Nikki Kimball recently placed first in the Washington DC Endurance Challenge Gore-Tex 50 Mile, and she is getting ready for Western States 100 this weekend. Nikki is a three-time Western States champion and placed third last year. Here is her take on the latest race and why she'll be running #WS100 with a broken hand.
I love each North Face Challenge Race I’ve run. The flavor of venues vary from site to site, the trails range from technical to well groomed, and some courses climb and descend relentlessly while others follow rather flat topographical lines. 2012 was the first year since the series began in which I had not planned to run a single TNF challenge until December. My planned races and record attempts ate every minute of vacation time from my work as a physical therapist. I simply could not escape the clinic another day.
My ultra season started with the Transvulcania 50 mile race in La Palma, Canary Islands on May 12, and continued 8 days later with another Skyrunning race in Zegama, Spain. The first race went decently. I felt good, but I wasn’t quite into race mode yet. In Zegama I started to feel great about the halfway point, despite some lingering fatigue from the previous weekend. Then, just as I started to get a bit cocky about my performance and more comfortable with my first truly technical trail race in years, I planted my right hand onto the ground at full speed. Having gloves on, I couldn’t actually see the broken bones, and figured I merely sprained a finger. Endorphins mask pain quite nicely, after all, and I did not feel much discomfort. So I finished the second half of the race without thinking much of my hand, aside from the minor frustration of not being able to use it to open gel packs or otherwise assist with my regular fueling. But hey, I was in Basque country playing on rocks and shin-deep mud, on a well-marked course lined with frenetic, boisterous fans: there was nothing I’d rather have been doing.
And what does a mountain race in northern Spain have to do with a 50 mile event near the capital of the United States?
Well, upon my return from nearly 2 weeks away, I was naturally scheduled to work a bit extra to make up for my time abroad. As luck (bad or good, depending on one’s view) would have it, x-rays showed a displaced spiral fracture of a long bone in my hand and a lengthy, but quite stable fracture in my finger. Opting against surgery, as the permanent damage is strictly cosmetic, I chose the course of five or so weeks immobilization: no writing, no lifting, no manual therapy. Thus began my first true vacation in over a decade, and it only cost a couple orthopedist co-pays.
A broken hand prevents a lot of activities: cleaning, working as a P.T., writing, yard work… However, it does not impede running much at all. Upon this discovery I entered The North Face Challenge 50, D.C., the one trail course in the series I had yet to run. I did not expect much going in. It was my third ultra in four weeks and the D.C. course has less climbing than any other Endurance Challenge 50 (and I have not been running flat sections of races well over the last few years). I simply wanted to use the race as training for Western States 100 three weeks hence. I needed to figure out how my fueling and running would work out given the addition of a wrist/hand splint to my running kit, and running a 50 miler before WS 100 would help me do that.
Ultramarathons rarely go completely to plan. I’m sure most local runners, having trained a bit on the trail, did not expect the entire out-and-back piece of the lollipop course to be covered in mud. I imagine most of us planned on a smooth, fast ½ marathon to start and end our 50 mile trot that day. Then the nearly 2 inches of rain the afternoon before the race formed one of the more incredible storms I’ve experienced. And it certainly made the race more, well, interesting (aka slow, sloppy, generally fun).
I started the race thinking of my two main goals, “keep the pace under control, and do not fall.” So I naturally started out faster than planned and within 3 miles belly-slid like a kid on a Slip-and Slide. 6% of the race complete and I had already broken the only two rules I had made for myself. But I felt great. For the first time in years, I felt fast on the flat sections (between mud-pits, that is). I wanted to run hard, and I didn’t feel the fatigue of back to back ultras preceding this race. So I ran hard, not going with my initial plan to save myself for WS 100. As for my hand, the volunteers at each aid station were, as always, incredibly helpful. They would open gel packs and put the lid back on my bottle for me. With their help, the splint in no way hindered my performance. In fact, given the few falls I managed to add to my day’s activities, it likely saved me from serious re-injury. I did not initially intend to test the efficacy of my splint in protecting the fractures, but I’ve got to say, the piece did a fantastic job.
Looking at the course map I had some reservations about the middle 3-lap section of the course. Each lap consisted of two out-and-back sections as well as some looping around on single track. That said, the course here was very well marked, and wide enough on the out-and-back sections to allow plenty of room to pass. I loved that I could see other competitors frequently, finding myself able to cheer on some individuals many times during the running of this section. Additionally, I could assess my place in the race and see some of the men’s race unfold. And, naturally, the rocky section looking down on the Potomac, swollen, churning and mud-brown from the rain, added a beautiful sprinkling of technical merit to an otherwise fast (on dry years), though pretty course.
I ran the final ½ marathon with different 50km and 50 mile runners, alternately chatting about the beauty of the course, and cursing the deep, slick mud which seemed to be wearing on all of us as we fatigued. Upon finishing, I felt great, but realized I had raced it hard, rather than treating it as a training run. Then I looked down at my body and my splint, both packed with mud. As I said, races rarely go as planned.