Editor’s note: In August, in the wake of her second-place finish at the Hardrock 100 in Silverton, Colorado, Nikki Kimball sat down and penned the following essay. Her second-place finish culminated a years-long effort to actually run Hardrock, following 19 years of being one of the top runners in the sport of ultramarathoning. Her Hardrock run, followed by an attempt at Run Rabbit Run a month after she wrote the following essay, left Kimball injured and her running career in jeopardy. She has since had surgery to repair a torn foot tendon. She is hopeful and determinedly making every effort to ensure that her days as a runner are not over. Aging speaks to the push-pull of feelings Kimball has experienced over the past decade in terms of her performance – what it has meant to slow down, and whether is it possible to come to grips with and even find redemption in this fact.
by Nikki Kimball
I’ve dreamed of completing Hardrock since I started running ultras in the 90s. Reigning in a desire to run truly long until I had several years of racing 100k and shorter distances behind me, I waited until the mid-2010s to apply for entry. During these years, I frequently skipped the Hardrock lottery in favor of chasing my goal of becoming the only person to place in the top 10 at Western States 100 (WS) in his/her first 10 starts. I gave the fastest years of my life to racing WS and shorter, highly competitive events in the early and mid-2000s. Throughout my career though, Hardrock never left the forefront of my mind. Last December, going into my 19th year in ultras and my 44th in competitive endurance racing, the Hardrock lottery spirits chose my name. Quickly following the elation of the draw, however, came painful thoughts of wishing I could run that with my ’06 or ’07 body.
In 2007, during an ordinary run about two weeks after my final win in a summer streak of Western States 100, US 50 Mile Championships and UTMB, a rock rolled off a sidehill, collided with my right leg and caused the first serious running injury of my life. Overnight, I lost a minute per mile on track workouts. Deliberate, structured rehabilitation helped, but some of the damage was permanent. Later that fall, I ran the Mountain Masochist 50 Miler, 44 minutes slower than I had run just one year before. I remember reading something written about MM50 in which the author wondered if my win at UTMB had been a Pyrrhic victory. That possibility has since been a certainty in the back of my brain.
Early in my career, I promised myself that I would not be a runner who stopped racing when I was no longer winning. I’d seen countless athletes do that, and I lost a bit of respect for each of them. I’ve had some decent results since the rock incident, but I never regained my former speed. Within a couple years of that injury, I discovered that racing while growing slower was eminently more frustrating and painful than I had imagined. In fact, at times of insecurity, the reality of finishing minutes to hours slower than previous performances left me bitter, angry and at war with my own body. I had to wonder if my former heroes who left the sport shortly after reaching the apex of their abilities chose a better path.
Despite slowing, I’ve continued to run and to race to podium spots at the national level, as well as at world events each year. However, after tearing my hamstring and badly damaging my left lower leg in two more recent accidents, I was unable to secure paid sponsorship for 2018. So I entered the year, loving that I had an entry into Hardrock 100, and a bit sad that I could not afford to stay in Silverton to acclimatize to the altitude and train on the course as many top runners do. I would start Hardrock with a body 12 years past its peak, and far from acclimatized to the 11,000-foot average elevation. Intellectually, I knew I would run considerably slower. Emotionally, however, I never accepted this.
The initial miles of Hardrock illustrated what ultramarathon means to me: a community of complexly intelligent adventurers who, though competitive, place respect above ranking and use irreverent humor to overcome physical challenges. I ran with my good friend and former student, Jeff Rome, and Darla Askew, a runner I’ve admired from afar for years. Jeff and I challenged one another to a game to see which one of us could tell the most bad jokes, and Darla was gracious enough to laugh and encourage our antics. We ran easily in a line of six or seven, Hardrock veterans comparing current conditions to those of years past, while newbies alternately expressed awe and trepidation.
At some point after Chapman, I saw Bryon Powell and Mike Wardian pushed to catch them for more bad jokes and old teammate reunions. Ten years earlier, that pace would not have been close to “pushing it,” but catching these younger friends of mine put me in some trouble with the altitude this time around. About two miles before Telluride, I suddenly felt fatigued, took a stupid wrong turn. Even more stupidly, I tried to make up the small loss of time too quickly. I entered the Telluride aid station tired, dizzy and somewhat emotionally broken. “This course was made for my strengths,” I thought, knowing that 12 years earlier I would have been competing with the men for the overall win. I refueled and stumbled into town before our next climb. I walked, weaving and sick, up streets filled with cheering spectators. Once off the streets, runners hiked past me, looking great. I wanted to crawl in a hole and cry for the speed and power I have lost. Several minutes into the climb around mile 29, Bryon caught me, smiling and looking strong. I cheered him on and, in response to his kind questioning, told him I was in bad shape and needed a nap. He gave me a hug and said, “Get to Ouray and take a nap there. It’s the lowest place on the course and therefore the most effective place to regroup.” His advice was spot on, had the problem simply been lack of altitude acclimatization. However, on some level, I knew that the problem was more attitude than altitude.
As soon as Bryon was out of sight, I walked off the trail into a spot of sunny grass hidden in a grove of quaking aspen trees. I set my pack down as a pillow and rested supine on the forest floor. I closed my eyes and let my thoughts wander as they would. I heard a few male runners pass, then Darla, then a few more men. I felt the sun on my skin, the grass against my back and bugs crawling on my legs and arms. I pictured myself melting into my little patch of earth. I found myself outside of time, outside of Hardrock and outside of my past.
Something changed on that patch of earth. As I lay there, my mind and body had an honest chat that was more than a decade overdue. I thought of the nearly 90,000 running miles on my body. I remembered crashes in skiing, snowshoeing and motor biking, and felt the additive cost of broken bones and torn tissue. I began to give my body permission to express the effects of work done and wounds incurred. I saw that my emotional self had not respected my physical self in over a decade.
I have consistently loved the trails, the physical effort, and the company of my fellow competitors in ultramarathons. But, in the past decade, I have consistently failed to love and respect my own body. Before my knee-rock incident, I came to every race with a dependably strong body. I glided off the start line with the top men, never thinking life could be different. Of late, the vast majority of my races and expeditions have been run with a brain which lamented the loss of its ridiculously strong body, rather than a brain which celebrated a body full of experience — a body slower, but infinitely enduring. A body which has given me more than anyone has the right to expect. My brain-body disconnect made racing to the best potential of my body, as it is on each start line, impossible.
After a time (5 minutes? 10 minutes? A half hour?), I stood, then walked to the spot on the trail where I had left the course feeling broken, sad and frustrated. I re-entered the race exhausted, but hopeful, and absent of the cold war brewing within me for so many years. I hiked, leap-frogging with a few guys, and enjoyed my body’s ability to take me to scenic beauty so few others see. By Camp Bird Road, where I would have miles of gentle downhill into Ouray, I saw a runner ahead of me. I caught up to him and we spoke of physical and emotional challenges. I found warmth, strength and understanding in his every word. Anthony Culpepper and I spent the next hour moving easily as we shared a common gratitude for the simple act of running.
My newfound wholeness of body, brain and self, remained throughout the race. I petted every dog I saw on course, smiled and joked with my crew, weathered mishaps, and even sang “The Gambler” in its entirety with my pacer, Gibb, well above 13,000 feet (feeling smug that we might be the only people to sing the song while at an altitude higher than Kenny Rogers). In the week since the race, I’ve struggled to maintain the connection that I felt so strongly in the final 70 miles of Hardrock. I still deeply crave the feeling of dancing nimbly over wet, lichen-covered rocks, racing 50 miles without real fatigue or pain, and pulling away from competitors with little effort or thought. I dislike the fact that I continue to care about beating other people to the finish line. I dislike that I miss going into the most competitive trail races in the world as the favorite to win. But, ages ago I chose to keep racing when I slowed. It remains the hardest thing I’ve ever done. At Hardrock, I came one step closer to coming through my long ultrarunning career whole and at peace. That spot in the forest gave me a glimpse of the compassion for my body I must cultivate and embrace in order to absolutely love the next 19 years of running long.