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Three women who find life through running

Photo by Tom Robertson

For more people than our sport probably likes to admit, running isn’t always about frolicking among big forest ferns or beds of wildflowers above treeline. Trail running can also be about freeing demons and seeking hope. And, when it really gets bad, trail running means survival.

Many of us know the names of Lisa Smith-Batchen, Devon Yanko and Nikki Kimball for their running successes. What most don’t know is that each of them uses running as a means of coping with tragic landscapes in their lives. In this article, we tell the sometimes grim but ultimately affirmative stories of three brave women who run, and cope.

Nikki Kimball: From Death to Life

Kimball in her Bozeman home with Darby, her longtime running partner that passed away last year at 15. Photo by Tom Robertson.

If Nikki Kimball’s lifelong battle with depression played out like a classical music piece, the crescendo would be one particularly bad night in the mid-1990s. That was when she pressed the sharp edge of a broken beer bottle into her wrist and slit it open.

“Yeah,” Kimball says, “that was the worst of all.”

Though she says she used to be bashful about it, these days the 42-year-old physical therapist from Bozeman, Montana, tells it like it is. When she talks about her depression, she does so in a clinical way, an effect bred partly from her profession in the medical field, partly out of decades of self work and mostly out of a passion for helping people avoid the dark places she’s been.

“I’m alive because of Kim Bowes,” she says. In the early 1990s, Bowes and Kimball were best friends, roommates and teammates on Williams College’s nordic ski team. Both of them suffered (and still do) from depression during a time when the illness was poorly understood.

“Back then, people would tell Prozac jokes,” she says. Depression was viewed with “scornful” attitudes and kept secret. But Bowes and Kimball talked about their illnesses and took care of each other. “Us talking about things the way we did gave me the ability to ask for help when things got bad. To this day when I need to ask for help from a friend, I think of Kim.”

Kimball says that depression is one of the biggest reasons she is a successful trail runner. An icon in the trail and ultrarunning world after an almost 15-year-long (and still going) career, Kimball has a resume that reads like a textbook on how to kick ass. On her UltraSignup profile are 64 races; 46 of those listings are wins and in only six did she finish off the podium. She’s a three-time winner of the Western States 100 and has finished it another five times, with results including a second place and two third places. She has an insane course record for the Bridger Ridge Run, an even-more-insane 20-mile trail race outside of Bozeman, and she won the 2007 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc.

Says Bryon Powell, the editor of iRunFar.com, who has for years watched her race, “She’s got her capabilities pegged. Early in a race, she enjoys herself, but when the time comes, there’s no one tougher—man or woman—in our sport.”

Kimball gets her daily run dose at the Pipestone Recreation Area, near Butte, Montana. Photo by Tom Robertson.

As steely as Kimball seems from the outside, she is not bulletproof. Having battled waves of depression since puberty, she knows that some periods swing lower than others. The bout she experienced in early 2013 was one of her lowest.

“I thought about death every day. I wanted to be dead, yet I didn’t have the motivation to do it. But the idea of death was a relaxing thought,” recalls Kimball. “All the things that I should do for myself in this situation were the hardest things to do. I couldn’t get out of bed for morning runs. I didn’t answer calls or respond to emails from friends.”

She had been in this type of situation enough to know that she needed help. She saw her doctor and adjusted her daily antidepressant medication. She alerted her friends, letting them know how she was feeling and that she needed their support. And she made herself run, literally being dragged out of bed some days by her friend Michele Anderson.

“Michele simply came in and made it clear that we were running. No bullshit, no judgment, just running,” says Kimball. “She never said shit like, ‘Snap out of it,’ or ‘You’ll feel better after you run.’ And she never pushed me to talk.”

Kimball’s mood swung up and just in time for last June’s Western States 100. “I’m usually a head case before States. [Yet] I noticed the week before the race that I felt so happy. In the early miles of the race I was singing and chatting. I was so undertrained in comparison to other years, but my happiness carried me.”

Kimball finished second, her best result at the race in six years. “My success was literally a result of my happiness, not of my physical conditioning,” she says.

In 2007, the year Kimball earned her third win at the Western States 100, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle ran a four-day series about her life and dedication to sport. One long piece was about the depression. It was the first time that conversations about her illness went farther than her family, friends and doctors. But Kimball was on board, because she believes that our society has to talk about depression frankly to help people survive the illness. Still, having the details of her story out there made her feel exposed, naked.

“In the article, I [had] talked about cutting myself. How could I go back to work?”

She did and received abundant support.

“I was putting electrodes on this older man’s knee,” she says, “and out of nowhere he says, ‘I use Zoloft.’ I could tell this was the first time he was telling anyone about his own depression … I realized that I don’t have to suffer quietly. No one does.

“With depression comes power,” says Kimball. “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.”

Devin Yanko: Childhood Interrupted

Yanko is all smiles (alongside Race Director Mike Spinnler) after setting the then course record at the 47th annual JFK 50-Mile Endurance Run, 2009. Photo by Geoffrey Baker.

In high school, Devon Yanko was a successful basketball player on a high-school team in Seattle ranked as one of the best in the state. Her success there would yield her a Division I scholarship to play at California’s Fresno State University. On the outside, she seemed like a typical teenager. But the now 31-year-old, who co-owns MH Bread & Butter, a café and bakery in San Anselmo, California, with her husband, 32-year-old Nathan Yanko, says that normal-looking kid hid the nastiest of secrets.

In 1997, when Devon was 15, she started training with Tony Giles. The then 40-year-old coached a private basketball program called Players Only for high-school girls he thought had a future in collegiate athletics. Not only did Tony coach Devon, he also sexually abused her.

She says, “Tony was a predator. I wasn’t his first or his last victim.”

According to Yanko and other women who have since come forward against Giles, he manipulated young women from Players Only into semblances of relationships, coercing them into sex.

“It was a confusing time,” she says now. “The way Tony worked into my life was a very psychological process. He talked with me about my life in a way that no one else did. He told me I was good enough for college basketball. [Our relationship] didn’t always feel stressful.”

During the 2005 film The Heart of the Game, which documented the multi-year success of her high-school basketball team, Devon is interviewed as she sits on her bed. Her phone rings, and, still during the interview, she picks it up. On the other end of the line is Giles. Devon, age 16, smiles, flirts and full-on leaves the interview to speak with him. Devon’s antics seem typical for a teenager, but Giles is a grown man.

Yanko says that, back then, she coped by keeping her secrets locked behind a facade. “I had no self confidence, but I pretended I did. My bravado kept everyone at a safe distance so that I didn’t have to answer the hard questions.”

Sarah Bin, Yanko’s now 34-year-old older sister, remembers that mask. “She did everything larger than life. She wore giant sweatpants. She would drive around blasting rap music.”

Giles continued abusing Devon until she left for college at Fresno State. She made it through just one semester there before quitting school and her basketball scholarship.

“I thought going to college would be my escape hatch from Tony,” Yanko says. “I thought I would be able to start over. But when you’re carrying a secret as big as this one was, you don’t just start over. It was like putting lipstick on a pig. You can’t cover that up.”

Soon after she returned to Seattle, Yanko decided to out Giles to the police. “I realized that my best friend at the time, who was still in Seattle, was becoming his next victim. She would say these things—parroting Tony—that I remember myself saying. I couldn’t stand the thought of there being more victims if I had the power to stop Tony.”

Two other young women would eventually come forward to the police, but the statute of limitations period had passed on the crimes they reported. In 2003, Giles took a plea bargain by admitting to misdemeanor sexual misconduct with Yanko and was sentenced to three years and four months in prison.

More than 10 years have gone by since Giles’s conviction, and Yanko’s life is the antithesis of what it was then. She gave up basketball altogether, went back to college—she would eventually attain a BS in English and Creative Writing at the University of Washington, and a Master of Library Science from the University of Pittsburgh—and took up running. She had run before, eight- to-10-milers around her Seattle home as a high-school student.

Yanko out for a run near Silverton, Colorado, while her husband, Nathan, is on course at the 2011 Hardrock 100-Mile Endurance Run. Photo by David Clifford.

“I thought I was doing [those runs] for basketball training,” she says. “I would realize later, looking back, that I did them because they would exhaust my emotion away. I remember just wanting to feel exhausted, because when I was tired, I wouldn’t think so much.”

As a college student, she randomly trained with friends for a half-marathon, and that regular running quickly evolved into a deep and successful running career. She’s since earned herself a 2:38 marathon PR and a 6:28 50-mile PR, racking up wins in both road and trail races including the San Francisco Marathon and the JFK 50-Mile. She also finished fourth at the revered Comrades Marathon and third at the Two Oceans Marathon.

“Running is a tool that’s served me in many different ways,” says Yanko. “In training for that first half marathon, I felt freedom and emotional relief. The longer I ran, the more clarity I found and the more I was able to work through my feelings about Tony.”

In effect, Yanko’s running began as a kind of therapy, both personal and familial. It helped to heal her wounded relationship with her older sister.

“One of the ways Tony grew close with me and the other girls he abused was by driving a stake between us and our families. He was the one I would talk with about all the teenage angst-y stuff I felt, like the natural issues you have with a parent in growing up. His reactions would encourage me to keep struggling with my mom, for instance. My relationships with my mom and sister were not healthy,” Yanko says.

As Yanko recovered, she and Bin would go on runs and talk in ways they struggled to do in the rest of life.

“There’s just something about running,” says Yanko. “It feels safe. You don’t have to look a person in the eye. You just run and talk. My sister and I did that, verbalizing all the things that hadn’t been said for years.” Yanko and Bin still run together as much as life and logistics allow.

Seven years after Yanko took up training for that first half marathon, in January 2010, one day out running on the flanks of Mount Tamalpais in the Marin Headlands of San Francisco, Yanko closed the book on the torment created by Giles. It was the deepest moment of clarity she’d found yet.

“For the first time,” she says, “that story was just a part of my life, not my whole life. It wasn’t like a niggling injury you can’t get rid of anymore. It didn’t have the power to make me cry on the spot.

“Through running, I had accumulated all these miles that both literally and figuratively separated me from that time.”

Says Bin, “If you stop and think about where Devon came from, you’ll realize how much she’s done with her life.” Bin points to her successes with running and starting her own business, but also that Yanko lets people into her life in ways she never used to. “She’s fiercely loyal,” she adds.

On Mount Tamalpais that day, Yanko realized that all those years of running had given her the power and confidence that she didn’t have as Giles’s victim. And she’s turned that power and confidence into not only a helluva running ability, but a helluva life.

Says Yanko with assurance, “I’m not a wounded person anymore.”

Lisa Smith-Batchen: A Forever Road

Smith-Batchen battles the heat at the 2013 Badwater 135, Death Valley National Park. Photo by Ian Parker.

It’s late winter, and Lisa Smith-Batchen’s home in Driggs, Idaho, at 6,100 feet on the western boundary of the Teton mountains, is still locked in the season’s depths. Deep snow fills yards and pasturelands, and an icy wind blockades barn doors and windows with snowdrifts. Anyone with a proclivity to mood downturns knows this time of year—when winter just won’t give up the ghost—as challenging. For Smith-Batchen, the world can feel close to impossible.

“I struggled to get out of bed today,” she says.

Smith-Batchen’s menu of life complications is long. She grew up in a household defined by fighting and alcohol, and as a young girl, fell into ongoing depression, then substance abuse and anorexia. In addition, eight years ago, as an adult, she suffered the loss of an adopted son to his natural father. But a cornucopia of good has also blossomed from her life. The 53-year-old is a coach and race director for the Dreamchasers Outdoor Adventures, a homegrown company she runs with her husband, 44-year-old Jay Batchen. She and Jay have two adoptive daughters, 11-year-old Annie and 8-year-old Gabby.

Smith-Batchen’s storied racing past began when, as a college student, she randomly ran a 5K road race in Osh Kosh, Wisconsin. What followed were more than 90 marathons including a 2:48 marathon PR, participation in five Hawaii Ironman World Championships, more than a half-dozen expedition-length adventure races and dozens of ultramarathons. She won both the 1997 and 1998 Badwater Ultramarathon, and the 1999 Marathon des Sables; she ran to her 50-mile PR of 6:42 at the 1998 Long Island 50-Mile Endurance Run. And she qualified for and ran on Team USA at the 1999 100K World Championship.

In recent years, however, she’s turned her sights to gargantuan charity runs. The Running Hope Through America effort in 2010 was her biggest. She ran 50 miles in 50 states over 62 days, finishing, by her estimate, just a few thousand dollars shy of her goal of raising $1 million in donations for three charities: Orphans Rising, the Caring House Project and the Orphan Foundation of America. Over the years, Smith-Batchen has raised what she and her fundraising partner, Sister Mary Beth Lloyd, a Catholic nun, estimate is $7.5 million for charity. The many causes over the years share a common denominator: assisting children in need.

But Smith-Batchen doesn’t remember life without depression. “I think I’ve always suffered on at least a low level,” she says, “even as a kid.” She explains that the feelings come and go, that whole years will go by without the familiar suppression of mood. She also talks about the really bad times. “At its worst, depression feels like a 5,000-pound Darth Vader standing on your chest. Like you can hardly bear to be alive.”

She continues, “There have been times when I thought about killing myself. I’ve felt that. I don’t feel that now. I’m depressed, but I’m grateful to be here today. Jay, Annie, Gabby … I have so much to live for, so much I will live for.”

Smith-Batchen says her depressive events, like the one she’s been experiencing for the last few months, wax according to certain triggers. When she is asked what set off this latest episode, her answer has two prongs.

“It began with Christmas Eve, which marked the eighth anniversary of losing our son, Joshua.”

About 12 years ago, Smith-Batchen and her husband adopted the then 3-year-old boy who’d been placed up for adoption by his birth mother. Joshua’s birth father never knew he had a son, but after his discovery, a court in Jackson, Wyoming, near the Batchens’ home, ruled that Joshua should live with him.

“Joshua going to be with his father was the right thing,” Smith-Batchen says, “but it broke our hearts. We bathed him, fed him, loved him. We mourned when he was gone.”

That other recent trigger is that Annie has reached the age Smith-Batchen recalls as most tumultuous in her own young life. “She’s a happy child with a bright heart,” her mother says. “I want her to feel that way forever. It scares me to death that she won’t.”

Smith-Batchen battles the heat at the 2013 Badwater 135, Death Valley National Park. Lisa Smith-Batchen Collection.

In mid-January, to help ward off the darkest part of her most recent depressive bout, Smith-Batchen ran 100 miles—while pulling a tire on a belt around her waist on the snowy roads of eastern Idaho. “I know myself well enough now. I know that, when these feelings come on, I need to do something to kick the hell out of me emotionally.”

The weather was typical for eastern Idaho mid-winter, which meant a high of about 20 degrees Fahrenheit and a low of minus 5. Smith-Batchen says she wasn’t really physically trained for it.

“The road went on forever,” she says. “It almost broke me. But running is my best friend. I know it’s the one thing that will always help me. It doesn’t solve problems, but it makes them feel a lot better.”

This wasn’t the first time that running sent her down the straight and narrow. In high school, to escape home problems of alcohol, fighting and life with parents who should have, she says, gotten divorced long before they did, she turned to her own drinking and drugs. “Speed, acid, valium. Even cocaine. I’m not proud of it.”

That all changed when Smith-Batchen discovered running at that 5K race during college. She didn’t know it until then, but she was fast. She ran 18 minutes and change, won the race and discovered the natural chemical high that running can induce.

“Euphoria. I felt it. It was a natural drug. It made problems go away. I started racing all the time, sometimes a marathon on Saturday and another on Sunday. The harder I ran, the better I felt.”

It took some time for running to become a fully positive influence in her life, however. While she stopped doing dangerous drugs, she did develop anorexia. “I had the same trouble many women have,” Smith-Batchen says. “We somehow believe that thinner is supposed to be faster.” It’s taken years, but Smith-Batchen says she now has a much healthier relationship with food.

“Running has literally been a lifesaver to me. But if I can be honest, it’s also the most difficult thing for me to do when I am depressed. How’s that for irony?”

Smith-Batchen pauses and says that this morning she could barely get out the door to walk her dog for 45 minutes. “It took all of my energy to do this very small thing.

“But I just make myself do it. I’ve got to run. Through running I live. I find my way back to Jay’s love, Gabby, Annie.” The forever road of running is for her the bridge between tumult and joy.

This article originally appeared in our June 2014 issue.

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