By: James McLean
It’s safe to say that if you’ve ever laced up spikes, or taken a step onto the road to race, you’ve come to a point where your fitness is met with your mind. People say that half of everything is mental, but at times, running feels like it tips farther toward your mental state than your physical.
The fight of mind over matter can happen at any point and at any level within running. I sat down (albeit virtually and across the country) with professional runner Nikki Hiltz, who has had a year marked by incredible highs and challenges as well.
“It’s definitely been a roller coaster…lots of high and some low points”.
Nikki has had some major milestones throughout 2021. In April, Nikki came out as transgender/non-binary, being one of a small number of athletes willing to share their true self with the world. Shortly after, Nikki made the Olympic Trials, taking their talents all the way to the finals in the 1500. Nikki then organized their second virtual Pride 5K and topped it off most recently with Washington State’s record in the mile. Any one of those events could be considered a lifetime achievement, but Nikki treated each with grace and determination. "Never get too high, never get too low. Try to stay even keel throughout it all,” Nikki said, as they reflected on a year of major accomplishments.
But amongst celebrations and freedom from the societal pressures of conformity, Nikki dealt with the struggles of disconnect and separation brought on by the pandemic. A proud extrovert, Nikki shared how the isolation and loneliness can lead to a world of disconnect and despair. “2020 was a global health crisis but it was also a global mental health crisis. Mental health falls into that global health crisis…us as humans are hardwired for connection.”
As the connection strained, Nikki continued to train, and like many, tried to find rhythms and senses of normalcy in a chaotic year. As 2021 approached, Nikki felt that the pandemic had really taken a toll on their wellbeing.
“The pandemic really for me was when it hit. All the sudden, I was dealing with depression and anxiety and these feelings that I had never experienced before. And I think [it’s] because so much changed for all of us. And anytime change happens…you might fall into depression. And that was the first time in my life where I was like, okay I need to do something about this, I'm not okay.”
As Nikki went into 2021 with the mindset of getting back to racing and training for the Trials, the challenges of the pandemic continued to rage as did the mental strain and anxiety. A month before the Olympic Trials, Nikki was getting the proper racing in to best prepare for one of the most important races of their life.
For every event, there are the mental scares and stresses that come with the thrill of racing, but as Nikki approached Mt. Sac Relays in early May, they felt strains piling up to a breaking point.
"I could tell that I was kind of spiraling, and I thought, ‘okay I need to talk to someone’. I made an appointment with a sports Psych(ologist). I met with them for the first time the night before Mt. Sac. And I knew it was too late at that point, but after that, I ended up meeting with them four weeks straight after [the race] and it was awesome. Just the conversations from meeting week after week for a month, I felt like I gained a lot of helpful tools and ways to cope with things. For me it was that I needed to compartmentalize the other things going on in my life.”
While Nikki felt that Mt. Sac was not their best race, the courage to find support and professional help was a turning point. While the long list of accomplishments that Nikki took on this year are by all accounts nothing short of remarkable, some critics chose to take Nikki’s courage and try to exploit and demean them.
“Because I came out as trans/non-binary I was getting some backlash on social media and I was like, I need to be able to see a comment and have it be brushed off my shoulders instead of it really getting to me... so we [psychologist] talked about setting boundaries with social media, how do we protect you. I would hate to not make an Olympic team because of fucking Instagram, or because of a troll online.”
To get through an article on mental health and not discuss the underbelly of social media would not be an accurate portrayal of modern society. As we all lost our sense of connection this past year, the allure of social media is that you can relate to an infinite amount of people, yet those people can be a friend and an enemy and never be held accountable for the actions or words said.
As Nikki braved the unknown of sharing their true self, and while many showed immense support, the voices of a small pocket of horrible people can make a lot of noise. Nikki chose not to avoid social media because the perspective of seeking the positivity has always been a crucial part of who they are. “If you block out all the haters, you’re also blocking out all the love and support as well”.
Mt. Sac was Nikki’s turning point in the season, and the conversations with their psychologist opened Nikki to the words and tools needed to begin to find solid ground in mental health. Nikki pointed out how love and support through her partner Emma, family and fans have truly helped center their mind moving forward. "The more that I practice gratitude, the more that I find what I am grateful for", Nikki said, reflecting on the close connections and people who remain in their life.
With the track season ending, and Nikki embarking on some well-earned rest and relaxation, they summed up not only what athletes need, but all humans need:
“In order to perform at our best, we need to feel okay, that has to come first.”
While mental health is a journey, not a destination, Nikki gave word to a growing understanding that for everyone to feel heard and appreciated, there is an importance to normalizing when we are not doing okay. The people we surround ourselves with, the ways we talk to ourselves, and the information we take in all can impact how we feel and how we operate. These months and years have shown great challenge in how we connect, but the need for connection will always be there.
As Nikki and I closed our conversation they left me with a reminder to all runners and non-runners alike:
"At the end of the day, we are bigger than our sports."