eventually I’ll come back around to fully appreciating what I’ve done, what I’ve learned from it, and looking forward to the next thing. As I write this I’m less than a week away from that next thing – the Hardrock 100, which has long been a dream race of mine. I’m eagerly looking forward to it, so I’ll soon find out if I’m right about the legs and body being recovered.
Another thing that has been a big help in recent years is connecting these enormous challenges to enormous causes. To everyone that has supported those, thank you so much for your contributions to important issues that are huge passions of mine, including the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust (now Blueprint for All) and now most recently Action Medical Research. It’s been a tremendous boost to know that my time spent chasing records around the mountains has had some direct, tangible outcomes for things that actually matter. I hope that it goes beyond the immediate funds raised, and helps raise awareness and long term support for these causes.
Spreadsheet support: Bruce Gray, Simon Richardson
Support support: John Steele, Pete Jobes, Martin Stone
Stand-by medical support: Robin from Keswick Mountain Rescue
The logistics of this challenge were huge, and even the support needed support with schedule updates, rides, resupplies, etc. This was a complete team effort, and I had trust in everyone on that team to help guard against a multitude of potential problems, any one of which could have ended the entire attempt. Even my wife and kids, who support me year round, were out in the hills to cheer me on. I will never be able to properly pay back or show appreciation to the people who supported me. I can only hope they know the desire is there, and that they enjoyed being a part of the adventure and rightfully feel that anything I achieved is in part theirs as well. Oh, and also I got them trees from Trees Not Tees. 😉
Inevitably, from me and from others (ok, primarily from me), the question always comes up: could I have gone faster? The answer is always yes. Over five and a half days, finding a few minutes here and there is always possible. Just one minute faster per hour adds up to over two hours. There was at least that much time spent on taking care of my feet. If that hadn’t have been done, though, then the result could have been a complete failure like my first attempt. But maybe other people can do it without as much footcare, or without as much sleep, or without as much stopping on top of Binsey to whine about the long road section. Steve Birkinshaw made the great graph below, showing how my pace while I was moving wasn’t much faster than him or Paul, but my time spent resting was about the same as Sabrina and James.
All of those things could increase speed, but that’s at the cost of increasing risk. Then there’s the uncontrollable factors to consider like weather. So to me the actual question is always: what’s the probability I could go faster? In this case I think it’s rather small, at least to go significantly faster. If this was a 90th percentile performance for me, then attempting something this massive ten more times to try to shave a bit more time off of it seems pretty impractical. But if a lot of people attempt it, or even if just the right person attempts it, then the odds are pretty high that the stars will align for someone and they’ll smash my time. I still believe that under 5 days is possible – given the right person, the right performance, and the right conditions.
But one of my blog posts wouldn’t be complete without some actual data, so here it is! First up, my planned pace vs. my actual pace. I stayed fairly close to my sub 5 day plan for the first 100 miles, partially by sacrificing some of my planned rest. After that I began to slowly but steadily lose ground on my plan, and at two points later in the attempt I mentally reframed the goal as first 5 days, 8 hours and then again to 5 days, 12 hours. Keeping the goal mentally just within reach, like a carrot on a stick, is important to maximizing motivation.
Next up, my time spent resting at each support point, always a potential source for gaining time. Sabrina taught me one of my favorite UK terms, that I will absolutely continue using back in the US: don’t faff! Go into support points knowing exactly what you need to get done, get it done, and then get out. Nothing extra and no time wasted trying to figure out what you need once you’re already there! Most of the biggest bars in the chart below are when I slept, with the exception of Mosedale Rd End when I was warming up and recovering from the rough weather on the Blencathra leg. The other three sizable ones from Martindale to Dockray are when we were trying to figure out how to best pop, drain, and tape my toe blisters. There’s easily over an hour that could be gained there. Total, this is about 20 hours of rest, with around half of that spent sleeping or trying to sleep.
And finally, for anyone who really wants to dig into the data, perhaps in planning their own attempt one day, the charts below show my planned vs. actual split (rest time excluded) for every single Wainwright and support point. Where the red extends above the blue, I lost time vs. my plan. Blue above red indicates the opposite. There weren’t many huge losses of time, mostly just a few minutes for each Wainwright adding up to 12+ hours behind my original schedule.
And finally, for raw data that can be used for further custom analysis or planning, my Strava activity and Open Tracking page are below.
Note: I have relationships with many of the companies mentioned below. Please refer to my Partners page to see the companies I work with. For a few of the companies, buying something through a link you click here will give me a small commission. It might even cover the web hosting cost of this blog. 😄
I was in La Sportiva Cyklons for nearly the entire time, with just a few sections in Mutants. I found the BOA dial to be extremely useful, particularly to help manage any issues with toe blisters or foot swelling. I ended up essentially having one setting for ascents and a tighter adjustment for descents, easily dialing back and forth between the two. The built-in gaiter is also one of the few built-in gaiters that I actually trust.
My watch was a COROS Vertix 2, which provided a great navigation reference with the track loaded onto full topo maps. Being able to see the distance and elevation gain to each waypoint on the route was also great for mentally breaking things down into manageable chunks. I had it locked the whole time so I didn’t have to worry about accidentally stopping it, but could still scroll through the data screens I had set up. And the biggest feature for me on challenges like this: I only recharged it once (which was precautionary… it probably would have made it the distance without a single recharge). I had GPS data being recorded every second, but I did have both the wrist heart rate and the special dual frequency GPS turned off.
Given my tendency to do things in inclement weather, I’m often asked about rain gear. For light rain my go-to is the Ultimate Direction Ultra Jacket and Ultra Pants (trousers). These are lightweight and pack small, and easily deal with “uncomfortable” conditions. I also had a super thin Ultimate Direction wind jacket that was great for dealing with the normal variations in conditions that come with different elevation and exposure. When conditions get really bad, though, I don’t know of much ultrarunning gear that works – most of it being specifically designed to just barely meet minimum UTMB requirements. In truly bad conditions I end up wearing more skimo gear than ultrarunning gear, and so for heavier rain or wind I switch to my La Sportiva Odyssey GTX jacket.
My base layers were XOSKIN, always with a pair of toe socks double layered under a pair of normal socks, plus XOUNDERWEAR and usually a top as well (unless it got really warm). I had no issues at all with chafing, and they regulated temperature really well. The most boring bits of gear are the ones that I don’t have to put any thought into and that just work. I never considered using anything else, and never had any reason to.
Another area where my gear selection has become straight forward is lighting. If it’s an easy-to-follow route or I’m only looking at a short period of darkness, I go with the Petzl Actik Core. The new model has a locking function to prevent the light from accidentally turning on in a pack and draining the battery – on the earlier model I always put the battery in backwards to prevent this. For more difficult navigation or longer periods of darkness, I go with the Petzl NAO+. A smartphone app lets me customize the brightness for a target battery duration. Both lights use rechargeable batteries – I cringe thinking of all the batteries I would have burnt through at this point if my lights used disposables.
I should probably do an entirely separate blog post at some point on my gut issues and the things I’ve tried for relieving them. They’ve been a main cause of a few failures or severe problems over the past few years. It’s not a matter of just eating the wrong things, or an improper nutrition plan during my runs. Those are things I’m quite experienced with and have developed and evolved sound plans over the years.
But our bodies evolve too, sometimes faster than those plans can keep up. There are some things that aren’t solved by just selecting the right fuel, like my ulcer during my first Pennine Way attempt. Even outside of running I’ve had issues with acid reflux and other GI problems (guess I’m getting old). Some of it got so bad I was convinced it was angina, something much more frightening (on WebMD there are fewer than six degrees of separation between any symptom and cancer).
After two failed solo winter rounds early this year I had had enough and went all in on trying to figure things out. I did a month of Nexium to allow any remaining tissue damage to heal, went through testing for things like Celiac, H. pylori, and IBD, ran myself through a series of food intolerance tests (wanting an answer quickly, I chose the not-doctor recommended plan of trying to intentionally give myself acute exposure to things instead of elimination diets), researched everything I could, and even tried “alternative” solutions like alkaline water. At the end I was left with few definitive answers, although I do have enough suspicion to not risk some things during or close to a big run (looking at you, sesame).
In the end, I focused on eliminating or reducing things that can cause stomach acid problems, starting with my beloved selection of hot sauces. I eat about three apples a day, which whether placebo or real seems to help. I still have an alkaline water bottle. It at least hasn’t hurt.
During runs, I stripped back nearly everything and built a new plan from scratch:
- 50% Tailwind
- 25% Supernatural
- 25% whatever I crave at the time from other tested items (chocolate, chips, bars, etc.)
The Tailwind has been great in ensuring I get a bare minimum of hydration, calories, and electrolytes. It has also been really easy on my stomach, I enjoy the taste, and it helps prevent the cotton mouth that I often get on multi-days. Admittedly I didn’t like the strong salty taste at first, but it grew on me and I found the flavors that work best for me (berry, raspberry, and lemon).
The Supernatural helps keep me feeling satiated – some actual food and more than just sugar. I can also take in a pouch gradually rather than all it once, and it’s again really gentle on my stomach and goes down easy. My favorite flavor is the oats, bananas, and maple syrup. They also recycle all of their pouches, which is especially great after seeing how many empty ones are left after five and a half days.
It’s always still great to leave some room (but not all the room) to let your body call the shots – it’s actually really good at craving the type of nutrition it needs, whether it be salty, savory, sweet, etc. I try to always have a tested option from each of those available. For something as long as the Wainwrights, that also includes real food at support points (pizza, pasta, yogurt, fish and chips, burgers, etc.), particularly before sleeping.
Admittedly, on the last day or so of the run, I slipped from my plan a bit and didn’t eat as much as I should have. That’s not only bad for the run, but bad for recovery. Overall, though, being able to keep eating as well as I did for as long as I did was a huge success, and something I had been really concerned about after recent failures on shorter efforts.
8 thoughts on “Wainwrights Take 2 – One Last Trip Around (all) the Fells”
I’m exhausted reading all of that over! What a ride since you came to the UK, JK! I’ve enjoyed every single minute
Thanks so much Sharon, hope you’re doing well!
Great read, John, as always – honest and humble. Congratulations on this amazing achievement, and on assembling such a great support team – they are amazing too! It has been great following your inspirational adventures while you have been based in the UK, and good luck with all those across the pond (and elsewhere!). I shall follow with great interest and awe, no doubt!
Thanks very much Jon, and all the best for your own goals and adventures!
A great story well told as usual, John. We have really enjoyed your exploits while you’ve been over here and you and your lovely family have been wonderful ambassadors for your country. Good luck with Hardrock and hope to see you over here some time in the future – maybe at a fell race this time! Ali.
Thanks so much – I’m sure I’ll be back at some point, it would be great to fit a fell race in and cross paths!
I loved reading your account John having followed it all as it happened. I remember when BB set the BGR record and then watched over the years as so many attempts were made to beat it thinking that was really something so special and will it ever be beaten (and then bang KJ smashed it!). I like to think your record will stand for a long time as it is such an immense achievement that needed so many things to go right but I fear in the age of ‘professional’ running (as shown by KJ’s record) that it is only a matter of time… Good luck in the Hardrock
Thanks very much Mark. It will be exciting to watch what I hope will be many attempts!