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On Dealing with Pain and Depression with Elite Runner Nikki Kimball

Tough Girl - Nikki Kimball

When taking on physical challenges, you can be sure that a fair amount of pain is coming your way. But pain can also come with emotional challenges like depression. Nikki Kimball is an American Professional Ultra Runner who has faced both mental and physical pain and made it through.

Despite these difficulties, Nikki has won some of the biggest races out there including the Marathon des Sables, Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, and the Western States 100. Over 17 years, she’s had a long successful career and come through with a number of lessons that can help any of us deal with pain of all kinds.

Excitement Trumps Pain

Some of the best marathon times ever run were earned by 10k and half marathon specialists who pop into a marathon and just run fantastically well. This was the mindset Nikki had as she prepared for her first marathon. When you’re fresh and new to something, the pain doesn’t have to be such a big factor.

At 45 years old, Nikki said the pain of an ultra race kicks in right away. But when she was younger, the first time she did 100 miles, it was so novel that she wasn’t thinking about the pain. Every mile was something new. The excitement trumped the pain.

Today, Nikki has fine-tuned her strategies for dealing with physical pain. She described, “When I feel the pain that comes with sport, I just go faster. I want to get away from this pain. I’m going to let this drive me.” With so many runs under her belt, Nikki knows that the pain would still be there if she went slower and if she went faster she’d simply get through it faster.

It’s also important to embrace the pain, Nikki advised. She knows it’s what she signed up for and she’s not afraid of it. The fear of pain stops so many people from even trying. We’re taught that pain is bad, but if we take the emotion out of it, it’s easier to handle. Learning to get past pain is one part being willing to face it and one part finding strategies that work for you.

Find Your Support System

As spring approached and so did the Marathon des Sables, Nikki’s depression symptoms reared their head. She had a horrible attitude going into the race and training was made difficult. But once the race began and the sun was shining, Nikki was smiling and happy. She hadn’t seen the sun in a month. She was so happy with the sunshine that she loved the running and didn’t take the race too seriously. Nikki was thrilled to have her negative expectations proved wrong as she competed in this incredible race.

Nikki has lived with depression her whole life. At one time, it got to the point where she was sleeping most of the day and unable to work. This feeling of not caring about anything was a life-changing event. Luckily, Nikki had a support system that encouraged her to see a physiatrist. She was given a low level of medication that has helped her deal with her symptoms for decades.

Despite trying to go off medication a number of times, Nikki found that some medication paired with a lot of exercise was just what her body needed. In her 40s, Nikki’s depression symptoms got worse, but she had her support system to rely on again.

Today, Nikki works to destigmatize depression as many have before her. In fact, it was Nikki’s best friend in University who was so open about her depression that helped Nikki better understand what went along with the challenge and gave her someone she knew she could talk to.

Consider Yourself a Runner

Running started out as a tool Nikki used for ski training. When she started winning races, Nikki was shocked. She saw herself as a skier, not a runner. Skiing was her original identity. Many women feel like they don’t look like a runner or would never consider themselves a runner. In the end, it all comes down to this: if you’re running, you’re a runner.

Nikki believes that running is a great sport for women. Women tend to be extremely busy with work and kids and everything else. It seems like there’s not a lot of time in the day. Running is a wonderful sport because you can fit it into your lunch hour or put your kid in the stroller and go. If you want to be healthy, but you’re working 40 hours a week with a family, you can run without making a huge time commitment.

During a race, Nikki’s strategy is to have fun for the first two-thirds of the race and not think about being in a race at all. She wants the first 60 miles of a 100-mile race to be relaxed. Being social and having fun is a strategy that works for her. As you run, try seeing what happens when you don’t take things so seriously.


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