Longtime Birmingham resident Nikki Harvey loves to run — she’s done so consistently for the last seven years — but that love doesn’t outpace her love of community. She finds ways to use her passion for running to benefit others, such as serving as a pacer during marathons to help ensure others can complete their 26.2 miles. Earlier this year, she took it even further by hitting the open road to run from Mexico to Canada to raise money for food banks in every state she ran through. We caught up with Nikki to learn about her life-changing run, what she does when she’s not running, and some of her favorite spots around Birmingham.
How did you get into running?
My father ran marathons. I wanted to run one with him in 2000, so I started training but got shin splints before the race and had to stop running. I didn’t pick it back up until late 2016.
My father suggested I pick a local 5k/10k for a Thanksgiving Turkey Trot. Luckily — or not? — I found one. My husband and I signed up for the 10k and spent several weeks training. Neither of us was a runner, so we used a training plan. We had so much fun running the 10k, so we looked and realized if we kept going with the same training plan, we would be ready for the Birmingham half-marathon. Subsequently, if we kept training, we would be ready for the Rock n’ Roll Nashville full-marathon.
Between Thanksgiving 2016 and April 2017, we went from couch to marathon. Running is addictive.
What kind of races do you usually run?
I ran exclusively on roads until 2019 when I started running trails. I’m an ultra-runner, so I do a lot of trails and 100-milers and above. I ran my first “ultra” in May 2019, a 50K on trails. I ran my first 100-miler in June of 2019. Any marathon I run now — except for the Boston Marathon, which I’ve run twice — I run as a pacer to help other runners stay on time to hit their goals. I’ve run a lot of marathons now, just not for myself.
What led to your run across the country to raise money for food banks?
My buddy, Paul Noble, asked me if I wanted to run from Mexico to Canada with him. It was such an outrageous idea that I was 100% on board. In the back of my mind, I don’t think I wrapped my head around the fact that it would really happen. We chose to run for food banks because Paul’s grandparents have always been big supporters of the Iowa Food Bank.
The funny thing is, I would have never thought of raising money for food banks. By the end of my run, I realized how important food banks really are. Running through the country, especially the rural towns, I noticed that some people would benefit from healthy meals, a smiling face … the [most basic]of human needs.
How long did your run across America take, and how many states did you run through?
Six states and three countries. I started in Matamoros, Mexico, ran through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota, and finished in Fort Francis, Canada. It is directly across the border from International Falls, MN. The total mileage was 1,849 miles, and I ran for 44 days. The whole journey took 47, but three of those were rest days.
How long did it take you to train for your run across the country?
Since 2016? I run so much that it wasn’t really training. I increased my mileage to about 125 a week for about two months. Because you can’t run all day, I practiced walking at a fast pace, but I’m already a fast walker anyway. My family hates me.
What was it like to run across the country?
I can only answer with one word: amazing. Paul decided on day four that his head wasn’t in it. It was so miserable in the Texas heat … When you are running so far, you have to want to be there. I completely understood and told Paul that I was going to continue. I didn’t know how far I would continue, but I was going to make it as far as I could.
One week turned into two weeks. Two weeks turned into the rest of my run. There was not one point where I wanted to quit. There were bad days — days when nothing seemed to go right, and I would have to peel myself out of bed in the middle of the night to get an early start before the heat, but I never wanted to quit.
I ran through what most people call the “flyover” states. Let me acknowledge the beauty of the Midwest — looking back at the pictures, I have no words. Most people don’t see the things I saw. If I were guessing, some of the roads I took were only driven by the actual residents of those roads. I ran dirt roads, highways, neighborhoods, and cities. The dirt roads are where my heart was fullest. If you take a road trip, look for the back roads once or twice.
How much money did you raise?
We raised $12,000, and I gave money to every state I ran through, plus Alabama.
What was the most challenging part of your run?
Crew (actually, the lack of).
Editor’s note: “Crew” is both a verb and a noun and refers to those who support long-distance runners like Nikki.
I was very lucky that my husband and youngest daughter could take time to spend a couple of weeks with me. He actually crewed me through most of Texas, some of Kansas, and the last few days through Minnesota to Canada. I am also lucky to have such amazing friends who traveled my route to spend a few days crewing me …
When I was by myself, I was pushing a jogging stroller holding my necessities. There are no words to describe how I felt when I could fold the stroller and just run. From having to push the stroller through high winds to the flat tires and every other inconvenience in between, having a crew to take that burden was amazing.
What part of your experience stood out to you most?
The people. During this run, I saw humanity at its finest. The people I met were just amazing. People would see me and be so kind. When I had no crew and was pushing my jogging stroller with my stuff in it, I had a big sign that said Mexico to Canada. People eventually put it together, and many would give me water. And so many people I met on my run donated to the cause. So the people were my favorite part. Seeing so many people want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. You don’t see that so much these days. It was beautiful.
Do you foresee yourself doing another race across the country?
I honestly could do this every year. The next time I do it, I’ll probably go from one coast to another. I’d like to do that in the next couple of years. And I’m sure I’ll do it to raise money for food banks again.
What do you like to do when you’re not running?
Right now, I’m rehabbing my house. I’ve been painting and doing upgrades for the last couple of months. After several weeks, I am finally done with the kitchen. When I had my second daughter, I quit my job to stay home with the girls. It’s about time to find a job again. Hit me up, Birmingham!
Who or what is inspiring you at the moment?
I have to say, Harvey Lewis. He is an ultra-runner as well but runs at an elite level. We met last summer at a 24-hour race, and he took time to run with me and share his tips on how to be successful at a 24-hour race … To have the physical and mental fortitude that Harvey has is so inspiring. On top of that, he is one of the kindest people I have ever met. I want to be Harvey when I grow up.
What are your favorite places to eat, shop, and play in Birmingham?
Shopping is probably one of my least favorite things to do. Buying things, however, is one of my favorite things to do. I do most of my shopping online, but when I need something ASAP, The Summit is hands down the best place for shopping in Birmingham.
Oak Mountain State Park is where I spend most of my time. We are lucky to live close to the park. For a runner, this is paradise. There are so many trails and places to explore. I’m an outdoor girl. Nature is where I find my peace.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
It doesn’t always get worse. Keep fighting.
Book on your bedside table?
A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume
Aside from faith, family, and friends, name three things you can’t live without.
Diet Dr. Pepper (Yes, I know), running shoes (if you could only see my collection.), and cherries (why can’t they be available all year?!)
All photography provided by Nikki Harvey.
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Meet more inspirational Southern women over at our FACES archives!