Ultra-marathon running is alike to no other sport. While all sports require passion and commitment, running long distances of upwards of 50 miles in a single shot, requires and demands a sort of grit and intensity that most people would write off as impossible. Ultra-marathon running includes any distance longer than a marathon (26.2 miles), and requires as much or more mental strength as it does physical.
Ultra-running is intriguing in the fact that it places men and women on the most equal playing field out of any other distance or sport. It’s not uncommon to see women mixed into the top ten runners of a 100 mile race. Nikki Kimball is one of the most renowned woman ultra runners, and her resume speaks for itself. Not only has Nikki been the top woman finisher in many of the races she has competed in, such as the Western States Endurance Run (placed top 10, ten times and was 3 time women’s champion) she also is the current holder of the fastest known time for Vermont’s Long Trail. She smashed the women’s record in finishing the 273 miles of rugged trail in 5 days 7 hours 42 minutes (every raw detail is recorded in the documentation film “Finding Traction“).
Not only is Nikki passionate about running, but she is also extremely passionate about causes she believes in, such as the race to create awareness for depression she is involved with; Big Bear Stampede. Here at 46 Climbs we have had the privilege to ask Nikki a few questions about her running, as well as how her own struggle with depression has helped her running and vice versa.
What draws you to ultramarathon races and going after FKT’s (Fastest Known Times)?
Oh boy, is this a big question. To answer fully I have to go back to why I do endurance sports at all. I cannot remember a life without sport. I am so lucky to have been born into an active family, a family in which free time was spent in the garden, on the cross country ski trails and hiking any trail on any mountain we could find. Vacations took us to cabins near lakes or on mountains. I learned early that moving my body makes me feel whole.
As I grew up I found studying more efficient after a ski or a run. And after college, when major depression took over much of my life, I found glimmers of clarity and small respites from pain during the limited motion I was able to achieve through walking, and then, as I improved, running.
Running makes me a better person. It provides a safe, clear space in my head. It helps me use my brain to solve problems. It’s not hyperbole to say that running saved my life. So ultra and FKT? Well, I guess I have to ask why not? If a little running is a good thing, running a lot is just what I crave.
And I do have a deeply rooted competitive streak. That too began in early childhood, as I raced in cross country skiing, dreaming of Olympic Team membership. Combine a love of competition and a need to run, and FKT chasing and ultra racing is a natural result.
Pain is just a feeling that comes with running long distances. How do you get past the many mental “walls” that are part of the package deal with ultras?
I love running more than I dislike the pain I sometimes feel while running hard. Some people talk about “suffering” in ultras. I’ve never suffered in a race. I’ve had pain, lows and bouts of crying. But I can stop any time I like. Suffering is something forced on a person. It may come from disease, poverty, war or any other truly horrible aspect of life. People suffer when the pain is unavoidable. Running never causes suffering for me. It sometimes causes overwhelming joy. It sometimes causes pain, even frustration. There are times I cannot get myself out the door to train. Yet, overall, the joy always wins. I always remember that, even if I temporarily hate running, the good the sport does for me outweighs any pain it provides.
During race I think of a few things when that race pain comes to my attention: 1. Pain is simply a recognition of a neural impulse to the brain. When I think of pain in this way, the emotional response to pain goes away. When the emotional response to pain, be it fear, loathing or enmity, is removed, pain loses its power. 2. I remember that I signed up for the event, and that means I get to enjoy the beauty of the trails and the comfort of the community I love. But it also means that I will experience plenty of discomfort, and some pain. And without the juxtaposition of the strife, pain and fatigue caused be these events, ultras would not have the meaning they do. And 3. Sometimes I use the pain to drive me to simply go faster. At some point during every race I recognize that much of the race will involve pain. If I want to have less pain, well, then I just need to finish the event more quickly. The pain might increase slightly in intensity, but letting it drive me to go faster means that the pain will be over more quickly.
Where is your favorite place to run and why?
I love all trails. However Hokkaido Japan occupies a special place for me. After 2005 World Cup 100k, I toured trails on the island with several members of the US team. Perhaps our women’s team gold that year colors my memories. But the fact that ultrarunning facilitates strong bonds amongst its participants colors these memories more. By 2005 I was on my 5th US team, and I felt close friendship and commonality with my teammates and team coaches. And to run and hike the gorgeous trails of Hokkaido with several of these friends clearly enhanced the beauty of this already phenomenal area. Post-race, our stress was gone. We rode the high of what was for each us of, our first international gold medal. We ran and hiked stunning trails in great company. That combination created magic.
During your Long Trail FKT attempt, your crew played a huge role in supporting you get through the many miles and sleepless nights to conquer the record. How did you find/pick your team?
My team rocked! I grew up in Chittenden, VT with my best friend, Andrea Cady. Her little brother Ian was our frequent partner in our early teenager shenanigans. Now the three of us live in Bozeman. With Andrea’s work as a family physician, and Ian’s brilliant technical mind, they were a clear choice for team doctor and tech person. Andrea and I also cooked together at a camp in the Adirondacks, so having our doc become head chef came naturally as well. Jenny Pierce is a native Montanan who I’d met several years before. We quickly became extremely close friends and training partners. So her presence was clearly needed. And my family, by the time of the expedition was quite familiar with my needs during ultra races. In fact my cousin, David, was with me for each of my WS 100 top ten finishes. He knows my running needs as well as anyone.
We rounded out the core team with Brenna Boyd, another Bozeman runner who was to be a prime pacer until she blew out her knee, and Dennis Ball, a runner from NYC who I’d met at a panel discussion in NYC. His inclusion on the team is something common in ultrarunning. I needed a pacer. I didn’t know Dennis, but I’d met him and assumed he was a great guy, because, hey, aren’t all runners great people? Anyway, less than two months before the event, just after Brenna had surgery, I saw him at a race in D.C. After learning that he was a student and didn’t have classes during the expedition time, I casually asked him to join us. Something like, “Hey, I’m doing this run along the spine of the Green Mountains. We won’t sleep. It’ll hurt. We’ll be alternately cold and hot, soaked through with rain, and desiccated by the sun. It’ll be great. Wanna join?” With a pitch like that, he had to join.
Then we had several great friends from childhood, or just folks I’d met at races, join us for sections of the trail. Without the help of these folks, we never would have made it. People in this sport are generous with their time, and tend to love assisting other runners as they do crazy stuff. In fact two of the people who helped with the southern section of the trail, April and Jason Hayden, will be critical to the expedition if I get a chance to go after the men’s record once again.
For those women who have been inspired by you to aspire to become ultramarathon runners, if you could give them one piece of advice, what would it be?
Ultrarunning, and running of all types, are great sports for women. There is still a gender discrepancy in media attention and total money paid out, but that gap is shrinking. I think our sport is one other sports can look to in creating gender equity. So for women in particular, I simply say there is no reason not to expect to do anything they want with this sport.
You have said that your depression is your “secret weapon.” Why is that?
First, one must understand that ultrarunning success requires the ability to endure discomfort, the patience to run a smart race, the humility to accept the help of others, and the flexibility to deal with the unforeseen.
The pain and humiliation of depression is substantially more intense than anything I’ve experience in my 17 year ultra career. Ultrarunning is at least as much a mental as a physical game. In what must be a twist on the Yogi Berra quote, I once heard someone say, “Ultrarunning is 90% mental, and the rest is in your head.” When the races get very long, perhaps anything that takes the top runners over 12 hours or so, the connotation of this statement becomes more fitting. Long events require athletes to endure protracted discomfort. They require the patience to run slowly in the initial tens of miles. They insist on the humility to accept that one cannot perform well without a lot of help (crew, aid station, etc.). And these events require the flexibility to deal with variables which could not be foreseen, and are completely outside the control of the athlete.
Surviving depression creates, and requires similar skills in its victims. In a sense depression is protracted pain. And, unlike running, it is suffering. During each bout of depression I wake without desire to get out of bed. Eating breakfast becomes labor-intensive. All that I love about life, and all that I hate about life becomes the same dull-grey unremarkable entity. Sometimes, twice in my life, I became unable to work. Each day is simply a test of endurance: endurance of the pain in my head, endurance of the knowledge that I have no lasting control of my moods or ability to complete tasks, and endurance of not knowing when the bout will end.
During my first severe bout I had the privileged circumstance of having friends around me who understood the disease and of having good medical insurance. I am certain that without this help and good fortune I would not have survived the early 1990’s. This was my first intense lesson in humility. And I now find it easy to accept that none of what I’ve done in ultrarunning would be possible without a lot of outside human help.
And, through my initial bouts of depression I began to accept extensively drawn out pain. Each time I lived through it, I believed a little more that I could live through it. I lost my fear of pain, which in turn makes pain much more tolerable. And as depression took my normal control away, I learned to bend and flex with variables I was too tired and pained to influence. Further, as I never know when a bout will end, I’ve become patient while I changes medication, attend therapy, or explore other means aiming toward health. Thus the qualities of pain endurance, humility, flexibility and patience become honed by the disease.
Running 100+ miles obviously takes a huge toll on your body. When do you decide that you are ready to start your next training block to prepare for your next race?
This changes as I age. During my 30’s I could race 6-8 ultras a year with several marathons and other competitions sprinkled in. I never did, during those years, have blocks of training aimed at one particular race. Now I have to be much more selective, choosing one or two races per year to focus on. I still race a lot, because, frankly I just love to run and to explore. Races give people the chance to experience new trails, get long runs done with refuel stations and great company along the entire route.
With respect to organizing training, there isn’t much physiological evidence on the best training plans for ultra endurance athletes. So I use the physiology knowledge regarding shorter distance events and the limited knowledge we have on ultrarunners, and combine this with my own experience. At this point in my career, I know I cannot race at my best within 6-8 weeks of a 100 mile race. Knowing that, following a 100 mile race I typically employ a 2-3 week reverse taper. Then I begin training again, slowly adding speed, and constantly checking in with my own body. If I’m feeling flat on workouts, I trust that feeling and back off. When I start feeling more springy, I know I’m ready for my next block.
Here at 46 Climbs, we encourage individuals across the country to take on physical challenges through hiking/climbing mountains to overcome mental illness and suicide. What advice would you give someone who may be timid about going after their goal?
Just understand that none of the physical challenges you will face require skills you do not already possess. Initially the physical work will be daunting if you are not accustomed to it. So start out with small challenges, just as you did when you started fighting mental illness. Then begin slowly to build on that. In a few years, you will look back on that first hike, perhaps just the short walk to the base of Roaring Brook Falls, or the 2.2 mile round trip hike of Baxter Mountain where you earned your first mountain top view of Keene Valley and the High Peaks, and you will think, “I remember when that hill seemed insurmountable.” With a bit of experience, and a dedication to even moderate amounts of aerobic exercise, your goals will be easily reached. And the side bonus is huge: the exercise you do in pursuit of these goals is proven to lessen the symptoms of depression.
Make sure to check out the Big Bear Stampede, raising awareness for depression, this Sept. 10th at the Roosevelt Arch entrance to Yellowstone Park!
Featured image: Nikki pre-running the course for the Big Bear Stampede with her dog Vika. Photo Credit: Vern Smith