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March 13, 2015 Comments (5) All Posts

Beating Cancer. Beating Mountain Records. Beating The Men!

Fastest woman over Great Britain’s highest mountains sets new challenge

UPDATE (April 6): Nicky completed her Bob Graham Round in a time of 18hrs 06mins (confirmed), beating her own women’s record by 6 minutes. She was outside of the 17hrs 21mins clocking she needed to record the fastest cumulative time for the Bob Graham, Ramsay Round and Paddy Buckley. Nicky ran most of the 66-mile Bob Graham route with a badly cut hand after falling on the descent of Blencathra. She lost time on the difficult section between Wasdale and Honister as temperatures rose but remained strong and was rewarded with a fantastic new women’s record time. A large, cheering crowd welcomed her to the finish, at Moot Hall, Keswick. Many people all around the world followed Nicky throughout her run on this TRACKER

Nicky Spinks already holds the fastest cumulative women’s time for the three most famous 24-hour mountain challenges in Great Britain -the Bob Graham (England), the Paddy Buckley (Wales) and the Ramsay Round (Scotland). Not one to rest on her laurels, the 47-year-old will this Easter attempt to lower her Bob Graham time by 51 minutes or more -and in doing so beat the fastest cumulative men’s time for all three rounds. Her story is fascinating. From beating cancer to beating mountain records to beating the men, Nicky is an inspiration to many.

I started running in 2001 when I joined a friend in doing the Leeds Abbey Dash. While training for that event I relived the enjoyment I used to get from running around the family farm as a child and when I ran to keep weight off in my twenties. I then joined Penistone Footpath Runners and later Dark Peak as my passion for off-road running in the fells and mountains grew.

I first completed the Bob Graham (a 66-mile circuit over 42 of the Lake District’s highest summits including 27,000ft of elevation gain) in 2005. I dipped under the 24-hour time limit with a 23:33 clocking. Having not found it too hard, I decided to have a crack at the Paddy Buckley (a 61-mile route over 47 Snowdonia peaks incorporating 28,000ft of ascent). Foul weather conditions hampered my attempt and I completed it in over 24 hours (25:45).

A month later I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had, however, unfinished business with the Paddy Buckley, so throughout my treatment I continued to train and recce sections of the route. It was hard, but having the Paddy Buckley as a focus helped my recovery. Eventually in May 2007 I completed the Paddy Buckley in under 24 hours, reaching the finish with just five minutes to spare.

To complete the ‘Big Three’ I needed to do the Ramsay Round (a 58-mile, 28,500ft circuit of 24 Scottish summits -including Great Britain’s highest, Ben Nevis). I spent almost an entire year learning sections of the route and getting fitter. With my recovery from cancer complete, I was able to push harder in my running. The benefits were clear to see, and in May 2008 I completed the Ramsay Round in 22:32.

Nicky Spinks fuels up during her record-breaking attempt on the Ramsay Round. Photo by Charlie Ramsay

Nicky Spinks fuels up during her record-breaking attempt on the Ramsay Round (Scotland). Photo by Charlie Ramsay

From devastation to delight

During 2009 and 2010 I focused my efforts abroad and took part in two big 100-mile ultras, the Grand Raid Reunion (4th) and Grand Raid Pyrenees (1st). My heart, however, remained with challenges on home soil. So, when a friend suggested I made an attempt at the ladies’ 24-hour Lake District Record, I began planning. This is basically the Bob Graham but with as many extra summits as possible added. The record to beat was 62 peaks in 23:17, set by Anne Johnson (nee Stentiford).

At first I thought it was insane, but with the seed planted in my mind I began to recce the route and look for any potential shortcuts that would save time. To beat the record I knew I would have to not only visit all the 62 summits Anne had bagged but also add some more. And the rules were strict -any additional summits would have to be over 0.25 mile away from another summit and involve an extra 250ft of ascent. I spent months and months running over the hills and perhaps even longer pouring over maps! I eventually made my record attempt in May 2011. Despite being terribly sick, I managed 64 peaks, adding the summits of Fleetwith Pike and Sand Hill to Anne’s previous tally, and doing so in 23:15.

I promised myself a rest but then a friend suggested that my pace during the 24-hour Lake District Record run had been fast enough that I would have set a women’s Bob Graham record had I just been doing those 42 peaks. Anne also held that record, clocking 18:52 in bad weather conditions. I planned an attempt for Easter 2012 but a visit to the doctors in February found ‘possible pre cancerous’ cells in my womb. The doctors recommended I had a hysterectomy. I was devastated, but I just had to get on with it. I rescheduled the attempt for July.

Recovery from the operation was quick but painful. I was actually back running within six weeks, winning the 61-mile Fellsman ultra (UK) in the process. By the time July came around I was ready. The first half of my attempt went really well and I was on for a 17:30 clocking but then bad weather struck on Bowfell. It was horrendous. I lost time and, to be honest, only carried on because breaking the record was still possible. I finally returned to Keswick and the finishing point at Moot Hall in 18:12, taking 40 minutes off the previous record.

The following year I returned to Wales in a bid to lower my time for the Paddy Buckley and have a go at Anne Johnson’s brilliant record of 19:20. Having postponed the attempt 24 hours due to bad weather, I then got the prefect window and just went for it. Running to a 19:10 schedule, I knew time would be tight. I lost some valuable minutes in the mist but there were very few further mishaps. I felt great and ran strong, eventually clocking 19:02 and setting a new women’s record.

Nicky Spinks, supported by pacers, on her way to setting a new women's record for the Paddy Buckley. Photo by Nick Cable

Another mountain challenge. Another record. Nicky Spinks, supported by pacers, on her way to setting a new women’s record time for the Paddy Buckley (Wales). Photo by Nick Cable

Two records down, one to go. Next stop, the mountains of Scotland

With two records (Bob Graham and Paddy Buckley) in the bag, I knew what I had to do next -have a go at the women’s Ramsay Round record of 20:24, set by Helene Whittaker (nee Diamantides). It’s lucky that I have an understanding husband who also likes Scotland because every month in the build-up I was north of the border fine-tuning my running lines to perfection. I even taught the locals a shortcut or two!

With massive help from the Carnethy and Lochaber running clubs, as well as the usual suspects from Dark Peak and Penistone Footpath Runners, I made my attempt at the record in May of last year. The weather could not have been better. The blistering pace affected my stomach but my legs were trained to run -and keep on running they did! The summits of the Mamores passed in a blur of sickness and I was still gaining time on my 20-hour schedule. Eventually I reached the finish in a time of 19:39, setting another women’s record.

The rest of 2014 didn’t go to plan. I went to Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) but, having won the 10 Peaks Extreme in the UK in July, I was too tired to do it justice and really struggled through the last 30 miles. I finished 16th woman (5th veteran). I hope to return to UTMB one day and put things right!

Now in 2015, I have a new challenge. Steve Birkinshaw was the first to come to me with the following statistics, showing I have the third fastest cumulative time (including men and women) for all three rounds (Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley and Ramsay Round).

Nicky Spinks Mark Hartell Chris Near
Bob Graham 18.12 14.54 17.23
Paddy Buckley 19.02 18.10 18.10
Ramsay Round 19.39 23.24 20.30
Total 56.53 56.28 56.03

I always knew I would have to return to the Bob Graham as I cannot walk away from something unless I have done my best at it. But what these statistics have given me is a target! It scares me to look at the times and compute just how fast I need to run! To achieve the fastest cumulative time, and knock Chris Near from top spot, I need to better my Bob Graham time by at least 51 minutes. So, I need to run the Bob Graham in 17:21 or faster. I have learnt lots from my previous rounds and I feel this record is achievable. I’m not the fastest runner, especially compared to many men, however I have the ability and experience to keep going and run at the same pace throughout.

Working hard on another big ascent, the inspirational Nicky Spinks . Photo by Yiannis Tridimas

Working hard on another big ascent, the inspirational Nicky Spinks. Photo by Yiannis Tridimas

I have been asked several times, ‘what drives you to set yourself these incredible challenges?’ I reply with, ‘the idea is planted, usually by someone else, and once I think a record is achievable then I cannot leave it unchallenged.’

I’m currently doing fine-line recces of the Bob Graham sections that I will run in the dark on the record attempt. I’m also working on my flat speed so I can use that on the final five-mile run along the road back to Moot Hall in Keswick. On top of that, I’m packing in as many long fell races as I can to build my endurance. I hope to make my Bob Graham attempt at Easter but this is dependent on snow / weather conditions. I have a backup date in May.

On every single mountain round that I have completed I have worn inov-8 MUDCLAW 300 shoes. For me, there is no better running shoe.

5 Responses to Beating Cancer. Beating Mountain Records. Beating The Men!

  1. […] Spinks ran up 27,000 feet of ascent over 66 miles and 42 of the Lake District’s highest peaks in 18 hours and six minutes. She broke her own women’s record by six minutes. She is 47 years old, has had breast cancer […]

  2.' Nick Cable says:

    Nicky is my hero and my friend, its been an honour and a privilege to spend time on the hill with her on so many training runs, races and long distance rounds. My abiding memory will be her coming to support my own Bob Graham Round just days before going into hospital with cancer, such is the steel and drive of this lady of the fells.

  3. […] Britain – the Bob Graham (England), the Ramsay Round (Scotland) and the Paddy Buckley (Wales). My combined time of 56hrs 53mins put me behind Chris Near (56hrs 03mins) and Mark Hartell (56hrs 28m… I got to work on the maths and figured out that to topple Chris I would need to run my Bob Graham […]

  4. C Nichols says:

    […] out to England and attempt a Fastest Known Time (FKT) on their famous 24-hour fell running rounds (Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley and Ramsay Round) had been foiled by a lack of long-term planning on my end. Dreams? I’ve had plenty of them. But […]

  5. LEON says:

    […] Britain – the Bob Graham (England), the Ramsay Round (Scotland) and the Paddy Buckley (Wales). My combined time of 56hrs 53mins put me behind Chris Near (56hrs 03mins) and Mark Hartell (56hrs 28m… I got to work on the maths and figured out that to topple Chris I would need to run my Bob Graham […]

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