Nikki Kimball has three Western States wins in six attempts and will be racing again this year… with a broken hand. In the following interview, find out how that broken hand affected Nikki’s preparation, how her attitude toward winning has evolved over the years, and when she flips the switch from joking about the honey badger to being the honey badger during a race.
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Nikki Kimball Pre-2012 Western States Interview
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here the day before the 2012 Western States 100 with Nikki Kimball. How are you, Nikki?
Nikki Kimball: I feel great.
iRF: You have a lot of experience here with three wins and a bunch of other top finishes.
Kimball: Yes, I’ve raced it six times.
iRF: This year, about a month ago, you were running in Spain at [the Zegama Marathon], fell, and broke your hand in two places. How is that affecting your preparations? I’d written this question for a written interview a couple of days ago, but you’re still in your cast and will be for the race.
Kimball: Right. Well, it’s actually affected it positively and negatively. I always use handhelds here at Western States. I might occasionally wear a hydration pack for 20 miles, but I’m really more comfortable with handhelds. So I’ve had to learn to run with a hydration pack. That’s a little different. The feeling is a little difficult.
iRF: How do you open a gel?
Kimball: With my teeth. I actually raced a 50 miler three weeks ago so I could learn how to race and how to fuel without the use of my right hand. I could still use my thumb and forefinger. My middle finger is broken as well as my hand. It was actually better than I thought. The positive side, there actually is a positive side to this, is that I can’t work. I’m a physical therapist. I’m not getting paid, which isn’t great, but I have had four weeks off. I haven’t had a vacation since 2001 since all of my time off has been used to run and to race. So I’m actually more relaxed than I’ve ever been coming into this race.
iRF: Nice. Last year, we ran together a lot in the early miles here, from mile 10-50 almost. During that race, well you’d had a couple down years in your running, and last year when we were running you said, “Well if I finish third or fourth, then I’ve had a really good day and I’m on my way back.” You finished third in a sprint finish with Kami [Semick], so you met your goal on that day. Going into this year, how do you feel about your running? What’s a positive result for you this year?
Kimball: A positive result would be top three. For the first time in years, I know I’m capable of winning it. I’m not sure that I will. I do well in adversity and there’s not much adversity here as it’s going to be cool and it’s really a road runner’s course. So given that, it definitely favors Ellie [Greenwood], Lizzy [Hawker], and Kami and lots of other people like Amy Sproston, Meghan [Arbogast]… there are 15 women here who could win the race. Over the last few years my confidence has been so down that I didn’t count myself as one of the people who could win this race even though I have. I’m not as fast as I was in 2007, but I’m faster than I was last year.
iRF: So you think you’ve continued along that positive trajectory.
Kimball: Yes, I have.
iRF: One of the things that was really interesting to witness is that you’ve garnered a reputation for being a very fierce competitor. But at the same time, [during last year’s race I was with you while] you were singing and cracking jokes, singing about the honey badger. During the race you are the honey badger, but when do you make that switch from the fun Nikki to the killer instinct?
Kimball: Yeah, it happens and I don’t do anything to make that happen. I don’t know what happens because it is like somebody flips a switch, because I’m not that competitive outside of racing. You were with me those 40 miles and I’m just having fun and enjoying myself. I do better in races where I have fun for the first 50-60% and then maybe the last 30-40% really get into that aggressive mode. I think I need that dichotomy for me to race well. I haven’t had that fierce like “rrrrr, I’ve got to win” competitive thing in several years. I’ve been kind of down and depressed about my running but not like that positive fierceness.
iRF: Did you get to unleash that a little bit at the end of last year’s race?
Kimball: No, not really. I caught Kami right before the finish and actually, I’m pretty deaf and she said, “Oh, you’re not going to make me race for this are you?” I didn’t hear her, so I didn’t know what she said. I just thought she wasn’t talking to me, so I just went climbing past her.
iRF: She had said this [so she must have] thought you weren’t talking to her.
Kimball: Yeah, so we were thinking, “Why is my friend just not running in with me?” because I would. Kami’s awesome. I think the world of Kami. She’s just such a great person in running and beyond. So it was just really funny. And I didn’t really care much who won the sprint but, “Well, if I’ve got to sprint, I’ve got to sprint.” I actually had fun even during that sprint. I know I don’t have road speed; I don’t have track speed. But it was wicked fun to play that.
iRF: With you and Kami and Meghan, the master’s field is as deep as … there are a couple others… who are we missing?
Kimball: Yeah, intense. A couple others… Liza Howard just turned 40, and I think there are a couple of others… It’s insane.
iRF: Yeah, a few years ago there would have been four people you could pick to be top four and you still could be. It’s incredible to see the durability and the duration at the top of the sport you guys have had with you and Kami and Meghan particularly.
Kimball: Yeah, it’s tough. It’s tough aging. I started racing ultras in 1999. That’s a long time trying to race at a top level and race a lot of races every year. I lasted about eight or nine years running fast and, then, I just had a huge slow down.
iRF: Do you think of having those couple of down years physically and mentally as almost having a break? Could you ramp back up from that with renewed energy?
Kimball: I hope so. In hindsight, I should have taken 2009 completely off, and I didn’t have the guts to do it. I think I’d be racing a lot better now if I would have. If I could tell that to someone that was starting to experience that slow down after eight to ten years of racing ultras, I’d say take the year off and you’ll come back way, way stronger. We’re seeing that like Dave Mackey took a bunch of years off and came back strong. You usually just see people when they start to slow down if they’ve been on the top quit and not stay with it. But I love the sport, I love the people in it, I want to stay with it. But I should have taken the year off.
iRF: Well you have been ramping it up with great runs at Transvulcania and Zegama this year. So best of luck at Western States!
Kimball: Thank you!