My Mountains - Nicky Spinks

Fiona Russell catches up with fell running royalty Nicky Spinks, arguably the highest achieving long distance specialist in British running history. She walks a lot too...


Nicky Spinks is one of Britain's most successful fell runners with a score of long-distance challenges and records to her name. A farmer, Nicky, 51, is also a breast cancer survivor. She was brought up on a smallholding in Glossop, Derbyshire, and, she says, "ran everywhere because it was quicker than walking".

She then ran on and off to keep her weight down until 2001, when she did Leeds Abbey Dash 10k with a friend. In 2002, she did her first fell race, the four-mile Trunce, and she became hooked on the hills and mountains.

Ten years later, in 2011, she set a new women's record of 64 for the number of Lakeland peaks climbed in 24 hours.

Nicky, who lives in West Yorkshire, has also held the women's fastest times for each of the three most famous 24-hour British mountain courses (though all have since been beaten by Jasmin Paris). She completed the Bob Graham Round in 2012 in a record time of 18:12; the Paddy Buckley Round in 2013 in 19:02; and the Ramsay Round in 2014 in a then record time of 19:39.

She has also run the Joss Naylor Lakeland Challenge in 11:02 and set new women's record. Nicky has won the Fellsman four times and in 2013 she won the Borrowdale Fell Race.

But it is arguably the ultra-distance category in which she really excels. In May 2016, Nicky completed a double Bob Graham Round in 45:30, beating the previous record set by Roger Baumeister in 1979 by more than an hour - a feat captured in UKH's film Run Forever:

Last year, she became the first person to complete a remarkable 116-mile Double Ramsay Round, summitting 48 peaks, including the UK's highest Ben Nevis, on a run that took 55 hours and 56 minutes. And this May she completed a Double Paddy Buckley round in Snowdonia in a time 57 hours 27 minutes.

She is the only person ever to do a double on all three of the UK's classic big hill rounds, a level of achievement that would have won national acclaim in any more mainstream sport.

As well as running a beef farm with her husband Steve, Nicky is a volunteer coach for the junior section at Penistone Footpath Runners and coaches across ultra running, triathlon and road running.

She said: "I try to make my junior sessions fun so that the children will hopefully remember that the outdoors is more fun than inside. I find them heather to roll in and little hillocks to play on. I also love my senior coaching and watching someone develop their fitness and confidence and go on to finish something that they only dreamt about six months ago."

"I am always the first to encourage someone to enter something that I think they are capable of. I started small and got to bigger things and believe that everyone is capable of that."

Nicky on Bowfell during her 2016 Double Bob Graham  © Dan Bailey
Nicky on Bowfell during her 2016 Double Bob Graham
© Dan Bailey

What is your first memory of walking in the hills?

When I was growing up in Glossop, I rode (horses) everywhere and I have lots of memories of the moors from that. But, as an adult, I didn't follow it up until 2001 when Steve and I were in Fort William for a 50th party. It was that Foot and Mouth period and the countryside was shut but the main tourist path up Ben Nevis was open. I'd never climbed a mountain before so we decided to climb that.

Setting off at 7am it was sunny. We wore jeans, an overcoat and took food. I must admit, we didn't have a map and compass. At 500m I had a sulk as it was so hard. We sat and ate sandwiches then carried on. At 800m, it was claggy and there was snow on the ground. At 1000m, a runner caught us; the first person we had seen. He asked us if we knew where we were going and we said, "No." He told us to follow his footprints, which we did as now the path had disappeared.

We got to the top and the trig was only just visible above the snow. I now know how much snow that meant there was. On the way down, following our footprints, the clag cleared and the view was incredible. I knew I wanted to do more. I wanted to get fitter as I was unfit, but I also wanted to see views and experience that lovely satisfied, content, feeling again.

The great Joss Naylor congratulates Nicky on her Double Bob Graham  © Nick Brown
The great Joss Naylor congratulates Nicky on her Double Bob Graham
© Nick Brown

Who introduced you to the joys of the great outdoors?

I think growing up in Glossop as a child I was introduced to the joys and also the hardships of the outdoors by my parents. Having cattle, horses, goats and chickens to look after it's not always nice weather when the animals need fetching in, mucking out or feeding.

When did you realise you would be a keen life-long walker and then a hill runner?

Riding came first in Glossop, then running and then long days of walking. It's a myth – and one that fell runners like to promote – that we run everywhere. I actually walk lots of the uphills especially if I am in the mountains for more than four hours.

Back I the 1990s, however, when I had been in an office job since 17 I knew I needed a career change to be doing something outside. I applied to agricultural colleges and then met my husband skydiving and he was a farmer. I asked if I could milk his cows and he replied that I'd have to stay the night. It was a done deal!

Do you prefer coast, hills, moorland or mountain ridges?

I don't really mind as everything has its beauty.

Nicky training on the Welsh hills  © Inov-8
Nicky training on the Welsh hills
© Inov-8

Are you a fair weather or an any weather walker/runner?

So long as I'm not going to get blown over too much I'll go out in all weathers. With decent clothes and shoes I can cope with anything the mountains throw at me, except wind because I'm only light.

What are your three all-time favourite hill or mountain walks, and why?

The Peak District around Outer Edge, which looks down the Lady Bower valley towards Edale and Win Hill. It's remote, quiet and when the heather is out, very beautiful.

The Grey Corries in the Scottish Highlands because again it's quiet as it takes so long to even get to them. The rock is a great glistening quartz, the views are great and to get to them from the Aonachs you can use the "Spinks Ridge"!

Snowdonia. I can't choose one walk because it's the whole experience. If you walk anywhere except near Snowdon, the mountains are quiet and rugged. The paths are small and navigation is paramount.

I like all these routes and areas whether I am walking or running or doing a mix of both. Recently, in Snowdonia with my dog Wisp, we spent eight hours covering 20 miles but with 2838m climb. I must have walked half of it.

Is the night-time a good time to go walking/running?

I do a lot of walking in the mountains in the dark, especially during my 24-hour rounds. That's unavoidable. I will also run in the Peak District in the dark as I enjoy it and I'm working on the farm during the day. All you need is a decent head torch and it's as easy as daylight.

On Hindscarth, nearing the end of her double Bob Graham Round  © Dan Bailey
On Hindscarth, nearing the end of her double Bob Graham Round
© Dan Bailey

Have you ever been lucky to avoid/escape a difficult situation in the mountains?

I've had a few traumas, such as being in a party of three and only I had brought a head torch. It got dark as we descended a mountain and so we lost the path and ended up clambering rocks, which was awful for us but worse for poor Wisp. I ended up carrying her.

I have also been out in the snow and wind being blown across Moelwyn Mawr; aborted off the Grey Corries, also in wind; and been benighted on Tryfan and had to downclimb, contour, then climb again.

You have achieved many amazing running records. What motivates you?

I just want to see what I am capable of. I like working towards something big and getting properly prepared.

Who is your perfect walking partner?

My husband. We always plan a holiday somewhere exciting (for him, as he wants to explore the world) but with a hike (for me). We've been to Chile, Colombia, Peru, Kazakstan, Bolivia and now Argentina. Doing a week-long hike, he is the perfect companion.

Nicky on a reccy of the round  © Nicky Spinks
Reccying the Ramsay Round, photo Nicky Spinks

Who is your perfect running partner?

I have many running friends and couldn't name one but the best dog I have ever had is Wisp. She is a collie-cross-sight hound that I got from a rescue centre. She is brave, clever and learns quickly. She knows about snow and rock conditions and never says the weather is too bad to go running.

Are you happy to go solo?

I'm happy going solo – but that does usually mean with Wisp now.

Boots, trail shoes, Wellies or barefoot?

Boots for walking and fell shoes like Inov-8 Mudclaws for running.

How do you navigate?

I navigate with map and compass but carry a Garmin GPS as backup and also to record the track for recce purposes.

What three items are always in your rucksack?

About three pairs of gloves and hats, as well as warm layer and lots of food.

What goes in your pack as a guilty secret?

A hip flask if it's a social run/walk or a flask of coffee made with Baileys.

Your favourite walking food/s?

Brunch and Tunnock bars. Mini Cheddars, because Wisp likes those too.

If you could only pick one area of Britain to walk in, where would it be?

Scotland – it's so big and beautiful that I would never run out of places to explore.

What is your ultimate walking heaven?

Again, Scotland – I have had my longest and most memorable days there and look forward to many more.

Will you be walking until you are 103?

I plan to be!

Nicky's website is www.runbg.co.uk


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Nicky Spinks is a British long distance runner, specialising in fell running, who set women's records for the major fell running challenges...

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