In 2016 Nicky Spinks became the fastest person – and first woman – to complete the 132-mile Double Bob Graham Round. The 49-year-old cancer survivor twice summited 42 peaks and ascended a total of 54,000ft in a time of 45 hours 30 minutes.
The first time I ran further than I thought possible was when training for the Dewsbury 10k in March 2002. Prior to the race all my training runs had been 4 to 5 miles long and I was worried. At the same time, my brother was training for the London Marathon and suggested that to allay my fears of not being able to run the full 6.2 miles (10k) we measure it out in the car and then run it. When I got to 5 miles my legs just kept on going. I was so impressed. It was then that I realised that running further is largely dependant on the mental belief that you can indeed do it. Logically there is no reason why not. Humans are born hunters and gatherers and we have one of the best endurance capabilities of all mammals.
But with running further comes a lot more considerations to factor in. First and foremost, sourcing energy is key to running longer distances. We generally use the energy from what we’ve just eaten within the first hour of running, so after that the body either needs to be replenished on the run or utilise its fat stores. Women have the advantage here, as we store our fat in more accessible places than men. However, the overall conversion of fat to energy is a slow process and so ‘on the move feeding’ is best… especially as runners don’t tend to carry a lot of spare fat anyway!
Eat within the first hour of starting your run
Over the years I’ve tried many foods and energy products and now have a combination that works for me. I always eat within the first hour of setting off; I believe this keeps some blood in my stomach, which needs to stay there to do all the digesting I’m going to ask of it over the next umpteen hours. I use a combination of ‘proper food’ like rice puddings, beans, pasta dishes, then add in ‘pure energy’ about 30 minutes before I think I’m going to need it, like ahead of a long ascent which will require a lot of uphill running / hiking. This is usually a gel but if I’m eating well it will be a chocolate bar or some jelly babies. Many UK races offer the type of ‘proper food’ I like at aid stations. However, continental races seem to favour salami, cheese and bread, all of which takes some getting used too, for me anyway.
Then there is the act of actually getting the food, whatever it may be, down your neck. Many runners say, “Oh, I have no problem eating.” That makes me smile because I know that if they run far enough it will only be a matter of time before they will! I think it depends on how stressed your body is as to how well you can eat. So being fatigued, running through the night or being behind a schedule can all have an effect. The other one is the weather. Too hot, too cold, too windy, too wet….. they can all have an effect on your stress levels and mental state, and thus determine how well you eat. I really dislike the cold and when you desperately try and force yourself to eat, only to get the chocolate bar out and realise your hands are too numb to open the wrapper!
Devise a hydration plan – and stick to it
The type of terrain you are running over can also play its part. On tricky, rocky terrain or when running in mud you naturally concentrate more on your foot placement, thus this is a bad time to try and eat. When I’m advising people on their Bob Graham Round attempt (a 66-mile circuit over 42 of England’s highest summits including 27,000ft of elevation gain to be completed in under 24 hours) I always say to try and eat well before you get to the summit Bowfell, because between there and the top of Scafell (around one-and-a-half to two hours of running for many) the terrain is so rough and rocky that it limits eating opportunities. My best advice is to plan your eating as carefully as possible. Think: What, When, Where.
Keeping hydrated is as important as nutrition. So again think about what you drink, how often you drink and how you are going to transport or refill your running hydration pack / bottles. This has got to be decided pre-race and then adhered to.
Beating fatigue and sleep deprivation
Fatigue is, at some point in the run, going to have an effect on how your body copes with heat and cold, as well as how your mind handles hours of concentrating on foot placement and decision-making on food, drink and clothes to wear. It is crucial that you know how to recognise the early signs and respond to them before the issue gets critical. For example: feeling a hot spot on your foot and making that decision to stop and apply treatment to prevent a blister further into the run/race, rather than carrying on because you are too worried about losing time or positions to others.
Sleep deprivation plays a part in many ultra races and obviously in 24-hour rounds like the Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley (Wales) and Ramsay Round (Scotland). Lack of sleep affects people differently and some can also experience hallucinations. This, fortunately, has never happened to me. I can go a long time without sleep; being a farmer has taught me that you just have to get on with the next day as if you had a full night’s sleep, even though in reality you’ve been up from 2am to 4am calving a cow.
Keep it simple so decision-making can be avoided
When I’m planning my running kit for a race or organising an attempt at a 24-hour round, I make everything as simple as possible to try and take away the need for decisions to be made when I know I’m going to be too tired to make them. For my Double Bob Graham Round, I packed all the supporters’ bags up with exactly the same food, therefore eliminating the questions from said supporters at each road stop of ‘what do you want us to take on the hill for you?’ I knew I wouldn’t be capable of answering such questions 20, 30, 40 hours into the attempt, so I effectively answered them in advance.
Mentally, apart from believing you can run the distance and climb all the hills before you start, you also need to keep telling yourself this during the race/challenge, especially when it gets hard and your body wants to stop. When you’re running for such a long time there has got to come a period when you go through a bad patch. It happens to us all, but it’s about having that mental strength to keep going.
Manageable chunks and milestone celebrations
I have lots of little tricks I use, including breaking down an ultra-distance race or 24-hour challenge into achievable chunks, and then having a little celebration when I pass the milestones I’ve set. On the Double Bob Graham the big aim, obviously, was to complete it in less than 48 hours. From that I cut it down into chunks, the biggest of which was to get back to Keswick (before completing the out-and-back to Yewbarrow) in 30 hours. This is something I knew was well within my capabilities. I then broke that down into two further chunks, the first milestone being 12 hours and the second getting to Wasdale. Once back in Keswick, the final chunk was that out-and-back to Yewbarrow.
I celebrated each peak on that final chunk by thinking to myself, ‘That’s another summit cairn never to be touched again.’ Often, however, my little celebrations are nothing more than a drink of water. If I’m having trouble eating I will let myself off having to eat or drink anything and instead just allow myself the simple, pleasant taste of plain water.
Run your own race and let others go
Training and recovery needs to be different when running long distances. I use 10k races and Parkrun (5k) events as speed work, then go for long, steady days in the hills. On these long days it’s not about the distance I cover, it’s simply about getting hours on my feet. That, to me, is what’s most important. I incorporate as many long fell races as I can into my schedule as these teach me how to pace myself, how to run my own race rather than racing others in the first few miles, and they simulate how I will feel at the end of a slower run 100-mile race.
In 2015 at the L’Echappee Belle Ultra Trail (144k) in France I was determined to pace the 100 miles to the best of my best ability. I set off steadily and when passed by other ladies early on in the race I reminded myself, ‘Run your own race and let them go.’ I purposely even stopped to sort out my energy drink knowing that this would put distance between us, so when I set off running again I wasn’t tempted to try and catch them. And I was proved right. Later in the race I passed each lady who had sped away from me early on, eventually working my way up the field to finish 2nd lady and 19th overall in 35 hours and 25 minutes (the 1st lady was 3rd overall and so never within my sights!) I remained in control throughout, stuck to my strategy, and finished strongly.
Recovery takes longer, obviously. It’s easy to think that you’re ok after two to three weeks and start back training as before, but in reality it can be a month or two before the effects of a 100-mile race or 24-hour round really hit you. Take your time and don’t rush back.