Vermont Native Nikki Kimball Smashes Women’s Long Trail Record

Nikki and members of her support crew at the southern terminus of the Long Trail.

Nikki Kimball ran the Long Trail in August in just five days, seven hours, and 42 minutes, setting a new record for women.

Kimball, a three-time winner of the North American Ultra Runner of the Year Award, three-time Western States winner and 2007 Ultra-Trail Du Mount Blanc winner, reached the end of the 273-mile trail on Aug. 18, shattering the previous women’s record by more than seven days. While she lives in Montana now, her connection to Vermont made this run very important.

“I had planned this trip for September 2011,” Kimball told Vermont Sports, “and could not begin it because of hurricane Irene. Watching video footage of the damage to my first home crushed me. I was sad about postponing the expedition, but heartbroken to see Vermont and its residents suffering so much. … After Irene, I felt an added need to be on the Long Trail and to support my original home state.”

Her interest in the Long Trail was spurred early on. “Growing up near the Long Trail shaped my early running life,” Kimball said. “I cannot remember a time in childhood before wishing to become a member of the US cross-country ski team. I trained at Mountain Top Ski Touring Center in Chittenden, both winter and summer. In the summer, long runs from Mountain Top sometimes took me to the Long Trail. As my running was then only a method of training for skiing, I ran trails more often than roads and developed a love for running technical, steep terrain.”

As she attempted to break the speed record in mid-August, Kimball’s emotions peaked and valleyed like the terrain she was running on. “Working as a team with my best friends and family—as well as an ultra runner from New York City I barely knew before last week—was the best aspect of the project,” she said. “We were all under constant stress from lack of sleep, rain, heat, humidity, and the simple fact that none of us had ever participated in a project like this before. … Pacers carried supplies, cooks fed me, our technical member updated the website despite very limited Internet connectivity, our doctor monitored my health and debrided my blisters. My crew completed countless other thankless tasks, all in a massive team effort to get me safely and quickly to Williamstown, Mass.”

But, Kimball struggled. “The worst moment lasted several hours. It was a nighttime slog into Mad Tom Notch. I was exhausted, sleep-deprived and more miserable than I’ve ever been in the woods. My pacer and best friend, Jenny Pierce, had to keep me marching forward despite my best efforts to lie down on the trail and throw tantrums. The only thing I wanted at the time was to sleep and I had miles—and hours—to go before I could do so.” To lie down would mean hypothermia and other risks to herself and her partner.

“At the time I did not care what happened to me, but I never lost my need to keep Jenny safe,” she continued. “We are backcountry ski partners in Montana and our lives our in the other’s hands and brains every day we go out. I choose her as my ski partner because she always stays on the conservative side of decisions regarding safety. She has quite likely made calls in the winter backcountry which kept us off potential dangerous slopes, and I needed to repay her for this by continuing forward despite every impulse I had to simply lie down. I cannot overstate the power of sleep’s call to me that night. Aside from Jenny’s safety, the only thought in my brain was an overwhelming craving to lie down. We’ve talked about that night and it was one of the hardest either of us has ever endured.”

The run raised money for Girls on the Run Vermont, a nonprofit organization that teaches girls 8 to 15 life skills through dynamic, conversation-based lessons, and running exercises, in preparation for a 5K run, which is a first for many girls in the program. Kimball said the organization was a “great fit” for her project. “Growing up an athlete in Vermont is a gift. Skiing and running taught me self confidence, time management skills, respect for my body, and countless other positive life skills. Any success I have today is a direct result of being encouraged to grow as a person through athletics. I want every child to have the opportunity to do just that.”

Kimball celebrated her accomplishment with “intense intervals of sleeping and eating” for two full days before she had to fly back to Montana to return to work.

Her journey is being filmed by Fours Five Productions and MontanaPBS, which will examine the role of women in professional sports and explore the world of distance running. The documentary, “Long Trail” will air on PBS in 2013.