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Know the West

Survival and the fittest

  What is an ultramarathon, anyway? Any race longer than 26.2 miles, the length of a traditional marathon.

On ultramarathon-induced vomiting "Yes, that happens. Yes, it's hard. But, it's extreme. I mean, that's the point."

Major wins 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 race.

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!"

Day job Physical therapist

Current 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 multiple times.

What's left?

"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.

"I 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."

The doctor wasn't shaken by Kimball's directness. "He's like, 'OK. We've got two months. Let's get you on some meds.' "

She credits him with saving her life. With medication, her condition stabilized -- and she started winning races.

"Having gone 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 have."

The author freelances from Moose, Wyoming.