“What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization…It refers to the desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially…. the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.” –Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality
In 1994, 23-year-old Nikki Kimball finished 13th at the Olympic trials in the biathlon. She realized she had a real shot at her dream of being an Olympian, and sat down to plot her journey to the 1998 Nagano Olympics. As she sat thinking, something strange started happening.
She couldn’t concentrate. A fatigue more powerful than anything she’d ever felt pinned her to the chair. When she could finally crawl to her bed, she fell into a deep sleep.
As days turned into weeks, Nikki often slept 18 hours a day. She couldn’t continue working as a chef because the crushing fatigue made it impossible to get out of bed or remember recipes. Within a few months she lost well over 10kg. Isolated from friends and family, Nikki realized she was in the throes of a serious depression and sought help from a psychiatrist.
Armed with medicine to help stabilize the chemical imbalance in her brain, Nikki turned to the one thing that had been a constant in her life – athletics. But instead of returning to biathlon, she laced up her shoes and started running the trails around her house. Life became about putting one foot in front of the other for hours on end, with mountains as her playground.
“Running is one of the main things I started using to treat my depression. With biathlon, it was all about the chance to make an Olympic team, whereas with running, I went into it with no ideas of competition or some end result.”
In 1996 Nikki moved across the country to attend graduate school in Philadelphia. As her academic career took off and she chased her dream of becoming a physical therapist, she continued running and soon found that she could outlast just about everyone on the trail. Running, the thing she had used to treat her depression, had become the place she found solace.
Abraham Maslow, a renowned psychologist, wrote in 1954 about a hierarchy that is inherent to the human existence. He posited that the base of the pyramid is where humans address their most basic needs – food, water, sleep. Only when those needs are met to do people go on to the next level of the pyramid, where they address their needs for clothing and shelter.
The third level of the pyramid shifts from physical needs to emotional needs. People begin striving to secure close bonds of love and friendships. After emotional bonds are established, people begin cultivating esteem, respect, achievement and confidence for self and others.
The pinnacle of Maslow’s pyramid is that of self-actualization, the state where a person examines morality, creativity and spontaneity. In this state, a self-actualized person dispenses with prejudice, engages in problem-solving and accepts facts and the world as it is.
In 1999, Nikki entered her first ultra-running race, the Vermont 50. She’d stabilized the physical and chemical needs of her body and brain. She’d re-established close connections with friends, had achieved some semblance of confidence on the trail, and was ready to tackle a new challenge. With few expectations about the outcome of the race, Nikki was shocked to not only win, but set a course record.
That win skyrocketed Nikki to international ultra-running fame. She embarked on her career as a physical therapist and continued trail running as an elite runner. Her depression ebbed and flowed. Often it was managed with medication and the natural endorphins released while running, but sometimes the combination wasn’t enough to keep the illness at bay. Atv tyhese times Nikki would stay in bed all day crying, only getting up when a friend arrived to take her out on the trails.
Other times happiness at being alive propelled Nikki to podium finishes.
Through it all, Nikki continued to accept her life as it really is. She has depression. She’s an accomplished trail runner. She’s been through emotional hell and back again, and has lived through days so dark the best part was imagining her suicide.
Nikki Kimball has epitomized endurance running for over 17 years. Sometimes she’s at the top of the pyramid – at peace, happy and accepting of life as it is. Sometimes, she’s back at the base, trying to get the physical needs of her body met. She’s found that Maslow’s pyramid can be a slippery slope – just when you think you’ve climbed to the pinnacle, you realize you’re at the bottom and have to start over.
In 2014, Nikki reflected on her 15 years of trail running and her transformation into an ultrarunner. “With depression comes power. Ultrarunning is hard, and sometimes it hurts. But the pain I feel in a race is nothing compared to the utter bleakness I have felt as a result of depression. Knowing that I have transformed from a person who planned her suicide to a person who is in love with life gives me the confidence to do anything.”
Compared to where she’s been, Kimball says, “Running 100 miles is easy.”
People from all walks of life have turned to endurance sports for the solace it provides. Running, swimming, paddling or cycling long distance, for hour upon hour, becomes meditative for the person seeking relief from stress, depression, work or family pressures, or any of the myriad of challenges facing people in today’s hectic world.
The beauty of endurance activity is that anyone can participate. Ultra running or long distance cycling aren’t sports for the very young. A body needs more than physical endurance – it needs a mind that’s been trained to withstand pain and uncertainty. A mind that recognizes beauty in a sunset after hours of chilling rain while on a trail. An ability to withstand pain and fatigue, and when every fibre of your being calls on you to quit – you refuse.
Self-actualization is the understanding that moments are fluid. No person ever achieves a perfect state of self-actualization, just as no sun stops rising even when the view is pronounced “perfect”. But for the person looking to practice seeking self-actualization, peace, contentment, and an acceptance of the internal and external world as it is – well, participating in endurance sports is great place to begin.