In the long run

Only 15 runners have ever completed the Barkley marathon course since its inception in 1986 and Nicky Spinks was one of the last women standing

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Nicky Spinks hasn’t always been a runner. In 2001 a 3km fun run left her gasping for breath and she collapsed at the finishing line. Then in her early thirties, Spinks says the run felt like one of the hardest things she had ever done.

Fast-forward 18 years to March this year when Spinks, a beef farmer from Huddersfield, became one of the last women to drop out of one of the world’s toughest ultra-marathons. The Barkley Marathons, staged in Tennessee, is infamous for its perilous course route, consisting of five 20-mile laps, each with around 10,000ft of steep, muddy ascent through thick woodland.

Only 15 runners have completed the course since its inception in 1986. Applicants are informed of their place via a letter of condolence. It is an event that is proudly and unapologetically treacherous. But for Spinks, now 51, the gruelling course was high up on her to-do list.

“I first heard about the race in 2012. I was doing the Dragon’s Back and I was running with a couple of Americans,” she says, referring to another notoriously hard race in Hong Kong Island. “As you do when you’re running all day every day, we were just chatting about everything. They were saying how tough I was and how much I should do it. Every year since then [one of the runners] has been emailing me and saying what about this year, but we’ve always had too many cows.”

After selling 30 of her 80 cows last year, Spinks decided she could finally juggle the demands of farming with training for the event. It was in the early hours of one morning last December when Spinks received her letter from Barkley co-founder Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell, known as Laz.

“It came through at 2am and I rushed to my iPad and there it was, my letter of condolence. I just couldn’t believe it. It was one of those ‘oh my god, what have I done, I’m going’ moments,” she says.

“When it came to packing food to sustain her through the Barkley event, Spinks packed Hula Hoops and Tunnock’s caramel wafers.”

The Barkley event is just one in a long list of challenges for Spinks. She’s set women’s records for each of the three most famous 24-hour British mountain courses – the 58-mile Ramsay Round, the Paddy Buckley Round and the Bob Graham Round, held in the Lake District. She is also the holder of the overall record for the double Bob Graham Round after completing it in 45 hours 30 minutes, beating the previous record set by Roger Baumeister in 1979 by more than an hour.

There wasn’t much time for Spinks to ramp up her training before she flew out to Tennessee, but luckily her consistent training meant she was up to the challenge. She typically works on the farm she shares with her husband in the morning, either doing office work or fencing and walling when the weather permits. The rest of her days are occupied with looking after the cows and their calves. Spinks then takes to the moors at night, running from Penistone or Langsett.

At weekends she leaves Huddersfield at 5:30am and heads to Snowdonia, aiming to run from 8am to 7pm. She also climbs between 2,500 and 3,000 metres on a typical training day. It’s a schedule that’s not for the faint-hearted, and a far cry from Spinks’s early experiences of running, when she says the short runs she attempted “really hurt”.

So how did the tentative runner, who initially started running for weight loss, become a fierce competitor, taking on some of the world’s toughest terrains?

“I entered the Dewsbury 10k,” says Spinks. “My brother had done the London Marathon but I was really scared so he said let’s go for a 10k run and then you know you can do the distance. I was absolutely terrified until I got three quarters of the way around and then I thought, nothing actually happens when you go further than you’ve been before. You don’t fall on the ground and collapse. You might find it a bit harder but you can do it. It was a good lesson that he taught me all those years ago.”

Then, Spinks discovered fell running. “I found an advert for a small fell race near Penistone so I did that, and from then on I stopped running on the roads,” she says. “When I learned you could go on the moors and didn’t have to use footpaths I started going offroad. I just got more and more confident. I think of it as a gradual progression.”

In 2005 Spinks did the Bob Graham – a 66-mile course with an 8,200m ascent over 42 fells. A year later she attempted the 61-mile, 28,000ft ascent Paddy Buckley Round, also known as the Welsh Classical Round, but she was unsuccessful after completing it one hour and 25 minutes over the allocated 24-hour time limit.

A month later, Spinks found a lump in her breast. She was diagnosed with breast cancer soon after and underwent a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. Thankfully the surgery was a success, and Spinks did not have to have chemotherapy.

“Before I had breast cancer I was always out for making the most of your life, but when somebody says they don’t know how much life you’ve got left, you realise you just don’t know what’s around the corner.

“Now I fill my life quite a lot. Sometimes I think why do I put so much in it, but I’m enjoying it.

“I got back running within three weeks of having surgery. I wanted to feel fit again. When you have surgery, you are in hospital and you’re not a sick person but you feel like one. I’m not a very good patient, I think.”

Main image: Spinks on the terrain she favours and above taking part in the Barkley Marathons – five laps of 20 miles each. Main photo: Andy Jackson

Spinks isn’t faddish when it comes to nutrition. She credits meat, two veg and potatoes with fuelling her as she trains to take on some of the world’s toughest courses. When it came to packing food to sustain her through the Barkley event, Spinks packed Hula Hoops and Tunnock’s caramel wafers.

“People often ask me about nutrition but I don’t really go into it too much. I’m not very scientific when it comes to eating,” she says.

“I go around the supermarket and I’m not looking for fancy ingredients. If I look at a recipe and I don’t know what one of the ingredients is it goes straight out of the window. And if I have to go and search for an ingredient it’s not worth putting in a recipe either. It’s got to be what you’ve got in your cupboards.”

Like all of the 40 runners who attempted this year’s course, Spinks was unsuccessful at the Barkley Marathons. She and the two other runners in her group completed the first 20-mile lap but dropped out partway through lap two in appalling weather conditions.

“On the second loop we were frozen,” she says. “We set off at 9.30pm at night. We went up on the first climb, which is 1,000 metres, then overnight it dropped to minus 2 degress. It was snowing on us. We just got wet through. The wind went through us. I hadn’t taken any clothes for this. I took extra layers but I really needed what I would attack a UK winter with.

“We just got slower and slower. The terrain was really wet. The first time we went round we were running on bankings and hillsides, the second time we were sliding down and grabbing trees to stop us. My hands were so cold. I haven’t been caught out like that on the hills for a long time.”

Arriving back at the campsite, Spinks was adamant that she wouldn’t attempt the Barkley course again. But it didn’t take her long to change her mind.

“It was so disappointing to have to drop out because you were cold and not because you felt exhausted,” she says.

“When we were walking back to camp Stephanie [Case, a fellow runner in Spinks’s group] asked if I was coming back. I said nope. She said wait until tomorrow.

“She was right. As soon as it dawned another day I was thinking, if I’d done this and done that, I could have done better.”

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