For those who were there, the 2006 Western States 100 stands as one of the two or three most difficult days in the history of the race. The conditions that year were extremely adverse with snow and mud in the high country, 115-degree-Fahrenheit temperatures in the canyons, a pre-race heatwave which added to the ‘oven effect’ on the south-facing canyon walls, and, to make matters worse, the Duncan Canyon section of the course, which had been closed since the 2002 running due to the Star Fire, was reopened and was in, shall we say, a state of shocking disrepair. In short, it was set up to be a very rough day out there.
The data from that day’s race tells the story. There was a paltry 52.6% finisher’s rate with only 53 sub-24-hour finishers. You have to go back to 1986 (50.6%) for a lower finisher’s rate than that. Even the infamous fire-and-ice year, 1995, had a higher finisher’s rate than 2006. But in spite of or perhaps because of the abominable conditions, one runner, the great 10-time finisher, Nikki Kimball, had herself a perfect day in 2006. This is her story.
I was hanging around with Nikki on the afternoon before the race and, like everyone else, we were obsessively talking about the heat. As we were both experienced heat runners, we were secretly hoping for an insanely hot year, which we thought would play to our strengths, but at the same time the forecast was so dire that we each had a bit of trepidation in our voices. Nikki told me that day she had a clear strategy, “I am going to run this thing in three parts: hard for the first third to take advantage of the cool morning temperatures, easy for the middle part of the day when it’s blazing hot, and then hard again when it cools down after Foresthill.” And, on top of that, Nikki had a secret plan, “When I get to Swinging Bridge at the bottom of Deadwood Canyon (mile 45), I am going to totally submerge myself in the river for five minutes, no matter what!”
I spoke to Nikki last week about that strategy and she recalls it like it was yesterday, “It was the best part of the day. I got to Swinging Bridge and went right into the river. Simon Mtuy came down with me. We had a blast! The five minutes felt like five hours as runners went streaming past me but I didn’t care. By the time I got out of the water and started the climb up Devil’s Thumb, I was totally refreshed and rejuvenated.”
The strategy paid off as Nikki spent the next few hours picking off one runner after another and by the time she reached Foresthill (mile 62), she was in sixth place–overall. “At that point, I knew I had a shot at the podium!” Nikki recalled. “Back at that point in my career, I was really focused on getting overall podium finishes and in 2006 I knew that the terrible conditions combined with the competitive nature of the race were going to make that possible.”
Nikki moved into fourth place at the river crossing after passing Jim Huffman and Ian Torrence on Cal Street and at that point only three men were ahead of her, leader Brian Morrison and chasers Graham Cooper and Erik Skaden. “I also knew that you and Tommy Nielsen were behind me and knowing that you guys were both closers kept me moving.”
Nikki held onto fourth place until her finish at the high school. It turned out that she arrived at the high school at the moment that first-place finisher Brian Morrison was taken away to the hospital. Over the next several hours, during one of the more dramatic post-race scenes in race history, much speculation centered around Morrison’s finish and whether or not he would be disqualified for receiving support on his final lap around the track. Ultimately, the race organizers decided to award the victory to second-place finisher Graham Cooper and in that moment Nikki Kimball became the second woman ever, after Ann Trason, to podium overall at the Western States 100.
I asked Nikki at the end of our conversation if now, with the 2006 Western States 12 years behind her, she looks back on that race any differently. She said, simply, “To be honest, it was just like any other race.” And then she paused before continuing, “It just happened to be on a totally epic day. That, I will never forget.”
AJW’s Beer of the Week
This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Bridger Brewing in Nikki Kimball’s home of Bozeman, Montana. Their signature Scotch Ale, McTavish Scotch Ale, is a remarkably smooth version of this delicious variety. Tipping the scales at 8% ABV, this definitely qualifies as a Wee Heavy ale, but it definitely goes down smooth with that wonderful warming quality of the best Scotch Ales.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
Did you run or were you crewing, pacing, or watching the 2006 Western States 100? If so, what do you remember about that year and Nikki’s run?