- Doug Williams
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"Trail running has a way of comforting the mind and body. When I trail run I feel like I am serving more than one purpose. I am getting exercise, which is good for the mind and body, but I am also experiencing the natural beauty of the Earth, which I think is very healthy for people. Nature has a way of explaining life without words." -- Megan Kimmel
For several weeks, Megan Kimmel has been traveling across Nepal. There have been long, uncomfortable bus rides between distant towns, backpacking treks and, of course, almost daily runs.
Unless she's in one of the bigger cities, Internet service is just a wish. And she still hasn't quite made sense of the time difference, which seems to be about 14 hours ahead of her home in Silverton, Colo. -- plus an additional 45 minutes. Yet Kimmel, one of the best trail runners in the U.S., almost feels at home.
Just as in Silverton, where she lives at about 9,300 feet, she can look at snow-capped peaks, run endless miles of trails and experience a rich mix of altitudes and weather.
"Altitudes have ranged from 3,000 to 16,000 feet -- one reason why it's so incredible here," she said via email. "It is hot down low, very comfortable temps in the mid zones and it has been chilly and wet up high."
For many years, Kimmel would travel to Arizona for what she calls "spring training," when she could put in days of running in warm weather to build a base for the long U.S. running season. But this year, she had the opportunity to travel to Nepal, so spring training is on the other side of the globe.
"[It's] a place I have wanted to visit for many, many years," she said. "And with the knowledge of the vast amount of really great trekking trails in the country, it seemed ideal. One important aspect for spring training for me is the mental reset, to regain focus as much as to build up mileage stress free."
Her objective is to run every day (except for the days she's trapped on a bus), honing her fitness and soothing her soul. She calls Nepal a peaceful place with "incredibly friendly people."
On April 15, Kimmel will embark on the eight-stage Mustang Trail Race. It features 15K to 30K legs on worn paths over varied Nepalese terrain from 9,500 to 14,100 feet. National Geographic has called it one of the most exotic runs on the planet. She sees it as an opportunity to put some "speed into the end of my spring training in a very casual way."
"This race is really just an organized run, like any other race out there, but winning and competing is not the objective," she said. "It is about a group of people running because we like running, in a very special place. Which, in a nutshell, is what trail running/racing is all about."
As much as Kimmel embraces the spiritual aspect of sprinting over trails in idyllic mountain settings, she's also laying a foundation. When the 5-foot-4, 33-year-old with the long, blonde hair returns home at the end of April, she'll be primed to do what she's been doing for six years: win races.
Built for success
The La Sportiva Mountain Cup is an annual 10-race series of trail races across North America. Each year, the series changes. Races are added and dropped, but the common theme -- in events from Utah to Massachusetts to Georgia to Washington -- is challenging trail courses ranging in distance from about 10K to 33K. The other commonality is Kimmel's dominance.
In all honesty, it's gotten to the point where if Megan shows up to a race, I expect to see her on the podium. And the vast majority of the time, she's standing on top of it.
"-- Everett Russell, La Sportiva
She's been the overall women's series champion in every year since 2009 and began the 2014 series by winning Race No. 1, the Moab's Red Hot 33K in Utah on Feb. 15. She ran 2:30:48, which broke the course record by more than six minutes.
After sitting out one race, Kimmel won the next event, the 9.6-mile Assault on Garland Mountain in Georgia on March 8, with a time of 1:05:12.
"Megan's demonstrated the ability to deal with whatever conditions [the series] throws at her," said Everett Russell, field marketing coordinator at La Sportiva, which puts on the Mountain Cup.
Conditions change from race to race, but Kimmel isn't fazed.
"She's incredibly fast over short distances, yet she's still got the endurance to go half-marathon," Everett said.
She's a mountain runner for all seasons. After missing one race while in Nepal, Kimmel will be back in time for La Sportiva races Nos. 5 and 6 in Massachusetts and Montana. But Kimmel -- who leads the overall points standings for 2014 -- isn't just a one-series standout. Among her other accomplishments:
• Winning the 2009 Pikes Peak Ascent (13.32 miles in 2:40:16) and finishing third in the Pikes Peak Marathon (5:05:15) in 2010.
• Three stints (2008, 2009, 2013) as a member of the USA Track and Field mountain running team.
• Winning the USATF 10K Trail Championships in 2012 and breaking the course record by seven seconds with a time of 48:21.
• Being named USATF Trail Runner of the Year in 2012 after her 10K Trail win, plus second-place finishes in the USATF half-marathon and marathon trail championships.
Bryon Powell, a trail runner, ultra runner and editor of the website irunfar.com, has watched Kimmel run for years and calls her "a complete package" for the up-and-down mountain events she loves best.
"She's a very strong climber with a small frame and huge aerobic capability, no doubt aided by living at over 9,000 feet in Silverton, Colo.," he said. "On the other hand, Megan is a great descender who is particularly strong on technical descents. No matter her competitors' leg speed, she can pull away when the terrain gets rough."
Specifically, Powell points to Kimmel's victory at Moab in February.
"Shortly before halfway, the top four women bunched up," he said. "The moment Megan found a technical downhill, she dropped the hammer and put 50 meters on the other three in a minute or two. Game over."
The call of the trails
Kimmel grew up in Denver playing multiple sports, but in high school settled on cross country, basketball and soccer. After going off to college, she says she missed all that activity and began running on her own. When she got a job in Aspen one summer, she discovered the joy of running trails.
If you see Megan before a race, she's just kind of chill, laid-back. She truly enjoys running for the love of being in nature and the mountains, and I think that really works to her advantage.
"-- Brandy Erholtz, pro runner and friend
"The thing about running that grabbed me was its simplicity," she said. "All you need is a pair of shoes and you can go anywhere. What keeps me running, though, is the reward of escaping the stress and chaos of daily life and keeping a connection with the outdoor world. I use it more often than not as my down time, my alone time."
She ran occasional races until about 2008, when she decided to go full-bore into the sport and made the U.S. mountain running team for the first time. Brandy Erholtz also was a first-time member of the team that year and recalls thinking that Kimmel was fearless. In the 2008 USATF 10K Trail Championships, Kimmel -- largely an unknown -- finished second.
"Nobody really knew who she was but it was like she didn't care who was who, she was just going to go run with the best of the best," Erholtz said. "She's not fearful. She doesn't let a name intimidate her. She just goes on and runs her own race, which I think is an admirable trait."
The next year, Kimmel won the Pikes Peak Ascent, which she still counts as her signature victory.
"It was my first big win in a race that I had gained so much respect for," she said. "Finishing the race itself is an achievement for anyone, and it was the quintessential race, at that time of my life, for me as mountains in general are what I live for ... a huge part of who I am."
Meanwhile, Kimmel settled in the little town of Silverton (population just more than 600) and took over the running of little coffeehouse Café Mobius. When she wasn't working, she was running on the trails around town in the huge Weminuche Wilderness Area.
When she discovered the La Sportiva Mountain Cup series, she knew right away it was for her. It gave her a chance to travel to parts of the country she'd never seen, while running races tailored to her talent.
"It ended up that the style of most of the races is more trail than mountain, which was and still is my favorite style of running," she says.
But trying to maintain training, travel and her small business proved to be too much. Kimmel constantly stressed over her cafe, and sold it early this year. Now, she's hoping that her stress levels decrease and her running and quality of life improve.
"I had no extra time and energy for anything," she said. "I was simply exhausted all the time."
Since the sale, she's been able to spend more time with friends and family and, of course, travel to Nepal. As she finishes up her spring training quest on the far side of the world, she's eager to see how this year turns out. She believes she has a shot to win a sixth straight La Sportiva Mountain Cup title, but isn't taking anything for granted.
Maria Dalzot, for instance, is right behind her in the points standings and, says Kimmel, "You never know who and when someone will pop up."
One thing is certain: When Kimmel is running on trails, surrounded by beauty, she's in a perfect place. Running -- like a wonderful cup of coffee or mountain vistas -- makes her happy.
"She's probably one of the nicest people I compete against or with," said Erholtz, who won the Pikes Peak ascent in 2008 and 2010. "You just don't feel like there's any alternative motive when you're talking with her. It's truly that she's just a good person who will get to know you and have a good time.
"When the gun goes off she's serious and she wants to win, like we all do. But she's just downright nice and laid-back. I really enjoy her."