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520 kilometres, 214 peaks, 6 days: Former Cork hurler makes record attempt

‘Just getting around is something I’d value doing,’ says Paul Tierney. ‘That’d be an achievement in itself.’

WHEN PAUL TIERNEY last spoke to The42, it was to reflect on his victory in the gruelling Lakeland 100 race in July 2015.

In a time of 20 hours, 42 minutes and seven seconds, Tierney’s feet carried him 105 miles around England’s Lake District. He was the first of 300-plus competitors to complete the course.

download Paul Tierney competing in the Lakeland 100 in 2015. Source: Via Paul Tierney

Four years on, that torturous trail run suddenly seems a much more palatable prospect when compared to what he’ll embark on next Friday.

Tierney remembers his reaction to Steve Birkinshaw’s record-setting trek over the Lake District’s Wainwright Fells in 2014. 

“Christ, that’s just off-the-fucking-wall difficult,” he told himself at the time.

Yet his curiosity about what the human body and mind can endure has often convinced Tierney to push the boundaries. By now he’s well accustomed to facing challenges that are almost beyond comprehension. Nevertheless, following in Birkinshaw’s footsteps will present him with his most daunting task to date.

To cover the 520 kilometres on foot, it took Birkinshaw six days, 13 hours and one minute. The distance makes up 12 marathons, not to mention the ascent of a total height of 36,000 metres — the equivalent of Mount Everest multiplied by four.

The aim for Tierney is to set a new record, but he’ll settle for making it to the finish line.

Scafell Pike Steve Birkinshaw resting on Scafell Pike, England's highest mountain, during his successful record attempt. Source: Posing Productions

“When Steve did it, I just thought it was something that was way beyond what I could even contemplate doing,” he explains. “But since then I’ve gained more experience, and even though I still know it’s going to be incredibly difficult, it’s something I feel might be possible. Maybe it’ll prove to be beyond me. That’s probably part of the attraction as well.”

The scale of the challenges has gradually increased for Tierney since he called a halt to his career as a hurler in 2005. Triathlons and marathons sowed the seed for where he is now.

Six years ago, the Corkman relocated to the town of Ambleside in the Lake District, which is regarded as a hub for the trail and fell running scene. From there, he and his girlfriend Sarah McCormack — a European Cross Country gold medallist with the Irish team in 2012 — run their own coaching business. Interestingly, 80% of their work is now conducted online.

In addition to his success in the Lakeland 100, Tierney has represented Ireland on multiple occasions in the Trail World Championships. He has also finished in the top 25 in the Tor des Geants — a 330km race through the Italian Alps — in each of the last two years. 

His passion for such events came at a cost for the club and county for whom he once hurled. When he left the game behind at the age of 23, the former midfielder had already won three county championship medals with Blackrock. He was also a member of the Cork senior panel that overcame Kilkenny in the 2004 All-Ireland final.

“I still keep an eye on the hurling, absolutely,” says Tierney, who turns 37 later this year. “I don’t really get to see many games on TV over here because I don’t have Sky Sports and whatever else. I do pick up on it online and I definitely pay attention, especially to how Blackrock are getting on.

Paul Tierney and Diarmuid McMahon 24/4/2004 Tierney under pressure from Clare's Diarmuid McMahon during a National Hurling League game in April 2004. Source: INPHO

“I wouldn’t say I miss it because it’s not on my mind — there’s too much other stuff to think about as life goes on — but when I look at it I still say to myself, ‘Yeah, it’s the best field game in the world, without a doubt’. I still really enjoy it when I do watch it. I have a hurley here and occasionally I’ll take the dog down the field and batter a ball around.

“I feel like I could still go out and play a game, but obviously I’d be a lot slower and in a game situation I’d be absolutely shite. I still have the touches, but that’s not hard when you’re pucking a ball around a field on your own. If I went back and played a game and the opposition agreed not to put any pressure on me, I’d probably play a blinder!”

Negotiating all 214 Wainwright peaks is ultimately a solo project for Tierney, but a team of approximately 70 people from the close-knit community he’s part of will volunteer their time to aid his record-breaking attempt.

Alternating support runners will accompany him for the duration of the challenge, which has been split into 24 stages. At night he’ll aim to catch up on sleep in a camper van, which could be vital to his performance. During the 2017 Tor des Geants, he took to slapping himself in the face and singing aloud to prevent his eyes from shutting while on the move.

“Steve Birkinshaw was one of the first people I spoke to when I decided to do this and he was hugely encouraging,” says Tierney. “When he set the record, he had to come up with the optimal route that joins all these hills up. There’s no defined route on the ground. Sometimes that means taking the most direct line off the top of the hill, which is maybe not the easiest for running — quite steep, tussocky, heathery, rocky and whatever else.

Paul_T_Wainwrights_5 'Maybe it'll prove to be beyond me. That's probably part of the attraction as well.' Source: Inov-8

“It’s not on a trail, as such. A lot of it is off the beaten tracks, so you’re talking about tough underfoot conditions, and I would say they’re a little tougher than they are in the Alps.

“In terms of falling asleep on the go, it’ll help that I’ll have people with me to keep me awake. If I’m really struggling, I can always lie down for five minutes and they can make sure they wake me. When you do stuff like this, you realise just how much five minutes of sleep can help. It’s incredible. Sometimes you can feel like a new person after it, which you wouldn’t think is even possible, but small chunks of sleep can make a big difference. 

“What I’m more worried about is that in trying to beat the record, I’ve had to be quite optimistic with my schedule. Part of what might potentially help me to beat the record is cutting down on rest stops. 

“When Steve did it, he set out to have two hours of rest on the first night, and then four hours for each subsequent night. In the end he rested for three-and-a-quarter hours on the first night, and five or more hours each night after that. He had to because his feet were in bits, he was unable to sleep when he lay down and he had other stuff to deal with. 

“I’ve looked at his rest stops and tried to see if there’s time I can cut off them. The worry for me is if a guy like Steve had to take longer than he thought he’d need to, it’s probably optimistic for me to think I can take that much less. The schedule might go out the window once I get going, and it might be about survival rather than breaking any records. 

“To be honest, just getting around is something I’d value doing. That’d be an achievement in itself. Breaking the record will be a bonus, but I have to set out to break it because if I don’t then I’ll never get anywhere near it. 

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bc5e5525-bfce-4e01-aba1-4f6596045cef Tierney has been based in the north-west of England since 2013. Source: Via Paul Tierney

“Having so many people involved probably does add to the pressure, but I feel I can deal with that because this is all self-inflicted. No one asked me to do this. I feel pressure to perform and not let those people down.

“They’ll say they’re just out there having fun and there’s no sense of anyone being let down, but it’s very difficult for me to pretend like it’s no big deal to them. They’re doing me a favour and I want to make sure it’s worth their while. Also, because I’m raising money for a charity, I don’t want to fall flat on my face.”

When Tierney made the decision to take on this challenge, one of the many runners who committed to a supporting role was 37-year-old Chris Stirling. A former winner of the notoriously onerous Celtman triathlon, Stirling became a close friend of Tierney’s when they shared a flat in Ambleside after the Cork native’s move to the UK.

“Chris basically went from not knowing anything about triathlon to winning the Celtman in the space of three years,” Tierney explains. “He was a total novice when he started out but he turned himself into a top athlete through pure effort and dedication. Because of things like that, I always found him to be a really impressive guy.”

Sadly, Chris Stirling won’t be joining Paul Tierney after he sets off from Keswick next weekend. However, he’ll never be far from his thoughts. He died tragically and unexpectedly in April, which prompted Tierney to turn his pursuit of the Wainwright Fells record into a fundraiser for Mind, a UK-based mental health charity.

“It’s no secret that Chris struggled with depression,” says Tierney. “It’s just a terrible thing that it ended like it did for him. He obviously couldn’t see it this way, but he had so much to live for. When people are in a dark place, unfortunately they can’t see things like that. He was a very well-liked guy over here, which could be seen from the outpouring of grief when he passed away.

Screen Shot 2019-06-07 at 15.03.08 Chris Stirling died in April at the age of 37. Source: Via Paul Tierney

“He’ll definitely be on my mind a lot of the time while I’m doing this. When it comes down to it, what I’ll be doing isn’t really suffering. It’s totally self-inflicted. It’s just running. It’s not like the suffering he went through.

“I don’t want to make it sound like this is some heroic thing that I’m doing. I guess it’s just purely because of my own bloody ego. I like trying to do stuff like this. But at the same time, if I’m lucky enough and good enough to break the record, I would love to be able to say that this is in memory of Chris and to have his name associated with it. He deserves to be recognised for how brilliant a person he was.

“Having someone like that in the back of your mind to try and do it for, if you want to put it like that, certainly helps when the shit hits the fan and you feel like you can’t go on. 

“It sounds really clichéd, and generally I hate that type of shit, but in this case it’s true. It’ll definitely give me an extra push when I need it.” 

Donations to Paul Tierney’s fundraiser on behalf of Mind can be made at this link.

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Paul Dollery

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