Last updated: 30-Jun-21
WHAT IS THE WAINWRIGHTS CHALLENGE?
The 214 Wainwright challenge links all 214 Wainwright fells in the Lake District, England chronicled in the 7-volume pictorial guide in the 1950-60’s by Alfred Wainwright.
In 1985 Alan Heaton became the first to run the 214 fells back-to-back in the first recorded supported attempt. This was surpassed the very next year by Joss Naylor once again supported. Since then, the record was beaten by Steve Birkinshaw (2014), Paul Tierny (2019) and most recently Sabrina Verjee (2021). These are all supported records meaning the runner can gain support from a crew in such tasks as navigating, carrying food and kit.
The route itself covers 540km of the lake district and includes 95,000ft of ascent, the equivalent of climbing Mt Everest 4 times. As this was solo and unsupported I was required to carry everything needed for the challenge, something I called Project 214. The rules state that I was not able to stash food or equipment on the route as in the self-supported version. This makes the challenge very difficult as now the distance and ascent is tackled with a 20kg pack containing supplies enough for 14 days, such as food, tent, sleeping bag, spare clothes, cooking and safety equipment including spare batteries and a tracker.
WHY THE WAINWRIGHTS CHALLENGE?
I have been training for the Marathon De Sables (MdS) for 18 months under the guidance of Paul Tierny and Missing Link Coaching. Due to delays brought on by the pandemic the MdS was most recently pushed back to October 2021 so I needed to find a challenge to keep me motivated. The Wainwrights have been a fascination since 2014 when Steve Birkinshaw redesigned the route and broke the record, I have a copy of his book ‘There is no map in hell’ so this was always on my list of routes to take on. The stars seemed to align in early 2021 so we injected Project 214 into the training program.
WHY SOLO AND UNSUPPORTED?
There were several reasons to approach the Wainwrights with the focus on solo and unsupported;
- As it’s part of the MdS training program and the MdS requires you to carry everything required for the entirety of the challenge it seemed to fit well.
- Coming from a Special Forces background, planning, logistics and operating alone are second nature so the solo and unsupported played to my strengths.
- I’m passionate about the environment and sustainability, solo and unsupported meant that I could minimise the size of the group and the demands on the local area.
But the principal reason above all else was to raise much needed money and awareness for the military charity Walking With The Wounded (WWTH). I was aware that this challenge could capture the imagination and would help drive donations to the charity. By the end of the challenge, we manage to raise just over £5,000 which will go towards providing mental health support, help place people in work and support those with physical needs.
I had spent many months planning the route and testing equipment so had factored in for difficult moments but there were a number of instances where I was tested. The first was on day 4, when moving between Symonds Knott and Lingmell, more specifically through Lords Rake. The weather had been horrendous for the last two days and the area had seen some significant rainfall. This made the route difficult to negotiate and when you are moving down the pass with 20kg of weight in your pack you need to tread carefully.
I did slip a few times but fell backwards so not much damage caused. But, in one instance I slipped and fell forward, my pack went over my head and caused me to fall towards rolling maybe 3 to 4 times. I came to rest some 10 meters from where I slipped, face in the ground! I mentally checked for areas of pain, carrying out a survey I checked I was ok, and that adrenaline was not masking any injuries. After about 15 seconds I used my right hand to check for breaks and blood, nothing! I got to my feet and looked at myself, my hiking poles were scattered around me, and my jacket was ripped but no injuries I could feel.
I sat down and thought about how differently that could have gone. How difficult it would have been to get a rescue team in there, someone was looking out for me, and I was thankful for that!
On day 8, I can recall feeling very low on energy and found the going very tough but its at these times that I take a moment to pause, reflect and assess the situation, something in the military we call a ‘Condor moment’. Over many years in the military and more recently in the Special Forces, I have created and tested a model that allows me to work through most challenging moments whether they are in dangerous situations on the fells or in a combat environment.
It is a mental tick list that can be used in these Condor moments to simplify the emotions and drivers that enable the user to move forward with a clear mind and a renewed purpose. I call it the MINDSET model and each letter leads into a specific area:
Motivation: This is where you need to establish your why, why are you doing this, why are you making this sacrifice? Why are you putting yourself through this? Does it align to your values and beliefs? It could be that you want to be healthy, and you need to lose weight for health reasons or a wedding. Whatever the reason it needs to be strong enough to overcome the moments when weakness could creep in, and it will creep in!
Inspiration: This relates to who is your inspiration, what inspires you, what inspired you to take on this challenge, what successes have you had in the past that could provide inspiration and what would someone that inspires you do in these situations? If you can get close to them, find out what techniques they use and test the techniques if they work for you. Its great if your inspiration and motivation are linked.
Never be afraid to fail but Never Quit: “A man is great not because he hasn’t failed; a man is great because failure hasn’t stopped him” Confucius
Failure and quitting are very different things in my mind. Failure could be because of poor preparation, lack of knowledge, injury and is normally not a choice but due to circumstances and you can learn from failure that can better equip you for the next attempt, but quitting is very different indeed. Quitting is normally a choice, a choice to give up when you are able to continue.
Discipline: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act but a habit.” Aristotle. It’s important to be true to yourself, when training you act as if it was the event itself, I call this training with purpose. This helps to build up the disciplines that you will need when the going gets tough and should create a muscle memory and familiarity when faced with challenging moments.
I visualise not only completing the challenge or crossing the finishing line but moments where I may need to draw on strength or overcome setbacks. This means when I experience them during the events and in day-to-day life, it’s not new, I have faced it before, and I have mechanisms to tackle them head on.
Self: This relates to many areas, self-awareness, self-control, self-critique, selfishness and self-control all important aspects to understand and get intermate with. You need to be honest with yourself and understand your limits. Its often said that you need to put your own oxygen mask on first in order to look after others. That is no different elsewhere in life, look after yourself and you will be able to help others. When it comes to self-awareness, I may wish to be the fastest man on the planet but I am acutely aware that I’m not going to be, age and genetics are against me but when I looked at this challenge, I stacked the odds in my favour because I am aware of my abilities and limitations.
Environment: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Winston Churchill.
It’s important to surround yourself with positive people, people that inspire you and can motivate you. I always say, never be the fittest or most intelligent person in your group, if you are you need to expand your group to include people to challenge you and to help you grow. Look around, if people are pulling you down, ask yourself are they adding value or are they stealing from you. Environment also talks to what you absorb, listen to and watch. Negative media can place you in a negative headspace but an inspirational podcast about high performance or motivational speeches can have a positive impact on your mood and are more conducive to success.
Targets: Its important to break any challenge down in to bite size chunks. This makes any challenge more manageable. You can be put off by the enormity of a challenge and decide not to even start it due to its size but the saying, one foot in front of the other is so true. Progress is progress no matter how long it takes.
The final challenge came when I decided to go through the night on day 11. After already been on the hills for 10 days, moving from 04:30 until 21:00 daily, climbing on average 10,000ft per day and doing so with around 6000kcal deficit per day, pushing through the night was not the most sensible idea on the face of it but I knew if I wanted to test myself, prove to others that you can achieve great things if you are just willing to push yourself.
I had no choice but to go through the night with no sleep and complete the challenge quicker than the 14 days I have originally set. This meant that I would be doing an extended leg that would see me cover the final 45 fells, approximately 140km and meant a moving time of 38 hours with little to no sleep.
There were so many good moments some due to the people on the fells, the views and finally by the way I framed some of the achievements. For example, towards the end of day one, I was targeted to set up camp at Seathwaite Fell. This would leave a 200m descent followed immediately by a 300m ascent on the first leg of day two. However, I decided to tackle this at the end of day one which meant setting up camp an hour later. This meant I went to sleep in a very positive headspace as I knew I had overachieved on day one and had an easier start to day two.
I met many people on the fells, people completing their own walks but wanted to talk about the project, they did not know me but just enjoyed been on the fells. It is great to see people from the age of 6 to the age of 60 enjoying the physical and mental recharge the outdoors can give you. Everyone I met had a smile on their face no matter the weather or climb ahead of them!
Once I completed the challenge I received some messages thanking me for my support of the charity, for taking on the challenge in a professional way but the messages from individuals that gained inspiration from watching the tracker or my daily wrap up was overwhelming. I have since spoken to hundreds of people that have now used Project 214 as a catalyst to get active, take on the own challenge or simply to get outside. It’s really this that I’m most proud of and a space I want to spend more time and energy in.
Equipment is very important, it had to be tested to prove it could withstand the rigours of the challenge. I completed a three-day simulation of the challenge, two weeks ahead of the start date. This gave me an opportunity to see how everything worked and iron out any niggles. Below is a breakdown of the equipment used:
- Tent – One Person Ultralight Tent | 1 Person backpacking Tent | Zpacks
- Sleeping Bag – Mythic 200 Ultralight Down Sleeping Bag – Rab® UK
- Clothing – Mammut Various
- Pack – Ducan Spine 28-35 | Mammut
- Trainers – Speedgoat 4
- Cooking Equipment – Stash | Jetboil
- Watch – fēnix® 6 Series | Multisport GPS Watches
- Sleeping Mat – Vango Aotrom Short | Sleeping
- Socks – Razer Max Cushion Dolphin Blue/Orange
- Water bottle – Active Bottle Offers | Water-to-Go
- Head Torch – Trail Runner Free Ultra – Free Technology with Integrated Cords – Silva Sweden
All the equipment worked well and as I had tested it, this was not surprising; the only thing that let me down were my waterproof socks. The glue that forms the seal to stop the water from running down your leg formed a bond with my leg, and I was required to rip the skin from my leg to get the socks off. This then became a potential area for infection but with careful daily management I avoided any lasting problems. Needless to say, my feet got wet from thereafter!!
I knew from my training that I was never going to be able to carry enough calories to meet the daily demands. I worked on carrying 2000Kcal per day but knew I would be burning upwards of 6000kcal and this would mean I was going to be in deficit from day one. It was so important that the food I consumed would be varied, easy to consume, taste nice and that I would not get bored of it.
I decided on the following model:
- 0600 – Peperami (112kcals)
- 09:00 – quarter of a cookie and a mouth full of Resilient Nutrition nut butter (185kcal)
- 11:00 – same as 09:00 (185kcal)
- 13:00 – same as 09:00 (185kcal)
- 15:00 – same as 09:00 (185kcal)
- 17:00 – half of second pouch of Resilient Nutrition (300kcal)
- 19:00 – second half of the Resilient Nutrition pouch (300kcal)
- 21:00 – Fire Pot dehydrated meal (600kcal)
Before the challenge, I sat down with the guys at Resilient Nutrition and we put together a plan that could be used on this project but with the MdS in mind. The key was nutrition, minerals and salts. We came up with a simple plan that I believe worked perfectly when considering constraints regarding weight. It was inevitable that I would lose weight on the challenge; I lost in excess of 2 stone during the project.
Within the rules, I was able to replenish water from rivers and streams, but this presented a challenge. How would I be able to drink this water, safe in the knowledge that I would not get ill? Using sterilisation tablets is something I have done many times in the military but I wanted to do something different. I then came across Water To Go, a solution that came in the form of a water bottle that housed a filter. This meant I could take water from anywhere and drink instantaneously safe in the knowledge that I was unlikely to get ill.
So, I decided to use this filtered water for drinking and for boiling water for my evening meal. Without this solution the challenge would have been much more difficult. I really can not understand why everyone in the Lake District does not carry a Water To Go water bottle!
As part of this hydration solution, I periodically incorporated precision hydration sachets into my day. I started with a purple 1500 at the start of the day mixed in 500ml of water, this set me up for the day, I then took 2x 500ml sachet throughout the day and then had a final sachet in some hot water as a fruit tea at the end of the day.
The final element was salts, I settled in taking 3 salt tablets per day to manage my levels. This meant I would be able to replace some of what I was losing and did not suffer from cramps whilst taking on the challenge.
I’m currently in training for the Marathon des Sables which is scheduled to take place in October 2021 and anyone interested can follow me on Instagram and Strava. This is once again an event undertaken to support Walking With The Wounded and you can donate here.
All photos used with kind permission of Christopher Gaskin.