A PhD in Philosophy and a penchant for record breaking speed, Nicole is determined to live on her own terms.
Nearly halfway into last year’s Eastern States, it looked like nobody could catch 38-year-old mom, Nicole Yokum. Though she had never run a 100-miler, never raced at night, and never been on the course, she bombed down and out of the race’s notorious chasms, dipped and zipped and climbed and hurt through Abe’s Fork and Cougar Hollow. She sprung out of Baldwin Branch, the overall race leader, darting along the rock-littered single track like she was born for it.
A lot of us wish we could run like her – be that aggressive in a race. However, most of us, male or female, can’t relate to that kind of talent. Even “good” runners suffer and drop at Eastern States, usually 49% of them.
With a PhD in Philosophy, it goes without saying that Yokum sees ultras as a problem – something to be contemplated, solved. “Like delving into intellectual concepts,” she says, “you have to be brave not knowing where to go.” And technical trails, like Rocksylvania’s Eastern States, were what she dreaded most. Although she was a former cross-country champion in high school, Yokum hated trails and unruly footing unnerved her so much that she never thought she would get over it. Slowly, she taught herself to run on the rocks and embrace what seemed antithetical to her overactive mind: letting go.
The running talent was there early. By third grade, Yokam clocked a 7:30 mile and ran her first 10k. In eighth grade, she made the high school track and cross-country teams.
“I’d never run easy,” Yokum says of her school days. “Could never do it. And I never listened to coaches.” And by her freshman year, the impacts were showing. Yokum was injured and something wasn’t right with her hip. Unable to train, she found solace reading a lot and watching the X-Files. “I was shutting the world out,” she says. “I felt like a monk, renouncing worldly connections.” Her distant parents only encouraged that: her father was bookish and quiet – her mother, an immigrant from Finland, was tough and stoic.
One day, disgusted watching the chicken her mother was cooking turn various colors, she renounced meat and started making her own meals. “It was a strange way to be 15,” she remembers. Food was robotic. Everything measured, regimented. As a result, she lost a lot of weight. But something else was wrong; she just didn’t know what. Her hair was coming out in her brush, and when she came back to the track team her sophomore year, most thought she was anorexic. However, her hip was somehow better, and now she was lightning fast. She won everything in sight.
It wasn’t until her junior year that she got some clarity about what was happening or rather not happening to her. The track coach, her only close friend, was worried and had hired a Manhattan-based counselor to talk to her and some of the girls on the team. Yokum found out she didn’t have enough body fat to get her period. Her intense training and perfectionist regimen at such a young age had literally hijacked puberty.
She began taking hormones, and other problems began. Her body changed, and she suddenly felt like she was becoming objectified or afraid she would be. Since middle school, she’d been disgusted with how other girls made themselves up. She never wanted to be valued for how she looked. “I didn’t want to have a physical experience of myself,” she says and would wear weird clothes: skater jeans that flared out, a silver puffer vest, and knee-high socks. “I was really into that, but it wasn’t cool,” she says. “I did my own thing.”
And she always has. While skipping competitive running in college to instead study philosophy and acting, she never abandoned her love of running hard and fast. After her son was old enough to go to school, she delved into ultras and found a passion for brutal, technical trails – the kind that used to scare the pants off her.
If there is any key to Yokum, it’s not her intelligence or her vo2 max, it’s her innate toughness and her determination to live on her own terms. “I get tucked into my own little world,” she laughs, though she’s not apologetic. The question is not whether she can run faster or keep winning, but can she enjoy it – let the medicine of miles get her out of herself, her own head – connect her to the wider community?
Eastern States: Dry Run aid station – mile 51.1, Yokum is passed by 33-year-old Ben Quatromoni. She pushes but can’t catch him, redlining the last three miles because, as she puts it, she “hadn’t used any of those fast-twitch muscles the first 97.” She was the first female across the line and second overall, taking 14 minutes off the course record.
A month later, she showed up in the White Mountains for the Kilkenny Ridge 50 mile, having signed up two days before the start. The notoriously gnarly course over two of New Hampshire’s 4,000 footers was a brutal follow-up. She won again (her fourth ultra in a row), finishing just three seconds off the course record. But she didn’t bounce back as she did with Eastern States. Her thighs hurt like a virgin marathoner; the Whites had taken their toll. After that, her Strava went dark, and those that followed her wondered if she’d finally pushed too hard. A doctor’s visit revealed the culprit: she was pregnant.
When the 2022 ultra season cranks up on the East Coast, male and female runners alike will be thumbing over entrants, looking to see if the PhD with the nasty trail speed is there. They’ll be relieved not to find her. Anyone that registers pain, not as pain exactly, but rather as a form of intensity, is a dangerous competitor.
A devout believer in Sisu, the Finnish concept of tenacity in the face of extreme adversity; Yokum is adamant a return to running will happen, soon, and there will be expectations for sure, tough ones: her own.
It might often seem to outsiders to be a grim or painful hobby, but many ultrarunners share Nicole’s intensity. As I age, I’m reminded more and more that running and nutrition and scheduling races, these are coping mechanisms and a positive outlet for energy, creativity, even anxiety.
Fantastic article Jared!