Queen Of The Fells
The truly inspirational Nicky Spinks
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
‘I GOT VERY TIRED AND VERY COLD AND I WAS VERY SICK’
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.’
PUSHING TO THE LIMITS
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
‘NO RUN IS A BAD RUN, BECAUSE I’M JUST GRATEFUL I CAN RUN’
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.
‘I WANTED CHIPS, CURRY SAUCE, A BEER AND MY COMFY PILLOW!’
(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