It’s easy to spot Nikki Kimball in a crowd, even in a crowd of super-fit runners. Her auburn hair is unruly, her pale skin wallpapered in freckles. She’s boisterous, laughs easily, and loudly. Nikki Kimball is super-fit, but also sturdy, solid, and short. Her thighs are brawny. She loves bacon and burgers.
We both moved to Montana about the same time, met at a race, and became friends. In 2005 I profiled her for Running Times. At that point, Nikki had won every trail ultramarathon she entered, and she entered a lot of races. She competes against the top runners in the world, all over the world, and when she doesn’t win, she comes darned close. She won the Western States 100 mile race, the Boston Marathon of ultras, three times, in 2005, 2006, and 2007.
I admire Nikki more than any other runner I know. It’s not because of her impressive performance record, though you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone more accomplished. It’s not because in addition to her trail running dominance, she is also a top-notch ski racer who competed in the Olympic trials in the biathlon—where you have to stop skiing and shoot a gun—and can excel at every other sport on snow. It’s not because she’s a good writer whose work appears in Runner’s World, or because she gives motivational talks and raises money for Girls on the Run.
And frankly, it’s not even because we always have good conversations. When we saw each other before this year’s Western States, it took us a while to get personal because we started talking about Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, and wondered whether this new generation of girls would be able to embrace competiveness in ways that are healthy. We both spend a lot of time thinking about the future of girls. We rarely talk about running.
No, the reason I admire Nikki is the way she conducts herself. She is the best ambassador we have for what used to be a weird and niche-y sport, but is now known by the people who made Dean Karnazes’ Ultramarathon Man a best-seller. Or more recently, the legions who gulped down Chris MacDougall’s good book Born to Run. If you’re an outsider to the sport, you might think that female ultrarunners are either like Ann Trason, called la Bruja (the witch) by the men against whom she competed, or Jenn Shelton, who comes off as a silly party girl who happens to be able to run far and fast.
Nikki can run far and fast but is neither bitchy nor silly. She’s smart, well educated, and well read, a serious feminist and a person of integrity who does everything she can to support other women. She is not a front-runner. She starts with regular folks like me and you. She knows how to be patient and gradually makes her way to the front of the pack. So many women have told me, in quivering voices, that they got to run with Nikki Kimball for a few miles at the start of a race. She was so nice! She was so encouraging! Yes, I say, I know.
At 42, after decades of toll on her body, Nikki has had to deal with injuries and the inevitability of younger, faster runners entering her races. She’s suffered from major depression on and off since college. She talks about it. She talks about tweaking her meds, and how sometimes, like now, that just doesn’t work. When I saw her the day before this year’s Western States, she told me that for months it’s been a struggle to get out of bed. She’s been feeling brain-foggy. She’s been feeling like crap. She says it without self-pity. Just a friend reporting in.
The Western States Endurance Run goes 100 miles from Squaw Valley to Auburn, CA, starting with a three-mile slog to the top of the Olympic ski park’s peak, down canyons bathed in triple-digit heat, through aid stations with names like “Last Chance” and “Devil’s Thumb.” It’s an epic, Odyssean journey. You even have to cross a freaking river at mile 80.
After a year dealing with a broken hand, hernia and knee surgeries, and a “Bible” cyst that she smashed to get rid of, on a day when the conditions were, let’s say, challenging—it was the second hottest race since the race began 40 years ago when a mountainy man named Gordy Ainsleigh’s horse came up lame for the Tevis Cup ride and he decided to run instead of riding—Nikki told me that she needed to have a good race. She’d come in fifth the year before. She needed to do well this year, for so many reasons. She needed it, she said.
She came in second. Her time, 19:21, was nearly an hour slower than she’d run the year before, but it was a tough day and, as always, she ran smart and raced hard, beating the next woman by three and a half minutes.
When my friend Nikki gets on the trail she seems to find both clarity and joy. It may not last. The black dog will follow her; she knows that running is not a panacea. But her example and her legacy—a long history of gracious and generous behavior, an inspiration to women and girls, a fiery competitor with a commodious heart and a lusty laugh—will last forever.
For information about the film of Nikki’s tackling of the 273 mile Long Trail in Vermont, an expedition she made to raise money for Girls on the Run, go to FindingTractionFilm.com.