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Last Women Standing: Nicky Spinks vs the Barkley Marathons

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Few events strike fear and wonder into runners as much as the Barkley Marathons. For many years there was very little known about it, which only added to the mystique. Then there came a certain Netflix documentary, which clarified a few things about the event, but raised even more questions.

Interest in this unique event has never been higher, which is why the good people at Summit Media decided to make a film about it. Specifically about Nicky Spinks doing it.

Nicky Spinks is obviously known for being a badass, so you might think that the Barkley is something that’s made for a runner with her particular skillset. But even badassery has levels. For most people doing a Bob Graham Round is pretty hard, but this is a woman who can do two back-to-back. However, the Barkley isn’t just about being on your feet for a really long time and lots of ascent, it’s about so much more, as the film shows us.

Famously no woman has ever completed the Barkley Marathons. In fact only 17 runners have completed the event since it started in 1986. The first woman to complete a ‘fun run’ (3 laps) was Beverley Anderson-Abbs in 2012. You can read her account of the experience here.

But hopes were high for Nicky in 2019. Could she be the first woman to complete the race?

Nicky Spinks Barkley preparation
Nicky prepares for the race at home (copyright inov-8/Summit Fever Media)

In the film we see Nicky’ preparing for the event at home in the Peak District. We see her meticulous kit testing and preparation and we see her out in horrible weather putting in the hours on the least hospitable terrain she can find. In terms of ‘controlling the controllables’ Nicky has it all covered, from her adapted shin guards to fend off the famously vicious undergrowth, to poring over maps of the area.

Then we see Nicky at the race, in the hours before the start. I really enjoyed this part of the film because, while it doesn’t give away too much about the event (filming was only allowed at certain points to maintain the secrecy), it really does capture the atmosphere well. I could only describe it as pure terror. All of the runners, Nicky included, look slightly haunted (even running’s most cheerful woman, Carol Morgan, looks terrified). There’s definitely a general air of ‘what the hell are we doing?’. Throw in a bit of mental torture in the form of not knowing when the race will actually start and there’s not a lot of sleep going on the night before.

Once the runners are off you really do get a sense of just how tough the race is. ‘Hills’ are just straight up vertical slopes, ‘brambles’ are a sea of relentless thorny branches to fight through and ‘paths’ are, well, indistinguishable from undergrowth. Navigation is very difficult, but fortunately Nicky teams up with Steph Case, who’s attempted the race before, and together with another runner they tackle the many challenges of the Barkley.

Barkley Marathons
Nicky Spinks in action at the 2019 Barkley (copyright inov-8/Summit Fever Media)

The great thing about this film is that because you feel you know Nicky a little bit from her previous exploits, it shows you where the Barkley is on the scale of toughness. When you see her, and other incredibly tough runners like James Elson, Carol Morgan and Pavel Paloncy really suffering, shivering, looking bewildered and frightened, and I’m pretty sure I saw a few tears, you know that this race is a whole other level of difficulty.

You probably know the outcome of the race but we won’t spoil it for you. Suffice to say that it’s a great watch if you’re a fan of races which involve suffering. I saw that somebody described the trailer as a bit ‘Blair Witch’ and I think that describes it well. Those woods are terrifying. Even if you’re Nicky Spinks.

Written by
Kirsty Reade


In episode 1 of our new SBRX Show we sit down with ultra runners and coaches Kim and Jayson Cavill to get their take on the Barkley Marathons and triathlon & trail running gear reviews, training tips and more

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