Nicky Spinks con­quers can­cer and the hills

Trail Running (UK) - - Contents -

Peak District farmer, ul­tra run­ner, record breaker… just how does Nicky Spinks do it?

Words Jack Hart Pho­tos Lee Proc­ter/Inov-8.com, Justin Bra­mall

Tak­ing on the Bob Gra­ham Round – a 66-mile route cov­er­ing 42 Lake District peaks within 24 hours – is a tes­ta­ment to the strength and nerve of a run­ner. To con­sider a Dou­ble Bob Gra­ham Round (DBGR) – run­ning it twice within 48 hours – speaks of an as­ton­ish­ing level of phys­i­cal and men­tal en­durance. But to break the record for the DBGR ten years after hav­ing bat­tled and de­feated breast can­cer… well, his­tory knows of only one such per­son. On 14 May, 2016, Nicky Spinks set off from Moot Hall in Keswick. 43hr and 30min later, she re­turned, hav­ing shat­tered the pre­vi­ous 37-year-old record by over three hours. All with no for­mal coach or train­ing plan. With more ul­tra-dis­tance chal­lenges on the hori­zon, we caught up with her to find out how she did it, and what lies ahead…

It’s hard to imag­ine you not run­ning,

but when did you start? I’d run as a kid around the farm, and recre­ation­ally when I had an of­fice job, aged 18. But it was in 2001, when a friend of mine was run­ning as a triath­lete, that I signed up for the Leeds Val­ley Dash 5k and ran along­side her, com­pletely out of breath. After that I en­tered the Dews­bury 10k and the Great North Run. It was dur­ing my train­ing for this that I be­gan off-road run­ning.

You got into trail run­ning pretty much

im­me­di­ately then. Well, I live on a farm, so it made sense to swap run­ning on roads for run­ning on foot­paths.

Did you find you had a nat­u­ral tal­ent for run­ning off-road, or did you have to

work hard to build up speed? I did have to work – it took me a cou­ple of years to progress to be­ing able to beat peo­ple. I found a sort of run­ning that suited me – at the farm I can’t run that much, and just in­creas­ing my miles didn’t re­ally work be­cause I was too tired and got in­jured, and it was im­pact­ing on my work as well. Once I re­alised that, I ditched all the junk miles and my train­ing be­came more about qual­ity speed work with some long runs mixed in there as well. I took on quite a bit more rac­ing, too, to make the most of the time I had to run.

Did you have as­pi­ra­tions to com­pete at

that stage? Peni­s­tone Foot­path Run­ners have their club cham­pi­onships, which is a se­lec­tion of dis­tances, and I com­peted in that for a cou­ple of years. I think there were about eight races in a year, which is a good base be­cause they’re spread out. I won the ladies’ the sec­ond year I did it and at that point they were train­ing for the Mars­den to Edale, which is a 20-mile race. As soon as I did that I re­alised I was ac­tu­ally a lot bet­ter at the longer stuff – ok, so maybe I wasn’t great at shorter races, but I re­alised I could keep the same pace go­ing for a long time.

You do have an un­nat­u­ral abil­ity to keep up a strong pace. How has your re­la­tion­ship with run­ning de­vel­oped

since then? It’s more struc­tured now. I do about two main races a year and aim to do those well – other races I en­ter are more like train­ing races, re­ally. I’ve al­ways coached my­self – al­though I once took ad­vice from a coach about how to get faster, as I wanted to know more about speed ses­sions. He looked at what I was do­ing and that was when I cut out a lot of the junk, be­cause he said “You’re go­ing out and run­ning, and it’s all very pleas­ant, but you’re not re­ally work­ing very hard”.

What run­ning shoes do you wear? It’s al­ways Inov-8 Mud­claws for fell rac­ing [Nicky is an am­bas­sador for Inov-8]. For trails, I was wear­ing TrailTalons, but I’m do­ing a 100-miler – the Ul­tra Tour de Monte Rosa – soon, and I’m go­ing to look at the Ro­clites be­cause I re­ally like them.

How have you been train­ing for the UTMR? It’s a very dif­fer­ent cli­mate to

the Peaks, where you live… I’ve ba­si­cally been do­ing the same things I usu­ally do, be­cause I can never get abroad to recce any of these things. I’ve been go­ing up to the Lakes and do­ing long races. Sup­port­ing peo­ple on rounds is an­other good way of get­ting in lots of climb­ing.

What would your ad­vice be to peo­ple who strug­gle to get to these

moun­tain­ous ar­eas? Well, I live in the Peaks and even for the UTMB I found that go­ing up Mick­le­den is very sim­i­lar to the rocky paths they have out there. For peo­ple in Lon­don, it’s best to jump in the car and head to the near­est hills for a week­end once a month. If you’re train­ing for a race in the hills, you re­ally need to get to the hills. I ac­tu­ally do coach­ing my­self and there are ex­er­cises you can do to build strength in your legs, like squats, but there’s no real sub­sti­tute for ac­tu­ally get­ting the miles and hours in. In Eng­land we don’t have big climbs like they do in Eu­rope and around the world. Scafell is about an hour’s as­cent, and Ben Ne­vis is around two hours, but you can be climb­ing for four or five hours if you go to the con­ti­nent. With some­thing like the DBGR, you weren’t com­pet­ing with any­one and so didn’t have that com­pet­i­tive mo­ti­va­tion – how did you keep go­ing? I try to con­cen­trate on the leg that I’m on, and then split that fur­ther into the hill that I’m

on. So, I record the splits my­self on my watch and try to judge ahead how long it should be, then just log whether I’m ahead or be­hind sched­ule. I try to train my legs to work at the pace I think I’ll need on the hills even when I’m walk­ing around the farm, so my legs just get to know what pace they need to move at. That helps be­cause when you’re not feel­ing great and your mind’s oc­cu­pied with how sick you feel, I do find that my legs just keep plod­ding on. When I did the Ram­sey Round record and my stom­ach was hor­ren­dous it was just tak­ing up all of my thoughts, but I was still mov­ing re­ally well. You do most of the work be­fore­hand.

That’s true, but with some­thing like the DBGR, there’s still a hell of a lot of

work to do on the day. How was it? It went a lot bet­ter than how I thought it was go­ing to go, be­cause usu­ally I’m quite sick and that takes up quite a few hours and some­times never passes. Things did go wrong, though – I had a mas­sive nose bleed for about three hours and my feet hurt – but over­all noth­ing went that wrong, so I was pleas­antly sur­prised. I got all the way round to Was­dale and was on my way back, and my legs still weren’t com­plain­ing. Even when I felt pretty shocking on the way back when I went into that sec­ond night, they were ok – but that was my worst time, from Threlkeld back to Keswick again.

Were you aim­ing for the record the

whole way around? Yeah, 48 hours was my tar­get – my sched­ule was ac­tu­ally 47.5, but it’s dif­fi­cult to put an ac­tual time frame to­gether. I didn’t want to set a tight sched­ule and have to worry about be­ing be­hind or in front. For the an­ti­clock­wise bit through Keswick out to Yew­bar­row, when I’d been go­ing for over 40 hours, there was no­body I could com­pare that with. Only Roger [Baumeis­ter, the pre­vi­ous DBGR record holder] had done it be­fore and he seemed to fly up that sec­tion, and there was no way I was go­ing to do what he did! You bat­tled and de­feated breast can­cer about ten years be­fore the DBGR at­tempt. Were run­ning and records on your mind through­out your re­cov­ery? Re­turn­ing to run­ning was al­ways on my mind while I was go­ing through the can­cer be­cause I en­joy it and it helps you to for­get what’s go­ing on at home. But I’d never imag­ined that I’d carry on to break records, be­cause at that point – when I got the can­cer – I’d just failed to do the Paddy Buck­ley [a 100k round in Wales]. It was my fault be­cause I’d gone in bad weather – and I was very much a novice. I was in the early stage of my ca­reer and never imag­ined I’d get so far.

To run these times is in­cred­i­ble, but to do so after tack­ling breast can­cer is

phe­nom­e­nal. What drives me to be more pub­lic about it than I nor­mally would is that, when I got di­ag­nosed, I went on­line and tried to find sto­ries of peo­ple who had lived – and found very lit­tle. You’ll hear sto­ries about peo­ple who have died and all the bad bits, like that you won’t be able to do any­thing with your arms once you’ve had the operation [Nicky had a full mas­tec­tomy in 2012]. I just thought that, ac­tu­ally, I want to get out there and say to women who might be hav­ing can­cer now that there is hope. Look at this, look at what I can do now – don’t mope around the house. If you’re a run­ner, go out and do some­thing, or just walk if you only feel like walk­ing. It re­ally helps with your whole mentality; in­stead of be­ing beaten by the can­cer, you can beat the can­cer and carry on with your life as you were be­fore – and even bet­ter.

You 100% have, clearly. I know! I’ve sur­prised my­self.

How did it feel when you crossed the line of the DBGR? Espe­cially with peo­ple like Joss Nay­lor there to sup­port

you. It was a huge party all the way back – there was such a car­ni­val at­mos­phere. I’ve never been so within my time and with no pres­sure to run any faster. I tried to go a bit faster early on and felt re­ally sick, so I de­cided it wasn’t worth it. Also, I didn’t want to col­lapse hor­ren­dously at the fin­ish – I once fainted at the end of a 100-mile race be­cause I sprinted down to the fin­ish. So, I car­ried on eat­ing be­cause I wanted to en­joy the end; I’d worked hard and wanted to talk about it with peo­ple and not have to be carted off [laughs]. It felt fan­tas­tic run­ning up to Moot Hall and see­ing all these peo­ple around, all the peo­ple who’d helped me. You’ve achieved an aw­ful lot, but what’s next? What are your long-term goals? I take it year-by-year. I did the Joss Nay­lor [Chal­lenge] on my birth­day when I turned 50, and I got the record for that – the men’s time is 12hr and women get 2hr more, so I just wanted to have a go at the men’s time [she fin­ished in 11hr 2min].

I love that at­ti­tude! Jas­min [Paris] is chal­leng­ing all of the men’s records – I’m not quite at her level, but I can give it a go.

‘I try to train my legs to con­stantly work at the pace I think I’ll need on the hills.’

Nicky com­pleted the Joss Nay­lor Chal­lenge to cel­e­brate her 50th birth­day last year

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