Nicky Spinks on the Lake District 24 Hour Record Interview

© Damian Hall

In the early hours of August 15th a sprint finish was underway in the Lakeland village of Braithwaite as ultrarunner Nicky Spinks pushed hard to break the women's Lake District 24-Hour record. Since setting off some 23 hours and 45 minutes earlier, Nicky had climbed 65 peaks over 2000ft and arrived back at 2.45am, beating the previous fastest time set by Carol Morgan in 2020 (23h57). In that time she had run 130km and 10,600m of ascent in the Cumbrian fells.

Sunrise on Blencathra during the attempt  © Damian Hall
Sunrise on Blencathra during the attempt
© Damian Hall

The Lake District 24-Hour challenge requires runners to summit as many peaks over 2000ft as possible, and return to the same starting point within a 24-hour period. Peaks must be climbed in the same order as the previous record-holder, with extra summits being added or the same number of summits being reached in less time. Eligible peaks are described by strict criteria and are available on a list from the Bob Graham Club.

In many ways, the Lake District 24-Hour record (also known as the 24 Hour Fell Record) is the original Lake District fell running challenge, predating the Bob Graham Round by some 28 years. The latter was in fact born out of a successful attempt on the 24 Fell Record by namesake Bob Graham in 1932. In 1977, Jean Dawes became the first lady to complete Bob Graham's circuit of 42 peaks, setting a first women's time for the 24 Hour Fell Record in the process. In 2011, Nicky became the 6th woman to set a new record on the challenge, reaching 64 peaks on what was now quite a different route from the Bob Graham Round.

Anyone who knows Nicky will testify that she knows her own mind and that her determination is never in short supply. She had previously mentioned to me that she thought she could claim back the record, so it was no surprise that she set to this task with 100% conviction until the job was done. But how does she do it? After giving Nicky a few days to recover I caught up with her to find out about her record-breaking attempt and discover what keeps her keeping on…

Nicky has spent much of the past decade beating records, some of them her own.  © Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking
Nicky has spent much of the past decade beating records, some of them her own.
© Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking

Keri: How did the Lake District 24-Hour challenge first catch your interest?

Nicky: Back in 2010 I was looking for my next big challenge and a friend, Simon Rippon, suggested the Lake District 24 hour record - I was intrigued! After timing a few recce legs on the route, I decided it was doable and so attempted it on a hot day in July 2011, adding two peaks (Fleetwith Pike and Sand Hill) to the existing record. By the last leg I was feeling shocking and so decided not to add my third planned peak, Grisedale Pike. I finished in 23h15, and so in hindsight I felt confident that I could add the third peak. The idea of having another go has been on my mind for ten years but since I was the record holder and had lots of other projects on the go, I never considered it any further.

When I heard that Carol Morgan had broken my record in August 2020 by adding Grisedale Pike and finishing in 23.57, that spurred me on! I tried to recce and get fit during various lockdowns and then set the date of May 2021 for my attempt.

Your May 2021 attempt didn't go as planned. How did you feel setting out this time by comparison?

In May it had already been raining hard for a full week and on the day those showers turned to snow during Leg 1. Compounded by the clag, the conditions slowed us down and I got very cold as well. I carried-on into Legs 2 and 3 but was consistently losing time, so I decided to stop on Leg 4 after Wasdale.

A week before my successful attempt this month, the weather forecast was also pretty poor but there was at least a glimmer of hope for better weather, so I stuck with the plan. I've been in this situation many times before and it's always worth looking for a weather window. My support knew I would move the attempt forwards or backwards by 24 hours if needed because my chances of success would be less in poorer weather.

Descending Pike of Stickle  © Tori Miller, Inov-8
Descending Pike of Stickle
© Tori Miller, Inov-8

You managed to climb the same number of peaks as Carol Morgan but in less time. Did the attempt go as planned or had you originally hoped to add another peak or two to the previous tally?

From the outset I had warned my support team that if the weather was anything but ideal I wouldn't try and add any more peaks in but would go for beating Carol's time instead. When I arrived on Friday afternoon I made the decision, based on the weather, to drop the two planned extra peaks of Knott and Bowscale and go for a faster time. I felt a lot happier and more confident once that decision was made. 

It turned out to be the right choice because we had really mixed weather on the attempt; while climbing Skiddaw we were in rain, wind and thick clag and throughout Leg 4 and 6 the cloud-level was up and down.

Talk us through your journey and any memorable high and low points

There were a lot of high points. Jasmin [Paris] and Damian [Hall] were such good company and the sunrise was amazing on Leg 1 (Braithwaite to Threlkeld)! Jasmin has supported me on a few rounds on Leg 1 and she always brings a good sunrise with her!

Leg 2 (Threlkeld to Dunmail) went really well and my legs felt so good. I even said to Ben [Abdelnoor] that I was looking forward to climbing Fairfield because I was a bit tired of running fast now. That leg seemed to go so quickly.

She knows the Lakes well! Nicky on the Threlkeld to Dunmail leg on her 2016 double Bob Graham  © Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking
She knows the Lakes well! Nicky on the Threlkeld to Dunmail leg on her 2016 double Bob Graham
© Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking

On Leg 3 (Dunmail to Wasdale) I started off feeling a little jaded but I know that the Langdales do that to people and I so tried to jog quickly through them to get to Rossett Pike. Tom Pape took a great line up Rossett and approaching the higher, rocky section I felt really happy. Having recced Broad Stand with Jim Paxman a few weeks before I was confident about it and even though it was a bit slippy I was very comfortable. Heading to Lingmell I was feeling great and really skipping along, as I knew I was in much better shape than I was in May. On the descent to Wasdale, it was a boost to see Joss [Naylor] and Charmian [Heaton] at the stile. I gave Joss a hug and a kiss, and received one back! That made my day as I know Joss only turns out when he thinks someone has put the work-in and will succeed – it's such a vote of confidence! [Fell running hero Joss Naylor broke the Lake District 24 hour Fell Record three times in the 1970s].

The low points began during Leg 4 (Wasdale to Honister) - it's such a long leg and my stomach was now refusing food. Rice puddings were going down ok and some gels but we started to lose time on the schedule and that worried me. Climbing Kirkfell was horrid and I started to tip backwards as I was ascending. I knew I had to rectify this lack of energy so had an urgent rice pudding at the top of Red Gully! Great Gable seemed to go on forever in the clag and when I was coming-off I felt lightheaded and so didn't get a great line. I pushed hard across to Grey Knotts and Fleetwith and was pleased that we still had daylight to get to Honister. 

Honister was another low point, as I had some coffee and tried a packet expedition meal but was then violently sick. Heading up Dale Head at the start of Leg 5 (Honister to Newlands Hause) I felt strong though, but still had 5 to 6 hours to go. Keith [Holmes] and Steve [Sanders] were great and I ate two rice puddings and two gels on this leg. It cheered me up quite a bit that I could at least get these down!

At Newlands I decided not to stop before Leg 6 (Newlands Hause to Braithwaite), as I couldn't face being sick again but unfortunately bad traffic had held up some of my crew, so I didn't get any resupplies. That was a real blow at this late stage! I took several gels before getting a really churning sick feeling which slowed me a lot more. I decided to just get on with being sick and then press-on again! After that it was just coke and water - and lots of puffing!

65 peaks is a lot! What are your favourite and worst sections of this long route?

I have never liked Leg 2, being that I'm not a natural fast runner and have to work hard to keep the pace going. On the day though, Leg 2 went well and I was able to eat and move fast at the same time. The weather was also good which always helps! 

When I'm fit and my legs are feeling good, I enjoy big climbs and rocky sections, so Leg 3 from Rossett Pike onwards is a favourite of mine.

When I was climbing Yewbarrow and Red Pike I did wish that all of the round could be uphill after that as my legs were so strong that it felt easy compared to descending or flat running!

The last leg was the worse section in reality, as I knew the splits were fast, and after being sick at Honister and not having eaten properly for a few hours, I was losing speed despite trying so hard to maintain it. The rain came down making the rocks very slippy and we were all worried about time seeping away. It was a relief to hit the main track and run into the finish with some time to spare.

Nicky at the finish - this Braitwaite bench marked the start and end of her round   © Amanda Heading
Nicky at the finish - this Braitwaite bench marked the start and end of her round
© Amanda Heading

Your supporters are clearly very important to you. How do you choose them, and how did the team around you influence your success?

I find that the best people to surround yourself with are ones that will turn themselves inside out for you. They don't have to be the fastest runners in the main, however I knew on Legs 1 and 2 that I needed quick people as otherwise it can be hard to for them to support well and keep up. Jasmin Paris and Damian Hall ran this section with me. Jasmin navigated which was a relief and the conversation was always great!

For my support I choose people that know me well and understand that I'm not a chatty person but here to get a job done! I had a fantastic team of support and this played a huge part in boosting my motivation and keeping me on schedule. Many are good friends that I have known for years and who have seen me through a lot.

Many thanks to Neil Talbott, Ben Abdelnoor and Jean Brown on Leg 2, to Tom Pape and Fiona Pascall on Leg 3 (Fiona even managed to stay positive when I threw-up the fruit salad!) Also to Tim Rippon, Jim Paxman and Lewis Ashton on Leg 3. Further thanks to Simon Rippon (the instigator of all this many years ago), as well as Jess and Gwilym Rivett on Leg 4, then Keith Holmes and Steve Sanders on Leg 5. Keith is a wonderful friend and we don't speak many words because we know what each other are thinking and just what needs to be done! And finally a huge thank-you to my anchor support on Leg 6, Kirsty Hewitson and Helen Elmore. I am the last of the three of us to do our big challenge this year. Kirsty set a women's Lakes, Meres and Waters FKT in July and Helen completed a sub-24h Ramsay Round just two weeks ago. We have seen each other through good and bad times, in running and in life. Thank you also to Adam Micklethwaite for leading the way and getting all the lines right. Amanda Heading was my road support and had supported me on my first Lake District 24 hour round in 2010. I'm slightly scared of her when she is in full support mode which is good, as I do what she tells me! She was very on-the-ball and made sure I was in and out of the road stops quickly but having had everything I needed. 

It really was a team effort. Thanks to my supporters I knew I was in safe hands throughout and that if time was getting really tight they would tell me so. Kirsty did exactly that on the last peak and I realised that I needed to push more, even though we all knew I was already giving it everything I'd got!

What else do you consider to be key to your success on big rounds such as this?

Often it comes down to eating and self-discipline. Compared to a lot of runners I am good at eating on the go and will always try and get more food down, even if I've just been sick because I know that it's crucial if I'm going to carry on.

In my spare time I provide personal training plans for runners aiming for big races or challenges in the mountains. I was really pleased that my training went well and that my training plan had been well calculated. It is over ten years since I last held this record, so it's also a huge boost personally to feel that I can still achieve something of this scale at 54 years of age. I hope it will inspire other runners to keep striving for their personal goals.

What's next for you Nicky?

I'll be racing Tor des Geants next week. I haven't given it much thought until now and I'm really looking forward to it. I've got no injuries - the legs feel good and apart from puffy feet, and I haven't any niggles. 

  • See Run Forever, our film of Nicky's double Bob Graham Round here:

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