What is an ultramarathon, anyway? Any race longer than 26.2 miles, the length of a traditional marathon.
vomiting "Yes, that happens. Yes, it's hard. But, it's
extreme. I mean, that's the point."
in 2007 Western States Endurance Run (her third victory);
Tour de Mont Blanc 100-miler (set new women's course record); USATF
50-mile national championship.
Next on the
list 35th annual 100-mile Western States Endurance Run,
June 28-29. Kimball hopes to be the first woman to win the overall
Did not finish The Audacity of
Hope by Barack Obama. "It is very, very well written," she says.
"However, I got sick of being hopeful. Dammit, this isn't very good
for a depressive person to read!"
job Physical therapist
hometown Bozeman, Montana
For runner Nikki
Kimball, a 10-mile jaunt into Bozeman's Story Hills amounts to
little more than a leg stretch. Despite a recent sprained ankle and
a bout of pneumonia, her cadence and breathing flow naturally as
she pounds up the winding, muddy road through springtime sleet.
The bantam redhead has devoted her life to this: Dodging
between trees, navigating steep, rocky hillsides, and running long
into the night -- sometimes for more than 24 hours straight. Her
determination has paid off. Kimball has won the women's category of
every major ultra-long-distance race out there, in some cases
"My aim in the
gnarlier 100-mile races is to beat the men," she says casually,
explaining that she routinely places in the top 10 overall anyway.
Running has always served as a sort of mental sanctuary
for Kimball. The 36-year-old has suffered through years of severe
depression, and running gives her a safe space where dark thoughts
can't penetrate. "I mean, it just stops them, which is awesome,"
she says. She credits her emotional journey, which brought her to
the brink of suicide, with helping her find the strength to become
one of the finest long-distance runners in the world.
Kimball says her childhood in Vermont was fraught with sadness and
fierce self-criticism. Dyslexia put her behind her peers in
reading, and she had to work twice as hard to keep up. She
ruthlessly pushed herself to excel at running, cross-country skiing
and biathlon, but could never meet her own high expectations.
Throughout high school and college, she'd go off by herself and cry
for hours. But she didn't make a concrete plan to kill herself.
That came later.
By 1994, when she
was working as a cook in Ketchum, Idaho, her undiagnosed depression
had gotten so bad that she could no longer read a recipe and
remember what was in it. She cried all the time, slept all day,
lost weight continuously; eventually, she had to quit her job.
Finally, she made an appointment with a psychiatrist.
said, 'This is the last thing I'm gonna do. I'm going to go to this
psychiatrist, and I will follow his plan -- whatever he wants me to
do, I'll follow it for two months,' " she recalls. " 'This is the
end of July, and if I'm not better by October 1st, it's over. I've
got a gun.' ... It was that sort of matter-of-fact."
doctor wasn't shaken by Kimball's directness. "He's like, 'OK.
We've got two months. Let's get you on some meds.' "
credits him with saving her life. With medication, her condition
stabilized -- and she started winning races.
from as low as I think I can go without dying to really wanting to
live again, I realized that where your name is on a finish order
really doesn't mean very much," she says. "When you're staring down
the barrel of a gun, what does it matter if you finish first or
third in a race?"
In 2007 Kimball was named United States
Track and Field's Ultra Runner of the year -- the third time she
earned that distinction. The longer and more brutal the race,
Kimball says, the better. Case in point: The Western States
100-mile Endurance Run. Following the rugged peaks and canyons of
the Sierras from Squaw Valley to Auburn, Calif., this race might
more aptly be called a fast-forward death march. Competitors often
run in triple-digit heat, and sometimes vomit or collapse. The race
can take well over 18 hours to complete, and during that time the
runner's mind finds its own sublime summits and hellish depths. It
is within those depths that Kimball pulls ahead of the pack.
"When I'm having those emotional, horrid lows, I think
I'm at a huge advantage," she says, "because everybody else is
having those lows, and they aren't really comfortable with them.
Depression has taught me to not really fear my own mind. So during
the low parts of a race, I'm in physical and mental pain, but I
also know that I'm gonna come out of it, because I always, always
The author freelances from Moose,