Run for Your Life

With a competitive resume teeming with record-setting times, elite ultrarunner Nikki Kimball has used her sport to overcome depression and empower young women

By Tristan Scott
Nikki Kimball. Photo courtesy Erik Petersen

This story is from a series in this week’s Beacon called “Undaunted.” The profiles focus on women and girl athletes who are breaking records, stereotypes and barriers from wrestling and judo mats to mountain trails and terrain parks.

To scan champion ultrarunner Nikki Kimball’s resume of victories is to gain the impression of a superhuman athlete, someone immune to life’s cyclic peaks and troughs, a wunderkind so accustomed to winning that she doesn’t know how to stumble, instead gliding effortlessly through the universe cloaked in bulletproof armor.

That impression, of course, is false. Mostly.

At 46, the Bozeman physical therapist is a world champion, to be sure. But like any human, she has her limits, a mortal condition compounded by the struggles of competing for gender equity in a male-dominated sports-scape and her lifelong battle with depression, culminating more than two decades ago in a pit of despair that put her in the hospital, a moment she has since cultivated as her “secret weapon,” unleashing an unstoppable force in the depths of the planet’s most difficult foot races.

Through it all — through triumph and tragedy — Kimball has been running.

She’s run 100-mile endurance races and 5K turkey trots, holds the speed record on the nation’s oldest trail — the 273-mile Long Trail in Vermont’s Green Mountains — and is the three-time winner of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. The freckle-faced firebrand has run through dehydration and diarrhea, blisters and mental breakdowns, heat stroke and exhaustion. She’s side-stepped rattlesnakes on her way to 100-mile victories and shooed black bears off ribbons of single-track in order to maintain the lead. She has overcome intense pain and adversity, and she’s loved every moment of it.

“I need to run. I am not healthy if I’m not running,” Kimball recently told the Beacon, ahead of her Feb. 23 appearance at Glacier High School for a screening of the film “Finding Traction,” which documents her record-setting traverse of the Long Trail. “I absolutely need to run for my mental health and in order to think clearly. I think running can teach us so much about life.”

The screening is presented by Girls on the Run Flathead Valley, the local chapter of a national nonprofit that Kimball partnered with ahead of her record-setting Long Trail attempt, smashing the previous women’s unsupported speed time of 7 days, 15 hours when she completed the journey in 5 days, 7 hours and 42 minutes. Her primary goal, she said, was to inspire women and girls of all ages and cement women’s equal place in professional sports, and to raise money for the nonprofit Girls on the Run.

“Girls on the Run is not about competition; it is about the spirit of running, so initially my goal of becoming the fastest person to run the Long Trail was not in line with the program’s goals of empowerment and non-cognitive power building,” Kimball said. “But then I realized that the relationship to Girls on the Run is perfect. I wasn’t running the Long Trail for the express purpose of getting a new record, but as a celebration of trails and exercise and how good it feels to be physically and mentally healthy in life. And how women need to be seen and treated identically and taken seriously as athletes.”

Kimball is the first to admit that she is extremely competitive, a quality she’s had ever since she was born with crooked feet and dyslexia and the absolute certainty that she could still perform at the highest levels, a height she flirted with as a competitive Nordic ski racer before shattering the glass ceiling as a professional ultrarunner.

Kimball’s UltraSignup profile lists 89 races in the ultramarathon distance, 55 of which are first-place victories, and only seven of which did not earn her a place on the podium. It’s an astounding resume for any athlete, but to enjoy such longevity in a sport that requires its competitors to consistently train at a breakneck velocity is remarkable.

And yet, Kimball is grounded in her intentions, recognizing that her eagerness to compete and chisel out a place as one of the top athletes in the world would not exist if she didn’t enjoy her sport, which is her lifeblood.

“I did not enter running to be the best in the world. And I was for a while, but that is not while I got into it. The competition was a secondary consequence,” she said. “Running for me was a necessity, first and foremost. I can’t imagine having any other attitude. Running is about so much more than competition.”

That’s the message Kimball will share with a group of girls at the Glacier High School Performance Hall on Feb. 23. Doors open at 5 p.m. for a meet and greet with Kimball and a silent auction with locally sourced donations from local businesses. The film begins at 6 p.m., followed by questions and answers.

And while Kimball is training for two of the most difficult footraces in the world — the Hardrock 100-mile Endurance Run and the Ultra Trail of the Gobi — she’s still running because it sustains her.

“I didn’t start running with a goal of becoming a world-class athlete. I don’t think everyone has to do an ulatramarathon. I don’t think everyone should do an ultramarathon,” she said.

“The best thing is to run as much as you want because you want it.”