Wainwrights DNF – Warm, Wet, & Steep With a Side of Bracken

This is by far the longest it’s ever taken me to do a post on one of my adventures. It’s now nearly five months since my attempt at the Wainwrights. I don’t know that I have a lot to add beyond what I initially posted on social media, and a lot of this is copy/paste from that, but I at least wanted to collect it all here in one place if for nothing more than my own future reference (and planning šŸ˜‰).

The Wainwrights are a set of 214 peaks in the Lake District described in the seven books that make up Alfred Wainwright’s Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells. The route can vary a bit, but most recent attempts have been slight variations of what Steven Birkinshaw developed for breaking Joss Naylor’s record in 2014, which amounts to somewhere around 320 miles and 110K feet of ascent. Steve’s record was broken by Paul Tierney in 2019, which was then broken by Sabrina Verjee this year in a time of 5 days, 23 hours, and 49 minutes. It was also completed this year by Chris Gaskin in 11 days 11 hours fully unsupported (alone, carrying absolutely everything needed to finish from the start except water from natural sources).

In a challenge like this, the physical and mental preparation are just part of it. The logistics planning is enormous: route, schedule, support point locations, support runners, backups, food, kit, sleep, and contingencies for everything that can go wrong over six days. Fortunately I had built up a bit of experience with that from efforts like The Grand Round and Pennine Way and had an amazing group of people supporting me both on and off the hills. Since previous posts describe some of the planning process in a good bit of detail including how I develop my schedule, I’ll jump right to the action here.

Day 1

Road support: Nicki Lygo, Sharon Dyson, Charmian Heaton
Leg 1 run support: Steve Birkinshaw, Andy Ford, Liam Braby
Leg 2: Neil Talbott, Sam Booth, Nicky Spinks
Hill support: Martin and Lisa Bergerud, Sabrina Verjee

If anyone sees that pair of sunglasses somewhere in a stream in the Lake District, can you let me know? šŸ˜¬ Photo: Martin Bergerud

I set off from Moot Hall in the middle of a flower stand set up in the town square for the Saturday market. The forecast was warm, but I had dealt with much worse before and felt I just needed to give my body time to acclimate. I had spent the past few weeks doing my easy runs in the middle of the day then hopping right into a hot shower – it was the best prep I could manage. I refused to let any of my support crew use the term hot, both for psychological reasons and because let’s be real… England doesn’t get hot. šŸ˜„ In any case, it was far above the optimal temperature for a strenuous day out in the mountains.

The first leg from Keswick to Borrowdale is over some of the lower fells, keeping the temperatures higher and the wind lower. I was led by Steve Birkinshaw, the person who first put the modern route together and beat Joss Naylor’s longstanding record. Without Steve’s run, it’s doubtful any of the others in recent years would have followed. We made it through without major issues and ahead of schedule, thanks to some resupplies that were hiked in for us at key spots.

The second leg from Borrowdale to Loweswater passes over some of the peaks from leg 4 of the Bob Graham Round. It was more technical, longer, and with tougher climbs. We were at higher elevations, but we didn’t get the wind that I was hoping for so the warmth remained a factor. My schedule didn’t properly account for some of these things. Despite moving well we gave back most of the leg 1 gains.

Unfortunately even the slower pace was a bit much for my stomach to handle in those conditions. After arriving at Loweswater (46 miles, 13 hours, and 30 peaks in) I laid down for a bit, then got up and vomited more than I thought my stomach could have held. It left my legs feeling trembly and weak, and my head and stomach felt awful. It wasn’t any sort of big underlying problem this time, just an inability of my stomach’s input of fluids to keep up with my body’s output. If not for my great crew, and thoughts of the people supporting me, there’s a good chance I might have been done there. That early, feeling like that already?

After an ad hoc nap I still didn’t feel well, but I started back off slowly with a steady slow drip of fluid and calories to get me going again. It was a night leg, so I could cool off and reset a bit for the coming day.

Day 2

Road support: Nicki Lygo, Sharon Dyson, Charmian Heaton
Leg 3: Dave Harrison, Rose Singleton
Leg 4: Tim Ripper, Andy Ford
Leg 5a: Sabrina Verjee, Phil Sturgeon, Pat McIver
Leg 5b: Nick Sebley, Martin Wilson, Matthew Allen
Leg 6: Nick Sebley, Chris Gaskin, Matthew Allen
Hill support: Martin and Lisa Bergerud, Carol Morgan, Simon Franklin, Daniel Simpson

I became nocturnal. I decided that from there my naps would come in the middle of the afternoon. There was no clag so navigation was fine at night, with amazing long range views out to the lights of the towns along the coast. Overheating had become the biggest risk by far. I continued on through Ennerdale and over the rest of the western fells to Nether Wasdale. After one of many soaks in a mountain stream, cooling my body while trying in vain to keep my feet dry, I went down for my nap in the middle of the afternoon.

Photo: Andy Ford

I felt bad for my support runners, waiting around due to my altered sleep schedule, but it was the only way forward I saw. I was led over the next section, probably the hardest of the whole route, by Sabrina Verjee, the current record holder who had already gone to incredible lengths to set me up for success. We made it over Scafell Pike, the highest point in England, then turned to the southernmost portion of the route. I was stunned by the small number of people out on a clear Sunday afternoon that would have been absolutely beautiful for a leisurely walk.

I welcomed the evening. We had another clear night with a beautiful half moon, and I was joined by Chris Gaskin, adding the unsupported record holder to the all-star cast. But unfortunately it stayed rather warm overnight – something that I honestly don’t think I’ve ever experienced in the UK. The air was dead, with no wind at all as we traveled over Coniston Old Man.

But it was better than being fully exposed in direct sunlight. I felt my strength (and hunger) returning. We pushed through the next checkpoint without even stopping, heading towards Tilberthwaite Quarry – the point where my own familiarity with the route would greatly increase.

Day 3

Road support: Jen Scotney, Sharon Dyson, Charmian Heaton
Leg 7: Gav Lloyd, Chris Gaskin, Charlie Day
Leg 8: Gav Lloyd, Charlie Day
Leg 9: Steve Rhodes, Steve Wathall, Pete Taylor

My nocturnal strategy was paying off. I was strong overnight, and stronger in the morning. On the leg into Langdale we were ~10% faster than scheduled despite long stretches of thick bracken.

Coming out of Langdale was brutal. Nearly 2K feet up in ~1.5 miles, in direct sun w/ zero wind. It might not be “hot” but the effects of a warm sunny day in the Lakes are more intense since everywhere is direct sun. There are no trees, no shade, no respite. It’s relentless.

But still, we made the climb ahead of schedule. Then step by step I could feel pains in my feet that had started overnight getting steadily worse. I made a final push up Ullscarf, still climbing ahead of schedule, but going back down each step felt like a dagger being thrust deep into the balls of my feet. Suddenly, I could no longer run. I was 4 hours in to a 7 hour leg, still with ~3 days to go after that.

One thing that comes with experience is learning what can and can’t be pushed through. This could not. I was furious with myself. I had never had bad foot problems, and had skipped very basic precautions. It was like saying “I’ve never been in a wreck, I don’t need to wear a seat belt.” The heat was a main cause, but it still could have been prevented.

I made the slow and painful descent to Dunmail Raise, and sat with my feet throbbing and heat radiating from my body. I felt like a racecar with a flat. Engines firing on all cylinders, everything else feeling strong, my legs fully revved up and frantically trying to continue on and leave my defective feet behind.

Analysis

There are no graphs here, no tables with splits showing where I slipped on my pace or slept a bit too much. Overall, of course I’m disappointed. I didn’t even finish, much less attain my goal. And there wasn’t some deep insight or epiphany that came out of it. My feet got absolutely wrecked; it was really dumb of me to not take better precautions with them. Sometimes it’s something that simple, a tax on the pursuit of grand challenges. If you’d like to look at tables of splits, the Strava is below.

In previous multiday efforts I’ve had no foot problems at all. On the Spine, the Pennine Way, and Grand Round my feet were wet basically the entire time. I never bothered changing socks – it was a pain and waste of time, and didn’t seem to matter since my feet would be wet again within minutes anyway. But here, they could have stayed drier for longer stretches. At the very least I should have taken off my socks, powdered my feet, and let them air out every single time I napped or stopped for longer than a few minutes. It would have cost me a trivial amount of time relative to the length of the challenge, and enormously reduced the risk of disaster.

Those other multi-day efforts were also missing a key ingredient that likely led to my demise – the warm weather. The biggest factors that contribute to ruined feet are wet, steep, and warm. I’ve done a lot of long challenges with two of those three, but I think this might be my first one where I constantly had all three. The bracken and other sources of poor footing were the cherry on top.

Sometimes falling short is out of our control. Sometimes it’s from lack of experience that’s best obtained by the failure itself. But this time, I should have known better. The only option is to move forward and re-learn a lesson: take preventative action early, consciously making a mountain out of every molehill before it becomes a real one.

One reason I challenge myself through these types of things, though, is that in the worst case I still get to enjoy time disconnected in beautiful places. While the weather was warm for what I was doing (I think it was low 80s F / upper 20s C… so an inferno by British standards), it was absolutely gorgeous for a leisurely day out. I had clear, long range views the entire time in the company of some incredible support. Between this and other adventures I’ve now been on over two thirds of the Wainwright peaks.

Support

Thank you so much to all the support from everyone – from the people out there with me (and those who would have met me further along the route), to the messages in various places, to the great companies that I’ve partnered with. In particular, Charmian Heaton and Steve Wathall were incredibly kind in putting me up for a couple of days before and after, including a room and all the delicious pies I could eat. As usual Martin Stone was there in the background organizing the support and making sure people always popped up right where and when they were needed. I know there was also a huge lineup who volunteered at a moment’s notice to bring extra water to some of the tops later on in the schedule. I’m sorry that I can’t mention everyone – there are so many that I know it’s impossible for me to do so without missing anyone.

It all really meant a lot and mentally knowing that support was there kept me going through some early struggles acclimating to the temperatures. In turn, I was supporting Action Medical Research through this effort – I fell short of my immediate goal here, but will be leaving the fundraiser open to connect to future challenges (and hopefully a Wainwrights return). Their challenge is a constant one, not one that can be abandoned just because your feet no longer work. Thank you so much to everyone who has supported the fundraiser.

As I did last year, I’ll also be buying trees for everyone who was out there supporting me through Trees Not Tees. I’ll also be including those who supported me on the Pennine Way and the Tor Des Geants. This is a tiny gesture relative to what these people have done for me, but it’s also one that can really collectively add up for an important cause.

Gear

Note: I do have relationships with many of these companies. These can be found on my Partners page, along with some discount codes and affiliate links. If you consider purchasing anything I would greatly appreciate those links being used ā€“ if Iā€™m lucky it might even provide enough to cover the costs of hosting this website.

One nice thing about warm weather is that gear was fairly minimal. For shoes, I went with the new La Sportiva Cyklon. Up until this the Mutants had been my go-to for steep technical running, but to me the Cyklon feel almost identical to the Mutant with the advantage of a great built-in gaiter and a BOA dial that can be used to easily adjust the tightness (which can help for variable terrain, swelling feet, etc.). I do think the Cyklon don’t breathe quite as well as the Mutant, though, which is something to keep in mind for warm weather. That could have been a small contribution to my foot problems.

I wore an Ultimate Direction Race Belt, where I kept my schedule, gloves, and a few other small odds and ends, and also had Ultimate Direction Ultra Belts for my support runners so that they could be filled and ready to go without worrying about reorganizing their own stuff. I also used Ultimate Direction FK Poles.

The desert hat was also pretty crucial. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media

At night I used my lightweight and reliable Petzl Actik Core, which was perfect for these situations where I have frequent road support and support runners guiding the way. If solo, with tougher navigation, or needing light for longer stretches on a single battery, I would normally use a Petzl NAO+.

My watch was a COROS Vertix, which again showed the value of its long battery life and navigation with waypoints (my support runners were navigating, but it was quite nice for me mentally to know just how long I had to the next top or support point).

For my feet, I wore a pair of XOSKIN toe socks with a pair of their non-toe socks over top. This is a strategy that has been working for me for years now and given me no blisters and no foot problems at all, up until this of course. I plan on continuing with this same strategy, while actually taking the common sense basic precautions like drying my feet out. Otherwise it’s like getting a car with top safety ratings then driving off a cliff and expecting not to get hurt. I also wore a pair of their new XOUNDERWEAR liner briefs and at least had no issues in that area.

Nutrition

Nutrition in something this long can vary quite a bit. Supernatural Fuel pouches provide a great foundation of real food for endurance athletes, and I now have these regularly in any event I do. Between those I have my normal variety of whatever my body is craving in the moment, including my usual chocolate bars and other junk, and also full meals. Before any kind of sleep, prolonged rest, or big climb, I try to get significant calories in so they have time to settle. In this one in particular I had more salty foods due to my heavy sweating, so pizza was of course in the mix even more than normal.

Sucking down a pouch on the go. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media

I also developed a bit of an addiction to salt and vinegar foods – something that honestly I didn’t care for very much beforehand. The salt was great of course, but there was also something about the flavor that really gave my taste buds a kick and got my dry mouth salivating again. Having variety available is important – sometimes in multiday events favorites end up being rejects, and unthought of things end up being favorites. My insatiable craving for salt and vinegar lasted for nearly a week afterwards.

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