Photo: INOV-8.COM/Lee Procter
Ultra runner Nicky Spinks is a legend in fell running. Well known for setting records on some the most challenging running routes in both the UK and Europe, she famously became the fastest person to complete the Double Bob Graham round of 132 miles and 54,000ft of ascent, aged 49, in 2016, in celebration of her 10-year cancer survival.
Nicky, who is an ambassador for inov-8, has completed numerous 100-mile races, including running the UTMB twice and finishing second lady in the L’Echappee Belledonne (144km and 10,900m of climbing!) Yet, despite her successes, Nicky is renowned for being humble and as down to earth as they come. I’m thrilled to have her on the blog and hope you enjoy the interview.
You grew up on a farm and have spent your later years farming. Do you think this helped contribute to your resilience and mental toughness?
Yes, I do because as a farmer you can’t just give up and go inside when you’ve got a job to do. It makes you buckle down and just get on with it. You also get to learn about weather and how to dress for it.
Can you tell me about your incredible Double Bob Graham run – what were the highs and lows?
The main highs were: a) Realising after three legs and 12 hours that the legs and stomach were OK and that it might actually be doable. b) Joss Naylor (renowned fell runner) being there c) All my supporters doing everything I’d asked of them and more. And just them being a huge part of it. d) After the Power Nap when I felt OK again. e) Most of the way back from Yewbarrow, as we all knew barring an accident that I was going to do it. The film captures that beautifully – the atmosphere along the road was carnival.
The main lows were Saturday night over Helvellyn and Blencathra – two legs overnight when I just didn’t eat enough and felt like a zombie. I should have slept at Threlkeld but I kept going and by Keswick felt shocking. Nothing was really wrong – stomach/legs were okay. I couldn’t figure it out and Adam Perry (fellow ultra runner) suggested strongly that I should have a power nap. Other than that, I had a nose bleed, was struggling with food after 35 hours – some spicy pasta sorted me out – and my feet hurt a bit – some Vaseline and a change of shoes from inov-8 Mudclaws to Roadclaws sorted that. My feet had swollen up.
How long after your Double Bob Graham did you run again?
It was a week before I ran, and I did 10 miles easy on the hills. Then I didn’t run for a week and did the Jura Fell Race. Again, I had a week off and ran Duddon Fell Race. Jura was good – I set off steady and felt heavy-legged then okay for the second half. Duddon was heavy-legged and hard all the way round. After that, I just did a few shorter races and Bob Graham supporting for June. By July I felt okay, but still kept an eye out for the dips in energy during runs and always carried more food than I would usually.
Do you structure your runs or simply run where the mood takes you?
I like to achieve something on every run so don’t often do an ‘easy’ run. I try to be structured, but with farming this is only really possible in winter when the cattle are inside and we’re not silaging/haymaking/harvesting. So in winter I can plan more, but I have to do lots of running in the dark as daylight hours are for farming!
What does a typical week of training look like for you?
I always make myself up a training plan concentrated around racing, as that’s what I use to get fitter and faster, working towards my two main goals in the year. I think that with long distance you can only really do two 60/100 mile events in a year, so I choose those and then use 20/30-mile races to train.
A typical winter week is Winter Mondays which is hill repetitions one week and a 10k race the next over a very hilly course. On Tuesday, I coach Juniors at Penistone Footpath Runners & AC, so that can be a bit of speed/hills but usually classed as ‘easy’. Wednesday is my own speed work from home with the dogs. It’s probably a bit unorthodox but I scour the local golf course for runnable buggy tracks then link them all together and do circuits of 200m/300/1km. The dogs love it as they can cut the corners! Thursday is a long run on the moors – 10 miles with a 1000m climb. Then a race or recce one day at the weekend of about 20 miles.
In summer, my training routine all goes to pot so I enter long, hard races as many weekends as possible. My husband knows (and understands) that whatever we’re doing [on the farm], I’m happy if I can race at the weekend and then just farm during the week. I try and get the speed work in and a long run, but then just have to not stress about lack of running and hope that the farming counts as cross training.
Have you found your speed work helps your distance running?
In every fell race there is a road section and I was finding that I hated any flat road or tracks. One day Sally Fawcett (GB trail and fell runner) said after Pendle Fell Race, ‘Oh, didn’t the cattle grids annoy you? They really broke my rhythm”. However, I was glad to stop running at each one! So I thought: ‘That’s what I need – rhythm!’ Ever since then I’ve done speed work and it really helps.
As an ultra-runner do you recommend logging ‘hours on your feet’ as opposed to mileage?
Absolutely. I have to laugh when people ask me how far everything is – I never even measured the Double Bob Graham before I did it. It was going to be a very long way, and to be honest whatever it is, is what it is. It’s how long it’s going to take me that’s important. And also that walking is just as important as running.
Do you track your runs?
I do – but don’t want to get followed so don’t put stuff online. I’m on Strava as I’m coaching runners and like to track their progress, but I don’t upload my runs to there.
How do you overcome sleep deprivation when running ultra distances?
Generally on the farm I know I can miss a night’s sleep and be fine. I’ll feel tired and will be a little tetchy. We calve 90 cows in February and March and get up at 2am every night. If you have to miss two nights’ sleep then it’s horrid but still I rarely have an afternoon nap. It’s the same with jet lag – I will make myself stay up.
On my Rounds the adrenaline keeps me going. Apart from the Double Bob Graham, I’ve never suffered. I just think, ‘Sleep – you don’t need it’. What you do need is to plan for a bit of fogginess, so try and make all decision making very easy. Label everything up, tell your support beforehand not to ask loads of questions. Think ahead so you know what to ask for when you get to a road stop. Plan as if you’ve jet lag. Keep everything simple.
What has been your toughest race to date?
In 2011 I did the Ladies Lake District 24-hour round in July, and then the Tranter Round in Scotland three weeks later. When I started the 100-mile Grand Raid Pyrenees at the end of August, within two hours I knew I was too tired. But I was first lady, and my brother had flown out to support me. I made a pact with myself that if I dropped to fourth lady I could drop out. But I didn’t. My brother drove all the way round to every check point, and it was seeing his face every time that kept me pushing. I had raced the Grand Raid Pyrenees the year before and knew how slowly I was going as I was walking when I should have been running. The second lady was catching me, and up the last big hill – which took 6 hours – I pushed as hard as I could. I knew at the top I had done it. I was still 20 minutes ahead of her and the descent, although long, wasn’t long enough for her to catch me. It was 30 hours of hell and it took me to November to recover.
Do you have any technique tips for running steep and tricky terrain uphill?
I think everyone has to learn their own preference. I tend to run with small steps and then walk when I think I can walk faster than I’m running. I walk fast, putting my hands on my thighs, but then every few steps I straighten up to get more air into my lungs. This might not work for everyone. I have been doing some plyometric exercises which have helped a lot too.
Mentally, how do you approach an ultra-distance run? Do you break it down into segments?
Yes – I’ve always done that. So it’s all about getting to the next food stop; they are what’s important to me. If it’s getting hard then I break it down further into ‘just get to the next top’. I try and set off at my pace and ignore other runners. This is hard at a big event like UTMB, but the race only really begins after halfway. The first 50 miles are the warm-up and so I think about looking after myself.
When you have tough times in an event what makes you keep going?
I’m very stubborn and I know if I don’t finish something I’ll come back. So that keeps me going when it’s hard. I make myself eat when I don’t want to, then let myself have 10 minutes off when I drink just water as a treat. I always look forward to it cooling down at night if it’s hot, and again, think, ‘Just look after yourself, then when it’s nighttime you can run properly again.’
What items would you describe as your can’t-live-without kit?
Shoes – for the fells it’s got to be inov-8 Mudclaws. Nothing else grips like them and I can run for 24-hours in them happily. For Ultra runs, I think the inov-8 Roclites are coming out tops at the moment. For winter runs a decent waterproof like the inov-8 Protec Shell. Expensive, but when you need to keep the weather out you need a good jacket. Then my other big must is a decent head torch.
Do you think pacers are useful for ultra events and is this a method that you’ve used?
I’ve never had a pacer on a race but on all my rounds I’ve always had supporters. They don’t pace me as I pace myself but they carry the food, water and kit for me. They are invaluable to me.
You’re known for being thorough in your fuelling – what have you learnt about fuelling ultras over the last decade?
I make and eat real food at home – I never buy ready-made meals, pies or anything. On the hills and my rounds I use a combination of real food – rice puddings, fruit salads, pasta, muesli bars such as Tunnocks and Brunch, and then energy products such as gels and energy powder. I hit the caffeine big time too.
Daily my breakfast is porridge made with milk (it’s yukky with water), sultanas and honey. Lunch is usually sandwiches – often cheese. Or in winter, homemade soup and stews. For my main meal I make pizzas, chicken pies, fish pies, meat and pasta dishes. We have a local vegetable place so we eat a lot of in-season vegetables. We don’t have pudding usually, but I do make cakes and sometimes in winter we have that. We try not to snack in between meals.
You must be an expert in blister prevention and treatment – how do you deal with/prevent blisters on your ultra runs?
I’m not an expert as I don’t suffer with them generally. What I do is soften my feet with Compeed heel crack repair stuff for about four months before a big race – it’s what runners do for MdS (Marathon des Sables) and I thought I’d try it after I was getting very painful heels and pads but no blisters on every 100-mile ultra. Then about 6 weeks afterwards all my skin would peel off my feet.
I asked a doctor friend and he said it was the hard skin – caused by wearing wellies all day – separating from the skin underneath with all the friction of running a long way. The Compeed seems to have helped as on the Double Bob Graham they were fine, and no skin lost afterwards either.
Do you like to use poles in European mountain races and is there a technique to using them?
I always use poles now. The technique is to keep the poles behind your front toes uphill and on the flat. Push back with the poles and do a short, choppy motion. Downhill, take your hands out of the straps in case you fall and just use them as you like! They really help uphill and downhill but need practice for technique, and also because you have to be stricter when swopping them about to eat etc.
You’ve written about your diagnosis of breast cancer, your treatment, and your recovery on your blog. Did having breast cancer change your perspective on life?
I was always a lover of life. My mother died when I was 10, she was 30. My grandad, her father, died when I was living with him when I was 24 and he was 76. She never got to have a life and my grandad said to me the night before he died, ‘Don’t be sad, I’ve done everything I’ve ever wanted to do and I’m ready to join my wife.’
So before I got breast cancer I didn’t mind getting older, so long as I was making the most out of my life. I’m a farmer, we see life and death often – it’s a fact of life that one day you will die. So I was making the most out of my life but thinking I had a long one in front of me as we all do. Breast cancer made me realise that I should savour every day and if there is something I want to do then to make room for it and do it.
I have a special place in the Peak District that I went to when I was diagnosed and then at Christmas, and then on every anniversary.
I always try to take the chance to look around on my runs and think how lucky I am to be here, running and enjoying it. If I see something – a view, a sunset, a hare, a rainbow, I store it away as a happy memory.
Do you ever get nervous before a race or challenge?
I used to get horrendously nervous before every big race to the point of not sleeping and not eating, and then one race I got annoyed with myself as I had recced the route, I had run the distance, I knew I could do it. So I walked off and told myself off: ‘You can do this.’ And that really helped. So I use that. I also think, ‘Well, I’m just going to set off and see today…’ I also avoid the main hall as I don’t think all that nervous tension/excitement is good for me – I’ll always be somewhere quiet.
Who are you sponsored by at the moment?
Hey, that’s an easy one – inov-8! And to be honest I feel more like I’m part of the company than a sponsored athlete who just gets given stuff so they can sell more stuff. I get to test the new products and can speak directly to the designers who are really keen to hear what I have to say – whether good or bad. inov-8 have been very understanding about all my rounds and only publicise it when I want it publishing, which is key to my preparation. If I’m talking to people I only recommend gear I really like. Before I was an inov-8 ambassador I only had two pairs of shoes – inov-8 Mudclaws and what were Race Ultras. I couldn’t afford to try loads out. So I know that people can’t too.
To follow Nicky’s fell running and ultra challenges you can follow her on www.Twitter.com/nickyspinks and by visiting her website, www.runbg.co.uk, which has details of her news and training days (well worth investing in!).