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There Is No Map In Hell: Special Guest Blog Post

By Andy Mouncey, May 4 2017 12:00AM

There needs to be a pretty special reason why I’d want to let a guest loose on my blog, and Steve Birkinshaw’s account of his attempt to beat arguably the most intimidating ultra distance fell running record - 300 miles over 214 Lake District mountains - fits the bill.

Those in the know thought that this record - a shade over seven days - would never be beaten. It had stood for 28 years. The person taking on this superhuman challenge would have to be smart, willing to push harder and suffer more than ever before. There Is No Map in Hell tells the story of a man willing to do just that - and a family and support team that made it possible.

I like it ‘cos it’s much more than an account of a bloke haring up and down mountains. Contributions from family and friends bring it to life. Steve has also written about the price he paid. Two years on he is still paying and has used this book launch to share some of the aftermath as well.

This extract is part of the Blog tour for the publishing of There is no Map in Hell

What happened after my Wainwrights run

I knew that running all the Wainwright fells in six and a half days was going to take a lot out of me. I have run for long distances over the fells for many years but 320 miles with 35,000 metres of ascent was pushing it way beyond what I have ever done before. During my run around the Wainwrights, I could feel my body and mind slowly disintegrating from doing twenty-hour days, even though I was still moving at a decent speed.

Lake District Ordnance Survey map showing the route, day by day
Lake District Ordnance Survey map showing the route, day by day

Once I had finished, I started to think about how long it would take to recover and when I could be back to enjoying running on the fells again. After just two weeks I actually felt OK. I had no muscle or joint problems, but I knew I was not quite right. It’s hard to specify what the problem was exactly. I felt a bit vague all the time and when I ran I felt dizzy and unable to control my body temperature. I thought the problems would gradually improve with time, so I started to train hard again. My times improved almost back to my pre-Wainwright levels, but the vagueness problem in my mind was still present.

Day 6  - Mosdale Raod End. Paul Cornforth and Nic Davies doing up my laces
Day 6 - Mosdale Raod End. Paul Cornforth and Nic Davies doing up my laces

However, a year after finishing the Wainwrights I started to gradually go downhill. People in races that I normally beat were beating me, and I would also finish the races sad, cold and shivery instead of feeling great. I also started to feel really shattered the whole time, and noticed I was struggling to concentrate at work. I rested for a couple of weeks and felt almost back to normal so I started running again without any problems. Then the fatigue suddenly reappeared. I repeated this cycle of rest, running and fatigue.

Finally after a night out with lots of alcohol at my works Christmas ‘do’ I reached my lowest point. For the next four days I was lying in bed sixteen to twenty hours a day absolutely exhausted and I had a ‘brain fog’ that made it impossible to do any work. Blood tests found nothing unusual, although I did have high blood pressure and my resting heart beat was higher than normal (bearing in mind that pre-Wainwrights, my resting heart rate was around 40 bpm). The diagnosis was chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). I had also been suffering from a fast and irregular heartbeat, and this was diagnosed as atrial fibrillation (AF). What was needed was a change of lifestyle to let my body recover.

So for eighteen months I have been living the perfect healthy lifestyle: almost no alcohol, very healthy food including no snacking, lots of sleep, gentle exercise, very little stress and little caffeine. I have been taking various supplements, particularly magnesium, as sometimes magnesium depletion is a factor in people who have either CFS or AF. I have also been having acupuncture as four friends with CFS have told me how it helped their symptoms.

It has been a bit of a rollercoaster since then with lots of ups and downs but overall I am seeing a gradual improvement. I am back to running four to five hours a week with occasional races. But I am still very delicate and if I push it too much the ‘brain fog’ and tiredness returns. It is impossible to know what the most important factor is in my recovery as I have tried everything simultaneously.

In hindsight it was a big mistake to have started running so soon and so hard after finishing my Wainwrights round. I should have had a very easy six months with just some gentle exercise. I should have listened to my mind and body and not ignored the warning signals. I should have been sensible, and then maybe I would never have suffered from the chronic fatigue. The human body can do amazing things but it needs a chance to recover.

Finally, now that I am listening to my body and allowing it to recover, it is working but I still need to be careful. I would love to be able to go out training and racing on the fells for as long and as hard as I used to, but I have to be realistic and realise that at the moment this will just make my fatigue return. However, I am in a ‘good place’ now as I can enjoy running and do some races and I am happy the brain fog is normally not present. So I am positive and hopeful for the future.

Steve Birkinshaw


May 30 2017 11:10PM by Raymond J C Cannon

Fascinating. As someone who has sufferred from CFS, ME or whatever you want to call it, I can empathise, although I cannot imagine what such a mammoth effort it must have been. In my experience there is no substitute to rest, deep relaxation and a good diet. Best of luck with your recovery to full health.

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