Episode 20

Nicky Spinks: You can do more than you think

It was such an honour to interview British fell runner Nicky Spinks for this episode.

Nicky is a 53-year old wife, British farmer and she loves a good curry. Sounds pretty normal, doesn’t it? So let’s try that sentence again. Nicky is a 53-year old record breaking British ultra-distance runner who is the overall record holder for the Double Bob Graham round, became the first person EVER to complete doubles of the Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsey round too… That was AFTER being diagnosed with Breast cancer at the age of 39. Oh and she still hopes to become the first woman ever to finish the Barkley Marathons. In short, she’s pretty flippin’ amazing and it was a real treat to talk to her.

You'll hear:

*A long interview with Nicky about her background in running and farming, why office life wasn’t for her, why she is chomping at the bit to return to the Barkley Marathons, how she forms her support team, how she survives on ten minutes sleep over three days, how she vowed never to do another race after her first ever 10km, her love of spicy curry, how she got into skydiving, the impact cancer has had on her life and outlook and why she almost ditched the double Bob Graham round attempt before she had even left the car park.

*An update from British triathlete David McNamee, who is on lock down in Girona. He talks about the impact the restrictions are having on him, why he’s following the rules to a T, why Magnums are the new croissants...And trying to run on his 7m balcony.

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Find out more about Nicky Spinks, her record breaking rounds and the Barley Marathons

Nicky Spinks website: http://www.runbg.co.uk/

Nicky Spinks Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/nickyspinks/?hl=en

Find out more about the Bob Graham Round, and the 3 big “Rounds’ in the UK

Last Woman Standing: A film about Nicky taking part in the 2019 Barkley Marathons

Run Forever: The film of Nicky and the Double Bob Graham Round. 

Barkley Marathons movie – The Race that eats its young: https://barkleymovie.com/

Tour de Geants – Nicky mentions this at the end of her interview

The swimming band workouts

Dave Scott’s band workout

Gerry Rodriguez band workout


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Interview Time Line (interview only, not the whole show)

0:30 We talk about the last few weeks being a bit of a rollercoaster “Right now, I should have been doing the Barkley Marathons. Two weeks ago, I was still going, but then the US said no flights from the UK and then it became obvious that people couldn’t get there. So I thought I’d go and do a challenge in Galloway and I was there when [Boris Johnson] announced a lockdown and then it really hit because I had nothing to look forward to.  But I have just come to terms with it really. I am running every day, which is something I never do and I am treating every run like it might be my last long run.  I have never done a running streak. I think with the farm, I am too busy, so I save it up for the weekend. I tend to do my training In huge blocks, rather than every day. I’m hoping to get faster over shorter distances. Initially I thought, ‘what’s the point doing this, without any structure?” But I have now set up a virtual race with a friend, so I am going to continue doing that now, as a series with prizes and stuff.

6.00 What is Nicky Spinks like, if Nicky Spinks can’t run? 

It’s a bit like being injured and I think having had the cancer, when I went from running one minute to not running the next there was no warning, but at least with this, there is some warning. And at least I live on a farm, so I can do drystone walling or something like that. I could run around and around the fields, but I think that would be a bit unfair and a bit pointless really.

7.30 Being outside I left home when I was 17 and got an office job and for 5 years, I was working 9-5 Monday to Friday I thought I was going insane. You know if a collie dog has been shut in a kitchen all day, and they go mad, that’s what I felt like. I just need to get outside and lose energy outside.  There wasn’t enough work in the farm, so we all left and got other jobs. But I couldn’t cope with that Monday to Friday thing anymore. Looking out when the weather was nice and at the weekends, when I could get out, it was nice.  I was applying to agricultural colleges at the time and started skydiving and I met Steve skydiving and I asked him. “Can I come and and milk your cows?” That was my chat up line.

10.25 We walk a bit about skydiving 

It doesn’t really fit with farming, because it is weather dependent and you don’t have time to hang around. The last time was about 10 years ago and we still have the parachutes, but they are probably archaic now. I started skydiving when I was in the office job.

11.45 How she started running

As soon as I left the farm and got into the office, I put on about a stone and there was no way to stop it. So I started running and initially it was 3 times a week.  I tried a 10km and absolutely hated it. There were people who could walk faster than I could run. I was in such a bad mood when I finished and I didn’t do anther race for ten years. There is nothing worse than if you are trying your guts out and somebody walks past you.  I didn’t do any more races, but I kept running. My grandad encouraged me a lot and I did a bit of swimming and cycling then too, just to keep fit. But the more you do, the more you like to do, but without going into any more races?

1345 How did it develop?

When I met Steve, we were farming, so I didn’t have the time or inclination to run. But as time went on and we sorted the farm out, a friend of ours was doing triathlons and I thought ‘oh that would be nice’ to go out running with her, so I went out with a friend for a run and we did a race together, but she paced me. So I went from a 5km to a 10km, to a half marathon but I thought I don’t like this road running and I had met people doing a little fell race and then I thought as a farmer that is more logical, so I thought ‘what am I doing on the roads?” and then I joined a club, and that is how I joined the Bob Graham.

1530 I don’t think I was googling, but I learnt about it from them and I was working my way up and I found that I was doing better at 20mile races than 4 miles races and I think it was just a development really that I was just going to get longer.

1630 Are you surprised at what you have gone on to achieve? 

Oh yes! The little ideas pop into your head and you shove them away thinking ‘they are ridiculous.’  But they keep niggling away at you. Like the double Bob Graham was in my head for quite a few years before I even sort of took it on myself. And then I was so scared I never told anyone I was doing it, even my family or anything. You are convincing yourself that you think you can do it, but you don’t know you can do it. You don’t want people saying “Oh do you think you can do it” because your answer is going to be “I don’t know” But that showed me you can do a lot more than you think you can and it’s certainly worth having a go.

1745 So how did you convince yourself you could do it. How did you build up that confidence?

I don’t know, I think that’s just stubbornness. The winter before the double Bob Graham, it was just one of those horrible wet winters. Training was horrendous and I really didn’t have the confidence. The night before I was doing it, I had a proper panic attack when I just wanted to do a runner and come home because I just thought I was going to make a fool of myself and waste everyone’s time. It took ten minutes to talk through the logics and I thought it you do get around, you’ll be able to write an article on how to do a Double Bob Graham on zero training, which made me laugh.  

20.00 Nicky talks about forming her support team

That’s happened over many years. Since my first Bob Graham round in 2005, I have done 14 rounds, including 24 hour rounds and double rounds and now I know the people that are really good and that are what I like. When I was doing the records, I needed fast people. As I have gone onto doing the doubles, I don’t need people who are fast. I need people who are supportive and can cope with me when I have been going for 24 hours and I don’t know what I want at all. I’m pretty good at listening and I try not to take out any grumpiness on my supporters! You know I am the one that everyone claps, but I couldn’t do any of it without the great team of people behind me, all without sleep and not eating, all because they want to help me get around. I’ve been a supporter and you will go to extraordinary lengths to make sure they get around. 

23.45 Talks about having more women as supporters

You can just be walking along with a woman and they read you a lot better than a man would read you. 

27.30 Barkley Marathons – what was it like?

I felt like a fish out of water. There are so many superstars there that you have seen on telly. They are all so fast and you just think that you shouldn’t be there and you think ‘woah, what am I doing here.” It was really surreal and meeting Laz for the first time…Through email he is really chatty and then when I met him, I just got tongue tied, I never really knew what to say to him.

I just wanted to go back [this year.] I felt really fit, I had done all of my training, i had studied that map, I could reel everything off my head and whether you can pull all of that out again next year, who knows, but I can try. 

29.00 Was Nicky going to change her tactics for her second Barkley appearance

As a veteran, you know a lot of the route, whereas last year I didn’t know any of it and it was all very mind boggling trying to remember everything. Whereas this year a lot of the route would have been similar and that would have made a difference. I would have liked to have teamed up with someone again and this year there are small things, like I would have used a thumb compass. So it goes on your thumb and you don’t as much to hold. Orienteerers use them all of the time and I have been practising with those all winter. I just had so much in my hand last winter, what with the poles, the map, trying to get food out and you need to keep an eye on where you are all of the time.

31.30 When you did come back down into camp, knowing your race was over, was there an overriding feeling of disappointment

Yes, we should have taken more time in the takeover to take more stuff. We were all so concerned about getting in and out within ten minutes, that all three of us went out with not enough stuff. We were all glad to finish, because we were frozen. I hadn’t eaten anything. You’ve gone into that self-preservation mode, so I was glad to stop being so cold and hopefully get warm but as soon as I was warm, I was just cursing that I hadn’t taken enough stuff. I’d have had to set off in full Scottish mountaineering kit just to stay vaguely warm.

34.15 Did you know straight away that you wanted to go back and crack it?

It was the next day, I was like “I was so stupid, I should have just taken some clothes”

I think you have to go with finishing 5 loops, because you have to go out eating and drinking ready to do another loop and you never know if Laz will let you in again, so you have to go with that “I am going to give it my best shot!”

36.30 We talk about fish, chips and curry sauce – her favourite post-race food!  

37.10 Nicky talks about the time she locked herself out of her camper van after a double Bob Graham round… that’s 132 miles, 54,000ft of ascent, twice sumitting 42 English Lake District peaks.

40.00 How do you prepare for a lack of sleep or just ten minutes in a 3 day period?

I tell myself I don’t need to sleep, which obviously isn’t true, but it seems to work. Though farming, we often go through a few nights on minimal sleep if we are calving. I know I can get through one night without sleep, so on the Double Bob Graham, I had never had a power nap before. but if you are not totally knackered and need a sleep, you just lie there and get really frustrated that you are not sleeping, so there is a fine line between being zombified for 3 hours before you get some sleep and trying too early and just wasting time.  It’s worse in the dark as well because you have that head torch. It’s always easier to be tired when it’s light because obviously when it’s dark, your body is telling you it’s dark, you’re supposed to be asleep. I don’t think of a power nap as a sleep, its just a brain refresher really, when you are giving yourself ten minutes.

43.30 How difficult is it to get back into normal life after some of these challenges?

I think I put so much into these challenges that I need mental as well as physical rest and it’s actually quite nice not to have to think about it. I go through a period which can be 3 weeks or 3 months and if I see someone doing something I will think “I’m glad it’s not me but once I stop think that, I know that I need to start thinking about what’s next.” After nearly every round I have done, within 2-3 weeks I will get back into racing. It’s what I do and how I recover. I’m always usually running within a week or so, even if it feels shocking. I might go for 2-3 weeks and then feel dreadful.

46.30 We talk about Nicky being diagnosed with Breast Cancer when she was 39

It makes you have another perspective on life. Instead of thinking you’ve got the rest of your life, you always have that thing in your mind that could be around the corner that you never know. So put things in that you want to do and get on and do them.  

50.00 Patrons Question – Mat Rushbrook: Do you have any intention to go after the recently broken record at the Wainwrights? 

50.30 Patrons Q: Jason Mager: Where does your mind wander when you are running?

52.00 We talk about poles and running the flats/down and walking the ups

They [poles] are a newish thing in the UK, but if you go abroad, everybody uses them and they are unbelievable good when you get used to using them all of the time, which is why you should practice with them when you first get them. 

54.30 If you could do just one race or round or challenge again, what would it be?

At the moment, if you said only one race this year, now that the Barkley has gone, it would be the Tour de Geants.

What advice would she have for someone who is scared to take on a challenge?

Pick a challenge that is just slightly out of your reach, maybe don’t tell loads and loads of people, but tell a few people that you are going to do it, because putting pressure on does work. And then set to and do what you can and work on all of the aspects of the race, so you can get around, rather than just trying to run fast.

About the Podcast

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Inside Tri Show
Triathlon podcast from Helen Murray with awesome interviews

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Helen Murray

Helen has been working in triathlon for a decade as an athlete, coach and broadcaster.

Helen hosts the Inside Tri Show podcast bringing you awesome interviews from triathlon and beyond