A TRULY AMAZING TALE
Nicky Spinks conquers cancer and the hills
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