Nicky Spinks is one of the country's most respected ultra-runners. During her outstanding 17 years in the sport she has overcome health issues to hold multiple 100 mile+ records. In 2019 she was one of the last women standing at the infamous Barkley Marathons.
We were fortunate to speak to Nicky about her journey in the sport: from her early memories with running to racing the 360km Tor des Geants last year.
Early memories of running
Growing up on a farm, Nicky’s first memories of athletics and running are that of running around the farm. Nicky soon realised “running meant you could get things done quicker!” and she fondly remembers the joy of running, horse riding and cycling.
It wasn’t until Nicky began working in an office aged 17 that she realised she missed the outside and fresh air, as well as the endorphins from going for a run, and feeling fit. Nicky then got back into running aged 19, whilst living in Manchester.
Distance and fell running
Nicky started ultra-running in 2005, completing the Bob Graham round in the Lake District — a 24 hour challenge covering 42 mountains and 66 miles. She then progressed onto 100 mile races in Europe and other 24 hour challenges.
A little later, Nicky’s journey to fell running began with road running in Yorkshire. Nicky saw an advert for fell running in Runner’s World magazine and felt as though it was a good way to get back to her farming roots and off-road running. She gave it a go and never looked back.
Nicky’s advice to people who are interested in getting into long distance and fell running is:
“Go to a race. Fell runners are friendly people. There is lots to learn, what equipment to take, where to go, and how to navigate. It is best to learn from a club.”
Running as a therapy
Nicky’s world was turned upside down after being diagnosed with breast cancer. She needed to make sure she could attend all her hospital appointments, which made it hard to make plans.
Nicky wanted to continue with her fell running, and ran just three weeks after her mastectomy, strapping herself tightly so there was no pain whilst running. Nicky said:
“When I was running, I was able to forget about hospitals, and I felt like I was doing something positive for my recovery”.
Nicky’s friends later admitted they were worried about her being out on the hills, but encouraged her to continue, and she enjoyed the opportunity it gave her to talk about other things than her illness with close friends. “It felt normal, I felt like a normal person, not a patient”.
“It’s great having local people to run with. I am good at motivating myself, but it helps so much more when you are meeting people at an agreed time.”
Even during COVID, when people were not able to run together, Nicky explained:
“The group remained close, and we ran around our own areas, having virtual races, which really helped boost morale”.
Recently Nicky completed the Tor des Geants in Italy in 2019 and 2021, covering the 360km in just over 100 hours and finishing third lady in 2021. Nicky is looking forward to returning in 2022.
Discovering the connection between running and physical and mental health
Nicky has evaluated her own behaviour patterns and what she has learned about herself.
“If I go a couple of days without running, I get quite grumpy.”
She has been able to combat this during her long runs of 10 miles and more.
“However grumpy I feel when I start, my run would work its magic and I would become happier. That feeling would last a few days and I would feel so much better”. Showing that finding a stress release, and a way to channel your energy, is a fantastic way to avoid getting overwhelmed by all the emotions and feelings of day-to-day life.
Finding the balance between competitions and training
Before COVID Nicky was racing a lot, almost every week, though during the pandemic races became virtual. It was clear to see that during lockdown there had been an increase in the numbers of people taking up running to keep fit, whilst gyms and other sports facilities were closed. Races became harder to enter and Nicky therefore raced less. Nicky now feels she has found a good balance.
“I have found you don’t need to race to train well. Racing also increases your risk of injury, as you’re more likely to push yourself or run when you have niggles. But it was strange getting back into racing. The nerves felt like you were a beginner again.”
The Commonwealth Games
Nicky loves watching women’s sport as an athlete and a coach.
“I have been so impressed by the technical ability of all the Commonwealth Games athletes. I know how hard they have all worked. I have been encouraging the athletes I coach to watch, and no doubt be inspired.”
We can all take our inspiration from somewhere, be it our upbringing, an illness or the success of elite athletes we see on our TV, it does not matter where it comes from but use it as a positive motivation as Nicky has done.