“I was sleeping 18 hours a day,” confessed distance runner Nikki Kimball midway through the movie on her mega-run, Finding Traction.
And I was shocked. In one quick moment Nikki popped the vivid image of the happy athlete I’d held since middle school.
If we flashed back the that super awkward era, you’d see a young timid me hugging the awful beige hallways on my quiet walk to fifth period orchestra while the more boisterous kids – primped in cleats, jerseys, gelled hair and ponytails – palled around looking effortlessly social with their ruckus of quips and physical teasing. They were like sunny carefree bubbles of inexhaustible energy who fully reveled in the competitive spirit of an active life.
As much as I don’t understand anything about myself, I guess I understand much less of the world
If you’ve been following along, I’ve been feeding my need for motivation with all of the outdoorsy sports documentaries I can get my hands on. Today it was Motivation 2: The Chris Cole Story and Inspired to Ride. I’m getting second hand high off of all of these uplifting moves since I’m way too figuratively cheap to fully risk my own ass getting overly ripped.
But yesterday’s viewing, Finding Traction featuring the aforementioned Nikki, was a little bit of a different beast. As much as it was a film about triumph – Nikki runs an incredible 270-plus miles of a classic hiking trail in record time – it also took a hard, sometimes uncomfortable look at the struggles that drive us and make us who we are, for better or worse.
(Below is the documentary and then some (it starts over for some reason) and it’s also on Netflix)
From the beginning of the film, it’s easy to see something extreme in Nikki. I couldn’t put my finger on it, and I knew you had to be attracted to challenges to take on races that seem super wacky to most of the people watching the story from the warmth of their home. But she also had a heavy intensity that I hadn’t yet seen in the other athletes I’d gotten to know in these films. I’d so far seen ultrarunners reach major fatigue, get a little cranky from sleep deprivation, and feel overwhelmed to the point that they’re reasonably agitated. But not like this.
Before I go any deeper into the story, let’s lay it down that it takes a whole hell of a lot of human guts to sacrifice the secrets of your emotional demons to a camera. I regret it every single time I let it slip on social media that I, too, know a shady guy named anxiety. So though Nikki’s trials can be intense to watch, she is undeserving of judgement. Plus she actually is an untouchable badass, so I’m a nobody analyzing her. I’m going to try to give her the respect she deserves as I learn stuff here about how different human minds function, and appreciate the guts they have to continue on.
Show me the money without telling me how you got it so I delude myself into thinking it was super easy
Throughout Finding Traction, the filmmakers set up Nikki’s big reveal with solid clues.
She lets us in on her addictive personality, telling us that “running helps.” Her dad recounts seeing his young daughter exhibit an incredible determination to win. We’re even informed that she had to wear corrective leg braces as a kid, and in true champion fashion, pushed her way through that physical trial. Her will to succeed was awesome. Her drive was also intense, driven by strong moods.
“We have to try to keep her positive,” endurance runner Dennis Ball, Nikki’s pacer, tells us when Nikki finds out she’s behind schedule. “If she feels like she’s behind schedule, it’s going to put her in a bad mental state. And that’s not something we want to do. We want to keep her positive.”
It was kind of a scary, edgy thing to admit. Dennis seemed worried about rocking her mood. Gradually, we also begin to see that Nikki’s arduous run coupled with a lack of rest and possibly improper nutrition, digs itself deep into her. During one rest stop Nikki goes off screen to compose herself.
“The conditions were really upsetting her,” said Nikki’s best friend and other training partner Jenny Pierce. “She’d slip on something and you know, either burst into tears or just swear.”
On that same stretch Dennis gives us a bit more insight.
“Nikki’s mood is definitely fluctuating,” said Dennis. “And I can definitely notice that some of that is related to nutrition. When she hasn’t eaten for awhile, she will start to get a little more emotional.”
Nikki reaches an aid station towards the middle of the film where she allows the cameras to catch the breadth of the emotions she’s experiencing. This is someone reaching their breaking point.
A close up cut to Nikki captures her exhausted face twisting into an ugly sob. She’s feeling it. Hard. Dennis’s voice over informs us that she’s better once she’s refueled. Nikki takes a bite of her sandwich, and suddenly, jarringly, she’s laughing. In the next few moments we see her pivot in mere seconds between good-natured and indescribably sad.
“It was crazy to see,” said Dennis. “From this excited, sad crying, to happy and laughing, all in a span of like a minute and a half.”
Her aggressive, instantaneous mood swings hit the nail on the head. Suddenly, Nikki’s emotional fluctuations made sense. I knew what was up.
“She’s manic-depressive,” I said to my husband.
I honestly didn’t know what I was talking about in my knock-off armchair. I’d read a small amount about the subject. Her behavior was specific to the other things that I knew.
And then her confession.
We’re all wired in our very own awfully wonderful ways
My initial education on manic depression came from author Marya Hornbacher and her powerful memoirs Wasted and Madness. Where Wasted disavowed for a generation the romance of an eating disorder, Madness filled in the gaps of what compulsively moved our tortured heroine to starve herself down to under 60 pounds, not to mention imbibe an entire bottle of ipecac.
“It seems to happen overnight,” Marya writes in Madness about the onset of the disorder.
“One day I am calm, and the next I am raging. It’s simple. Happens like you’re flipping a switch. [My husband] and I are going along, having a perfectly lovely evening, and then it’s dark and I am screaming, standing in the middle of the room, turning over the glass-topped coffee table, ripping the bathroom sink out of the wall, picking up anything nearby and pitching it as hard as I can. The rages always come at night. They control my voice, my hands, I scream and throw myself against the walls. I feel like a Tasmanian devil. The room spins, I run up and down the stairs, I can’t stop. [My husband] tries to grab me, holding my arms until I scream myself out and collapse, exhausted in tears – but there are nights I manage to squirm free and run out the door. Sometimes I just run as far and as hard as I can, until I can’t breathe, until my heart is about to explode, or until, stumbling drunk, I fall and hit my head on a tree stump or the curb and lie still.”
That passage always stuck with me from the book as the quintessential description of manic depression. One moment you’re happy, laughing, satisfying your hunger. The very next moment you’re disturbed, uncontrollably angry, irrevocably sad, and altogether unable to totally control the internal goings-on. All in the face of a trusted someone, a beloved someone.
And at the moment, I’m hardly as brave as Nikki or Marya, both able to bear their battles to the narrow-eyes, critics, and anyone unable to relate. But I will say both are saints for being so vulnerable with us, and their experiences are to no end both educational and inspirational.
Perfection is the most flawed philosophy we’ve got
Seconds after I pegged Nikki as my kind of lunatic, she graciously shared her emotional battle with us.
“I think that depression is my secret weapon,” she said.
It was a revelation. She wasn’t a happy jock. She was, to my relief, that magic word we bestow upon our greatest idols: relatable.
“For a time, I was sleeping 18 hours a day,” said Nikki. “And when I was awake I was very sad. There was nothing good about life. And that was a really tough part of my life, to live through not wanting to live.”
I was shocked at how frank she was, shocked that she would talk to us about what she’s been going through, and like I mentioned, shocked that she wasn’t your average carefree athlete.
“One of the things about depression, you know, it’s not just that you feel sad,” said Nikki. “You feel nothing. And I think one of the reasons I do ultras is because it gives me the highest highs and low lows. I can handle acute, strong lows. That, juxtaposed to feeling nothing, it’s just fantastic.”
“The entire journey really did give me a passion for life. I rediscovered a purpose.”
If you look a little harder, other incredible athletic achievers have used extreme sports to conquer what Nikki calls that feeling of nothingness.
World-class cyclist Juliana Buhring, in Inspired to Ride, also credits exercise with getting her out of a dark rut. At one in point in her life, after losing her sister to depression and her partner to tragedy, she hit a wall of devastation.
“I fell into a really deep depression, and I lost many friends,” she said. “I just sunk into this really dark place. And so I decided to cycle the world to get out of that.”
Her endeavor was not only a physical success when she earned the women’s record time for cycling around the world, but she found a bit more.
“It was, I suppose, a drastic move on my part, because I wanted to escape from the world. But at the same time I wanted to discover it, and discover my place in it. So that’s why I set off in the first place, and honestly left thinking that it was ok if I didn’t come back. I was perfectly ok to just go out there and if I came back, alright. But I didn’t make a contingency plan.”
In a sense, she employed that famous ‘fake it ’til you make it’ cliche. But it worked.
“The entire journey really did give me a passion for life,” she said. “I rediscovered a purpose for existence and my place in the world.”
Blame it on the rain, and then after getting a sense of it, invest in the proper gear
Watching extraordinary people do unreasonable things is illuminating, and that’s why I’m so addicted to learning about how these sports extremists function. What’s moving them? How are they different than what I thought? We can’t always know why they do what they do, or what motivates them. But by watching them, we can extract our own very important and valuable lessons. We can strive to appreciate, understand, and respect them. And in the end, hopefully we’re moved to yeah, just do it.
Especially since, as Marya (who is not only a prolific author, but a Pulitzer prize winner) writes in Madness, our personal hells aren’t exactly welcome guests, and they might happen upon us randomly, even if you’re born to achieve. They’re stealthy hellions who move in quickly, and revel in spilling coffee on the neat stack of papers we’ve made it our life’s goal to keep organized. It’s more than maddening when they happen.
“Here’s the hell of it,” Marya tells us. “Madness doesn’t announce itself. There isn’t time to prepare for its coming. It shows up without calling and sits in your kitchen ashing in your plant. You ask how long it plans to stay; it shrugs its shoulders, gets up, and starts digging through the fridge.”
In these cases, we can remember to take a page from Nikki, who, in addition to her long sleeping days, spent months in bed. But she somehow still found the will to be remarkable. Nikki has been fairly open about her depression in other podcasts and publications like Endurance Planet and Grind TV, and it might be because she truly, truly wants to be an enduring light for others. One of the most amazing things about her story is that she’s using her running efforts to not only improve herself and her mental health, but better the lives of others. She’s very adamant about being an example for other women, and especially the young women involved with Girls on the Run.
In Finding Traction, it is clear she understands the lows all too well, but tried her best to find an enduring and resonant remedy.
“I couldn’t have fought depression without activity,” she said. “Just that half a mile of walking at the worst of my depression, even though I’d be crying during part of it. I think it really helped keep me alive.”
That consciousness and reflection is what kept her going, and she wants others to know that too.
“I’ve been there,” she said, “and known that, yeah, if you can get through that point, happiness happens again. It’s one of the things you wish you could tell to everybody when they’re looking down the barrel of the gun.”
“You will find happiness again,” she says. “And you can.”
If you’re feeling depressed and googling for cute kittens and Buzzfeed listicles hasn’t really helped much, remember there’s a national suicide prevention lifeline (call 1-800-273-8255), and options for online counseling ❤
Next on Maury: more attention to exercise! Join me when I speed walk alongside mall robots and dabble in the excruciation that is cycling uphill!