Nikki Kimball is one of the most well-known ultra runners. She’s been at the forefront of the sport and the pack for many years. Ian Corless spent half a year with her to discover what makes her tick
Words and Pictures: Ian Corless
Ultra running is not a new sport! Pedestrian events date back to the 18th and 19th century, and they were huge spectacles that pulled in crowds of thousands who would drink and bet while runners would cover vast distances often over multiple days.
For example, the Comrades Marathon in South Africa (Comrades.com) has incredible history that dates back to 1921. However, trail and mountain running is a much newer sport. Of course, men and women have always gone to the mountains but back in 1974, an uncompromising Gordy Ainsleigh decided to run 100 trail miles off the cuff.
Ainsleigh has since been credited as the founder of the 100-mile distance, He says it all came about by accident. He had planned to race (actually ride) the Tevis Cup; a 100-mile point-to-point horse race that ran from Squaw Valley to Auburn in the USA.
A lame horse unfortunately scuppered Anisleigh’s plans and not wishing to miss out, he decided to run the event, on foot! He completed the distance in 23 hours 42 minutes; The modern day 100-mile trail run was born.
The Western States Endurance Run (WSER.org) has become an iconic race in the sport of ultra running and with it legends have been made, for example, Scott Jurek and Ann Trason.
But in 1971, just a few years before Anisleigh’s inaugural run, a woman was born who would not only shape the sport of ultra running but create an impact that would inspire runners all over the world and additionally trail-blaze a path forward in the sport for women.
Nikki Kimball was destined to be a sport’s heroine. Originally a cross-country skier, Kimball ventured into the world of trail running in 2001 but it was in 2004 when she entered the Western States that heads turned due to her victory. This followed with repeat wins in 2006 and 2007.
Over the years, Kimball has run the race ten times and up until 2015, where she finished tenth, had never been out of the top five. In 2007 she won the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc and became the first American to do so.
And there’s more: Kimball won the iconic Marathon des Sables in Morocco (marathondessables.co.uk) at her first
attempt and the Run Rabbit Run 100 miler (runrabbitrunsteamboat.com).
An inspiring lady, her dominance in the sport has not been without its ups and downs. Injury provided Kimball with some tough years and in addition, depression has paid a huge part in her desire to be the best. Maybe running provided her with the opportunity to run away from the low points.
What makes Kimball tick?
So what really makes this lady tick? How does she function and survive in such a tough and demanding sport? I followed Kimball over six months and documented her journey back to Squaw and the iconic Western States.
Snow to Trail
The transition from snow to trail is never an easy and seamless one. Particularly when you add high temperatures, high humidity and a relentless multi-day journey across the Talamancas in Costa Rica. The Talamancas Coastal Challenge (TCC) over the years has become a must-do race for those seeking a running experience that combines challenging terrain with a relaxed approach.
Like the Marathon des Sables, the TCC combines multiple day racing but in a non self-sufficient manner. Clothing, tents and all equipment is forwarded daily to each respective base camp and food is provided.
This allows the runners to run and not be weighted down with a pack of 6kgs plus.
“I loved racing at MDS. It was a wonderful experience and it certainly had me wanting more. I raced the Jungle Marathon (Brazil) years ago and that was tough. However, racing here in Costa Rica has been a blast. It has allowed me to find my early season legs while testing myself in an incredible new environment,”
Kimball explained on the final day after placing second overall. “I was coming into this race off skis and cold temperatures so it was always going to be tough. But as the days have passed I have felt better. Don’t get me wrong it has been tough.
“The terrain here is very demanding and I have found the heat and humidity very hard. Although not self-sufficient, I think this has been a harder race than MDS.”
Combining work, training, racing and a busy schedule has been the norm for Kimball over the years, but she has realised that she can no longer go from one race to the next as she did in the past. “Oh jeez, I used to race weekly. I have now realised after injury and surgery, and with an older more wiser head on my shoulders, that I need to be more selective.
“That’s not to say I won’t participate in many races, I just need to be selective when I race and temper my competitive spirit.”
A solid block of training followed the TCC, and Transgrancanaria was the next objective. Part of the UTWT (Ultra Trail World Tour), the race has become one of the early season ultra highlights, that provides lovers of the sport with an early glimpse of who is in form.
Kimball knew the course would suit her. It’s a tough one with some relentless climbing, technical trails, and it is over the important 100km distance. Kimball has never excelled over shorter distances; give her tough, long and gnarly any day of the week and she is happy.
A hot favourite, Kimball’s presence on the island of Gran Canaria was eagerly awaited. However, flight delay after flight delay saw the lady from Montana arrive just the night before the race looking tired, fatigued, exhausted and jet-lagged.
Starting the race at midnight the writing was soon on the wall when over the first 30km Kimball battled with fatigue and sickness which ultimately saw her withdraw.
“I would say I am no quitter and I no longer judge people, including myself for dropping. I think many of the decisions I made in the first 10 years of my ultra career I now see weren’t justified. Sometimes you just have to make a sensible call. I was going nowhere fast in this race and it was just too long to battle through.
“It would have taken me to a low point physically and mentally and would almost certainly have impacted on later objectives.”
It was the correct decision. Kimball explained: “My schedule is crazy at the moment as I am also promoting my new film, Finding Traction. I have recently been in Madrid and Tunisia to show the film and Chili at Trails in Motion and I now follow on from Gran Canaria with a trip to the UK to show the film at SHAFF, Sheffield Adventure Film Festival.”
It’s great to have Kimball on UK soil and I met up with her in Sheffield. Speaking at one of the many talks, Kimball explains how life in ultra running has been a tough one for a woman.
“I would see men get more prize money, more press, more public relations and I would be sidelined with maybe a line or a small photo while journalists would write about the main story; the men!
“It was as though we (ladies) or I didn’t exist. The sport of ultra running has certainly progressed and I am active in providing women in sport a voice. It’s important!”
Never a person to shy away from a viewpoint, Kimball backs her words with the first showing on UK soil of Finding Traction. It’s a movie that documents Kimball’s attempt at a FKT (Fastest Known Time) on the Long Trail in Vermont.
A 273-mile journey in Vermont’s beautiful but brutal Green Mountains. What evolved from the experience is so much more than running.
In the movie we get an insight into Kimball’s fragile nature and the battles she has with depression. But all along there is a driving force; an obsession to succeed and boy-oh-boy can this lady take pain!
“I went to some dark places in the process of the movie and I allowed the director complete autonomy to edit it in a way that she felt appropriate. It would have been wrong to interfere. At times I don’t like the person that I see on the screen. Nobody is perfect but the movie has allowed me to look at myself from the outside looking in and I hope I can learn from that.”
Fell racing in the UK has a long tradition and Kimball has read about and heard stories of fell legends such as Billy Bland and Joss Naylor.
“I’ve always wanted to do a fell race and when the opportunity arose to combine a short race with my trip to the UK, I jumped at it,” said Kimball while taking a well-earned break in Sheffield.
“I fully realised that the race would be way too short and fast for me but what a blast! I just love the concept. Turn up in a field, pay £5, run up a hill in the most direct way, run along the ridges and then come back down the most direct way and all the while trying to go as fast as you can.
“It’s a pure and simple sport and I absolutely loved the experience. I only wish they were 100 miles long.”
Months passed, Spring arrived in the UK, and with it Kimball’s thoughts turn to Western States.
“It’s my tenth time at the race and it will be a special one. It’s my main focus of the year and I am so looking forward to it. Samantha Gash (Australian based runner who Kimball raced against at TCC) will pace me. But I have two races ahead of me, the Ultra Fjord in Patagonia and then the Richtersveld Wildrun in South Africa.”
Ultra Fjord turned out to be an undertaking too far. Kimball had a frightening experience at the race and was very vocal about some of the issues that faced the runners.
“It was just dangerous. Don’t get me wrong, I love a challenge and I love to be tested but I don’t like to risk my life and be placed in a situation where those around me are at risk too. Let’s just say lessons need to be learnt at Ultra Fjord. I made the decision to withdraw from the race after finding a runner on the course that needed help.
I did the only appropriate thing I could and helped him.”
A physio by trade, Kimball is very aware of the physical demands that running places on a human and she takes great pleasure from helping those around her. She keeps clients injury free over long running lives.
“It’s important to help others. That is why I love my job. It’s connected directly to my passions in life and it’s just so incredible and inspiring to see my clients both on the physio table and from a coaching perspective excel.”
South Africa and the Richtersveld Wildrun afford Kimball with a final jigsaw piece before Western States. A 4-day race in the Ais Richtersveld National Park situated on the Orange River and just across the border of Namibia; the race provided Kimball with a final outing to test her legs, heart and lungs before her final prep phase to the big WSER.
A navigation race (via GPS) the Richtersveld Wildrun is a hidden gem. The Ai/AIS/ Richtersveld National Park is an area of outstanding beauty that is seldom seen or explored. To race in this place is like running through time.
“It’s been an incredible journey, the terrain, the scenery and the weather have been challenging and inspiring,” said Kimball post race.
Unfortunately a navigational error on day 1 whilst in the lead cost Kimball the race, she finally finished the day in fourth having given away a huge chunk of time to eventual winner, Katya Soggot.
“These things happen. I have no one to blame but myself. I had a lapse of concentration and paid the price. However, I put my head down and clawed my way back to second overall in the following days. I’m happy with that!
“I am leaving South Africa with an incredible experience, four brilliant days racing and 150km in my legs. Roll on Western States!”
Roll on Western States indeed. It’s a privilege to spend time with a legend of the sport of ultra running. “Legend”; it’s an over used word, and one that can cause confusion. In Kimball’s case I use the word in its purest form, as someone to look up to and aspire to.
Talent is God given but you still need to work at it and sacrifice and persevere to make the most of it. Kimball has used that gift, embraced it and in doing so has left a legacy and continues to add to that legacy with each relentless forward motion.
“I want to continue running and that doesn’t have to be racing. The simple act of placing one foot in front of the other is so beautiful and magical that I never want to be without out it. The world is a wonderful place and running has provided me with a doorway upon it. Long may it continue!”
As indicated Kimball came a very creditable tenth at last year’s Western States.