This will be quick. I’ve decided to defer my London marathon place until next year. This is because I still cannot run without pain. Also, today I smashed headfirst off my bike into a car. I’ve broken a lot of teeth and had a suspected fractured jaw, but luckily the rest of me is not badly damaged. Time to take a rest and recover, think about next year, and try not to break anything else. I have big plans for 2018, more of which anon……
Nicky Spinks is a familiar name to anyone interested in long distance running in the UK. A former holder of the female fastest known time on the Bob Graham Round, she recently became the fastest person ever to complete a double Bob Graham, an almost unimaginably difficult feat. She has held records on each of the UK long distance rounds, and has been highly placed in mountain ultras in Europe and further afield, including at UTMB. Now in her 50s, she has been running competitively for over a decade, she is an Inov-8 sponsored athlete at the top of her sport, but she is also a full time farmer, and a survivor of breast cancer. In summary, she is a very inspirational and knowledgeable person, and a fantastic runner and athlete.
I was very lucky to get to go to her day-long course on preparing for a Round, or an Ultra race. I also was even more fortunate to go for a run with her over the high moorland of the Dark Peaks, more of which later. The course was a day of conversation and learning, including watching the film that was made of her double Bob Graham. It was held in a renovated barn in the Peak District. There were around fifteen people present: mainly experienced runners and mountaineers of various ability and speed; a few people planning their first attempt at a Bob Graham or other round; and me – the road runner with ambition to take on the hills.
Nicky started by giving a run down of her own background in the sport, beginning with an ill-prepared hike up Ben Nevis during the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001. From there she got into fell running, but struggled with bad nerves and lack of confidence. She did her first Bob Graham in 2005, followed by an attempt at the Paddy Buckley (the North Wales equivalent), which failed due to bad weather. After that failed round, she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006. After her mastectomy and treatment, she went into full remission and resumed running. She succeeded in completing the Paddy Buckley the following year, and went on to complete the Scottish Charlie Ramsay round in 2008. She also set a record for the Lack District 24 our round in 2011. Overtraining, fatigue, and bad nutrition saw her struggle at UTMB in 2014, but she returned two years later having learned her lesson and had a much better run. Finally, in 2016, to commemorate ten years of remission from cancer, she attempted and achieved a double Bob Graham round.
She spoke in detail about her training approach, which is periodised into meso-cycles of hard weeks and easy weeks, with back to back long runs and some speed work an integral part of her training. However, she does not run very high mileage, preferring to focus on quality, time on feet, and being specific for the terrain she is training for. She also sees three different sports therapists as required.
In terms of pacing during a round or race, she believes in walking strongly on the uphills, but getting used to running over the tops and down, to get the legs turning over quickly. One of her sayings is “think like a sheep”, to try to learn how to move efficiently over difficult boggy terrain.
Her nutrition strategy is relatively simple: eat as much as you can get down. Eat within the first hour to keep the stomach digesting and prevent sickness later. Get your stomach used to eating little and often by eating that way in the week leading up to the race, instead of your usual standard meals. Eat real food as far as possible on long efforts but don’t assume that just because you liked something once, you will like it again. Have a good range of food types to choose from, and trust your stomach.
We discussed practical issues around using poles (recommended for rocky, high mountain races, but not for UK terrain as it is usually too wet). After this we all got taken out for some navigation practice with a map and compass, practising taking a bearing and navigating to a point on a map. This was good for me as I know how to navigate but lack confidence; having someone that experienced assuring me I was doing it right was very helpful.
The final part of the day, after eating the lunch that Nicky had prepared, was spent watching Run Forever, the film of her double Bob Graham: Run Forever.
It is a moving film, made even more so watching it while sitting next to the subject of the film!
When the course was complete, Nicky had agreed to take me out for a run. We ended up running a 10 mile route over the moorland, finishing with head torches after the sun went down. For me, running on totally unfamiliar terrain, over some deep bog and tricky climbing, in the dark, was an incredible, never-to-be-forgotten experience. My anterior tibialis pain had flared up and I hadn’t been able to run much (and haven’t been able to run since – but it was worth it). It was a beautiful evening, not cold, and quite still even on the high hills. I did manage to fall twice, but slowly my legs got used to the terrain and I was able to keep up with Nicky, who truly does move like a sheep over the bog. We topped a trig point and she showed me the remains of a WW2 plane that had gone down on the hill and had been rusting away ever since. Slowly the light failed and we turned on our headlamps. On our way back, in the thick darkness, our lamps picked out the image of a sheep’s skull, picked clean and staring at us out of the night. We talked about running and life in general, about animals and friends and travel. I am so grateful to her for showing me such kindness and hospitality, sharing her running playground with me, and opening a door for me that I would never have got through on my own.
I don’t hide my struggles. I’m quite open, on my blog here and in real life, about how I feel when things are going badly as well as when things are going well. It is hard to write in detail about the bad patches, mainly because no one really wants to hear a litany of moaning. But the flip side is the shiny (fake?) over-enthusiastic hashtag ridden Instagram posts that we all see every day. They are not helpful, as they fuel the sense of self-doubt: am I alone in feeling like this? (NO). Does everyone else find it easy? (NO). Am I just weak/pathetic/not-good-enough/useless (NO). I know that the impetus behind most of “those posts” is not to make others feel bad, but to boost the self esteem of the poster but soliciting praise and approval. And fair enough, we all like praise and approval. But the tone that is set is of a fake perfection, airbrushed and filtered, curated carefully to bolster an image.
Running is often touted as a way out of depression and mental struggles. But what happens when it becomes a symptom or even a trigger for these? We all know the stories of running out of the darkness, but what about when the darkness refuses to lift, and envelopes you even in the middle of a run? When pain or exhaustion conspire to take you out of flow and into that horrible place where you are conscious of every jarring, slowing, labored step. This isn’t the subject of internet memes and Instagram fantasies. But it is quite real. The driven runner, who does not know how to stop, pushing their body past its limits with an unquiet, screaming mind. I wonder how many such runners are out there.
I can understand some of this: A few bad runs, a bit of injury, illness and overtraining: I’ve stopped and cried mid run because it all felt so awful. I took a week off running and felt better, but I know I was near to the bottom of the well. I didn’t believe in overtraining before, but lord knows I do now. I’ve felt it brush past me. I don’t necessarily think it is physical, however. I think it was more a mental burnout: pressure, self imposed targets, forgetting where the pleasure lies. I was dragging myself across the countryside, because I didn’t know what else to do. That feeling where you are getting less fit the more you run, because your body is too beaten down to build itself up.
So, don’t believe the Instagram version of running. It can be violently ugly. But a bit like a bad race: there is always a finish line and bad patches don’t last. I went to a funeral this week of a running friend and clubmate who died tragically of cancer, a young fit runner, his death came not six months post diagnosis. He was cheerful and full of life up to the end, even coming out to walk parkrun, where in the past he would have been towards the front of the pack. A lifelong runner, he knew the joy and pain of running, but kept close to the joy, even through injury and, in the end, terminal illness. Would that we all could be the same.