Book Review: There is No Map in Hell

The “Wainwrights” are the 214 fells of the Lake District described by the legendary hillwalker Alfred Wainwright in his seven volume Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells. For many people the task of “Wainwright bagging”, reaching each of the summits outlined in Wainwright’s books, is an ongoing challenge over the course of a lifetime. But a small group of elite fell runners have taken this challenge several stages further, by attempting to make a single circuit of all the Wainwrights in a continuous traverse. Steve Birkinshaw’s book There is No Map in Hell: The Record-Breaking Run Across the Lake District Fells describes his 2014 attempt to break the record previously set by legendary fell runner Joss Naylor, by completing a circuit of all the Wainwrights within one week.

The book starts by detailing Steve’s progress from talented junior orienteer to elite fell runner and describes his attempts on some of the biggest UK fell running challenges such as the Bob Graham Round and Lake District 24 hour record, as well as his successes in mountain marathons and in top ultramarathons such as the Lakeland 100. As well as his successes, Steve is also refreshingly honest in detailing his mistakes and failures, such as his unsuccessful attempts on the Lake District 24 hour record and in these reflections on his 2nd place at the 2009 Lakeland 100:

I was really disappointed with my run but I had learnt a big lesson. I had started with the wrong mental attitude … As soon as I realised that I was not going to win, for the first time in my life I completely lost it mentally. I still find it hard to admit that I gave up and sat down.

There are many useful tips for runners throughout the book, especially those running long or hilly races, and I particularly empathised with Steve’s issues with nutrition and digestion during his challenges!

After the background to Steve’s running career, we are treated to an in depth and gripping account of his attempt on the Wainwrights. The challenge of completing all the Wainwrights within one week involved running the equivalent of two marathons with 5,000 metres of ascent (or four times up and down Ben Nevis) every day. Much like the round itself, the account is a rollercoaster ride of emotions. We gain an insight into the moments of exhilaration:

…we emerge from the clouds and are treated to the beautiful view of them filling the valley with wisps coming and going over the tops. On long endurance events dawn is a special time, the light is often magical and the new day lifts the spirits. As I get going the pain in my knees vanishes and I forget the effort of the previous day; I am looking forward to a lovely day on the fells with my friends.

But also into the depths of exhaustion and despair that Steve had to contend with in completing the challenge:

The thought of another long day out running on painful blisters is too much for me and I start to cry. I have managed to stay tough for six days but I have reached the limit of what I can take.

He tells his story with great modesty and humility and with a strong emphasis on the support and teamwork needed to facilitate such an extreme endurance challenge. As well as the support and sacrifice of his family, Steve had a huge team of helpers and organisers both on and off the hills who all pushed themselves to the point of exhaustion to help him achieve his challenge. The excerpts in the book from his support team provide a great insight into the level of backup and expertise needed:

By now everything is a bit of a blur of sleeping and waking for all of the support team; I call people the wrong name and can’t remember basic details like which day of the week we are on. Jane has got to the point where she feels she is not safe driving…

-Steve’s wife, Emma

The book finishes with an honest insight into the problems Steve Birkinshaw has had in recovering from such an epic run and the long term impact it has had on his health.

There is No Map in Hell is not just a running book, it is above all a compelling story of hard work, dedication and sacrifice in pursuit of a dream. It will appeal to anyone who loves the Lakeland fells; runners; hill walkers and all those interested in pushing boundaries and giving their best to achieve their dreams. I found the book fascinating and would thoroughly recommend it!

There is No Map in Hell is published by Vertebrate Publishing and can be purchased from Amazon by clicking on the image below (or from many other bookshops!). It has now been shortlisted for the Lakeland Book of the Year Awards.

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links; it does not cost you any more to purchase via the link, but does help make it viable for me to keep this blog going!

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