We interviewed American’s Darcy Africa (Pearl Izumi) and Nikki Kimball (The North Face) before the 2012 Transvulcania ultramarathon. They talk about taking on adversity, what draws them to race in Europe, what’s changed in ultrarunning in recent years, and where they think the sport is going.
Darcy Africa and Nikki Kimball Pre-2012 Transvulcania Interview
iRunFar: Bryon Powell here with Darcy Africa and Nikki Kimball. How are you guys?
Darcy Africa and Nikki Kimball: Good. Good.
iRF: How did the travel from the States over to La Palma treat you?
Africa: It was long. I think it was 24 hours at least.
Kimball: It was longer than 24 hours.
Africa: But we slept well last night which was great.
iRF: You guys had a full night’s sleep?
Kimball: Passed out. We missed the morning run and breakfast. [Africa nodding in agreement.]
iRF: So you guys are a little more caught up now. What do you think is the impact of the travel over here on race day, because you have experience with that? Does it affect racing at all?
Africa: I’m sure it does. It’s hard to tell. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is but I think it changes some things in your body. It must.
Kimball: At UTMB we were there earlier than this but to get here in the afternoon 2 days before the race after having flown that long… it’s not the way I’d choose to do it.
Africa: It would be nice to have a little more time to get over the jetlag, but…
iRF: You guys slept well last night, eating well today, you’re going to try…
Kimball: Hopefully sleep a little bit tonight… we’ll be getting up early.
iRF: So what draws you ladies to race in Europe?
Africa: For me it’s all about seeing new places, seeing new trails, enjoying different people from around the world and it’s the experience of it. It was the opportunity potentially of a lifetime to come here. We’re pretty far out here, so it’s an honor to be here.
Kimball: La Palma isn’t a destination resort for most Americans, so that was a lot of it–getting to race somewhere new. I’ve done a lot of the same races over and over again and it’s nice to… I’m at the point in my career where I want to see new stuff. I’ve done Western States a million times or whatever other races I’ve done a bunch of times. So to go somewhere new is really exciting. Then the draw of having an ultrarunning conference, we’re not really sure what’s going to go on there, but there hasn’t been an international ultrarunning conference. The sport is growing and changing so much that I think it’s important to talk about some of the ways it’s changing and to establish some international standards. We could see at today’s pre-race meeting that there was a lot of confusion and no one knew what was going on.
iRF: French, Spanish, and probably other languages trying to figure out what mandatory kit you needed at the start, where could you drop it off, could you drop it off at an aid station or with your team…
Africa: I don’t think the word “drop bag” was very clear. That is not an international word.
iRF: Where can I pick up food on the course? Can I leave my light on the course? Can I leave my blinking light?
Kimball: Yeah, just to have some sort of standardization–if there was a standard word for “drop bag,” “headlamp,” and “backlamp.”
iRF: Very true. You both have been around the sport for a decade plus. Where have you seen the sport change in the last couple of years? Where have the major changes been so far?
Africa: People have gotten younger. There are younger people coming into the sport—or maybe it’s just that I’ve gotten older. It seems like people are starting at a younger age, maybe or maybe not.
Kimball: Definitely. It seems like the people who are starting at a younger age are more focused on ultrarunning than on other things in their lives. My first US World 100k team I think I tied for the least education with a 3-year Master’s Degree. Now you’re seeing people go right from college or even “not-college” to ultrarunning. That’s a different thing.
Africa: It’s a very serious endeavor for a lot of these women now, I think. It’s their job. It’s their profession.
Kimball: We were talking about this on our morning run actually. We’re not seeing necessarily faster times but we’re seeing more people at those fast times. You don’t get one or two people running a fast time, you get 10 or 15 people especially on the women’s side as the depth has increased, well and on the men’s too, actually. I think it’s pretty uniform.
iRF: So with the Skyrunning Conference happening after Transvulcania, where would you like to see the sport of ultrarunning go in the next 5 or 10 years? There’s a lot more sponsorship involvement and media involvement, races focusing on being “the race.” Where would you like to see the sport go?
Africa: I’ve had the conversation with a lot of ultrarunning friends about it. I’m on the fence a little bit. I think we’re on the verge of becoming what marathon running was 30 years ago or whatever. So there might be that potential with purses at the end of the race, you see that happening more and more. That could shift things greatly. Yet, I got into the sport because I loved the low-key vibe and the relaxed community and it will change. It already has changed, especially when you come to Europe. I think they value the sport differently than we do in the US, so there’s a lot of media around it, a lot of hype around these races, and it changes it a little bit. I’m not sure where I sit in that.
Kimball: I think I’ve had the same thought. It will be really great to see how people can perform when they’re not working 40 hours/week at a professional job and still running. I think that’s going to be exciting, and I’d like to see if those performances can get better. It certainly can get better. If there’s money out there and people aren’t having to focus on work and the other parts of their lives as much, we should see better performances which is really cool, really important in a way, in a meaningful way. What I hope is that there’s still going to be those low-key races where people just go out and there’s not media hype around it. I think that it will be the case. We’re going to have some races around the world that are just these key races with boat loads of media and lots of prize money. Hopefully there will be many other races that will have that old-school vibe, low maintenance, your aid stations have water and Gatorade and some salted potatoes and that’s it. I think it’s good to have the option of having both worlds of ultrarunning.
iRF: So far I’ve seen the number of really important 100’s increase by 2 or 3 in the last 5 years, but the number of 100’s overall has tripled. There are so many new low-key races coming in at the same time as Run Rabbit Run 100’s or UTMB stepping up.
Africa: Races are filling so much more quickly. I remember the day when I could sign up the week before, which is sort of how I love to do it. “I’m going to go to this one this weekend!” You could do that, but not anymore.
Kimball: That’s the biggest thing I miss, being able to go do what you wanted to do. That was cool.
Africa: Now it’s like, January 1st, I’d better sign up for everything I need to this year or else…
Kimball: And you have four hours before it closes, so if your internet goes down…
iRF: You’ve also both been around the sport long enough to have to deal with adversity. You’ve both had some injuries and set-backs this past year. What advice would you give to other people facing injuries or other challenges in their running careers?
Kimball: Well as a physical therapist, I’d say don’t do it the way I do. I think after I first had the accident with my knee in 2007, the best thing I could have done was take a year off. There was still some sponsorship stuff, not that anyone was pressuring me, but I felt well, if I take a year off now, I’m never going to get any help at getting back into it. I think it is important when you have a setback, take the time to heal that thing as well as you can and then start up again. But at the same time, it’s ultrarunning. After you’ve done it for 10 years, you’re going to be injured; you’re going to have an ache or pain pretty much all the time anyway. I think for the first 10 years I stayed super healthy and never had a problem. Now I think I have to accept some level of injury.
Africa: I think we’ve been talking about that quite a bit in the last day about being in the sport for a long time and running for many years and for me I kind of thought I was indestructible in a way. Then realizing that you’re not is a big wake-up call. This morning we had a conversation about something that I didn’t do early on was to have a strength-training routine. Running breaks down your body quite a bit. Having something in your regime that’s about doing squats and a core workout and some of those things that are actually building up muscle and building up strength as opposed to breaking it down all the time, that would be something that I would have changed. Right now I’m learning, I’m learning a lot. [iRF: Is it catching up to you?] Yeah, exactly.
iRF: Nikki, you mentioned a couple years back that you sort of felt some sponsorship pressure and I’ve actually heard it third party from a couple of other people that there seems to be more pressure in that realm. Not speaking about yourselves but do you feel that aspect has changed about the sport in the last couple of years at these big races where everyone is coming together?
Africa: I think always when you’re representing a company there’s a little bit, maybe it’s your own pressure…
Kimball: I think it is your own. I don’t think I’ve had a manager say, “You’d better race or we’re going to…” I’ve never had that. But I think you’re right, I put more pressure on myself if I’m running to represent a company. I really love The North Face. They treat me really, really well, so I feel like I owe them because … it’s kind of like we’re a little family, so … 2008 was really me making myself do every ultra I did. No one was telling me I had to do that, but I felt like I had to.
Africa: I’m in that boat right now.
Kimball: That was my fault, that wasn’t their fault.
iRF: Hopefully you don’t have pressure on either of you tomorrow. What are you ladies expecting in your Transvulcania experience?
Africa: I’m giving mine fairly low expectations. These days I really want to enjoy myself and hopefully not have too much pain in my foot. I have plantar fasciitis. Hopefully, I’ll keep that at bay and really try to enjoy it. I like the heat, so hopefully… I know that keeping yourself hydrated is going to be important tomorrow. I’ll be seeing new trails, so it will be fun!
Kimball: Hopefully my sunscreen works! I’ve got plenty actually, in fact, I’ll give it to you (Bryon) tomorrow morning. Us gingers know about that! For me, too, it’s the same. I don’t know anything about the women we’re running against apart from Anna, and she’s the only one I really know at all. She’s fantastically fast which takes a lot of pressure off of us, certainly speaking for myself. I’m not at that fitness level anymore. I don’t have those speeds anymore. Maybe I have that fitness, but I’m not… so, I want to do as well as I can. I’m healthy enough, but because I don’t know anything about the competition, I don’t have any competition or placing goals. I want to run the best I can with what I have. That’s my main goal for every race. When I’m on that starting line, whatever my body is capable of, I want to run that time. That’s kind of where I am.
iRF: Good luck with that and have fun enjoying the new trails out there! Thanks for taking the time to talk with us!
Kimball and Africa: Thanks! Thank you!