Sabrina Verjee and Steve Birkinshaw have both run all 214 Wainwright fells in less than a week. What drove them to take on this superhuman-seeming challenge?
For many outdoor enthusiasts, the challenge of climbing all 214 Wainwright fells in the Lake District stretches over a lifetime. But a few remarkable souls seek to bag the peaks as fast as possible in an intensive, single round.
Two such pioneers are ultra-runners Steve Birkinshaw, who for several years held the record for the fastest completion of the Wainwrights in an incredible 6 days and 13 hours, and Sabrina Verjee, who recently completed her own inspiring round in just under 6 days and 18 hours. They both ran 525km (326 miles) with 36,000m of ascent in less than a week. Mind-boggling.
The Great Outdoors speaks to these two wonder-runners about what’s involved in taking on these almost superhuman-seeming challenges.
This content is sponsored by our friends at Berghaus, who support some of the UK’s most remarkable mountain athletes, including Steve and Sabrina. Check out their tips on the best Berghaus gear for Wainwright-bagging. And for more inspiration and advice on how you can bag all the Wainwrights, order the latest issue of The Great Outdoors.
TGO: What do you love about running?
Sabrina: I just love being out in the fells.
Steve: Running in the rough fells has been a huge part of my life – I feel so much more relaxed and happy when I’m outside.
TGO: What drove you to take on a continuous round of the Wainwrights?
Sabrina: I saw what Steve did in 2014 and I thought wow, that’s so cool – and I said to my husband “I’m going to do this one day.” I wanted to experience an incredible journey.
Steve: It seemed like the ultimate challenge. I’d witnessed Joss Naylor’s round in the 1980s and no-one had given it a go since then.
TGO: How much training and planning goes into an attempt?
Steve: I spent six months looking at maps, trying to work out the optimum route. Then there’s all the logistics of organising the 50-person support crew. Much of the fitness comes over many years, rather than via last-minute training.
Sabrina: I spent a good year reccying Steve’s route. Then there was a lot of work organising my support team. Coronavirus made the logistics really complicated – I couldn’t run with as many people as I’d have liked . But instead some supporters left little messages for me on summits, which was amazing.
TGO: How did it feel to finally set off?
Steve: A sense of relief, after so much planning and preparation, that I could now enjoy the moment and focus on putting one foot in front of the other.
Sabrina: I was really happy and excited to be spending a week with my friends in the fells – what more could you want?
TGO: How much were you able to enjoy the beauty of the Lake District?
Steve: You can enjoy being where you are, even if you’re in pain. I experienced some magical moments, such as sunrises and sunsets, and I can’t imagine anywhere more beautiful than the Lake District to be out running.
Sabrina: I loved it – although you’re going quickly, you still take time to be silly and enjoy the moment. There’s a photo of me hugging the trig on Helvellyn, just having fun with my friends. The outdoors is so refreshing.
TGO: What were the most difficult moments?
Sabrina: Things were going well but a few days in my right knee became agonisingly painful. On a few descents I had to lean on my support runners, allowing me to descend quicker than I would have indepedently. I’ve asked for my attempt not to be ratified by the Fell Runners Association. But I completed the round to my own satisfaction and I look forward to taking on the challenge again in the future.
Steve: For me the biggest challenge was my blisters – there were times I really struggled and feared I might have to give up, but I managed to persevere through the pain.
TGO: What were your emotions when you reached the finish line?
Steve: It was an amazing feeling to be greeted by a couple of hundred people in Keswick, including my family. Whenever I watch the video of that final leg, it still makes me feel emotional – as well as proud that I achieved my goals.
Sabrina: I was so happy – and it was very special to be joined by Steve and Joss at the finish.
The camaraderie in the endurance running community is incredible.
TGO: What’s your advice for new runners?
Sabrina: Set yourself an achievable challenge, don’t make it mission impossible, train sensibly.
Steve: Once you’ve done the planning and preparation, remember to go out and enjoy it – and don’t worry too much. Take a leap of faith.
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