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The start is signalled by the lighting of a cigarette and competitors have to rip pages from hidden books as they go. The Barkley Marathons is an endurance race like no other and this year Yorkshire’s Nicky Spinks was the last women standing.

pictures | UTMR

W hat’s the most eccentric element of the Barkley Marathons? It’s a close call.

There’s the stipulation that to secure a place you have to write an essay to race founder Gary ‘Lazarus Lake’ Cantrell. Then there’s the fact that those who are successful receive a letter of condolence and first timers have to bring with them a number plate of their choice to the start line at Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee.

There’s more. The 100-mile endurance race can start any time between midnight and noon on the race day itself and it only officially begins once Cantrell has lit a cigarette. Oh and in addition to finding their way along the unmarked course, which must be completed within 60 hours, the 40 competitors also have to find the location of up to 14 books and tear out the page which corresponds with their bib number.

“The whole thing is quite eccentric, but then so is Gary,” says Yorkshire’s Nicky Spinks, a seasoned endurance runner who took on the Barkley for the first time this year. “I’ve wanted to do it for a little while now, but this year was the first time I felt I was fit enough to give it a good go. When I was writing my letter to Gary I had no idea whether or not I would be selected, but two months later there I was flying out to America.”

The race was partly inspired by James Earl Jones’ failed jail break in 1977. The man convicted of Martin Luther King’s assassination spent 55 hours running through woods, but when he was caught he had made it just eight miles from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. Cantrell reckoned he could have completed at least 100 miles in the same time and to test the theory Barkley Marathons was born.

“The very first race was in 1986 and the fact only 15 people have ever completed the entire course tells you how tough it is,” says 52 year old Nicky, who when not navigating her way through a remote US national park runs a beef farm, near Huddersfield, with her husband Steve. “Veterans of the race are really keen to support first timers like me, which is good because going it alone would be quite disorientating.”

Nicky teamed up with Stephanie Chase, a human rights lawyer who once set up a women’s running club in Afghanistan. The pair completed the first of five loops in 11 hours 30 minutes, but when the temperature dropped and the rain began to fall what had once been rough hard tracks suddenly turned into boggy almost impassable paths.

“It was really hard on the legs and because we weren’t able to move quickly enough we just couldn’t get warm again. Part way round the second loop we knew we had a last chance to drop out before we had to commit to another couple of hours. It was a difficult decision, but we took it.

“Of course it was a bit disappointing, but no one completes the Barkley on their first go and for me this was all about getting a flavour for the race.” In fact no one got round this year’s course and Nicky and Stephanie were the two last women standing. It represents another impressive accolade in her endurance running career which began just before she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006.

“Just before I was given the news I had taken part in my first two endurance races and then everything came to a halt,” she says. “I was back running again three weeks after I had the mastectomy and while it was incredibly hard it felt good to be back on the hills.”

In the months and years that followed, Nicky broke various long-distance records and to mark the 10th anniversary of her diagnosis in 2016 she decided to attempt a double Bob Graham Round.

Named after a Keswick guest house owner and seasoned fell runner, the aim was to complete two laps of the 66-mile course in under 48 hours. After ascending 84 Lake District peaks, Nicky crossed the finishing line in 45 hours 30 minutes beating the previous record set by Roger Baumeister in 1979 by more than an hour.

It was a major personal achievement and in recognition of how much running has helped her own recovery, Nicky now uses her races to raise money for Odyssey, a charity which was set up to support people with cancer regain their self-confidence.

“I like the fact that it is a small charity, but one where I can make a big difference. Even when you have been given the all clear from cancer it’s not the end. It can still feel like you are living in limbo and the outdoor residential courses which Odyssey run are a really great way of feeling alive again.”

Next up for Nicky is the tricky Montane Trail which takes place in Howgills in July, followed in September by Italy’s Tor de Géants, which at 180 miles is the longest trail race in the world. Then there just might be a return to Tennessee.

“I definitely want to do it again some day, but will it be next year? We’ll have to wait and see.”

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