Ultra runner Nikki Kimball has quite the impressive running resumé. She has been on 14 U.S. National Teams, won races and set countless course records. But for Kimball, being a professional athlete is much more than the titles that she holds. And when asked about her recently released film, Finding Traction, she would rather talk about the other messages in the film than the trail itself. She said she wanted to create something that was more than just a running movie. Kimball explained that she was able to succeed thanks to a partnership with a Bozeman filmmaker, her passion for issues plaguing her community and, of course, the Vermont Long Trail.
Kimball’s story starts in her eighth grade year as a budding skier. Upon hearing that the U.S. men’s ski team set an incredibly fast record on the Vermont Long Trail, Kimball thought, ‘I want to do that.’ It was in this moment that Kimball formed her dream to become the fastest man or woman ever to run the Long Trail.
While she had her sights set on the 1998 Winter Olympics, Kimball fell to depression. After the Olympic trials in 1994 Kimball’s diagnosis put her Olympic and medical school aspirations aside. Recognizing that she could no longer pursue this dream, she set her path towards graduate school and getting healthy. Kimball explained that running became a way for her to exercise and get her mind right. At first, running was just an accompaniment to her treatment; however, it soon became her way back into competitive sports.
Though a self-proclaimed particularly mediocre runner, Kimball transitioned to professional running flawlessly, competing and making a name for herself in the ultra running world. Now, the community of ultra marathoners is different from where Kimball started. “Seventeen years that I have kind of been around this sport, it’s grown in many ways. When I started [ultrarunning], everyone thought we were crazy and now they’re like, oh okay yeah 100 miles, cool,” Kimball said.
Kimball noted that the competitive nature of the running community has become more prominent in recent years. “I think that we’re losing a little bit of that feeling that running and the community come first and the competition comes second,” she said. However, she doesn’t seem too worried and hopes that the older generations will continue to teach the aspiring runners the culture.
Kimball began racing in earnest and made quite a name for herself. After a failed attempt at a documentary about ultra running in the Western U.S., Kimball looked to fulfill her dream of the fastest known time on the Long Trail.
Years later, a serendipitous airport meeting set Kimball’s dream in motion.“This Bozeman film maker and I ended up on the same plane and we knew of each other because we both run but we never really connected and she said, ‘Ya I really have been thinking about this a lot lately and I really want to make a film about ultra running.’ And I was like, ‘well funny that you say that because I just got permission to do this expedition.’”
Thus, with director and producer Jaime Jacobsen, the Finding Traction project began. As Jacobsen pointed out,“we did have some key women in some key positions on the project.” Both Kimball and Jacobsen share goals to empower women in male-dominated worlds.
Kimball explained, “The main themes of the film are more about women’s sport and overcoming adversity, specifically mental illness, depression… and the chasing your dreams no matter what they are.”
Jacobsen was challenged with how she wanted to portray Kimball in the film. The crew struggled while dealing with a combination of rain and experimental camera methods. However, Jacobsen said that Kimball gave the director creative license.“You know it was always that ‘Jaime you’re the filmmaker, this is your story,’ and I think she trusted me to tell her story and to be true to it,” Jacobsen explained.
Jacobsen noted that at times the film becomes difficult to watch. “[Kimball] goes through a lot of pain and a lot of hard moments on the trail but I personally find her to be really inspiring role model someone who goes after her dreams no matter what and doesn’t give up even in the face of potential failure,” the director said.
Outside of her work with Finding Traction, Kimball has taken her running and media attention and truly used it for good. “I mean the thing about running is that it is so individual and so narcissistic, and I think runners, you know we owe something back and media allows us to use our running to do some good,” she said.
Kimball emphasized the importance of remaining humble as a successful athlete. “That’s just something that I like people to remember in sports. It is that nothing that any of us does is really all that special. We just happen to be…good at taking what people did before us and building on it,” Kimball said.
In 2014, Kimball won the Run Rabbit Run 100 mile race in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. “I finally have realized the benefits of what I have been fighting for last year by actually receiving, you know, winning the big prize purse,” she said. Kimball explained that the next generation of runners will be looking to build on what people like her have done for the sport, for women, for obesity and for mental health.
What’s next for Kimball? She will be running in the Western States 100 race in California, eager for another top-five finish. A top-five result would make Kimball the first woman to have 10 top-five finishes in her first 10 races at Western. Kimball hinted that, in 2016, she might make another attempt at the Vermont Long Trail record. “Because I know I can go faster than I did even though I am a much slower runner than I was in the 2000s, but I am also a smarter person,” Kimball said.