Inspirational runner and cancer survivor Nicky Spinks has created history by becoming the first person ever to run doubles of each of the Classic 3 British 24-hour Rounds.
Nicky started the trilogy in 2016, to mark 10 years of surviving cancer. She broke the overall record for the Double Bob Graham Round in the English Lake District, before going on to become the first-person ever to complete a Double Ramsay Round in 2018. In May 2019 she completed the trilogy with her Double Paddy Buckley Round, again a feat no one before her had ever accomplished.
Double Paddy Buckley Round – 122 miles, 94 peaks and 56,000 ft of ascent (57hr 27mins exact time tbc)
Double Charlie Ramsay Round – 116 miles, 48 peaks and 57,000 ft of ascent (55hr 56mins)
Double Bob Graham – 112 miles, 84 peaks and 54,000 ft of ascent (45hrs 30mins)
When you look at what this challenge encompasses, it is hardly surprising that no one else has done this before. The 3 Classic British 24-hour Rounds are a mammoth undertaking in their own right, seeing mountain runners attempting to run between 58 and 66 miles over remote mountainous terrain, ascending upwards of 27,000ft in a circuit of the designated peaks. Completing just one round is often a lifetime achievement of many a mountain runner.
We spoke to Nicky about what inspired her to not only do all 3 Classic British Rounds, but to double each one, how she trains to run ultra marathon distances over such mountainous terrain, her fuelling strategy and how she manages and overcomes the challenges she faces along the way.
Q: Doing just one of the classic British 24-hour rounds is often a lifetime goal for many runners, what made you decide to not only do all 3, but undertake to be the first person to double all 3?
The Double Bob Graham came about because I wanted something special to celebrate surviving 10 years of cancer. After the DBG went so well, the idea of doing the Charlie Ramsay and the Paddy Buckley came into my head. The distances and the time on my feet were completely new areas that I hadn’t pushed myself to before. I’ve also never done anything that no-one else has done before and so doing the three rounds as Double’s would mean that I not only had the record for one but technically for all three!
Q: How do you feel after successfully completing the challenge? You are not only the first person to ever complete double of each round, but the first woman.
Since finishing the Double Paddy Buckley I have felt an immense sense of contentment. I think it has surprised me how happy I feel. I know that with the Charlie Ramsay and the Paddy Buckley I experienced new types of ‘low points’ and they lasted for a long time. Coming out the other side of the lows on both rounds and continuing on to enjoy and finish the Doubles has shown me that I am capable of bigger things than I thought possible.
Being the first woman I hope that many women around the world are just thinking “If she can do that, then maybe I can do what I would love to do to”.
Q: What drives you and do you hope your achievements inspire others?
I like to see what I am capable of – and then to mix things up so it’s not always the same challenge. I didn’t think I could get any faster after the second BG (Bob Graham) record and so I wanted to slow down and go further. The Doubles were part fast and part long and slow. I’ve experienced sleep deprivation and now want to learn more about how I can cope better with that as I have the Tor des Geants in September.
I feel that I’m not a superhuman, natural athlete. I started late in my thirties and have worked hard at training but also at managing myself. I’m not a full time athlete who can train whenever I like. I have a full time job and enjoy a beer. I hope that runners, and especially women, can see that it is possible to have a normal life and achieve what you think you can only ever dream about.
Q: How do you train for such a huge challenge – do you just concentrate on running, or do you incorporate long days hiking and strength work? Does your daily life running the farm with your husband aid your training?
Obviously you can’t do the distance in training otherwise you’d end up too tired to do the round so I do a lot of back to back days. These on the Paddy meant doing one leg out and back one day then another leg out and back the following day. I found this also gave me mental training for the idea that I was going to ‘turn around’. And found that it’s never as bad as what you imagine. I often wondered what Wisp (Nicky’s dog) thought of this – but she did enjoy a dip in the lake at Llanberis before we turned round and headed back up the quarries and over the Glyders and Tryfan to the van at Glandana!!
I also do as many long fell races as I can fit in – I think this teaches me how to push myself for 4 to 5 hours while my legs are tired from reccying etc. In April I did a back to back weekend (70km, 6700m), then on the Thursday I did the Capel to Aberglasyn leg of the Paddy Buckley (34k, 2200m) and then followed that by the Teenager with Altitude race on the Saturday (26km, 2100m) in very hot conditions. This was my last big effort before the Paddy, then I had three weeks taper. I believe in a long taper and it’s always worked for me.
My farm work helps a lot as I don’t sit at a desk all day and am out and about most fine days. Usually it’s also work where I can go at my own speed. The only thing I have to be careful about is handling animals when I’m tired as I can’t react as quickly.
Q: The double rounds couldn’t have been smooth sailing all the time. Have there been times on the challenges when you wanted to give up? What is your strategy for pushing through?
On all three rounds I have had moments when I wanted to stop. And each time I’ve not really known why. I think it’s the enormity of what I’m doing that gets too big for my head to cope with as every time my legs have been fine. On the BG a sleep of 10 minutes really helped and so I tried to re-enact that on the Ramsay once with no success. I ended up doing three nights with no sleep. Doing the BG and the Ramsay as ACW (anti-clockwise) half rounds, then turning round and returning to the start. Then setting off CW (clockwise) to the same point and turning round again meant that I didn’t really know that 48 hours wasn’t possible until much later in the round. I couldn’t make that system work on the Paddy so I decided to do one full ACW round followed by a CW round. So as soon as was on the last leg of the ACW round I knew really that sub 48 hours wasn’t possible. This was hard for me to take in – compounded by the fact that I was nowhere near finishing.
I had a hard time in Capel Curig. I tried to sleep but really knew I couldn’t. I just needed 10 minutes of composure time to myself. I was then sick and decided I better just get on with it. The next leg was awful. My stomach was hard work and I really couldn’t see how I could make it round another 24 hours when I couldn’t eat and was going so slowly. I said all this to my support and with the voice of reasoning they said I would be in energy deficit and that no one minded waiting and supporting me no matter how long it took. This boosted me and I forced myself to eat more often. The next leg I was still very slow but then had a 10 minute nap and after that really enjoyed the last three legs!
So I don’t really have a strategy but to try everything. I often run round my body and then say to myself “Well there is nothing wrong and so it’s up to you to just get on with it”.
Q: How important is the support crew you have around you, what do they bring to the table and what would you recommend people look for when choosing their crew to help them on their own challenges?
Support crew are key to my rounds and l ask people who I think will do their best to help me succeed. When I support I don’t treat it as a jolly day out on the hills. It’s a job that I want to do well. I will look after myself so I can look after the person who’s attempting. I will be there before time, ready to run with everything I need for me and that person. Whichever leg they want me on I will do.
I feel the best moments are when you’ve done something that has made a difference to that person’s attempt. When I supported Damian Hall on the UTMB I kept telling myself “You will only see him for 10/15 minutes in 20 odd hours but You Can Make A Difference”. It kept me sharp and organised. I know what I’m telling myself is true as my support do make a difference. Every one of them did something that helped me.
Q: When you are doing the Double Rounds you are running and (very) fast hiking non-stop for upwards of 48 hours, how do you deal with sleep deprivation? What are your coping strategies?
I am quite new to this length of sleep deprivation. I can miss one night without feeling hardly any affect. I have just done it so many times with farming, with running and when supporting. Two nights is harder as I’m finding out. I’m working on what I might do in the Tor des Geants so I’ll report back after that!!
Q: Keeping your body fueled during such a long arduous run must be a challenge in itself. How do you keep on top of nutrition? What is your fueling strategy and do you pay attention to what you eat in the days leading up to and those following the run?
In my taper three weeks I try to eat a lot of home cooked food concentrating on protein and vegetables. I also try to get a good night’s sleep every night. Three days before the round I will start to eat little and often to get my stomach more used to the constant intake of food.
On the round I eat every 30 minutes if possible. I have a variety of foods from cereal bars to baked beans. I am just very strict with myself and can always find something I will eat. The longer the round though the harder it is as once I’ve been sick or nearly sick on one food I don’t want it again for the rest of the round.
Q: Recovery is often as important as the training for the run itself – do you factor in a recovery period and what is your approach?
I don’t have a fixed recovery period. Usually I wait until I want to run again which is often about a week. After the Ramsay and the Paddy my feet were too swollen and sore for running for a week. I then do easy running and see how my legs feel. I have been for two short runs now and it’s 10 days after the Double Paddy. I am doing Duddon fell race though tomorrow which is 18 miles and 1830m climb. This is my usual method of recovery. I start racing again within two weeks and just take it steady. I will also take more food on these races as often if I feel shocking I just eat a lot more and that helps.
Q: You inspire many, not only from your incredible athletic achievements but also due to the fact that you have achieved everything you have, in addition to beating cancer. Can you share your story with us and tell us a little more about the Odyssey charity which you raise money for through your challenges?
I got involved with the Odyssey charity in 2010 when I did the Gran Raid Pyrenees. I stayed in the same chalet as Ali Bignel, one of the Outdoor Instructors of the charity. I was looking for a small cancer charity to support; one which I could see that all the money went to the cause and wasn’t lost in the organisation. I contacted Hugo Iffla when I returned home and we met up at his home near Tywyn where I learnt all about the charity firsthand. The charity provides holidays in the outdoors for people recovering from cancer. Although the website is a bit old fashioned I know the courses are happening and people’s lives are being changed by it. It costs £5000 to put on one week long course which means I know that every £5000 I can raise means another course. Hugo and I are in contact a lot and I would love to get more involved one day.
Donate to Odyssey via Nicky’s Justgiving page.
Q: Having the right kit is something most of us spend many hours obsessing about before a run – what kit have you used on your Double’s that you have found invaluable?
I do quite a bit of what I call organising as I think now that I’ve done so many rounds and races, I know what really works. I have always used the MUDCLAW G 260‘s on the Doubles although I have changed into inov-8 trail shoes after about 30 hours just because my feet have swollen up (I used the graphene-grip TERRAULTRA G 260‘s on the Paddy). I also use the Tri-Blend Tees and the long sleeved Merino mid layer over the top. I usually wear the Enso Sport skirts with the Inov-8 3/4 tights over the top. This depends on the weather though and on the Double Paddy it was so cold that I also wore the PROTEC SHELL Waterproof Jacket and changed into the women’s winter tights. Both these items kept the cold east wind out as well as the rain.
Head torches are very important and over the years I’ve tried a lot but have returned now to the Magicshine Bike Headlamp and have purchased extra batteries so that I have enough to cover three nights! Not having enough light overnight really affects your running speed and so this is one area I make sure is sorted. I always wear my Race Ultra Pro 2in1 vest to carry the battery and other essentials overnight.