Queen Of The Fells

The truly in­spi­ra­tional Nicky Spinks

Runner's World (UK) - - Contents - Nicky Spinks is an am­bas­sador for inov- 8 and a run­ning coach who holds sem­i­nars on run­ning fells, trails and ul­tras. More info at runbg.co.uk. Do­nate to Nicky’s fundrais­ing at just­giv­ing.com/fundrais­ing/nicola-spinks1

Bri­tain’s most fa­mous fell- run­ning chal­lenge is a 66- mile cir­cuit of 42 Lake Dis­trict sum­mits, with 27,000ft (8,230m) of el­e­va­tion gain, and it must be com­pleted within 24 hours. Around half the at­tempts are un­suc­cess­ful, but Spinks was not to be de­terred. She first tack­led the Bob Gra­ham in 2005. ‘ On the third leg [of five] I felt ter­ri­bly sick, just aw­ful. That was quite hor­ri­ble and went on for a cou­ple of hours. I just plod­ded along at the back. Other peo­ple started drop­ping off. I never thought I wasn’t go­ing to fin­ish, but when I got back to Moot Hall [Keswick, the start/end point], I fainted.’ Seem­ingly un­per­turbed by the gru­elling ex­pe­ri­ence, Spinks was soon eye­ing her next epic chal­lenge. The Paddy Buck­ley Round is the Welsh equiv­a­lent of the Bob Gra­ham – a 61-mile route over 47 Snow­do­nia peaks with 28,000ft (8,530m) of as­cent. In 2006, Spinks set off in heavy rain. ‘ It was just foul,’ she re­mem­bers. ‘I didn’t have the right kit, I got very tired and very cold and I was very sick. I was about 20 min­utes be­hind sched­ule all the way around, un­til the bot­tom of the last hill, where the wheels fells off and I could hardly get up it. I fin­ished in 25:45, out­side the 24- hour dead­line.’ How­ever, a much big­ger blow was on the way.


‘ It was Steve [Nicky’s hus­band of 27 years] who found the lump,’ she says. ‘ Ini­tially, it was quite hard to tell if it was a proper lump or just nor­mal milk tubes. Steve made me go straight to the doc­tor.’ The lump in her breast was found to be can­cer­ous and an op­er­a­tion was sched­uled for two weeks later. ‘ I drove home in shock. Those two weeks wait­ing for re­sults are the long­est two weeks of my l ife. You just imag­ine it spread­ing through­out your body.’

Spinks had a full mas­tec­tomy on her right side and was of­fered re­con­struc­tion. ‘ I never thought I was like that – I’m a farmer, not a model! – but I went for it,’ she says. ‘ When you’re that lop­sided, it re­ally af­fects you. You don’t want to wear any­thing that shows your real body shape. Now I tell other women to def­i­nitely think about it, too. It’s helped me make peace with what hap­pened.’

Spinks re­turned to the Welsh moun­tains ‘ al­most straight away’. Through­out her t reat­ment she con­tin­ued to train and recce sec­tions of the Paddy Buck­ley Round. ‘ Ini­tially, my legs felt re­ally heavy, so I started with a four-mile run, then went up to six miles and built slowly from there. It was hard, but hav­ing the Paddy as a fo­cus helped my re­cov­ery, it helped me to men­tally move on.’

In May 2007, she made her sec­ond as­sault on the Snow­do­nia round – and it tested her to the limit. ‘ On the Paddy there are no eas­ier legs. There are mas­sive climbs in ev­ery one. It’s slower than the other rounds, it’s rock­ier and your nav­i­ga­tion has to be bet­ter. I was still feel­ing the ef­fects of the ill­ness and treat­ment, which made me ner­vous.

‘ It was a roller­coaster – I would lose time against my sched­ule, then gain time, then lose time, then gain time. I was de­spon­dent at times and my stom­ach an­noyed me all the way round – I was sick three times. But I reached the fin­ish with five min­utes to spare. It was one of best ex­pe­ri­ences of my life, partly the sim­ple eu­pho­ria of com­plet­ing a re­ally tough chal­lenge, but also feel­ing like I was fully re­cov­ered from can­cer. I was too tired to cel­e­brate, though. I just crashed out in my camper van. I had to get back to the farm to work the next day.’

The fol­low­ing year, Spinks headed north of the bor­der to notch up a Char­lie Ram­say Round. In do­ing so, she be­came only the sec­ond woman to com­plete the UK’S big three 24-hour fell-run­ning rounds. Then, in


2011, she set her first moun­tain- run­ning record, the women’s Lake Dis­trict 24-Hour record – sim­ply how many peaks you can summit in­side the timescale. De­spite be­ing ‘ ter­ri­bly sick’ on a re­ally hot day, she bagged a stag­ger­ing 64 peaks in 23:15.

A friend sug­gested Spinks’ pace dur­ing that record run had been fast enough to set a new women’s best on the Bob Gra­ham Round, and she duly planned an at­tempt for April 2012.

But then came some dev­as­tat­ing news. ‘ Doc­tors found ‘ pos­si­ble pre- can­cer­ous’ cells in my womb and rec­om­mended a hys­terec­tomy,’ says Spinks. ‘ I was dev­as­tated. But I just had to get on with it.’ Her phleg­matic at­ti­tude is typ­i­cal of the grit that un­der­pins ev­ery­thing she does, and she has even taken pos­i­tives and drawn strength from her or­deal. ‘Sur­viv­ing can­cer has made me do the chal­lenges as soon as I can, and ap­pre­ci­ate the fact I’m able to,’ says Spinks. ‘ There’s not a lot worse than be­ing told you have can­cer. It’s helped me be stronger. Now, when a chal­lenge isn’t go­ing so well, I think, “It’s not the end of the world,” and, “I’m do­ing this be­cause I want to”.’

She doesn’t have bad runs any­more. ‘No run is a bad run, be­cause I’m just grate­ful I can run. I ap­pre­ci­ate my run­ning a lot more now. Even if I’m feel­ing tired or slow, I’ll look around and try to take in the view or the fact my dogs are run­ning with me.’


Spinks cer­tainly needed to draw on that in­ner strength and pos­i­tive mind­set on her Bob Gra­ham-record at­tempt. ‘The weather was hor­ren­dous – we got hailed on and it was dire, and I suf­fered with sick­ness a lot,’ she re­calls. ‘ But we were al­ways up on the sched­ule and there’s no way you can drop out then.’ She set a new women’s record of 18 hours, 12 min­utes. ‘Af­ter­wards it was still rain­ing hard and we sat in a shower block. I had half a Pot Noo­dle to cel­e­brate and fell asleep.’

Next in her sights was a new women’s record on the Paddy Buck­ley Round, in 2013. Not that Spinks was about to start blow­ing her own trum­pet, though. ‘She’s remarkably mod­est,’ says close friend Charmian Heaton, who’s a lso head of lo­gis­tics for all Spinks’ big chal­lenges. ‘ I re­mem­ber her sit­ting in my van af­ter her record-break­ing Paddy and qui­etly say­ing, “That was re­ally good… for me”. She’s so down to earth. She’s also prac­ti­cal, ex­tremely com­pet­i­tive and driven.’

No sur­prise, then, that she had more records in her sights, and the women’s record on the Ram­say Round came next (19:39), leav­ing her hold­ing the fe­male records on all of the big three rounds. Fell and ul­tra­ma­rathon race wins at home and abroad also stacked up, just re­wards for her in­cred­i­ble work ethic. ‘ Her prepa­ra­tion is ex­tra­or­di­nary,’ says Heaton. ‘She spends hun­dreds of hours re­search­ing data and rec­ce­ing routes on the ground. We travel to the lo­ca­tion to­gether, drive around the road sup­port points; she ex­plains what’s in each of her bags, what she might need at each changeover.’

‘ We a re both straight- talk­ers and she will tell me if I put too much milk in her tea!’ says Heaton. ‘Nicky warned me that when she is stressed, her fuse does get shorter. But I can hon­estly say that I have never seen this side of her – although some of her hill sup­port­ers have re­ported some mem­o­rable strops!’

Spinks had a set­back in 2016, when her friend Jas­min Paris, then 32, broke all three of her 24-hour round women’s records. But that same year, to mark a decade since be­ing di­ag­nosed and treated for breast can­cer, Spinks hatched her most au­da­cious plan yet: she would at­tempt to run a Dou­ble Bob Gra­ham in record time. That’s 132 miles, 84 sum­mits and around 54,000ft ( 16,459m) of a scent. Roger Baumeis­ter’s record of 46:34 had stood since 1979.

‘Nicky will tell you her­self that she’s not the fastest run­ner,’ says Heaton. ‘ But she has a ca­pac­ity for en­durance, is a mas­ter at pac­ing and can drive her­self be­yond the pain bar­rier. She likes to be afraid of a chal­lenge, which means that she re­spects it, which keeps her fo­cused.’

‘ It was un­charted ter­ri­tory for me,’ says Spinks. ‘The long­est I’d run pre­vi­ously was 36 hours. Dur­ing the at­tempt I had a lot of aches and pains. I started to get a re­ally sore knee early on and was re­ally wor­ried. I think a lot of it is psy­cho­log­i­cal, though, so I blocked it out.’

‘She pushes her­self harder than any­one I have ever met,’ says long­time run­ning friend He­len El­more. St ill, re­turn­ing to Moot Hall in Keswick at the end of the first round was a huge test for Spinks. ‘ Know­ing that in­stead of it be­ing the end, I had an­other 15 or 16 hours to run was over­whelm­ing. I was very emo­tional. I was in tears. I thought, “I can’t do this” but I made it to Charmian’s van.’

In the van, Spinks had a 10-minute power nap. ‘ I think that and hav­ing a lit­tle cry helped. I got back out of the van more fo­cused, de­ter­mined and pos­i­tive.

‘ What also helped me was the food. The fish, chips and curry sauce at Dun­mail af­ter a long first day were fan­tas­tic and at Portin­scale I had fried egg and beans! It’s the type of fuel I love.’ You can’t run for 40- odd hours on gels and jelly ba­bies and Spinks is fa­mous for her choice of un­likely run­ning fuel, es­pe­cially cold baked beans and rice pud­dings.

‘ I re­mem­ber her pro­jec­tile vom­it­ing a pot of beans,’ says El­more. ‘ She paused, drank some wa­ter, then stomped up Dale Head like a woman pos­sessed. Some fe­male friend­ships


are de­fined by hold­ing your mate’s hair out of the way as she’s be­ing sick in a night­club toi­let. Ours has been built through a shared love of the fells and friendly com­pe­ti­tion – and she still likes bloody beans!’

Spinks set a new Dou­ble Bob Gra­ham record of 45 hours and 30 min­utes and plenty came out to pay trib­ute. ‘ To see so many peo­ple there at the fin­ish was un­be­liev­able,’ says Spinks. ‘ I stood there and didn’t know what to do next. I wanted chips, curry sauce, a beer and my comfy pillow!’ Her in­cred­i­ble ex­ploits de­servedly made na­tional tele­vi­sion news, while the Dai­ly­mail la­belled her ‘ Bri­tain’s tough­est woman’.

Spinks is not nearly so dra­matic. ‘ When you fin­ish a suc­cess­ful race or chal­lenge, it’s a lovely sort of warm feel­ing,’ she re­flects. ‘ I don’t usu­ally have the en­ergy to bounce up and down. If I worked to my max­i­mum I’m usu­ally sick about two min­utes af­ter fin­ish­ing, and then I want to go to sleep. I get this great big grin that stays on my face all night when I’m asleep and ev­ery time I wake up I think, ‘I’ve done it!’‘


The most am­bi­tious item on Spinks’ to-do list was added this year, when she set her sights on the Dou­ble Char­lie Ram­say. ‘ I of­ten won­der why I set my­self these nearim­pos­si­ble chal­lenges,’ she ad­mits. ‘ But I think back to the peo­ple who’ve in­flu­enced me. My mum [who passed away when Nicky was 10 years old] be­ing de­nied a full in­nings of life; my grandad, who said to me the day be­fore he died that he was “ready to go”, hav­ing done ev­ery­thing that he ever wanted to do in life; and my hus­band, the farmer who wants to see the world.’

‘ We’ve been gifted with one life and I want to make the most of mine, and help peo­ple make the most of theirs. That’s why I raise money for Odyssey, to help peo­ple get back on their way af­ter can­cer, and why I coach run­ners, both re­motely and the ju­niors at Peni­s­tone Foot­path Run­ners.

Gen­eros­ity is an­other word of­ten as­so­ci­ated with Spinks. ‘ She is very gen­er­ous with her knowl­edge and sup­port of other folk’s en­deav­ours,’ says Heaton. ‘She helped a friend of mine on his Bob Gra­ham at­tempt last year. She says sup­port is ‘a job and not a jolly’ and takes her role very se­ri­ously. She also has a wicked sense of hu­mour.’

Does she en­joy the coach­ing? ‘ Not be­ing a par­ent or a teacher, I some­times find group con­trol tricky!’ she smiles. ‘ But run­ning is fun and fell run­ning is even more fun, and I try to make my lessons as fun as pos­si­ble. I al­ways try to en­cour­age those who put the ef­fort in. Not nec­es­sar­ily the faster kids who don’t re­ally try, but the slower run­ners who re­ally try. I also re­ally en­joy the re­mote coach­ing.’

I had the priv­i­lege of join­ing Spinks for the first leg of her Dou­ble R ams a y a t t emp t . Start­ing at mid­night, she set a blis­ter­ing pace on the first climb, soon drop­ping two of her sup­port run­ners. She was con­cerned about the heat fore­cast for the af­ter­noon, but was more in­ter­ested in get­ting news of two of the run­ners she coaches at­tempt­ing Bob Gra­ham Rounds at the same time.

She was in good spir­its and 20 min­utes up on her sched­ule af­ter leg one, which had been eight hours of steep moun­tain ter­rain. It was mind­blow­ing to think she was plan­ning to con­tinue for around an­other 40 hours.

The Queen of the Fells re­mained ahead of sched­ule for over 30 hours. How­ever, though she en­dured Satur­day’s heat, Sun­day was hot­ter than fore­cast and she grad­u­ally fell be­hind. ‘ I don’t run well in the heat. Since my hys­terec­tomy I lack ba­sic heat con­trol. My ther­mo­stat is bug­gered. I felt frag­ile and didn’t want to bat­tle the heat any more.’ The time mar­gins for the Dou­ble Ram­say were al­ways ex­tremely tight and af­ter around 30 hours it be­came clear she wouldn’t be able to com­plete the dis­tance in­side the 48-hour dead­line. Time to call it a day? Not likely. ‘ I never se­ri­ously thought about it,’ she says. ‘ There was no way I was go­ing to abort. OK, I felt a bit mis­er­able. But there was noth­ing wrong with me. I wanted to f in­ish the Dou­ble as I’d set out to do. ‘ I think I must be stub­born and quite hard on my­self. I know if I don’t do well this time I’ll only have to come back again. I’ve only dropped out of two races – when I had a cyst that burst, so that was pretty painful and a good rea­son; and with flu, when I was cough­ing up phlegm. Other­wise I try and sort out any­thing that’s go­ing wrong and carry on go­ing. I’m not a per­son to drop out or give up.’ So, de­spite be­ing on her feet for two days and two nights, Spinks pushed on. Af­ter 55 hours and 55 min­utes con­tin­u­ous slog through the Scot­tish moun­tains, she reached the fin­ish line out­side the Glen Ne­vis youth hos­tel and sat down to a much- de­served dou­ble help­ings of ba­con and eggs. By con­tin­u­ing, even when suc­cess, ac­cord­ing to her orig­i­nal def­i­ni­tion, had be­come im­pos­si­ble, she had achieved some­thing even greater.

‘ I was dis­ap­pointed at first,’ she ad­mit­ted a week later. ‘ But I’m slowly feel­ing more pleased with it. And it was a good learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for fu­ture chal­lenges.’

It’s a suit­ably un­der­stated sum­mary of an im­mense achieve­ment, per­fectly en­cap­su­lat­ing an unas­sum­ing run­ning icon. Long live the queen.


(Far left) Nicky Spinks, a woman who takes epic chal­lenges in her stride; (top) head­ing over the Mamores moun­tain range on her Dou­ble Ram­say Round in June; (bot­tom) a change of shoes and a pot of beans dur­ing her Dou­ble Bob Gra­ham Round in 2016

When she is feel­ing tired or slow, Spinks takes the time to en­joy the view

(Above) For Spinks, fell run­ning is un­beat­able; (top) sum­mit­ing Esk Pike dur­ing her Dou­ble Bob

Gra­ham in 2016; (right) a break with her beloved dog Wisp on the Dou­ble Ram­say in June

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