Nicky Spinks on Her Double Bob Graham Round Interview

© Dan Bailey

Over the weekend of 14th-15th May 48-year-old farmer Nicky Spinks completed a double Bob Graham Round - going twice around the 66-mile route, visiting every one of its 42 summits twice over, and notching up a total height gain of around 54,000 feet in the process. Her time of 45 hours 30 minutes is a record. She is only the second person ever to complete the double in under 48 hours, and the first female. Among those on hand to lend their support were Roger Baumeister, originator of the sub-48-hour double; and Joss Naylor, probably the best known fell runner in history. UKClimbing and UKHillwalking were there in force too, reporting on the attempt (see here) and shooting a film about it (more on that another time). After giving her a few days to recover we caught up with Nicky to talk about her world class achievement.

Nb. for a blow-by-blow account of the run see Nicky's site

Nicky leaving Bowfell summit, late Saturday morning   © Dan Bailey
Nicky leaving Bowfell summit, late Saturday morning
© Dan Bailey

UKHillwalking: You held the 'standard' BGR women's record for a while last year [subsequently broken by Jasmin Paris, who ran in support of Nicky last weekend - Ed.]. How many single BGRs had you done previously? Is it fair to say you were already very familiar with the route?

Nicky: I've done three Bob Grahams previously - all done in a clockwise (CW) direction. [Therefore] I was very familiar with the clockwise round but not so with anti-clockwise (ACW) although I had reccied all of it twice ACW.

What motivated you to attempt the double?

I saw that Roger had years ago and always thought it / him insane. But I did always wonder whether I could do it. I read his full account a few years ago and that's when I knew I wanted to have a go. When 2016 came along, ten years since I was diagnosed with cancer, I was looking for something really different and special to celebrate it. I ran it by Roger and he was very encouraging. I wanted to do something I didn't know I could finish, and in doing that also raise money for the cancer charity Odyssey [see JustGiving].

Why do you think it doesn't get tried that often?

It's not on the radar and also with only Roger ever having achieved it sub-48 hours people simply thought it was too hard.

First light on Raise  © Dan Bailey
First light on Raise
© Dan Bailey

Instead of completing two single-direction loops you first went clockwise from Keswick to Yewbarrow, then back anti-clockwise to Keswick; from there, anti-clockwise around to Yewbarrow before reversing the route clockwise back to Keswick. What was the thinking behind this very particular way that you broke the two rounds down into out-and-back stages?

Roger Baumiester did it like that so that he could meet and run with companions from Dark Peak [running club]. I looked at doing one round clockwise and then another anti-clockwise but realised that Roger's way meant that [the very inaccessible] Wasdale was only visited by the support team once. The bigger hills were climbed early on in the attempt; Broad Stand could be roped and ascended and descended within a couple of hours; and setting off at midnight meant that the second night would be on Helvellyn - generally easier to run and navigate in the dark.

Leg 1: Keswick to Threlkeld via Skiddaw, Great Calva and Blencathra Total time: 3hours 34min

"The bogs were dry as a bone which was very encouraging and what weren't dry were actually frozen!"

Leg 2: Threlkeld to Dunmail Raise via The Dodds, the Helvellyn range, Fairfield and Seat Sandal Time: 7:48

"It was very odd to be talking of returning in roughly 20 hours time and I had to keep stopping myself from getting too overwhelmed by the thought"

Leg 3: Dunmail to Wasdale including (but not only) High Raise, The Langdale Pikes, Bowfell, Esk Pike, Scafell Pike and Scafell Time: 13:05

"Broad Stand has been my nemesis on both record attempts; and losing supporters there also. So it was such a relief to see Steve Wathall had set up all the ropes and he expertly guided me up"

Leg 3b: Wasdale - Yewbarrow - Wasdale Time: 14:24

"Running into the car park I was astounded to see Joss Naylor there. He handed me some fudge... looked me in the eye and said 'You'll do this'"

Leg 4: Wasdale to Dunmail Time: 20:11

"Climbing Scafell was tough; it was hot and the start of a very long return leg. On the plus side this was the 1st return hill, never to be climbed again"

Leg 5: Dunmail to Threlkeld Time: 25:15

"We ran chatting about Jasmin Paris' [record] Bob Graham round. I am so pleased that we support each other and that she is really pushing the limits in terms of what women can achieve"

Leg 6: Threlkeld to Keswick Time: 31:03

"I reached the campervan at Portinscale and dived in needing peace. Charmian was fantastic - I told her what I wanted - change of clothes, food and sleep; in that order. She got it all sorted. I sat down and tears just poured silently down my face. I think I was so scared that the power nap wouldn't work. That I would have to stumble out and try to do another 16 hours feeling as bad as I did"

Passing Keswick Moot Hall early Sunday morning with about 15 hours still to go  © Dan Bailey
Passing Keswick Moot Hall early Sunday morning with about 15 hours still to go
© Dan Bailey

Leg 7: Keswick to Honister via Robinson, Hindscarth and Dale Head Time: 34:07

"Climbing Robinson was a pig, but I plodded up and onwards. We made it 5 mins down on schedule. After I lost the same time to Hindscarth I started to try and work out if I lost 5 mins per split could I still do it in under 48 hours. These calculations are not the easiest at the best of times - but after 35 hours virtually impossible"

Leg 8: Honister to Yewbarrow including Brandreth, Great Gable, Kirk Fell, Pillar, Red Pike (Wasdale) and Yewbarrow Time: 38:26

"I ate a rice pudding and struggled to keep it down. Oh well, it had to happen sometime. I was amazed that I hadn't been sick already. I tried a fruit salad and then a yoghurt. All were a struggle but stayed down. I'll try a Tunnock next I said. And a gel."

Leg 9: Yewbarrow to Honister Time: 42:26

"On the way back life was good, we were gaining more time than we were losing and once we had gained the 20 minutes that we had lost on the way out all of us were satisfied. It was great. Joss kept popping up obviously knowing secret sheep trods everywhere but it was fantastic to spot him and then wonder how on earth had he managed that?"

Leg 10: Honister to Keswick Finishing time: 45:30

"I turned round and grinned. I just didn't really know what to do. So many people, so many cameras. I almost didn't want to leave - just to savor the moment for as long as possible"

Raise summit  © Dan Bailey
Raise summit
© Dan Bailey

Can you give us an idea of all the planning that went into your attempt: was it literally twice as much as a single BGR?

Actually it was less. I asked my support to double up on legs so doing the leg CW and then ACW (or ACW then CW from Keswick onwards). So I didn't need more support than usual. The ACW reccies though didn't go to plan as the weather was foul and in that respect there was a lot more work needed than for just one single round.

I don't suppose the logistical side could have come off without your key co-ordinator Charmian Heaton. How vital to the whole thing was the support she gave you?

Charmian was key. She organised the support before the attempt. It was her husband that put the ropes on Broad Stand. We had a few discussions about what I wanted on and off the hill. I tried to keep my food simple and asked Charmian to make what she thought I would like at road stops.

What about all the runners who joined you for various legs - is it even conceivable to imagine someone pulling something like this off without the moral support, company and encouragement of others?

I think the right person could do it unsupported - or supported only at road stops. But that's not me. I like company on the hills and enjoy running with people. It's a shared experience for me.

The Scafells from Bowfell  © Dan Bailey
The Scafells from Bowfell
© Dan Bailey

What does it mean to you to have had backing in person on the day from Roger Baumeister and Joss Naylor?

I don't think I would have attempted had Roger not thought I could do it. I faulted a few times in 2015 and it was always Roger and his enthusiasm that set me back on course. To have him involved on the weekend meant a great deal to me; he is the only person to do it in under 48 hours, and knew what I was going through. It was incredible seeing Joss. I know him to speak to but for him to think so much of my running to want to be part of the attempt proved that he also thought I could do it.

What makes you so good at these ultra-endurance runs, and how do you keep going? Do you have a particularly high pain threshold maybe, or is it mostly in the head?

I have both I think. A high pain threshold helps but also a high threshold for putting myself in discomfort and ignoring the "I want to stop" signs from my brain and my body. I'm very strict with myself; I have a rule for everything.

Is there enjoyment at the time, even when it hurts; or is it only after the event that you can look back and say, that was great?

On every round I make sure there is enjoyment. I have taken time out to do this; it's a hobby and supposed to be fun. I look about and take in a view or two. Have a joke and a conversation with friends. If things are going very badly then I can't but whenever possible I do try and take home some very good memories.

Long hot slog up Robinson  © Dan Bailey
Long hot slog up Robinson
© Dan Bailey

You started so strong and pushed so far ahead of your schedule almost from the off that it took some of us by surprise! Was this a conscious effort to get ahead of the clock early?

I didn't trust the schedule in the later stages. Legs 7 (Keswick to Honister) and 8 (Honister to Yewbarrow) especially. I had used ACW contenders' actual timings in my planning, but whereas they were on their legs 1 and 2 I had been running for 30+ hours [by this stage]. It was impossible to be able to adjust for that. I tried to shave off time on the CW legs to Wasdale and put it on Legs 7 and 8 - but I didn't want to be overdoing it there early on either. So the schedule was a guide - I told my support that. It was what I mustn't drop behind in "Time of Day" only. As soon as I did Leg 7 I knew we were going to lose time on Leg 8, and told my support.

How confident of success did you feel as the route unfolded?

I'm never totally confident until 3/4 hours before the end. I've lost lots of time nearing the end of a round and also witnessed lots of contenders lose a huge advantage and not complete. So on Leg 8 I was worried and trying to work out whether it was still do-able. When I turned around at Yewbarrow I knew then it was do-able bar disaster and cheered up considerably. And then of course I made up time on Leg 9 (Yewbarrow to Honister) - mainly because I had been able to estimate more accurately the splits.

Heading for Hindscarth  © Dan Bailey
Heading for Hindscarth
© Dan Bailey

How much did the weather help in your eventual success?

The weather was perfect for me. Overnight it was too cold - or rather I had underestimated the cold and not worn/taken enough clothing. During the day it sometimes got warm but there was nearly always a cold breeze. The ground was bone dry too.

Which sections were the hardest?

Leg 5 (Dunmail to Threlkeld) and 6 (Threlkeld to Keswick) - in the dark, cold and not eating.

Were there any negative moments, low points when you maybe questioned what on earth you were doing, or doubted you could do it?

Leg 6 through the northern fells was a complete trudge where I struggled to eat and really thought it wasn't possible

And the converse of that - what about the highlights?

I enjoyed a lot of talking with my friends on all the legs. Then Legs 9 (Yewbarrow to Honister) and the final stage, leg 10 (Honister to Keswick) when it was do-able and I made the decision not too push too hard, so relaxed and enjoyed it.

Joss Naylor pops over from Wasdale to see Nicky at Honister  © Dan Bailey
Joss Naylor pops over from Wasdale to see Nicky at Honister
© Dan Bailey

It was lovely to see you running with your dog Wisp for some of the weekend - she clearly loves it. How much of it did she do with you?

I planned to have Wisp on Legs 2, 7 and 10. But she was so good on leg 2 and the weather etc was good that I asked my support that if possible I would like her to run Leg 5 as well. It all depended on the weather really. Had it been claggy we would have been navigating on leg 5 in the dark and so she would have been an extra thing to deal with. As it was she was great. She has become the perfect running dog and so enjoys it that I was very pleased to be able to run with her. She did the same two legs CW and ACW - Legs 2/5 then 7/10 - about 16 hours in all.

What was it like to finish?

Fantastic but unbelievable.

And now it's had a few days to sink in, how do you feel about it all?

Even now it's unbelievable. I feel contented and hope that feeling lasts a long time.

Final pit stop at Honister, Sunday evening  © Dan Bailey
Final pit stop at Honister, Sunday evening
© Dan Bailey
The last long road slog down the Newlands valley  © Dan Bailey
The last long road slog down the Newlands valley
© Dan Bailey

How are your legs/feet doing now, over a week on?

The feet and lower legs swelled up and overnight I was getting horrid pins and needles in them, but a sports massage and compression socks (or rather post operation socks) cured that. I have no blisters or sore toes. I ran/walked on Saturday just gone for five hours and did a Summer Series race in the Dark Peak last night [she came 7th - Ed.]. I didn't expect to recover so quickly. But I am taking it steady as I know it can take months.

There's been a lot of mainstream media attention, which I guess is a pretty rare thing for fell running. How have you found that?

It was such a personal thing that I've been overwhelmed by the attention. I wanted to write my blog, get the times and photos sorted and have time to reflect but it's been a whirlwind. I think after today's Marathon Podcast interview that's it though which is nice. And it's been fantastic for raising money - I've been to up my limit twice on JustGiving and Hugo Iffla from Odyssey, the charity I'm raising money for, is over the moon!

You've said it was a celebration of the 10 years since your cancer diagnosis, and a way to show people what can be done. What sort of reaction has this had from people?

I think that's why the mainstream publicity has been so great. And I'm pleased because I wanted to get myself known to people being diagnosed now and hopefully give them hope.

And lastly, the inevitable one - So what's next?

I've got an entry into the Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc at the end of August so that's my next big focus. In the short term a few fell races starting with Jura Fell race next weekend!!!

She's done it!  © Dan Bailey
She's done it!
© Dan Bailey

  • Nicky is raising money for cancer charity Odyssey - see JustGiving
  • For more from her, including a full account of the double, check out her blog here
  • Nicky is sponsored by Inov-8

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

Nicky's Athlete Page 13 posts 4 videos

25 May, 2016
26 May, 2016
Hi Nicky.. Superb! An incredible achievement.. :)
26 May, 2016
Absolutely awesome. Flippin' brlliant effort. xx
26 May, 2016
Amazing achievement. Congratulations.
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