Aging

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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.

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59 Comments

  1. Dave Dehart on

    You nailed that. I always admired you for being so good at many things. Writing among them. Hope you are well.

    • Nikki Kimball on

      Thank you, Dave! I am getting more well each month: even running up to 7 miles at a time, which is huge for me right now. It’s been a while, and I hope you are well and having a great time running.

      • Steve Pero on

        Nice open feeling writeup, Nikki…I totally agree with your sentiments as now at age 67 and still trying to stay in the sport. I am falling of the back and when I do will have no regrets.

  2. Your story touched me deeply! Especially the enlightment part on the patch of the earth ! Great job Nikki

  3. As a 62 year old just coming to ultra running your insight is valuable for me not to be down on myself when anticipation out strip performance. Great piece!

    • Eric Kajiwara on

      Nikki at 72 I am in back side of my Ultra running days. I came to that realization at Cloudburst AS in 2005 (I think) running my 10th AC100 when my wife/crew informed my that I was 30 minutes ahead of the cutoff. Now we are mentors to the younger runners getting into the sport. It seems like all our discussions about ultras begin with “back in the day ……”.

  4. Nikki, Thank you for a very heartfelt and articulate expression of how so many of us “veterans” of ultra running feel. Reaching my 30th year in the sport, and determined to keep running until the life clock runs out, I’ve come to realize that the hardest part isn’t the slowing, propensity to injury or chronic pains. It’s the ability to come to peace between one’s 20-something racing brain and one’s 60-something body. Once achieved, the joy and flow that comes from the running far exceeds anything I ever experienced in my more limber and speedy day.

    • Nikki Kimball on

      Well said, Bob! Interestingly it was a massive, potentially running-ending injury last September that has further solidified the peace between my younger competitive race brain and my 5-decades-of-endurance-racing body. Facing the possibility of not running, and opting for experimental surgery and long rehab forces me to appreciate every step I run, regardless of speed. I’ve yet to reach the point at which, “joy and flow that comes from the running far exceeds anything I ever experienced in my more limber and speedy day.” But I will endeavor to find that over the coming decades. Thank you for sharing a wonderful bit of your evolution as a runner. Your wisdom increases my hope to love running forever!

  5. Jason Halladay on

    I’ve often joked that I’m glad I was never fast in my early ultrarunning career because it makes it easy to still be slow–I don’t get bothered by it. Like you, I’d lost some respect for those that stopped running ultras because they were no longer winning but reading your heartfelt essay here, it’s clear I’m being too hard on them. I simply didn’t fully understand what it feels like. I can respect feeling and that decision more now. Thank you for the enlightenment.

    • Nikki Kimball on

      Jason, thank you. Had I not been through a ten-year slow-down, I would never have believed how difficult it was. Most of that difficulty, of course, was secondary to my ego: an ego that facilitated dedicated, hard training; an ego likely required to win repeatedly. I did not always love the person I was becoming over the past decade, but I appreciate that struggle now. This sport will never stop teaching its athletes, even if some of its lessons take years to understand.

  6. Monica Ochs on

    This is a wonderful article, Nikki! Honest, sincere, heartfelt. You continue to be a role model for so many! Love you Girl!!

  7. Nikki, thank you for writing this and sharing your perspective. I’ll never know what it’s like to perform at your elite level but mad respect that you keep running for love rather than the trophy. Love you and all that you stand for.

  8. Marshall Brown on

    Wow Nikki that’s not slowing. Slowing is age mid-60s when your leg gets damaged from a herniated disk and cartilage loss and will never be the same. It causes a three to five minute per minute decrease in pace due to an impeded running stride. It results in no longer making cutoffs and changing which races are reasonable to enter. Oh, forgot to mention the permanent osteoarthritis. Please spare us your sorrow of still being an elite runner with exceptional results. Slowing due to injury and age? You have no clue and hopefully you won’t have to experience it. Much respect, just a very different perspective.

    • Nikki Kimball on

      Marshall, to say that an author has “no clue,” is unfair when written in response to a piece about one’s feelings. If ultrarunning has taught me anything, it is that I cannot possibly know what another person feels. Each runner has challenges unique to them. I expressed some of mine. I am sorry that you are so hurt orthopedically. But please do not assume that your condition trumps the experience of others. Also, you may wish to check your facts: I am not an elite runner. I cannot run a single mile within 4 minutes of my best mile time. That said, I am exceedingly grateful I can run a mile. May each of us run well into our 80’s, be it 10 feet or 50 miles. May may we each learn to respect the experiences of others: a lesson I, like you, have yet to master.

      • Marshall Brown on

        If you are not an elite ultrarunner then how do you explain your lengthy championship resume? Nikki, you are phenomenal and inspirational in our chosen sport. We just seem to disagree on some points. Because of experience and empathy we do understand the feelings of others both during races and due to injury and aging. My point is that we see it from a different perspective and place. Good luck in your rehab and return to strong running. Our sport is better with you on the trails.

        • Nikki Kimball on

          And our sport is better because of the great respect its practitioners show for one another. And even better because of the communication that respect facilitates. If I recover enough to run another ultra, which I’m doing all I can to do, I hope to share the trail with you. If not, I darn well better be cheering you from the sidelines or an aid station I’m working! Running, any distance, any speed, makes humans better (of course I might be biased here).

  9. Joe Loschiavo on

    True I think in every sport, as the journey of time continues we celebrate and appreciate the sport more than just our own personal accomplishments…

  10. Gil Jordan on

    You go girl! Well said. As a fellow-Montanan, I’ve checked in and out on your amazing career for decades and felt a sense of pride when you so-often did well. Really good point, “May we each learn to respect the experiences of others”. I’m 73, didn’t start running until age 39, have only done one 50K and one 50 miler, but have now covered some 34,000 miles training and racing in 34 years, and October 27 will complete my 38th 26.2 miler at the Marine Corps Marathon in DC, nine days before my 74th birthday. I’m healthy and plan to keep running into my 90s, marathons if possible, because running consistently and being in marathon shape makes me feel good, and as you say, teaches me so much about what’s important in life. Thanks so much for your words, wisdom, and example. Run on.

    • Nikki Kimball on

      Gil! What is it with Montanan’s crushing it into the 8th and 9th decades of life? I am so stoked for you! Best of luck at the Marine Corps Marathon. That race is special to me, despite never having run it. A physical therapy patient of mine trained for it just after receiving a cancer diagnosis directly related to his service as a Marine in Vietnam. He taught me much more than I ever did him. Go out there and give yourself one heck of a 74th birthday present!

      • Gil Jordan on

        Thanks Nikki, it’s an honor to have your encouragement. And it is very nice to see such luminaries as Rachel, Shari, and Roy checking in to express their appreciation and respect for you as a runner and a person. I’ll use your words to give a little extra for training and racing at the Marine Corps Marathon. You’re the best.

  11. Jackie Art on

    Nikki, thank you for sharing your journey and opening a meaningful dialogue on the rarely-addressed topic of athletes and aging. Your essay, like you, is inspiring, insightful, and encouraging. Everyone needs to hear your compassionate message — that we can never truly know what someone else feels, and that one person’s pain or injury can’t be measured against the next person’s. You shed light on so many aspects of running and aging — and not just the physical challenges, but also our own mind games with which we must contend. You show us the importance of pushing ourselves to be our best, but also knowing when to ease up (mentally and physically), when to stop agonizing about paces we can no longer maintain and just re-learn to embrace the pure joy of movement at any speed. Thank you for continuing to lead the way!

  12. Jennifer O’Connor on

    Just wanted to let you know I was touched by this deeply honest essay. I was never elite, but am struggling in a similar way with the effects of aging: injuries and slowing down. Never had to worry about cutoffs before, but I’ll have them written on my hand when I line up to start Western States tomorrow morning. Thank you for sharing your insights and reminding me to relish every run I am still able to do.

    • Nikki Kimball on

      Jennifer!! I will be cheering you on from Montana!!!! The only thing I love about aging (and I don’t think I’m old, but I don’t know what else to call it) is the perspective I’ve gained through 5 decades of life, competition and experience. At my best, I had no idea that what slowing down would feel like. Embarrassingly, I didn’t even consider racing cut-offs. I was not intending to be insensitive in those thoughts; I was simply ignorant of how bodies and minds change through time. I am working now to regain the ability to beat cut-offs. My leg may or may not allow ultra distance running again. Either way, I’m happier now, working toward the goal of running 10 miles at 12-15 minute pace, than I was through much of my race career.

      Running 100 miles is an admirable accomplishment for all who do it. Knowing you might miss cut-offs, and starting anyway, is even more admirable. For some people, especially those suffering mobility challenges, mental illness, cancer, or other difficult circumstance, walking to the mailbox is as admirable as running 100 miles. Whatever happens tomorrow, you are amazing for your courage to start. And I have no doubt that you will use the wisdom you’ve gained experiencing your body “maturing” to help another runner get through a low spot over the weekend. After all, I can see no better point to racing 100 miles than the exchange of wisdom that occurs on the trail.

  13. maryalice ginley on

    Such a great piece, so thankful for Nikki in being so open and sharing her feelings/thoughts. I wish her a full recovery and many more miles. i avoided entering races for years because of injuries and the inevitable embarrassing questions from “friends”. (didn’t you used to be fast?, what happened to you? gained some weight, huh?, etc.). Now at age 56, full time job and family obligations, Zero F’s given. I love to run, fast/slow, it’s all relative. Although, I’d love to get rid of this stupid chronic posterior knee pain!

    • Nikki Kimball on

      I wish I could heal that stupid posterior knee pain for you!!! That’s always a tough one, even for us physical therapists when we try to help! That said, if you come to Bozeman, I would love to be your physical therapist.

      I think most competitive people suffer the frustration of entering races when we are, for whatever reason, not at our best. I am absolutely a victim of this. I know intellectual that my results matter to no one but myself. Yet, I still have trouble getting over myself enough to give Zeros F’s! I shared this piece, 10 months after writing it, because I figure if I struggle with this, others do too. I have been trying to be the person who does not care about my results for the past decade. Last year at Hardrock, I came a little closer to that goal.

      Read Bob’s response above. He nailed it! Having been in the sport longer than I have, he seems to have realized that goal of finding peace between ego and body. I do not know who “Bob” is, but I’d love to meet him. His wisdom on this subject goes well beyond mine.

  14. Sabrina Stanley on

    I can’t help but feel your list of excuses for your Hardrock finish time is a slight jab at my finish. Maybe showing up to the Google Maps course walk through that Hardrock held two nights before race start, would have prevented you from getting lost? I didn’t have sponsors footing the bill for me to train at altitude. I was more broke than I have ever been in my entire life. It wasn’t a question of funds, but dedication. I sold everything and lived in a borrowed camper with no running water, or electricity. Showering every two-weeks, if I was lucky. Money is not why I was able to acclimatize to the altitude, it was desire. I am not disputing the fact that you are not in your prime, I am disputing the fact that others had things handed to them that you did not or that you put in the same amount of work/sacrifice for this particular race as they did. I was not born with the body of a gifted runner, but I was born with the mind of one. To be blunt I think you need to stop having a pity party and look yourself in the mirror and ask if you did everything in you power to have the finish you dreamed of at Hardrock. Did you watch every video ever produced on Hardrock, listen to every podcast, read every race report? Study the pit falls and successes of others? Did you read every last word of the course description on repeat for months on end, so that you knew every “big stump” or “fallen tree” to turn at? Did you know your pace splits between aids? Did you study you competitors and see that they were skiing when they should have been running? Did you feel that when you stepped to the start line that you would rather die than finish in any other place than first? Did you work for it, or just want it? You know the answer in your heart more than me. Come back and do it right, if you are upset at the outcome last year, but don’t use others perceived advantages as the reason you broke your own heart at Hardrock.

    • Nikki Kimball on

      To be honest, thoughts of you did not even enter my mind when I wrote that piece. The piece is about finding peace over 19 years of ultrarunning. I’m very happy with the way I ran and experienced Hard Rock. I had a good race, and even better learning experience which went way beyond racing. You said in a Hard Rock interview that you weren’t there to make friends. I run because I love to run, and because I want to share a sport that has given me a means of thriving through hard times with other people. Even in my truly competitive days, I valued the culture and people of the sport above winning. Congratulations on your win. And more importantly, I hope you learn to find the peace in your life that follows actively supporting other humans. Please trust that it is possible to win AND make friends. Ultrarunners have been doing so for decades.

      • Andy Meisler on

        ‘Amen’ on an extremely thoughtful response that conveys both wisdom and peace derived from much self-reflection and, yes, many years and many miles! Your work is a beautifully-written piece about acceptance and meaning. Thanks Nikki.

    • Jackie Art on

      Sabrina, I don’t know you – but I’ve had the great fortune of knowing Nikki for a couple of years and I can tell you that you’ve missed or misinterpreted just about every point Nikki made in her essay. If you feel that she took a jab at you, take a look in the mirror, dear; it’s more a reflection of you and whatever insecurities you may harbor than any intent on Nikki’s part. That you question Nikki’s race preparation would be funny if it weren’t so outright insulting. You apparently have no idea how much heart and soul Nikki pours into running – and into living in a compassionate, considerate manner. Far from a ‘pity party,’ she shares her challenging, yet rewarding, experiences as a successful, aging athlete who has recently had some severe injuries so that others may learn and prosper. For those of us dealing with the realities of being older runners, Nikki’s insights are invaluable. Remember, too, that she has fought long and hard for women to be able to run the same races as men, to have access to the same type of sponsorships, and to have the same chances to be equally rewarded on the podium – all of which you, as a young runner, stand to benefit from. With respect, when you are nearing 50 years old and you’ve endured the same physical and mental struggles that Nikki has, I hope your perspective will be a bit more empathetic.

    • Rachel Toor on

      Nikki, as I’ve said many times before (including in print when I profiled you for the cover of Running Times), more important than your dedication and talent as a runner is your generosity and kindness toward everyone. Your ability to speak and write honestly about your struggles has been as much a hallmark of your incredible career as your many racing victories. Reading some of these responses shocks me–how far our sport has come from the welcoming niche community we used to be.

      People like Sabrina Stanley will find out the hard way that making friends is the only thing that counts. Good luck to her finding a sponsor. If I were the kind of writer who wanted to do a withering take-down piece, I could have a field day with this post. And oh, could I make it funny. She’s provided great material here: unintentionally hilarious and blithely naive.

      Keep inspiring us, Nikki, as you’ve done for so many years and will, I know, continue to do.

  15. Kristina Trygstad-Saari on

    Nikki’s essay is a testament to her love for the sport and years of dedication to ultra running and the ultra running community. She has significantly helped pave the way for women ultra runners. I appreciate her honestly in sharing the intricacies of her ever-shifting relationship to the sport that has defined her for over two decades. I’ve seen her struggle while simultaneous supporting those around her. I am appalled by Sabrina Stanley’s response and do not respect competition fueled by such negativity. It is toxic. This is larger than two runners competing in a race. This is about compassion and being better people.

  16. Thank you Nikki for sharing. I too have been feeling the frustrations of slowing down and not able to beat my previous times. Hearing that a respected athlete, with your talent, experiences the same frustrations is disheartening; however, the article helps me to feel a camaraderie with you as a fellow runner. It has been frustrating to see it slip away but running does not define me, I am still the same great person even if I am getting slower. I will keep getting to that start line; As you said in the article, “seeing places that many people never get to see” is a privilege I’m going to continue taking advantage of, as long as my body will let me.

  17. Coming off an Achilles rupture 11 months ago, and starting to run against 47, your words are are just what I needed to read. Thank you.

  18. David M Simpson on

    Your writing is as inspiring as your running! You are one of the greatest athletes to ever lace up a pair of trail shoes. Thanks for everything you’ve done – and continue to do, for the sport of Ultrarunning.

  19. Shari Bashaw on

    Nice article Nikki! I ran along side if you at the Vt City marathon several times and you went bombing by me at the Vt 50 miler years ago to go on and break my record on that course. I finished 2nd to Ann Trason in Vt 100 (1998) and finished 2nd in Western States (1999) the next year. That’s the extent of a successful ultrarunning career as I lost my husband to brain cancer in August 2000. Getting through the grief relating to his loss was the biggest ultra I have ever faced! I was 38 at the time of his death and my 2 sons were 5 and 8. However 7 years later I returned to ultra running and was elated to be back out in my element once again ! It was a part of my “old life” I so missed.
    I never returned to my Competitive level I once was and try to tackle each race I do with a have fun attitude no matter what . I have done 3 Ironmans which probably would not have ever happened in my old life !
    Given all this as I age and relate so much to your body and changes I can so relate to your heartfelt article !!!
    I have given up thinking something is wrong with me but embracing that age plays a big part in our performance ! I continue to challenge myself despite where I am in the pack . But this had to be realized before I could embrace this . I don’t ever want to give up because I cannot perform like I used to but to be happy with goals and completing them !
    Great article and good luck with getting back out there soon !

    • Nikki Kimball on

      Shari! Thank you so much for sharing! I did not know about your husband, and your sharing of it illustrates something that is becoming increasingly dear to me: true empathy. The hardest ultras of my life, like yours, are those that cause psychic, not physical pain. I’ve always looked on you with respect, though I sadly don’t know you well. At some point in life, most people have to silently endure an ultra challenge that is not of their making or desire. The existence of these challenges makes my feelings about placing in races seem so juvenile, which they are. But I am heartened by so many people I respect sharing their own versions of that challenge with me. The pain I felt in the past decade of slowing was real, even if it was also juvenile. In fact, knowing that, and judging my feelings as trite made the whole process infinitely more painful.

      Your statement: “I have given up thinking something is wrong with me but embracing that age plays a big part in our performance…But this had to be realized before I could embrace this,” resonates with me, and I would guess, with all who go through similar struggles; all who continue to compete in the face of slowing due to age, miles, life stressors, systemic illness, etc.

      I’m not sure I am communicating this as well as I would like to. I guess the point is that we all struggle, and being kind to ourselves is critical to weathering our struggles well. Maybe when we stop beating ourselves up and start sharing constructively, we can take just a little more pain away from one another.

  20. David Sisk on

    I had the pleasure of meeting and running the North Face-Atlanta race with Nikki Kimball back in 2012. She is by far one of the nicest people I have ever known. A couple months ago, I asked her to coach me to run a 100 miler and she agreed. Since then, it has truly been an awesome experience having her expertise going into my training plan. Thank you Nikki for helping me to achieve my goal.

  21. Beautiful words from a beautiful person. You’ve heard before, now live it–“Getting old ain’t for sissies”–and I certainly know you are not the latter. Wisdom comes with those miles, but it takes many more miles to recognize them. Glad you were shown a glimpse of what your future can be. Keep doing the simple act you started doing, one foot in front of the other, pick ‘me up, put ‘me down, and the rest will take care itself. Thanks for sharing and I hope to see you in a few miles…roy

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  23. Alicja Grace on

    Thank you for sharing your journey. You’re such an incredible athlete. I remember your HURT finish, still podium, even though you were injured. You’re inspiring! Take care and I hope you have a lot more great experiences!

  24. Jacqueline Wolfson on

    Nikki, you are my inspiration. you dare to be honest and vulnerable about your experiences as a pro ultra marathoner through years of hard miles, podiums and injury. you demonstrate bravery that comes with facing the need to dovetail an aging body and a grateful heart. You keep going, you are no victim.
    Those of us who are older (57) need women like you. We need hero’s that can show us that we can still keep showing up no matter what. That there are rich experiences to have not just in the running, but also in the healing and recovery. I’m so excited to know you. You’re a beacon of light and positivity to this old girl. My friends here on the east coast can’t wait to meet you.
    Now, to the mean girl Sabrina! Shame on you. You’re the reason that women stop. Nikki is the reason women never give up.

  25. Nickademus on

    Hey Nicki,
    I had the pleasure of getting dusted by you back the Zane Gray 50 in what must have been ~2010? All I recall was you passing me and literally dancing over the top of the rocks/ boulders as they rolled down the hill with you…I was in awe and wanted to know how the heck you did that…

    Years later, I’ve dabbled around in the sport etc..and after going through heart surgery in 2018, at age 29, I might not be “aging out” but due to athlete’s heart and a lower oxygen saturation than I had pre-surgery my competitive days seem to be dwindling. I found it really comforting to read your engaging story. Thank you for being so vulnerable.

    Best,
    Nickademus

    • Nikki Kimball on

      Thank you Nickademus! I love Zane Grey! And ouch! Heart surgery so young? I am hoping you find even greater joy in your outdoor activity now than you did before. I know it’s not great for your competitive performance, but I am certain that you know, in such deeper terms than possible pre-surgery, the value of the non-competitive aspects of our sport. You will be the one easing your age-group peers through changes in their bodies. And really, I cannot think of any human act more important easing another’s pain.

      And also, assuming your medical team clears you for it, contact me if you happen to be in Bozeman. I’d be happy to take you out for some downhill training. You really can learn to fly downhill. It mostly requires a mental shift from runner mode to skier/biker/adrenaline-junkie mode. Once you get a few fast downhills in you, you own that technique!

  26. Kelly Ridgway on

    Thank you for the inspiration Nikki. As a 61 year old runner that had a debilitating injury four years ago, I can totally relate. It’s hard to get out there and know that my pace is so far off from what it was. I’m trying to keep positive and starting to line up at races despite the struggle of getting older and slower.
    Thanks, Kelly

  27. John Vonhof on

    Wow. What an emotional piece of raw, honest truth. Thank you. I am older too and after cancer and hip issues, don’t run anymore. But I treasure the memories. Do I wish I could run and be strong again? Sure. But at 72, my body has told me what it can and can’t do. Dream on and live life to the fullest as you are able. We respect you. Thanks for your honesty and openness.

  28. Wow. Such a timely piece for me to hear. While I have not suffered a bad injury and my slowing up is just a part of aging. But, like you, (and having run a lot of miles with you in the day!) I find it very frustrating. I try to do everything better than when I was younger. Smarter training, better eating, more recovery. But, Father Time is a worthy adversary and I struggle on how I want to proceed. Keep racing, keep watching my times get a little slower each year? Run more for adventure? Try a different sport? Its a humbling lesson and I try to be grateful for the speed (not that it was anything crazy) that I once had and embrace doing well in my age group. But, its hard. Anyway, it was so great to read this today and just what I needed. I always enjoyed my time on the trails with you. You are the definition of toughness, grit, and competition. I hope we cross trails again soon. Best, Rod Bien

    • Nikki Kimball on

      Rod, I really do hope we get to share many more miles together! Please know, in case it is of comfort, that losing speed to age was infinitely more difficult than losing speed to a massive injury. Chronologically, we are not as old as many runners. I recognize that in changing the title of this piece from “Hardrock Epiphany” to “Aging” the tone changed. In reading an early comment above I wondered if I was too young to have an opinion on aging. I am now certain that I do. We all do. Decreasing performance with age can happen at any age. Gymnasts understand aging by 25. Sprinters, football and basketball players tend to feel this before ultrarunners do. That said there are ultrarunners who came to the sport very young, had a lot of pressure placed on them and felt the sting of slower times quickly after starting the sport.

      Regardless of the form it takes, slowing hurts. I finally understand and respect that I cannot know another athlete’s pain in this. I hope open dialog about aging, slowing and changing can help ease this pain in others. I hesitated to allow that piece to be published as I feared backlash from those who think that people they perceive as fast do not have the right to express, or even feel, the pain of slowing. And, a couple of people did feel this way. But most responses show that I have a lot of company here. Previously I felt isolated. Clearly, I was wrong to think myself unique. I learn something new from our community every time I engage with it.

      Of course, I am biased. But I think that ultrarunners tend to think deeply. We exchange ideas on the race course when physical pain and fatigue have eroded our protective walls. Perhaps this facilitates the telling of painful truths off the trail/road as well. My feelings surrounding aging have grown tremendously in light of the comments of my fellow runners. I am grateful to those who shared their wisdom in the comments above. Our community continues to make me a better person. I want to explore this topic further.

      Our pain in this is real and it is justified. I hope we slowing runners support one another through these changes. I hope I never again judge the pain expressed by another. Fifteen years ago we made each other faster. Let’s now make each other better. Let’s now make each other happier.

  29. A role model indeed you are Nikki !!! I’m not much of a runner but more of a 74 yr old gym rat !!!! 35 year LEO and almost 20 yrs into retirement. Had maintained physical fitness training routine 4 – 5 gym workout session / week and teach 3 LEO fitness courses as part of Criminology program at local University. Your commitment, experience(s), knowledge, skills and abilities truly impressive and an inspiration !!!

    • Nikki Kimball on

      Al, thank you for sharing your wisdom. There will likely come a time when I cannot run. I look to those who got there before me for hope, guidance, and ideas on thriving physically and mentally in the absence of running. Your students are lucky to have you. And so is our community.

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