From Ski-Racing to Ultra-Running: An Interview with Nikki Kimball

FasterSkierSeptember 20, 2007

Think of one of the longest, toughest, most taxing over-distance (OD) workouts that you have ever run and then triple or maybe even quadruple the distance. Let the OD stretch on into darkness of night then through the heat of the next day and on into following night. Add a total elevation change equal to climbing and descending Mount Everest. Throw in three border crossings, a mild case of pulmonary edema, a rabble of rabid French fans and a coterie of committed European ultra-runners. Don’t forget to include the hallucinations that come with complete depletion: visions of the flashlight of your nearest competitor dancing behind you, when she is not there. You now have the recipe for the race that former William’s College cross country skier, Nikki Kimball, just won. In hard, quantitative measures the Tour du Mont Blanc is just as daunting—2,200 racers, a distance of 101 miles, 8,900m of ascent and descent, 1 circumnavigation of Mont Blanc and a record time of 25:23:45 to win the women’s race. Even by the standards of a cross-country skier, these numbers are extreme.

The numbers that define Nikki’s success in her other ultra-running endeavors are equally impressive. Since she began running seriously, Nikki has made a habit of winning the 50-mile Trail National Championships. She has also won the Western States 100-mile championship three times and the U.S. Snowshoe racing national championship four times. For her sporting achievements, Nikki has twice been named the female ultra-runner of the year and garnered other ultra-running honors too numerous to list. And while she may be a bit of an unknown in the cross-country skiing world, her results are quite impressive, winning the Yellowstone Rendezvous in 2006 and finishing 2nd in 2007. And despite the fact that 25K is a mere sprint for her, Nikki finished a strong 11th in the shortened 2007 American Birkebeiner. recently sought to understand how the motivation, training and history of her NCAA cross-country ski racing background underlie these results. We interviewed Nikki during a lull in her schedule, between training sessions and her work as a physical therapist in Livingston, Montana.

FasterSkier: Our first question for Nikki is short and simple: Why?

Nikki Kimball: I ask myself that question sometimes. There was a time during my first 3-4 years of ultra marathons that I would think about doing say a 100k on the road. I’d be out for a 20 mile run and think, “Wow, I’d have to do more than two more of these, after this.” And I couldn’t even imagine doing it, even though I’d already done two or three 100Ks in my life. Somehow that’s gone away over [a few] years, so that those distances don’t seem so unattainable. The other thing is that I just love to run. You can run, forever, in ultra running. Even though I might be out there for 25 hours (laughing), it doesn’t seem like 25 hours. There are times in it that are just hell. The lows are horribly low in an ultra race, but the highs are really great. Hours pass quickly, and you can feel comfortable and good for a large part of the race. That part is really fun, and there’s an amazing community of people who do it. A lot of ultra runners are former cross-country skiers, former adventure racers, and multi-sport athletes. They also tend to be very smart people, so you get into interesting conversations with the folks you’re running with, and in 25 hours you have plenty of time to talk to people.

FS: You began life as a cross-country skier — when did you find out that you had a talent for ultra running?

NK: I’d always run for training, and I ran cross-country in high school, but I was kind of OK at it, middle of the pack. My first year in college, I ran Division 3 and didn’t even make the JV team at Williams. So I decided to just ski, because I was actually fast at that. I went through depression in ’94, and that’s when I changed out of skiing because I realized I was so very sick that I needed things like health insurance; it was a huge reality check. I could not be living as a skier, working as a cook, not getting any financial support: there was no way that I could both ski race and have health insurance. And so I went to graduate school. Also, during that [bout of] depression I lost a ton of weight. My body went from a skier’s body to—well, not quite a runner’s body—but a lot thinner. And then I lost all my upper body muscle, because I wasn’t exercising and I wasn’t eating. And so, I started running again, and was running faster than I had before. As I got back into it, I was in a place where I could compete in running, but I couldn’t compete in skiing. So, that’s where my competitive drive led me.

FS: How does training for ultra running compare for ski training? Is there overlap?

NK: Ton of overlap. In a week, say, you’d do over distance, you’d do intervals, you’d do a tempo workout, and then you’d have your strength workouts — core strength on my end. I’m not doing the upper body strength that a skier would be doing during the summer, because I want to keep my upper body really lean and light. But aside from that, it’s very similar. I like to rollerski, I like to hike, and mountain bike, and do that cross-training stuff that skiers do. I think that it’s really healthy for runners. So I actually base my training on the model for ski training that I learned in high school, at Holderness. I still base my training on a combination of Phil Peck and Bud Fisher [who coaches at Williams College].

FS: Will you talk about your first ultra?

NK: I did a 50k in 1999, and then 2 weeks later I did a fifty miler. So I kind of jumped right into it, but I’d been doing trail races all that summer. And some of them would be a 20 mile trail race, and I’d get really lost and I’d end up doing more than a marathon distance because I’d be completely lost during the race, so I started to realize, well, 31 miles isn’t all that much seeing as I’ve run almost that distance in a trail marathon, having gotten lost.

FS: Do you do any special preparation the week before the race, as far as diet goes, or during?

NK: No not really. I eat normal stuff going into the race, and I eat a wide variety of food. I know one of the things I do that’s made me way faster is eating meat — fish, chicken and game and a variety of red meats — and not being afraid of eating stuff with fat in it. I used to not eat red meat because of some stupid doctor at a ski camp who told us we were all too fat, and we shouldn’t be eating stuff with fat in it. And so [my diet] was messed up for about 19 years. But now I’m super flexible. People ask me about pre race meals, and it can be anything. It can be a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my room, or it can be fish, steak, whatever. During races, typically I can get away with eating just gels and energy drink, typically Gatorade. I do make sure that I vary the food that I eat during training, because I know that sometimes for whatever reason, the food you’re used to might make you sick, and then you have to change. Also, every race offers different food on the aid tables. A lot of people really stick to their own little food pattern, and if their food doesn’t get to the aid station, they’re screwed.

FS: You’ve mentioned that a lot of the doctors in the running world use you as an example and a role model, for other runners?

NK: I was at a national trail championship, and I got talking to the head of medical after the race, about a person who dropped from the race who was quite underweight. We talked about how dangerous it is for people to be running at these incredibly low body weights, and yet how addictive it is, how seductive it is, to lose weight because you do get faster. And she’s looking at me and saying, “You always win this race, and have a healthy body…can you talk to my colleagues and the people I work with about the fact that you can be a successful runner and not be underweight?” But it’s still tough. I know I’m healthy, and I know I win…I’ve been in the sport, and near the top of the sport, since 99. I’ve had the longevity that a lot of my competitors haven’t had. But I do think that if I lost 5 pounds, I’d run a lot faster…for a little while, and then I’d get hurt.

FS: What is your strategy and pacing during such a long race?

NK: It depends. Often, if it’s a tight women’s race, we’ll have a little pack. A lot of times the pack will run my pace because a lot of the women are kind of learning from me, or have been, and they don’t really want to push it ahead of me. I tend to walk uphills a lot, and a lot more than the people who came [to ultra running] from running. The cross-country skiers walk the uphills, because we can, and we can do it really efficiently, and we can pass runners while we’re ski-walking up the hill, so it’s great. And I think that some of the women have tried to learn from me, and do that, and so the pack sort of stays together. But if I don’t have a pack of women, it’s the same kind of pacing for a dryland workout for skiing, a long OD. Walk the uphills, run the downhills, pretty mellow on the flat. But I am surprised at what a tough effort I can maintain. I can maintain a level of running that I wouldn’t think that I could. I’m running pretty hard for most of the race. Even in a 100 mile race. Another thing about a long race is that you can bonk and come back. You can’t really do that in skiing: the races are too short, even in a 50k.

FS: How do you recover from an ultra race?

NK: Recovering from an event that I’ve never done before is very different from something that I’ve done before. After the first 100 miler that I did, Western States, I couldn’t run for a week… one week post race I tried to run about three miles, and I was running and walking, on flats. That’s all I could muster. Whereas now I finish Western States and I can run the next day — not well — and two days later I’m running and training again. My most recent race (Mont Blanc) was so different from anything that I’ve run before that my recovery’s just as slow as it was after the first western states. I’d say that within about 6 weeks, you can race well again. It really takes at least 6 weeks to get your speed back. And I do race more frequently than that, so I race not at my peak a bunch, but I am taking 6 weeks off after this race. And of course the ice baths are key. And just eating good food, and not running. Hiking or biking or doing whatever, but not running.

FS: Do you feel like your running training suffers when you take a couple of months off to compete in skiing?

NK: Not at all. I think it makes me stronger. The tough part is that I come into the running season with my upper body really built up, and I spend the first two months of the spring with the primary goal of atrophying my upper body muscles. My biggest races are in June, and I’ve lost most of my upper body by then, so it works pretty well. Then I gain it back pretty quickly in the fall.

FS: What are your goals for ski racing?

NK: I’d like to win some more marathons, I’m sort of starting to learn to ski again, so hopefully I can race more marathons and really learn to race in a pack again, I’ve sort of forgotten that. I mean skiing has changed since I quit, in 94. It’s a much more tactical sport than it used to be. But it’s fun…

FS: …To not take yourself too seriously?

NK: Exactly. The beauty of ski racing is that nobody knows who I am, so they’re always shocked when I come in 2nd or 1st at the Rendezvous. It’s great, it’s fun. I don’t race enough that people are going to figure out who I am, which is nice. In ultra, I can’t be anonymous. When I raced Western States this summer, I had a documentary film company, 3 or 4 newspapers, magazines, and a television, and they all put their cameras on me. Which is not easy to deal with, especially when you’re at the race venue two days before the race, and they’re all requesting interviews. My advantage in ski racing is that I know the pressure that the people who are expected to win are under. The disadvantage for me is that they all get their skis waxed, and they all have their whole quiver of skis…I’m just not willing to spend that much money on wax, or skis, and so I may not have the best equipment, but the mental advantage of knowing that anything I do is good, is just great. Thanks to Rob for donating this photo of Nikki!

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