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Chasing his tail

On paper, it seems ridiculous: 318 miles, 214 peaks, 36,000m of elevation gain – the equivalent of going up and down Everest four times – and all accomplished in just six sadistic days. But the daunting nature of this challenge is exactly what attracted Paul Tierney to it in the first place. Cathal Dennehy meets the man at the centre of this ordeal

In June, the 36-year-old runner from Cork didn’t just complete the Wainwright peaks run; he did it in record time, hitting the finish utterly exhausted, but elated, in six days, six hours and five minutes.

“It was an amazing feeling, definitely my best running moment,” he says. “It was total elation, but I was also absolutely knackered, really, really done in.”

From pitch to peak

For a former inter-county hurler, ultra-running never seemed the most likely fit, but it’s an obsession that his taken over Tierney’s life over the past decade. “Hurling was the only thing I was interested in from 11 or 12 until I was 25,” he said. “It was all-consuming.”

His entry into endurance sports came when Tierney dabbled in triathlons during four months in Australia in 2004. He re-joined the Cork hurling panel when he returned and while struggling for form, he was weighing up walking away when the decision was made for him. “They got there before me and dropped me,” he says.

He soon got more into triathlons after that and, when a friend invited him for a run in a local forest, it was love at first trail for Tierney. “It was so much more enjoyable than road running,” he says.

In 2011 he took part in the Lakeland 100-mile race and when he got that first taste of the fell running scene in England, he soon went about finding a way to move there. In 2013, he took a career break from his day job as a guard and moved across.

Trailspotting

“I just wanted to be in the fells,” says Tierney. “It’s no more beautiful than Kerry or Connemara but it’s the community of people. Fell running there is like hurling in Cork: even if you don’t do it you’ve heard of it.”

He has lived there ever since with his girlfriend Sarah McCormack, an accomplished international mountain runner, and together they run an online coaching business, Missing Link Coaching. 

The Wainwright run had been on Tierney’s mind for years. It consists of 214 hills made famous by Alfred Wainwright, who was so taken by the beauty of the Lake District peaks that he wrote guidebooks about them and made them a Mecca for British outdoor enthusiasts. “People started to tick them off, doing three or four on a long walk,” says Tierney. “But they’d try to do them over 20 years, not six days.”

He had already done two 200-mile races in the Italian Alps in recent years so knew what to expect. “That gave me the experience of what it’s like after three days of very little sleep,” he says.

From February, all his long runs were done over the peaks he would cover during the challenge, using the opportunity to work out the fastest routes between them. It often meant leaving behind the well-worn trails and running over rocky, steep terrain.

He divided it into 24 sections, covering three or four each day. He would start running at 4:30am and finish between 1am and 2am the following day. At each changeover point – usually a car park – he would climb into his support van and collapse.

“Even when I was lying down, it was difficult to get restful sleep because I was too sore,” he says. “I remember sitting in the van during a bad storm and the van was shaking and my knees were throbbing. I wanted to get up and go because at least they wouldn’t have been as sore if I was moving.”

Tierney’s trail-running tips

“One brilliant way of doing it is to head along to an Irish Mountain Running Association (IMRA) or Munster Mountain Running-organised race because people there will be very, very helpful,” says Tierney.

“Go on the IMRA website and check the dates of races or ask on the forum. Pick a relatively easy race to start. In January, you have the Howth Winter race around the cliffs and that’s a good start as it’s only 6km. It’s important to get involved in the scene itself. That’s where you’ll meet people you can go out running with who can show you routes that you might be uncomfortable going on alone.”

Body and mind

He slept an average of two hours each night, but Tierney had prepared his mind for such a test. What worried him most were the physical creaks that inevitably came his way.

“My Achilles was swollen towards the end and the inside of my right knee was really, really sore. It meant I was struggling to run downhill. It was very, very slow going.”

The qualifying rules for the record-breaking attempt necessitated that someone run with him at all times, so various runners joined him for each section, as many as 10 during certain sections.

Paul with is partner, international mountain runner, Sarah McCormack.

On the final day, the emotion of what he’d accomplished set in. Back in April, an avid runner and close friend of his, Chris Stirling, died tragically and Tierney ran with his friend very much in his thoughts, raising over £30,000 for Mind UK, a mental health charity.

Stirling’s partner, Jo Kilkenny, had given Tierney Chris’s Ambleside AC vest to wear for the final leg. “That had me very emotional,” he says. “It was great that Chris’s name will be associated with this and it might help someone.”

The run took a huge toll on Tierney. He couldn’t jog for a week after, while mentally he was completely fried, taking 15 minutes to answer simple text messages. “For three weeks, I was slow at doing anything work-wise. It started to come around again six weeks after. I’m still a bit cautious because you don’t realise how deep you’ve gone until maybe six months later.”

But if all goes well in the coming months, Tierney will take on the Cape Wrath Ultra in May, an eight-stage, 400km race through the Scottish highlands, and then the 205-mile Tour de Geant in Italy in September. He’s cooking up an idea for another huge challenge in 2021, with more to follow on that once it’s taken shape in his mind.

Having scaled a peak this high, he’s the kind of runner who can’t help look out again over the horizon, searching for his next target.


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