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Nicky Spinks: The extreme challenge of the Barkley Marathons

Written by Fiona

April 02 2019

There were no finishers at the Barkley Marathons 2019. One of the UK’s toughest runners, Nicky Spinks competed in the notoriously tough 100-mile mountain event, held in Tennessee, before she pulled out on lap two of five. She has spoken about the ultramarathon, which is billed as the world’s toughest.

This is the second year in a row that no one has finished the Barkley Marathons.

What is Barkley Marathons?

The Barkley Marathons is an ultramarathon trail race held in late March or early April in Frozen Head State Park near Wartburg, Tennessee. The aim is to complete five laps of approximately 20 miles each. The ascent of each lap is about 10,000ft. There is a window of 60 hours for completion.

If runners complete 60 miles (97 km) this is known as a “fun run”.

The Barkley course was designed by Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell. The story goes that the idea for the race was inspired by the tale of the 1977 escape of James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King Jr, from nearby Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary.

Ray covered only eight miles after running 55 hours in the woods. Cantrell said to himself: “I could do at least 100 miles in that time”, mocking Ray’s low mileage. And so, the Barkley Marathons was born.

Cantrell named the race after his neighbour and running companion, Barry Barkley. It was first held in 1986 and has grown to be an iconic yet famously tough event. There are only about 30 to 40 places in the race each year.

Nicky at home before flying out to the race in the US.  Each participant must take a vehicle registration plate to the race and give it to the organiser as part of their entry fee.

Nicky: You need to do this race more than once

Nicky, 51, of Yorkshire, England, was the last woman standing alongside fellow participant Stephanie Case in Barkley Marathons, which took place at the weekend.

The inov-8 ambassador completed the first 20-mile lap with Stephanie, before dropping out part-way through lap two amid plummeting temperatures and appalling weather conditions. She completed about 40 miles.

Only 15 runners – all men – have ever finished the full five laps of the Barkley Marathons inside the 60-hour time limit. This year, five male runners completed three laps, but none achieved four, let alone five.

Nicky at the iconic start/finish gate the day before the race.

The race, made famous by a 2014 Netflix documentary, saw 40 selected runners self-navigate their way around an unmarked course, tearing pages from hidden books as they went, and returning them to the enigmatic event organiser.

Each lap included around 10,000ft of brutally-steep, obstacle-laden, muddy mountain ascent through thick woodland.

Nicky, a breast cancer survivor and the record-holder for various 100 mile-plus mountain challenges, such as the Double Bob Graham (England) and Double Ramsay Round (Scotland), said: “The Barkley Marathons was extremely tough, in many ways.

“The first lap was run in really hot conditions, too hot for my liking, and then the second lap was the opposite, unbelievably cold with lots of rain.

“I ran with Stephanie, who is a Barkley veteran, and she was brilliant in helping me to learn about the unique elements of the race.

“Lap one took us about 11-and-a-half hours, which was longer than I had hoped, but the temperatures, the difficult terrain and the time spent trying to find the well-hidden books all played a part.

Nicky with race organiser Laz at the end of lap one.

“Together with male runners called Micheal Panhuysen and Billy Reed, we all had a quick turnaround with our support crews and then we set out as a foursome on lap number two in the dark.

“The weather forecast didn’t really detail just how cold it was going to be in the mountains and none of us had extreme winter kit in our race packs. It turned out to be incredibly cold and wet which, together with the darkness and fog, made for slow-going.

“When we realised we had no chance of completing lap two inside the time limit, we took an escape route back down a valley to the camp.

“At this point there were three of us, as Michael was behind, having decided to go slower.

“I’m not one to give up on anything, but I’m glad we made the decision we did. It was the right decision.

“Even coming back down the valley, away from the higher ground, we were still struggling with the cold. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that cold.

“We returned to camp in the early hours, though I’m not sure when exactly as the watches that race organiser Laz made us all wear didn’t tell the proper time.”

Nicky back in camp after lap one assessing the scratches on her legs caused by the thick woodland and harsh vegetation.

Nicky commented on the race goal. She said: ” “I think that to complete the full five laps is, well… I can see now why only 15 people have done that in 33 years.

“Laz makes the race harder and harder, changing the course so even the Barkley veterans don’t know where the books are, and this year I think he added in even more uphill climbs. That’s all part of what makes Barkley Marathons the race it is.”

Nicky, who wore inov-8’s MUDCLAW G 260 shoes with the world’s toughest graphene-grip, was asked if she will return. She said: “I do think that to finish Barkley Marathons, you need to go back a second or third time to do so.

“I talked to Stephanie about this as we hiked back to camp in the cold and I said I was unsure about returning. She said words to the effect of ‘see you next year”.”

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