On this episode of the Healthy Wealthy and Smart Podcast, Shannon Sepulveda guest hosts and interviews Nikki Kimball on her experiences as a female distance runner. Nikki Kimball is an American distance runner specializing in the Ultramarathon. She is also a physical therapist in Bozeman, Montana.
In this episode, we discuss:
-Nikki’s journey to becoming a long-distance running athlete
-The societal health and wellness ramifications of running
-How Nikki’s experience as a physical therapist has shaped her running journey
-Gender differences, both physical and financial, in competitive running
-And so much more!
For more information on Nikki:
Nikki Kimball (born May 23, 1971) is an American distance runner specializing in the Ultramarathon. She ran her first 100-mile race at the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run in 2004, and was the female winner. She was the winning female at Western States again in 2006 and 2007, becoming only the third woman to win Western States three times. In 2014, she won the Marathon Des Sables multi-stage endurance race on her first attempt. Prior to running, her main sport was cross-country skiing. She was crewed at the 2007 Western States by U.S. Senator Max Baucus of Montana, where Kimball lives. She lives in Bozeman, Montana.
For more information on Shannon:
Shannon Sepulveda, DPT, M.Ed., CSCS, WCS is the owner and Physical Therapist at Shannon Sepulveda, DPT, PLLC. She is an Orthopedic and Women’s Health Physical Therapist and is currently the only Board-Certified Women’s Health Physical Therapist (WCS) in Montana. Shannon received her undergraduate degree from Dartmouth College, Masters in Education from Harvard University (M.Ed.) and Doctorate of Physical Therapy (DPT) from the University of Montana. She is also a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS). She has been a practicing Physical Therapist in Bozeman, Montana for over 6 years. In her free time, she enjoys running, biking, skiing, hunting and spending time with her husband, son and daughter.
Read the full transcript below:
Shannon Sepulveda: 00:00:00 Hello and welcome to the Healthy, Wealthy and Smart Podcast. I am your guest host, Shannon Sepulveda, and I am here with Nikki Kimball. Hi Nikki. So Nikki, can you tell us a bit about you and what you do?
Nikki Kimball: What I do? My favorite subject, I am a physical therapist here in Bozeman and I also coach running, ultra marathon running. And I got into that because I’ve been an ultra marathon race or professional racer for almost two decades. And that’s kind of what I do.
Shannon Sepulveda: So in the ultra marathon running world, when you say Nikki Kimball, people are like, oh, Nikki Kimball. And I feel like, so Nikki is a very accomplished ultra marathoner for those of you who don’t know who Nikki is. So we are very, very fortunate to have her here on the podcast. So how did you get into ultra running? Because back then it seemed like it’s not as popular as it is now.
Nikki Kimball: 00:01:01 No, I don’t think it is, but there were still, you know, a boatload of us. I mean there are thousands of us who absolutely loved this sport and we, you know, there wasn’t much money at it or anything like that. It wasn’t very popular. But I think a lot of cross country skiers come into it sort of organically because of the training we do for cross country skiing is essentially ultra marathon training, which is kind of funny because the women don’t get to race very far. The longest they can do is 30K at the Olympics. It’s pretty pathetic. But regardless, we always trained with the guys anyway. So we would do these four or five hour run hike things in the woods. And so it was kind of doing it anyway.
Nikki Kimball: 00:01:50 And in graduate school I raced a lot of 5K’s, 10K’s, half marathons, marathons, just kind of wherever. Cause I had a store team that sponsored me and they’d pay all my race entry fees. And so I just go do fun things. And it just like sort of saved me through Grad school because it had gave me this other thing besides studying all the time. And it made me sort of mentally clearer. I just loved it and I’m just like running makes me happy. It just makes sense to go out and run and run and run. And so yeah, at the time it wasn’t super, it wasn’t mainstream popular, but those of us who did it loved it. Did it all the time.
Shannon Sepulveda: So you grew up Nordic skiing?
Nikki Kimball: 00:02:41 Yes, in high school. I grew up in a town called Chittenden in Vermont, so south central Vermont town and I grew up skiing. My brother was four years older, so he was skier and the Bill Koch Youth Ski League is this big, big thing then. I don’t know if it still is, but there would be these races for kids and because I mean the kids who would be racing, you know, from eight years old on, they kind of knew what they were doing, but they had to do something for like the little brothers and sisters. So they’d have these races, they called Lollipop races because you get a lollipop at the end and you might go 100 meters maybe holding your parent’s hand. But I believe I was three when I first did this. I basically learned how to ski and walk at the same time, I’m sure.
Nikki Kimball: 00:03:31 And so yeah, I mean I just don’t remember life without competition, without endurance sports.
Shannon Sepulveda: And then did you race in college?
Nikki Kimball: And I raced at Williams College, so all four years, so division one racing. Then, partway through college I decided to switch to biathlon. So my senior year I had to keep my rifle at a professor’s house cause they weren’t too keen on having rifles on campus. And so I raced a couple of years in biathlon hoping for the ‘98 Olympics and I raced through ‘94.
Shannon Sepulveda: Oh Wow. So how is biathlon different from cross country skiing, like endurance wise. What do you think?
Nikki Kimball: Similar, really similar. I mean, it’s just adding this sort of cognitive piece to it. I mean to go from skiing as hard as you can to shooting clean for five rounds is, it just requires a whole different skillset.
Nikki Kimball: 00:04:37 Of patience and humility and cognition. I mean, looking at where the wind is and deciding you know, how to change your sites on your rifle, by this, you know, it’s just an extra layer. And I loved that.
Shannon Sepulveda: Do you feel like that has influenced your ultra racing at all? Like part of it?
Nikki Kimball: Probably not a ton. I mean, I think the calmness needed to do well in biathlon in the humility is super helpful. So those two things are good because if you’re racing a hundred miles, something is going to go wrong and running. You don’t have perfect races when you’re beyond 20 hours, you just don’t. And so having, you know, biathlon does teach a bit of that, sort of humility but also ability to change with the changing situation. You might come into the range and the wind’s coming from a completely different direction than it was when you, when you cited your rifle in and you have to deal with that.
Nikki Kimball: 00:05:48 And similarly, an ultra marathon is very common that you come into an aid station and the bag of stuff that you wanted there isn’t, or your crew isn’t there or something that you expect isn’t there. And so that ability to think during the race and make changes to your plan during the race is definitely something is common between the ultra running and biathlon.
Shannon Sepulveda: Cool. So then when you say graduate school, do you mean physical therapy? And so how did you get into running, cause it sounds like that’s where the transition went into ultra running, is that right? Or where the transition to competitive running?
Nikki Kimball: Yeah, absolutely. Because I threw 94, I was ski racer, which is sort of a different body type also, more muscular and a lot more upper body mass. So, you know, through 94, ski racing was the only thing I really wanted to do. And I also was kind of I hadn’t raced anything long in running, so I wasn’t very, and I wasn’t good.
Nikki Kimball: 00:06:57 I was fantastic for the middle of the back. I hadn’t really realized that I had any ability in running because my abilities not in running, it’s in enduring. I always qualified for nationals in D1 skiing. And there was definitely something I wasn’t good at. Actually in 94, after a really successful year of biathlon doing well at Olympic trials, I wasn’t expecting to make the team because I can shoot very well. Did very well at nationals. And then I ended up getting very sick with depression, losing about 20 pounds and I couldn’t even run three miles. Like I couldn’t, I couldn’t do anything.
Nikki Kimball: 00:07:55 I was just sleeping. All I did. And when I went to Grad School, I came in with a completely different body. I mean I lost all my muscle, and really I was in Philadelphia, so I’m like, well, what can I do? So running was the thing I could do and this was way before most psychiatrists and counselors were thinking that exercise was important for running. But I sort of knew it, you know, I just knew that I could think better, I could function better, all of those things, everything better when I’m exercising. And so it was sort of natural for me to just my daily dose of endorphins that is just critical to me. Even having normal brain function. It would be like I’d have to run an hour a day just to stay sane.
Nikki Kimball: 00:08:49 So then I went to graduate school and I’m in Philadelphia and I go and do this 5K race and I win it, and I’m like, what the heck? I am not a runner. This is crazy. And then the store team picks me up and then we just started running longer and longer and more and more trails and you know, so it wasn’t something I never set out to be a good ultra marathon runner. It just sort of, it just was what I did anyway. And then I realized it was a support.
Shannon Sepulveda: Yeah. That’s really cool story. Awesome. So what was ultra running like when you started and how is it different now? Cause I mean, how long ago was that when you started?
Nikki Kimball: 00:09:38 I started in ‘99, 20 years ago. It was still very, very competitive at the top. But the fields were not as deep. And there wasn’t, you know, it was never talked about in runner’s world, I don’t think runner’s world even knew what ultra running really was. And it didn’t really need to create a magazine, but it was like runner’s world is for sort of mainstream runners and getting people into running and it’s fantastic for that. But ultra running was never something that would even be considered in, you know, for their audience. And I think that’s really telling now. They know now they talk about ultra running and that kind of stuff. And ultra running is now becoming appealing to your general public. It’s just not something that’s freaky anymore because it’s in the running media.
Nikki Kimball: 00:10:32 Part of me wants to go back to the old ways where you raced and you had only water at the aid station. The aid stations might be two hours apart and you want a belt buckle after you set a world record you know, it was great. Not that I ever set any world records, but, that’s the trail runner part of me. But that was kind of Nice. It wasn’t very commercial. And now it is more so, but I’m also part of that. I mean I was in films about running several films about running. I was promoting, you know, Nike northface Hoko, which ever sponsor I had at the time. And you know, kind of using my running to promote basic health and fitness things. And you know, I mean it just, I mean I definitely was heavily involved in media surrounding running, so the increase of popularity of running, I’m not innocent in that.
Shannon Sepulveda: I think it’s awesome. I think it’s really great because not everybody’s going to be fast at a 5K and some people are really good. It’s completely different. Being fast at a 5K is completely different than running a hundred miles. Yeah, it’s totally different. And some people are really good at it and some people are not. And some people, the accomplishment of running just running 50 miles or 18 miles or whatever, will get them through, get them on a high for a whole year. I mean, the fact that they can do that. So I think that’s amazing.
Nikki Kimball: 00:11:54 And it’ll get them training for a whole year. Will get them healthier in an age in which sedentary lifestyles our biggest killer, or contributes to it anyway. We really need to make sports mainstream and running is so easy and it’s something we don’t need special equipment for, you can do it on any budget. And then you can still compete in it.
Shannon Sepulveda: But I mean, it’s like if you were a baseball player, you can’t just go play baseball games a lot of the time. But if you’re a runner, you can always say, I’m going to sign up for x race and train for x race.
Nikki Kimball: 00:12:49 Yes. And so it’s the perfect lifestyle, lifetime sport and you can do it if you’re running, you know, if you’re running team, if you, let’s say you want to do stuff with people, you’re running team doesn’t show up for a workout. You can do that work out on your own. You know, it can be as social or isolated as you want to be. And I think runners know that, you know, sometimes, you know, you and I are both physical therapists. Sometimes we have a whole day of patients. We want to go out and run the five, 10 whatever miles by ourselves because we’re just, we need that break and not talk. And then other times, you know, you want to go out with a group of 10 people and just, you know, just chat the whole way.
Nikki Kimball: 00:13:40 And I swear that if political leaders could do all of their work while running, things would actually work. I mean, cause I swear every, you know, every long run you go on, somebody comes up with an idea that just seems brilliant.
Shannon Sepulveda: Yeah. And you get to talk to people who believe different things and have actual conversations with people because there’s nothing else to do, right. You’re out in the woods for four hours and that’s who you’re with and you can talk about stuff and you’re not checking your phone. And now I think it’s great.
Nikki Kimball: Yeah. And it’s something that’s so foreign to us in modern times. You know, we’re always sort of plugged in and we’re always hanging out with only others like us and running sort of takes all that away. Yeah, I really liked that.
Shannon Sepulveda: And I think, you know, even, you know when I get postpartum women in here and they want to run a 5K after they’ve had a baby and they’re like, well I’m not really a competitive runner.
Nikki Kimball: 00:14:37 I just, I really want to run this 5K. And I’m like, that is awesome. I really want to run it in under 30 minutes. Well that’s such a great goal. Like let’s do that and it’s attainable and it’s great. It gives people a goal of something to do. It doesn’t have to be 100 miles, you know, like it doesn’t, that’s the beautiful thing about running.
Nikki Kimball: And I love about ultra and running in general is that different variations on running are becoming popular. Whether it’s spartan racing or color runs or you know, like none of those events is going to attract every person, but it’s going to attract somebody. And if somebody gets hooked because they like having paint balls thrown at them, like great, if that keeps that person from getting type two diabetes, I mean it’s the cheapest medicine we can buy.
Shannon Sepulveda: Oh yeah. And I think that that’s why it’s so awesome being a physical therapist because we know how important exercise is and getting people back to that. So like they don’t die and they don’t get type two diabetes and they don’t get heart disease.
Nikki Kimball: 00:16:01 And we’re not rehabbing their total knee replacements because of obesity. You know? I mean they have a total knee replacements because they earned it.
Shannon Sepulveda: Yeah. I think it’s so great just to be able to have, you know, running become more mainstream so it’s more accepted and people are really excited about it. I mean, when you go to marathons and you see people of all shapes and sizes completing marathons, I think it’s so cool and it’s so different from what it was 20 years ago.
Nikki Kimball: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, marathons didn’t kind of include, they certainly didn’t encourage and often didn’t allow people to finish a marathon in six hours or more. And now we’ve got that in there just has to be a place in athletics for all adults because if this is the way we are going to stay healthy in a world that is more and more sedentary, then we need to make it fun because otherwise it’s not going to be sustainable for most people. And you know, and we also need to have resources out there for people to do these sports.
Nikki Kimball: 00:16:56 And I just keep seeing more and more emphasis on building trails and on making shoulders on roads so that people can safely bike or run or whatever. I think the more these sports grow, the more people demand from their local government that we have trails, that we have safe places to work out. And play and do all those things that are just going to save us money in the end because we’re all healthier.
Shannon Sepulveda: Yeah. No, I think it’s great. So let’s talk about how has being a physical therapist impacted your career?
Nikki Kimball: Probably for the better and for worse. We over analyze everything exactly. I mean, and I’m sure you remember when your first a physical therapist and you’re working in general orthopedics and you see people coming in and they’re in their sixties and that’s old to you because you’re in your 20s and you’re like, oh my gosh.
Nikki Kimball: 00:17:50 I have all these things that are going to happen to me. Yeah. So you start getting these ideas of things that happen with aging. So that’s a little, that’s actually probably good, a little cautionary tale there, but, for the first 18 years of my ultra running career, I never missed significant time from races, from any running injury. I mean, the races that I missed were mostly from direct trauma cause I fell off something or trail running is a little aggressive. And I also mountain bike and dirt bike and ski race and do all that. So you know, I definitely have had injuries, but they’re usually direct trauma, not repetitive trauma. And I think PT has been the biggest factor in that. I mean also I just have good genetics. Having treated every running injury there is, I could see when one was coming up and I think that helped a lot.
Nikki Kimball: 00:18:44 Oh, I’ve got this little thing, Ooh, that’s not just muscle soreness. That sounds more like, you know, it band and Oh, maybe I should have somebody look and see if my hip is strong or if I’m overstriding or whatever. And so I think, you know, running is a huge deal and running and prevention of an injury is so much more important than fixing it. And PT has given me the patience for that, you know, like, okay, I know I need to take a week and be water running now because I’ve worked with so many people who didn’t do that and now they’re out for four or five months.
Shannon Sepulveda: Do you see differences in injuries between ultra runners and like your recreational 5K’er?
Nikki Kimball: 00:19:35 Yes and no. Your recreational 5K’er often it’s their first year running and they’re much more likely to get injured and injuries that are completely preventable. Just because they just sort of get into it without any guidance. Ultra runners first of all, probably have the genetics that allow them to run that long. So they’re probably mechanically more, more ready to run ultras. And then some of the ultra running injuries we see are just like, they can be really serious because we can I think once we’re out there racing, to be successful, you have to be able to put pain in a little box or just sort of deflect it. And you really don’t, like when I was racing, I really didn’t feel pain so much cause I could just sort of play in my head with it. And so you can get people who in ultra running who will go into a race with a stress fracture and it becomes a frank fracture.
Nikki Kimball: 00:20:35 And I’ve seen that with several ultra runners and you know, that’s not your recreational 5K runner might get a stress fracture, but they’ll probably actually going to go seek help while it’s still a stress fracture and not going to let the bone actually break in half. So sometimes runners, ultra runners can be a little, aren’t good at using pain as a guide. I think your recreational 5K runners going to come into when their knee starts hurting or their ankle starts hurting and they’re gonna be like, Hey, something’s funky here. And so I think those recreational 5K runners are much more likely to get injured, but their injury is also going to be much easier to manage. And ultra runners were all, I mean, most of us I think are addict to the sport and to running and to exercise. And you know, I just know how tempted I am to run if injured, you know, cause I have to work out or I’m just staring at the wall being brain dead. I mean, I really like without you know, at least a few times a week infusion of endorphins I don’t function and I think a lot of our ultra runners are that way and we can so we basically go until something’s really bad.
Shannon Sepulveda: 00:21:51 So I’m always interested in like the mental aspect of pain.So when you were like racing in your, you know, cross country racing biathlon you’re like super anaerobic, like you gotta get over that governor in your head that says slow down. So that sort of mental capacity for pain versus I’m on Mile 90, I have pain everywhere. It seems like a different type of pain. Do you classify those as a different type of pain in your head or are they kind of the same?
Nikki Kimball: 00:22:20 I think in my head they’re the same or similar. In ski racing I could always say, or in biathlon, well I’m going to lie down at the end of this kilometer to take a bunch of shots. So you know, you know that that pain is, is there, but I think I dealt with it mentally by, it’s going to be over very quickly and it always was. So in that it’s somewhat different but so in ultra running you have less intense pains but for a lot longer period of time. And so I don’t get to say, oh well it’s going to be over soon because this, now you have another four hours left. And I think that got me to the point where I would think of pain as this is just this neural sensation.
Nikki Kimball: 00:23:09 It’s nothing more than that. There is no reason to put any emotion into this sensation that’s coming in. I mean, I think part of what gives pain its power is fear of pain. And in an ultrathon you have long enough to think that you have to deal with pain in a different way. And if I can just take the power away by saying, okay, I have a nerve signal telling me that my hip hurts or my knee hurts. But that’s all it is. It’s just a neural signal. And because I think the anesthetic effect of our chemical changes when we run, we can do it. I mean I don’t think I’m really tough about pain. Like if it’s just, if we’re just sitting here and you know, somebody hits me, it’s going to hurt just as much, but while I’m running I can take so much more.
Nikki Kimball: 00:24:04 And as long as you don’t fear it, it’s just way, way easier to tolerate.
Shannon Sepulveda: It’s so interesting cause it’s like when I hear you talk, there’s such similarities to chronic pain and like what we know about chronic pain and how as like PTs we treat chronic pain where it’s like, you know, these are just neural sensations coming in. The brain controls where you are, what you’re doing. Do I need to get out of here? You know, and how we gradually increase people’s exposure to certain things to get them out of chronic pain. So when I hear you talk, that’s like exactly what I think of. Like you think about it as a neural sensation, not, you know, this emotional response that you have to like give into.
Nikki Kimball: Right, right. And you know, I think that ultra running can be a very good metaphor for life in many ways.
Nikki Kimball: 00:24:57 And that’s one of the ways, and I think that medicine, both physical medicine, physical therapy plus medicine, human medicine are starting to research ultra running, which is incredible. And I think, I think we need to look at things like ultra running for managing chronic pain. We need to look at ultra running to see. But I think we need to do more and more research to find like what is it that benefiting here? I think it would be extraordinarily hard to thrive through chronic pain. I mean, we’ve both worked with so many people with chronic pain and it’s really, really horrible. But if you can, you know, do you just give up? I mean there’s no, we don’t have like a pill form now, we don’t have anything that will just kind of get rid of it right away.
Nikki Kimball: 00:25:56 Nothing. And so we have to be able to manage it. And I think ultra running is about managing stuff and so maybe somebody in medicine finds out what, you know, what factors allow us to thrive despite that pain, to win the race despite the pain that we’re in. And certainly there’s a lot of research out there on mental health. What is it, you know, we know there is, you know, six or eight different things that were changing when we’re running that might affect our cognition and mental state. Like, you know, what is it we don’t really know. But we know something about running is lessening the effects of depression and other mental illnesses and we know that is lessening the effects of some pains.
Nikki Kimball: 00:26:44 So it’s just this brilliant area of untapped research or a research opportunity. I mean, there’s so much out there and it’s very much in its infancy. But you are seeing people being serious about running medicine now.
Shannon Sepulveda: Yeah. It’s really interesting when I hear you say manage the pain because that’s like when I have conversations with my patients that have had chronic pain for years. I have a conversation of like, this is chronic, we are going to manage it. You’re going to have flare ups and you’re going to manage it and it’s gonna get better. But at some point you’re going to have a flare up and it’s going to be okay. And so when you think about managing versus curing, it’s, I guess very similar to ultra running like it is, I’m in mile 80, I’m going to manage this, right, because I’ve got to finish it and it’s going to flare up and I’m going to manage it and it’s going to get better.
Nikki Kimball: 00:27:37 Yes, exactly. And I think this is where all types of medicine need to come together. I mean it’s neuro, psych, it’s mechanics, it’s all of those things. Because how else are we going to let people live quality lives with chronic pain or mental illness, any of those kinds of things. And ultra running is sort of microcosm and like, it’s like, yeah, like your whole, you know, it’s like a lifetime. And, you know, 100 mile race. And so I think there are really important pieces of information in there that can be applied to our world in general.
Shannon Sepulveda: Yeah. That’s so interesting. Okay. So the next thing I want to talk about is gender equity in ultra running are running in general. Both prize money, sponsorship, but also physiologically. So which one do you want to start with first? So to just talk about it, because I know you’re a very good advocate for women and gender equity and this is a problem in many sports. So let’s talk about the problem in ultra running.
Nikki Kimball: 00:28:52 It is, it is a problem and in many sports. I must say on the good side, just to start this out on a good note the changes through my lifetime and how women are treated in sport has been amazing. I mean, when I started racing in the 70s, you know, there were oftentimes, you know, races just for men or you know, the men would get prize money and the women wouldn’t get any. And that was really, really common. We just sort of expected that.
Nikki Kimball: 00:29:42 And you know, all through high school and college, and this still happens unfortunately, you know, being a high level ski racer, the women, we would race 5K when the men would race 10K and you know, that stuff is still happening but getting better hopefully sometimes that’s changing. And sometime in the 2000 odd you just really stopped seeing prize money be different. Because prize money is so transparent and you know, there were still a few holdout races that would prize the men and wouldn’t prize the women. And in Europe that was very common, which is kind of shocking to me. But many, many races, money for the men and you know, something cute for the women and the fights for gender equity already had enough traction behind them to finally, to really call out race directors who didn’t prize equally.
Nikki Kimball: 00:30:52 And with the Internet and with everything being freely, with being able to get that information really easily from your computer, race directors would look really, really horrible at this point if they weren’t prizing equally. And so the last 15 years has been pretty good that way. Then we have sponsorship. And most of our contracts tell us we aren’t supposed to talk about how much we’re getting paid. And that’s a brilliant strategy by the marketing people for, on these big companies that sponsor runners because why pay a woman what she’s worth when you can pay 12 times less? And that’s not an unreasonable that actually I have seen that in order of magnitude difference between males and females, why pay or that isn’t, you know, if your customers, when they go to buy that jacket, don’t know that, you know, Sarah gets paid 5,000 a year and Joe gets paid 10,000 or a hundred thousand a year, why would we, you know, why would they pay that?
Nikki Kimball: 00:32:00 And I think that’s the next area to go or to get down, get down to and really dig into hopefully the last one. There’s still other subtle forms of sexism that happened, but this is still a major, major form of sexism that’s happening. And I’ve thought through my professional career and then once I started trying to add up how much I would have made if I’d done the same thing as I did but be a male. And once I realized that I would probably have an extra house in the most expensive part of town, I decided to stop torturing myself. And so some sort of transparency there has to happen. But the other, the subtle stuff, some athlete contracts give you bonuses for getting their logo in print media or on television or all those things will still look through the sports pages in any local paper.
Nikki Kimball: 00:32:58 And they’re still often, you know, eight pictures of men compared to one picture of a woman. Or, you know, even if it’s two men to each woman in the sports pages, that’s money we’re not getting because you know, you’re not in the picture. I won the race. But the guy’s winner gets in there and you still look at Wikipedia. If you look up Wikipedia or any of those race sites or running sites. They’ll often have, you know, they’ll talk about a race and they’ll say, you know, the course record is held by, and it’s always the guy. I also have the course record, right. But so then again, the men gets so much more promotion from media and all of that.
Nikki Kimball: 00:33:46 And then that gets the sponsor’s thinking that they have a better return on investment from the men because the men are like, look, here’s what you know, here are all the newspaper articles I was in, magazine articles I was in. So those more subtle types of sexism are harder to fight. And I think some of us are doing it. Gina Lucrezi is an ultra runner and very solid alternative, but also really great supporter of women’s ultra running and has started a company called trail sisters that is huge and just getting bigger and bigger and it is to address some of these issues and also address other physiological issues that women have to fight, have to face. These things are happening. It’s just not as fast as I’d like.
Shannon Sepulveda: 00:34:41 I know it’s so hard. I mean, I feel like the same thing happens even with like small companies and like they’ve just had to like fight tooth and now just to even like get, you know, compared to Nike or something like that, just even get themselves and they’re a running company for women, but, no matter what it seems like we’re fighting an uphill battle.
Nikki Kimball: Yes, we are. And you know, I remember it just a few years ago, I had a couple of women runners I was treating and I was like, Oh, you know, we get into the talk about sponsorship money. And I’m like, well, they’ve got to be doing better than I did. And you know, both of them were like, yeah, we’re about 25% of what the men were.
Nikki Kimball: 00:35:29 I’m like, well, that’s better than I did at my worst. At least they’re not getting one 10th, but yet again, it’s still, it’s not okay.
Shannon Sepulveda: It’s not. Okay. And so what do you think we can do?
Nikki Kimball: I think we talk, we keep open dialogue. We support people like Gina who have trail sisters. We support brands like Oiselle who are trying to make a difference. And I think that each of us you know, each female athlete is one cog in the machine of getting female athletics taken seriously. I mean there was a time when women weren’t allowed to run a marathon because our uterus would fall out, which makes a lot of sense as a women’s health specialist. It’s gross when it happens. But each of us just does her part to make it a little bit more fair.
Nikki Kimball: 00:36:30 The unfortunate thing is each of us doing our part makes us less sponsorable. Cause if I’m out there whining about the sponsors treating me poorly versus my male counterparts, they’re not going to want to sponsor me. But at this point, it doesn’t matter I’m past my professional career anyway. But I do know I probably could have been more quiet and you know, tried to look cute and race that way and because you need and probably that would have been better for sponsorship. Cause you definitely notice that the women getting on covers of magazines, it’s not necessarily the fastest ones, but they’re always cute. And that’s not so much the case in the mens. I mean, I’m sure men face it in some ways, but I don’t think that sponsorship has as much to do with how they look. And if they’re willing to put pictures of themselves in a sports bra as their profile picture on Facebook or whatever. It’s just a huge, huge topic.
Shannon Sepulveda: 00:37:19 It is. I know it brings me back to, I played tennis when I was younger and so it brings me back to a New York Times article awhile ago on Serena Williams and Sharapova and it was just like, how much more money she got. She’s pretty.
Nikki Kimball: That sort of Sharapova thing happens everywhere.
Shannon Sepulveda: So let’s talk about physiology. When are the women going to beat the men?
Nikki Kimball: Women beat the men when the race is long and difficult and has really bad conditions.
Nikki Kimball: 00:38:24 Men do have a physiological advantage. Yeah. They absolutely do. That’s why we need a men’s race and a women’s race because they absolutely have a huge physiological advantage. However, when stuff gets bad, women thrive. It was so cool to see. I know that if I’m in the last 10 miles of a hundred mile race and I come upon a guy, I’m going to beat him. If I come upon a woman, it’s on and that’s not just because we’re competing against each other because I see this in my practice as well. Due to biological differences we do tolerate pain better. Is that biologically something that happens so that we can survive childbirth, you know, I don’t know, I think it is a real thing.
Nikki Kimball: 00:39:17 Like I think that pain probably hurts more for a guy then for a woman on average. And that’s totally on average, but women just push themselves, so they’re just able to push through so much. All the times I’ve been in a national or world class event that I’ve been on the men’s podium, which has been three times it’s been bad conditions. One of the hottest years at Western states, I was third out of the men and you know, there were a lot of men there who could have beaten me, but they, you know, it’s super hot and they’re just dropping like flies and the women are just kind of like were fine. So there’s gotta be, you know, something going on there and how much of it is so is social construction and how much of it is biology and how much of it is psychology and you know, all of these things playing a role.
Nikki Kimball: 00:40:13 I do know that we do relatively better to the men when things get tough.
Shannon Sepulveda: It’s like grit. I wonder if, I’m just thinking about, since I’m a women’s health PT, like sleep deprivation, I wonder if women deal with that better than men do just because of we have to, we have newborns. Same thing with pain, like you have to deal with it in childbirth.
Nikki Kimball: And whether we have kids or not, right? We still have those genetics to say, how would humans continue to continue? Evolve, how would any of that happen if we went, couldn’t go nights without sleep and a very, very painful pregnancies and deliveries. And then come back from the aftermath of delivering a baby, which is just like, it’s just something that doesn’t happen in any other part of our lives.
Nikki Kimball: 00:41:11 We just don’t go rip tissue, men don’t experience that. I haven’t experienced that and I’m not sad to miss that. We have to be able to do that and it would make sense evolutionarily that we have some, you know, women have some capability to withstand and thrive through pain that men may not have as much access to and we also have to forget about it and do it again.
Shannon Sepulveda: Right. That’s the other thing. And I often wonder that I’m like, Gosh, we just forget about that so quickly. Like with childbirth. It’s like in a couple days or a week, you know, you forget about the pain. And I often wonder that with like, you know racing. you just forget about it. You’re like, oh, I forgot how much that hurt.
Nikki Kimball: And you remember that at mile something in the race and you’re like, while you’re racing, you’re like, why did I sign up for this again?
Nikki Kimball: 00:42:12 And that’s regardless of sex because we all feel it. And we all come back and do it again. There’s something greater about running and racing than there is about pain.
Shannon Sepulveda: Do you feel like physiologically in the last 20 years, like women have made incremental gains as far as like ultra running? Are you feel like it’s always been like the popular.
Nikki Kimball: No, I don’t think physiologically we really have changed. But I think that, and this, it goes across from men and women, is that there’s just more people doing the sport. So we are with greater numbers. We’re going to have more fast people and those more fast people are going to teach other, the ones who come behind them.
Nikki Kimball: 00:43:16 And like records always fall, right? Like why did nobody run a four minute mile until Roger Bannister did? And then everyone starts running, well, not everyone, but many, many elite men were running for a minute sub four minute miles. It wasn’t that he was physiologically different. He was just the one to be able to say, no, that’s not a barrier. You know, and I think that every time one of us breaks a record, it gives the person behind us that confidence that if the course record used to be 20 hours in and now it’s 19, well now we know we can break 20 hours. And then so everybody comes to I think there’s such a huge mental component to this because we certainly don’t evolve that quickly. And granted, there’s so much more media attention and money.
Nikki Kimball: 00:44:06 I mean, like people are now guys are making a livable wage. So few of them, you know, from running, maybe a couple, maybe some women are, I don’t, I don’t know. I don’t think so. But we’re starting to see, you know, we’re starting to get a lot of gain. And also, you know, my generation of ultra runners, the women were all, we all had to work full time who aren’t getting paid or we weren’t getting paid well. And so, you know, I think of course records going down and people getting faster, and that’s just a natural evolution that happens in every sport. I mean, the science behind it gets better, the training gets better, the food gets better, I remember one year, this guy writing, oh, my time at western states would have won in 1970 whatever.
Nikki Kimball: 00:44:55 And I’m like, let’s talk apples to apples in 1970 you would have been in a canvas shoe and you might’ve had a potato chip and a couple bottles of water. I find that very frustrating. I do think that each generation, it’s still going to be the same qualities that bring those top people up. We do bill, like I wouldn’t have run the times I did had people not done similar things before me. I wouldn’t have even known that that was something to go for. And so each of us who publicizes the sport and who does good things in the sport makes it easier for the person coming up behind him or her.
Shannon Sepulveda: How long does it take for an ultra runner to peak? Like how many years?
Nikki Kimball: 00:45:45 That’s a really good question. Honestly the science isn’t there. We are evidence based practice for us physical therapists is so, so important. How do like do evidence based practice on somebody who’s an ultra runner? I tried to extrapolate from studies done on a marathon or maybe, but they’re not even that many studies on those folks. So you know, I really don’t know that we know that, but I do know a couple things. One is that people tend to have a race career of somewhere between like three and 10 years where they’re really, really good, but they don’t seem to have much longer than that. Like, there’s a steep drop off in speed at some point. And is that mental, is that physical?
Nikki Kimball: 00:46:38 I’m not sure how linked it is to actual chronological age. You know, you might fly in your twenties and then by 31 you’re kind of done, or your best 10 years might be 40 to 50. Like it just, it seems that there’s some equation out there between age, miles on your body and you know, hard races run and length of duration of your running career that would sort of point to, you know, when you might be best. But I’ve seen, you know, I peaked at 36, I’ve seen people peak in their forties, people peak young, you know, so it’s all these n of one groups. I mean, it’s really, I love to know more it, but it’s just so multifactorial. How would we ever study it?
Shannon Sepulveda: And everybody has different backgrounds and high school in college.
Shannon Sepulveda: 00:47:39 Right. So this would be a great transition to talk to you about hardrock this year. For those of you who don’t know, Nikki came in second. And we were all cheering her on like on irunfar.com, so just tell us about that, your age and how that impacted you.
Nikki Kimball: Yeah, hard rock was amazing. It was easy to get into it in the nineties and now is so popular that thousands of people apply for 140 something spots. So anyway, I’ve tried to get into it for years and I finally got in and I knew that at my peak, I would run that course really, really well. It was really made for me. It’s super, it was really high altitude. You know, you’re going over many peaks over 13,000 feet.
Nikki Kimball: 00:48:39 You’re not getting below 10,000 feet very often. I mean, it’s just, it’s just fantastic and it’s exposed and it’s rocky and it’s gnarly. And it’s just a steep and fun and 31,000, 33,000 feet of gain and a hundred miles. It’s awesome. So part of me really wanted to run it when I was younger and really, really strong because I’m hours slower in a hundred mile race than I used to be. I mean hours. So for this race, you know, finally get in, I know I’m not at my best. I’d also been battling an injury from a snowshoe race that really, that finally took me out later in the year. I had actually been training for about four months because of this injury had sort of taken me out for a while and I had four months of really fantastic training going into that. So not a lot, but I still had 30 years of competition to go back on, or 40 years actually of competition to go back, fall back on.
Nikki Kimball: 00:49:41 So, you know, so I get there and I know I’m not at my best, but I also know that two of the other top women in the race are also in their forties. And you know, none of us were all way past our prime. And one person who was, who was young, who, you know, who won it, you know, she’s 20 years younger than me, she better be able to beat me. So it was just this magical race where we just start, you know, you just running along and talking to people cause that’s a big part of ultra marathon culture is amazing and shifting with the influx of money and influx of people self promoting on social media. That stuff’s really, really frustrating. But, hardrock the spirit of hard rock is very much in that old school, ultra running.
Nikki Kimball: 00:50:34 We all want to get into the finish. I mean, yes, we’re going to compete against each other, but we’re also really supportive of each other. And we are having a few people in the sport who aren’t supportive of their competitors and that’s really, really sad. But at hardrock I ended up, you know, in this group of people, one who was a PT, a pre PT student of mine. He and I along with Darla, ask you the Darla ask you and somebody had a couple of other people ended up in this group and the six person group and Jeff was my student. He and I were having a competition to see who could tell the most bad jokes. And so that was really fun. And this is the first like 20 miles. We’re just kind of like chill and having fun and you do things like talk and tell horrible jokes because it makes the time go cause you can’t race for all 30 hours, you’re going to race for the last couple.
Nikki Kimball: 00:51:28 Sort of having that community around me just made me happy. I was running well, you know, running up towards the front and I had a bit of an explosion. Like, I just, you know, you have really bad patches and I had this massive just meltdown after one aid station and I just kind of walking up through the woods and frustrated and I know, and all I’m thinking is even five years ago, I would be, I’d be four miles ahead of where I am right now. And it was really hard and I’ve been dealing with the slow down for at least eight years at this point. And I just laid down in the middle, you know, like mile 29 I just laid down in the woods where nobody could see me and just sort of thought about age and really had this sort of amazing epiphany of like, I was just, I mean, I laid there for like 15 minutes.
Nikki Kimball: 00:52:34 But just thinking about, you know, why, why am I expecting myself to still be on the podium for the men and all these races when these men are now 20 years younger than me? And, you know, this is like, like I am asking my body to be what it was when I was 30, and when I was in my mid thirties and I’m 47. Like it was amazing to finally, after fighting and fighting and just being like, why am I slowing down? This is so frustrating. I’m training just as hard and I’m getting slower and now that the sports popular and people are winning with times that were easy for me at one point in my life. And, you know, just that sort of Sour Grapes of, uh, and it finally sort of occurred to me that, you know, in this little part of the race, and this is what ultra running does, is it pushes you so far that you have to think beyond the way you would think in normal situations.
Nikki Kimball: 00:53:30 And it finally sort of dawned on me, and this should have come more easily than this, but that I should be celebrating what my body can do instead of what it can’t. I mean, I’m 47 and still running, you know, a hundred mile race with 30,000 feet of gain and being on the podium. Like that’s huge. And I’m doing it with people I’ve run with my whole life and with people who, with a former student of mine who is now just graduated PT school and he actually ended up second for the men. So we ended up sharing the podium spot and you know, he’s 20 years younger than me. And it just made me think about what’s important in ultra running. And really what drew me to it is that I love running in the woods and that I love the mental clarity that comes with running.
Nikki Kimball: 00:54:28 And I love the community of people who do this sport. And you know, like you sort of getting back to that despite a massive slow down in my racing was critical. And it’s something that I’ve just been fighting. I’ve been fighting a cancer, my body changing rather than sort of managing it. Like we talk about managing chronic pain, managing depression, managing these things. We had to manage our aging and instead of just, you know, I was totally know my body doesn’t obey the laws of physiology. I’m not aging, Duh, Duh, Duh and, but you know what I am. And I had to give myself a little permission to do that. So hard rock really, really gave me that back. I mean, yes, I was probably five hour slower than I would have run it when I was 35 but I should be 47 and I have 90,000 miles on my body.
Nikki Kimball: 00:55:28 Like I shouldn’t be fast anymore.
Shannon Sepulveda: And you still came in second which suggests you got faster, like literally like this epiphany and then you’re like, I can just do this.
Nikki Kimball: Yeah, kind of cause I had, you know, been caught by a bunch of people and then I just sort of gave up the results. This is hard rock. Like this is the race. People sell their soul to get into like, I’m here in the most beautiful mountains of San Juan mountains are stunning. I am having this catered hundred mile trek through this beautiful country with amazing people. That’s what it is, you know? Yeah. Winning races is cool and that’s fun and it’s great, you know, like it’s a huge ego boost and all that but it’s pretty shallow.
Nikki Kimball: 00:56:22 It is fleeting. Like you might win now, it doesn’t mean you’re going to win the next time. I mean, you know, there has to be something much, much bigger than results to get you to do the sport. And I think giving up any care of where I finished and just being like, you will finish this, you know, it’s a gift to be able to get into this race unless you’re injured, you better finish. It was just a good sort of cap to my running career.
Shannon Sepulveda: Yeah. It almost seems like that’s almost a gift of aging because maybe you couldn’t think like that when you were 35 and you did have another race. You know, like, I could never, I always did have the next thing and now you’re like, I can just do this for fun.
Nikki Kimball: 00:57:13 Right. And I can coach other people and coach them in a way where I attempt to use my physiology but my physical therapy knowledge and help them to run without injury or to get any injury that comes up. We treat it immediately, we immediately manage it. We don’t run somebody into the ground and there’s so many people coaching. There’s no oversight in coaching, you know, who maybe took a three day course and have a certification. That does not make them a knowledgeable coach. And we’re seeing that all the time. And so I like sort of, I love that I get to coach and I usually I keep about eight clients at a time because I don’t want more than that because then I can’t take care of them.
Nikki Kimball: 00:58:11 I can’t help them. And I want people to love running and I want it to be, I want it to be healthy. In a lot of the people I work with used running as part of their mental health treatment plan. And if you’re treating depression with running and you have an injury, it’s disastrous. You could die. Keeping people running healthy is my new thing, you know, like that’s my, you know, it’s like, okay. Yeah, it was great to, you know, be the best ultra runner in the trails runner in the world for a while. That was awesome. That was really fun. It was great. Now it’s more about like, what running’s really about and what am always has been about. But I probably lost sight of when, you know, traveling the world and you know winning stuff.
Shannon Sepulveda: So let’s talk about your coaching because it would be pretty cool to be coached by a world champion, technically one of the best in the world. So tell us about your coaching and what you do.
Nikki Kimball: 00:59:23 And so if my clients, I coach people locally, I mean, you know, I sort of just starting, I’ve taken people under my wing my entire running career and sort of coached without coaching, you know, and now if I coach people locally, it’s amazing because I actually get my hands on them, you know, I can do a screen of where are they tight, where are they strong, where are they weak, where they loose, where, you know, is there something funky going on with their running? Has somebody tried to change their running gait? Because that usually messes stuff up because you have all these people who, you know, went to a CI running course and think they know my biomechanics and usually massive changes to people’s gait gets them injured.
Nikki Kimball: 01:00:11 I just like being the person who runners can come to for physical therapy and for coaching who could hopefully do a better job of predicting and avoiding injury. I’ve treated runners for 20 years as a physical therapist. I mean because our evidence isn’t great, we have to combine mechanical knowledge with physical therapy evidence on sports that might be similar and on our experience, I mean I can’t, I just look back to the 1990s. I’m like, how the heck did anyone I treat get better. You know, like it was luck. Cause you know, I think of all the mistakes I made in my first, and I’m still making mistakes, but the horrible mistake I would make, things I would miss and my first 10 years of treating runners, I mean just, I mean I think that’s what I can offer.
Nikki Kimball: 01:01:10 And coaching is something that’s just well beyond what, you know, your person who never studied physiology or mechanics or something and there are some people who are self taught coaches who are very, very good, but they have a lot to catch up on.
Shannon Sepulveda: And do you coach remotely to your work with like physical therapy remotely? Like you do the screen, tell me what you found. I’ll do the coaching.
Nikki Kimball: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think that’s critical. The hard thing is knowing who the physical therapist is in that area. I have a Bozeman client right now whose wife is on sabbatical from the MSU. So He’s traveling around. So when he’s in another place, like who do I send them to for PT? And I don’t insist, I mean I need hands on the people who I coach if I can, like I want to know how they’re doing, but I’d certainly don’t insist that they use me as a physical therapist that’s referral for profit and I don’t, I’m not okay with that. And there are fantastic running PTs in town.
Nikki Kimball: 01:02:19 I’ve got great people to send my people to and sometimes they come to me often they do and that’s great too. But if I’m missing something, I want to call in another therapist because why not, why not use that knowledge that’s there? So really what I found is the best thing I can, the best thing I’ve come up with, with getting, working with a PT, if I don’t know the area, is having the athlete go to the running store, they’re running specialty store and say who’s good here. Not to say that it’s always going to give you the best result, but, you want to go to a therapist who has seen runners, who’s worked with runners, because it’s just a different skill. I mean, you’re not going to come to me for neck pain because like, no, I give you really a problem.
Nikki Kimball: 01:03:06 So I think that can help. And then physical therapists who specialized with treating runners were super geeky about it and we love when our patient comes and says, Hey, can you talk to my coach? She’s also a PT or ex phys. I mean oftentimes or physiologists. I mean, you know, like what I, you know my strength and in biomechanics I also have a weakness of physiology cause we don’t study it as much. So it’s great to be able to talk, you know, if one of my patients says, Hey, I want you to talk to my coach. And they sign their release. It’s fun to talk to their coach and be like, Hey, and you just, you know, the coach is going to see if it’s something different than the PT is and you know, and you really work together. I love that part of it.
Shannon Sepulveda: 01:03:51 Oh yeah. I mean even with me and when I have, you know, women who come to me that leak when they run and I’m like, I’m really good at making you not leak when you run, maybe making you not have prolapse symptoms when you run. I’m not your performance coach. Like you go see experts and experts and an expert and they’re going to like Dork out on the stride and you know the form and everything. Right. But I can help your pelvic floor when you’re running. Exactly. And that’s why we specialize. I was like, you know, you can geek out with running.
Nikki Kimball: 01:04:33 Like I could go to so many courses and I don’t have time to do that. It’s not my forte, but these people are really good at it. And the thing is you’re really good at women’s health, pelvic floor stuff because it’s what you do. And you applied the geekiness of pelvic floor health that I applied to running. So of course, yeah, of course. I want my person with incontinence to see you and my person who was a runner to see me and I think if we all shared it would be great.
Shannon Sepulveda: It would be so great because as you realize how much more you don’t know, even when I have an injury, I go see a PT, like I’m not treating myself. I don’t do stuff right. I never do it. So I think your PT tells me, he tells me to do it, I do it. And they do hands on things that are just so different. And so I go see a PTs all the time for my stuff because I’m really good at what I do and they’re really good at their niche and what they do. And PT is such a huge field that you can’t be good at everything. Well, so where can people find you if they want coaching?
Nikki Kimball: 01:05:20 I’ve always done it word of mouth, but it’s Nikkikimball@yahoo.com is sort of my public address that people can reach me at. Facebook doesn’t really work because I get frustrated, but don’t answer stuff. I just love coaching people of all levels, you know, but again, you know, I’m going to coach somebody for mostly ultra running or I love coaching, people in their fifties, sixties, seventies for shorter distance stuff because I think masters in veteran athletes, you know, athletes over 50 have, you know, they have so much to gain from sport and the book knowledge I have, there is no way I could have coached people people past, you know, 45 and before I realized a massive slow down myself.
Nikki Kimball: 01:06:46 It doesn’t matter that you get it intellectually. You don’t get it until you feel it. And when I’m three minutes a mile slower than I was at my best, you know, you know, you know, age is something.
Shannon Sepulveda: It is, it totally is. I mean, it’s the same thing when, you know, I have pregnant women that I’ve never had a baby before and then want to run a, you know, I thought I could run a 5K like eight weeks after I had a baby before. Because when you don’t know, I know it happens to you and then you’re like, oh yeah, like I do get sore with age. Childbirth does something to your body, right. You don’t know until you experience it and you can’t expect someone to know that you can’t.
Nikki Kimball: 01:07:39 The other thing, I mean, it’s not like all parents throughout history haven’t told their kids. You just wait. Sony. I mean, but it doesn’t matter. We can say those things. It doesn’t, it doesn’t, you don’t get it until you go through it. I mean, and I think book knowledge is super, super important and evidence and all that, but experience can’t be discounted.
Shannon Sepulveda: Well, and it’s also really nice to have someone that has gone through it and knows because you want someone that has been through it and knows what to do and has experienced that. So they can have empathy for you as a person, as an athlete, and assist you.
Nikki Kimball: 01:08:16 And also, you know, if it took me nine years to come to terms with my aging as an athlete, well, why would I expect my 57 year old runner to be okay with running a 30 minute 5K when she used to run a 20 minute 5K? Like how? Yeah. You know, like, it’s important, you know, to have gone through that too, you know, I don’t know, you know, seeing as it took me forever to teach myself that lesson and I still don’t think I’m completely there. I don’t know how well I do helping people through that. But I wish I had had some buddy who had gone through that slow down with me when I did.
Shannon Sepulveda: 01:09:12 Thank you so much for coming on the podcast. We’d really, really appreciate that.
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