Running a busy specialist beef farm in West Yorkshire – and often up half the night with calving cows – would be more than a full-time job for any ordinary person. But then 48-year-old Nicky Spinks is anything but ordinary. She’s a phenomenon.
Other athletes compete on tracks, roads or relatively accessible cross-country courses, but when she’s not farming, Nicky Spinks runs up mountains. As the most successful woman fell runner in the sport’s history, she’s the fastest over Britain’s highest peaks and holds the cumulative record for the nation’s three most famous 24-hour mountain challenges, pushing her body beyond what many would regard as the bounds of endurance.
For instance, in 2015 Spinks completed the Bob Graham Round, a 66-mile circuit over 42 of the Lake District’s highest summits, in 18 hours six minutes, beating her own record by six minutes, despite suffering from sickness and a badly-cut hand after a fall.
Spinks’ record breaking run was supported by inov-8, which has sponsored her throughout her career.
“Every challenge I’ve done has been in inov-8 Mudclaw shoes,” she says. “On mountain terrain, it’s vital to have shoes that give you cushioning, grip and support and Mudclaw have become an essential part of my equipment. I wouldn’t do a run without them.”
Timed fell running, often done alone apart from a support team, is a pitiless sport in which Spinks has become a legend. How does she do it?
“You need mental strength and organisation,” she says. “If you thought you were setting out to run up 40 peaks in 18 hours, it would probably be totally daunting. The only way to do it is to divide it into sections to be tackled at that moment – and try not to worry about what might lie ahead.
“Over the years lots has gone wrong, but I’ve learned to cope with the bad times.”
They include being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005 and undergoing a hysterectomy in 2012, neither of which was allowed to interfere with her running – shortly after the hysterectomy, Spinks ran in the Bob Graham event and set a new 18 hours 12 minute record.
“Surviving cancer [she has been in remission for 10 years] has made me do the challenges as soon as I can and appreciate the fact that I am able to,” Spinks says. “I savour the good moments more. But mental stamina has helped me be stronger.
“There’s not a lot worse than being told you have cancer and when competing in events builds up too much pressure, I’m able to realise it’s not the end of the world and that I’m only doing what I’m doing because I want to.”
When not running or planning her next challenge, Spinks breeds pedigree Aberdeen Angus and Limousin beef calves on the farm she runs with her husband Steve Burgess: “February and March are our busiest times – this year we had 60 calves born in three weeks – so there’s not a lot of time for running or training and I have to catch up later. It’s a busy life, but I love it.”
Looking back on this year’s Bob Graham Round, which rises to a total of 27,000ft, Spinks remembers she was well ahead of her scheduled time when she tripped and fell in a narrow gully known as the Parachute Drop, badly cutting her hand on a rock.
“It was a day of ups and downs,” Spinks says. “I was sick, suffered in the heat and lost the use of my left hand. I thought about giving up, but then remembered all the donations people had made to a charity that helps cancer victims rebuild their lives and confidence. I was so happy to finish and achieve a new women’s record.”
She had hoped to smash the men’s record for the three top mountain challenges by achieving a time of less than 17 hours 21 minutes, but it was not to be. Her injury, and the heat, saw to that.
“All my life I have disliked the heat,” Spinks says. “I didn’t like beach holidays as a teenager and I dislike running under the sun. When I get hot, I struggle physically and mentally. That’s why I started my Bob Graham challenge at 4am.”
Brought up on a Derbyshire hill farm, Spinks thought of running as: “A quicker way of getting from A to B”. After school, she worked in office jobs in Manchester and London, before meeting and marrying Steve at the age of 24 and settling in rural Yorkshire.
Spinks only started ultrarunning in 2001, when she was 34: “I had little running experience, but a friend persuaded me to join a running club and my passion for off-road ultra races in the fells and mountains steadily grew.
“To do your best in any challenge, you have to be scared of it. That’s what sharpens you up, gets you to put everything in and be 100 per cent prepared.
“My goal was to do the three big mountain challenges – Bob Graham in England, Ramsay Round in Scotland and Paddy Buckley in Wales. I first completed the Bob Graham in 23 hours 33 minutes and, finding it not too hard, I decided to have a crack at the Paddy Buckley 61-mile route over 47 Snowdonia peaks with 28,000ft of ascent, which is probably the most difficult route of the three.
“A month later I was diagnosed with breast cancer, but I had unfinished business with Paddy Buckley and throughout my treatment I continued to train. It was hard, but having the challenge as a focus helped my recovery and eventually I reached the finish with five minutes to spare.
“To complete the Big Three I needed to do Ramsay Round, which is a 58-mile 28,500ft circuit of 24 summits, including the UK’s highest, Ben Nevis. I spent almost a year learning the route and getting fitter and finally did the course in 22 hours 32 minutes.”
Another major challenge that had long been in Spinks’ sights was the 24-hour Lake District record, a 62-peak circuit with a time of 23 hours 17 minutes set by her friend and rival Anne Johnson.
Spinks says: “At first I thought it was insane, but with the seed planted in my mind I began to check the route and look for any short cuts that would save time. I spent months and months running over the hills and even longer poring over maps. In May 2011 I managed 64 peaks and beat Anne’s time by two seconds.”
Anne Johnson also held the Bob Graham circuit record, but while Spinks was planning an attempt on that, a routine medical check discovered possible precancerous cells in her womb.
“The doctors recommended I had a hysterectomy,” Spinks remembers. “I was devastated, but I just had to get on with it and I rescheduled the attempt. Recovery from the operation was quick, but painful and I was back running within six weeks and won a 61-mile fells race.
“By July 2012 I was ready for an attempt on the Bob Graham challenge and managed to take 40 minutes off the record.”
Later she captured the Welsh and Scottish records, too.
What drives on this amazing athlete? “I’m always being asked that,” Spinks says. “I always say: ‘When an idea is planted, usually by someone else, if I think a record is achievable, I just can’t leave it unchallenged’.”
Picture courtesy of inov-8.