“I ran 132 miles.” For cancer survivor Nicky Spinks, that’s just for starters

One of Britain’s greatest ultra-runners has an inspirational story to tell.

When you head into a café with Nicky Spinks, and two of its customers do an instant double take, jumping up to request a selfie, you know you’re in the company of running royalty.  

Truly, Spinks is a legend in the ultra-running world – tough as nails, with a long list of achievements to her name. Even so, she’s modest, quiet, unassuming and most important, a cancer survivor. 

It’s easy to see why she’s asked to stop and pose for selfies, especially when she’s in the Snowdonia mountains – where I meet her – or the Lake District. Her ability to run over the peaks those areas are renowned for is unmatched. When you look at it in detail, it never fails to impress. A quick summary of her 100-mile plus runs include a double Bob Graham round, which involves running 84 peaks in the Lake District in less than 48 hours. And she achieved this after a mastectomy because of breast cancer after she discovered a lump two centimetres (one inch) in diameter. 

Ultra-runner running across rugged countrysideCredit: Inov-8
There are few runners in the world as good as Nicky Spinks is in the mountains

Fighting cancer

“Those two weeks are the longest two weeks of your life,” she says of the time between her diagnosis and operation. “You just imagine the cancer spreading throughout your body,” she adds. And without further delay, we head up into the Welsh hills for a “short” seven-mile run. 

 For one of us it’s short, for the other – namely me – it’s tough and long, given the testing conditions. The first mile involves a scramble up a cliff, before we battle gale force winds and finally head down towards an inviting-looking lake (and therefore running surface) in the distance. 

 All the time, Spinks and her two dogs amble along as if they’re out for nothing more than a gentle stroll around the local park. As we run, she points out the hills and valleys she’s run up and down at 4am during various races. To run down them in the daytime proves close to impossible for me and involves a lot of sliding on my backside. What it’s like in the pitch black doesn’t bear thinking about, with only a headtorch light to guide you, all the time chasing the clock. 

Fortunately for me, it’s all a bit more sedate on this run. I slither down, and two dogs and one 56-year-old woman patiently await me at the foot of the hill with a granola bar and a bottle of water. Honestly, you’ve never met someone so tough.  

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An amazing journey

Forget listing running 132 miles in just 45 hours over 84 peaks in the Lakes as her greatest achievement. Ignore the fact she’s set a string of long-distance records, Spinks’ return to the sport she loves just three weeks after her mastectomy trumps the lot. 

 “When I was running, I was able to forget about hospitals, and I felt like I was doing something positive for my recovery,” she says. Her friends helped her enormously, she adds. “They made it all feel normal. I felt like a normal person, not a patient.  

 “However grumpy I felt when I started, 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.” 

A runner with a simple goal in life: “I just want to know what I can do”

Her life – and running career – has seen her take to the hills in a variety of ways. She’s an amazing mountain runner, but also a farmer working long hours in tough conditions with her husband, Steve. These days she lives in Scotland, but for many years she worked the hills and dales of Yorkshire. 

 That’s the beauty of Spinks. She’s just so normal. When you read of superstar runners you often think they have some kind of amazing sports background. But she’s just like many later life runners. Hers is a familiar story; she loved running in school, but then gave it up. However, feeling the urge to escape her humdrum office life, she took up jogging around the block after work. Since then, she hasn’t looked back. 

No test is too tough

I love the quiet way she encourages you. With me struggling with the rocky Snowdonia ground, ankles turning with every other stride, we chat about how running is so great at developing core strength. It also helps improve balance, all the while building your self-confidence and determination. That leads us to talk about her approach to surgery.  

 Offered reconstruction, she felt that was the route to take. “When you’re that lopsided, it really affects you. You don’t want to wear anything that shows your shape at all,” she says. “I tell women to definitely think about it because I never thought I was like that. I am not a model; I am a farmer.”  

And without any doubt, an inspiration. 

If you are interested in getting into long distance and fell running, Spinks has these simple words: “Go to a race. Fell runners are friendly people. There is lots to learnwhat equipment to take, where to go and how to navigate. It is best to learn from a club.” 

Nicky Spinks poses with her number before an ultra raceCredit: Inov-8
Tough as they come, no challenge is too demanding for Nicky Spinks

Kit advice

Get yourself in gear

Wearing the right kind of footwear and clothing will obviously pay dividends in extreme races. You don’t want a blister, or have something not fitting right. Jackets shouldn’t be leaking at the top of the mountain. Spinks opts for the mountain running brand Inov-8, which is based in the Lake District. “I love the Inov-8 Trailfly G 270,” she says, or something like the Thermoshell Pro in the rain. And for carrying things on the move, I always opt for the Inov-8 Ultrapac Pro 2in1.” 

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Paul Larkins

Written by Paul Larkins

Updated:

Paul Larkins has been a sports journalist for more than 30 years, covering two Olympic Games, one Paralympics, numerous World Championships and, most recently, the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022. He’s also been a magazine editor, heading up titles covering everything from running to cooking and buying tractors. But his real passion is running. As a former GB International athlete and sub-4-minute miler in the 1980s, Paul has a great understanding of life-long fitness and the benefits it can provide.