Finding mental wellness with Bigger Than the Trail
By Henry Howard
When Kim Levinsky learned she was selected to be an ambassador for Bigger Than the Trail this year “it was like a punch to the gut.”
The timing came when Levinsky was “in a dark hole,” processing her own battle with mental health. But thanks to friends, she shared the dilemma with friends who persuaded her to accept the offer and support others facing similar challenges.
“Sometimes you need that, you need the outside perspective,” she says. “I think when you're so buried in your own dark thoughts, to have a close trusted friend come in and just say, ‘You need to stop and reframe this because this is an incredible thing. This was such a great opportunity that you have to raise awareness for mental health. And guess what? Nobody's perfect, and we all struggle, so get with it.’”
Bigger Than the Trail (BTTT) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising mental health awareness through trail running. Like Levinsky, I am an ambassador for BTTT. The team has already helped raise nearly $20,000 this year in donations for more than 100 one-month counseling session for those who need it but cannot afford it.
‘All or nothing’
Levinsky has transformed her life into trail and ultra running. Perhaps there is no better place to achieve one’s own mental wellbeing and assist others pursuing theirs.
Not only is she an ultra runner but she also owns Sassquad Trail Running, which puts on monthly trail races.
“The coolest part of this experience is with the job I have, I get to interact with a ton of people, several thousand throughout the year,” she explains. “And last year, I kept a YouTube vlog of the whole journey to Tahoe 200. I spent a couple of episodes just talking about the whole mental health thing, I talked about Bigger Than The Trail, and I got contacted from so many people in our community who just reached out and said a variety of things like, ‘Thank you for sharing. I've been struggling with X, Y, Z, and I had no idea something like Bigger Than The Trail existed. I'm going to get help.’"
In 2010, Levinsky began running in grad school, training for a half marathon. She was hooked but wanted something bigger.
“I've got that all-in, all-or-nothing personality,” she admits. “So it went from half marathon to marathon, 50K to 50 miler in a year and a half. But after the marathon, I met a couple friends who were into trail running, and they used the classic logic of, ‘Well, an ultra is just a few miles longer than a marathon.’ Once I did the 50K on the trails, I never went back. I was all in. I loved everything about it. I found the trail scene was very inclusive and welcoming.”
Inspiring the ultra community
Levinsky has definitely been all in. She started her own business five years ago.
“It was just the love of the trails and wanting to be a part of that and seeing how transformative the trails could be for people,” she says. “You experience that as a runner. You get to see it while you're running, the people that you're connected with.”
Her friends encouraged her to test out the idea with a fat ass race.
No fee, no swag, no aid and no whining.
The 100 participants loved the race and wanted more, asking Levinsky when the next race would be.
“I got a ton of support from the local trail community here in Jersey,” she says. “I was so blown away that we had people coming from out of state. I remember that first year people coming from Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania. We saw a need in the community to put on more events. We just wanted to see it grow.”
They conducted a few more races that year and received positive feedback each time.
Levinsky had found her niche, eventually leaving her full-time job and going all in as a race director. The original fat ass race is still among her offerings.
“Now we collect a registration fee that goes back to our non-profit partner,” she says. “It's a conservancy that maintains the trails that we use. That's something unique about Sassquad — every race, we partner with a nonprofit or charity that's local to where we're hosting that event. And we're giving back with each of the races.”
Her September race provides funds for BTTT. As a race director, she not only provides much-needed funding for nonprofits but lifetime achievements for runners.
“It's incredible,” she says. “The stories you hear from runners and hikers. That's the highlight of the events. It's a ton of work to organize these races. But when you're standing at the finish line and a runner comes up — it happens at every race — they'll share a personal story. ‘This is the longest I've ever run.’ Or, ‘I had to overcome X, Y, Z in order to get here.’ Countless stories of, ‘Trail running has changed my life.’ That's an incredible thing to play a small role in that.”
Ultra running has changed her life, too. In June 2022, Levinsky completed her first 200-mile race at Lake Tahoe. Her previous long runs were self-supported 100-milers.
In races, FKTs or self-supported adventures of those durations, there are dark times. Levinsky had her share of those during Tahoe.
“When you're doing a 100-miler, at least in my experience, it's around miles 70 to 80 when things get dark, right?” she says. “You're in it so far, but there's still so much left to go. But with the 200, I think because it's so much longer, there were so many more highs and lows. And they were so much more extreme, at least in my experience. You find the highs of highs on these summits looking down on Lake Tahoe. And then, 10 minutes later you plummet into the depths of despair.”
She credits her crew for helping to pull her through.
“Looking back on the experience, my crew was phenomenal. I can still remember them saying when I was struggling, ‘OK, but you're going to get through this. Just wait it out 10 more minutes, and you're going to come through this dark patch. It's not going to be like this forever.’"
The finish at Tahoe goes down a ski slope at Homewood Ski Resort. Levinsky asked her crew to meet her at the top, without cell phones, so they could be together for the finish.
“It was magical. It really was. It was an incredible thing to be there with these women who are supporting me and just doing that together to cross the finish line. It was definitely one of the most incredible moments ever.”
Levinsky continues down her path to mental wellness.
“Ooh, it's been a journey,” she says. “The last two years have been pretty transformative. In September 2021 is when I got plugged in to Bigger Than The Trail. I had been too scared to get help. I grew up with a background of a stigma surrounding mental health and therapy and getting help.”
But BTTT helped connect Levinsky with the assistance she needed.
“I think that I've struggled with depression on and off most of my life but just didn't really know what it was,” she admits. “Lack of, I don't know, education. Just being taboo to talk about. And so, finally getting connected with therapy, I was able to develop a language to talk about what was going on."
Bigger Than The Trail tore down the perceived roadblocks. Levinsky previously made excuses related to insurance or lack of funds.
“I had a million excuses and Bigger Than The Trail provides three months of cost free help with a licensed therapist,” she says. “So I got online, filled out the form and I thought it will take a week to get connected with somebody."
Two hours later, they emailed back and announced she had been paired with a therapist.
“I'm so thankful for that because the next few months were very challenging,” she recalls. “There was a lot going on. Both my parents got COVID. My dad was super sick, nearly died, because of COVID health complications. And therapy was that lifeline. I had a safe space to talk about what was going on with a safe person. And I think up until that point, the only way I knew how to cope was through trail running, was through sports, was through exercising. Because it certainly wasn't talking about what was going on. I was internalizing everything and just figuring out, just saying, "Oh, well, I'm going to go work out, and I'll feel better."
The BTTT-funded therapy changed everything.
“It gave me these tools to deal with the problems that were happening and work through these challenging situations,” she says, adding that after her first three months free she received a discount for the next three. “It took away those excuses. It makes it accessible. It makes it affordable to stick with it.”
Shining the light
Still she was “in the dark.” Her therapist suggested Levinsky consult with her doctor about using an antidepressant.
“That was so hard to do because all the stigma around getting some sort of medication to help with mental health, but I think that was the biggest game changer.”
Levinsky is in a better place right now, thanks to her regimen of exercise, therapy and the meds.
“Life's not perfect, that's for sure,” she says. “I think depression is something that's always going to hang around, but I really have Bigger Than The Trail to thank for giving me these tools to work through it.”
She may not realize it, or admit it, but Levinsky is an inspiration to others facing similar demons. She has the scars but also the answers.
“I have to constantly remind myself about two things,” she says. “One is you're never alone. Even though it feels like it and it feels like you're the only one struggling with this issue, you're not. And then, the other thing is, it's not going to last forever.”
Levinsky’s mental health journey is similar to ultras.
“There's so many parallels with depression and mental health and doing a 200-mile race,” she says. “I remember those friends who were there with me at Tahoe. They said the same thing, ‘This is not going to last forever.’ I think that's something that is really important for me, personally. But whoever's listening who may be going through a hard time, it's not going to last forever, and you're going to come out on the other side. Even though if it feels like you won't, it's going to end.”
As ultra runners, we know we can do hard things. Overcoming depression is a hard thing. So is running 200-mile races.
“I really feel like it's a yin-yang thing because I can remember during Tahoe 200 in those low moments thinking, ‘Look, this is really hard, but it's not as hard as things that I've gone through with depression and mental health.’ And then, on the flip side, when you're going through these tough times, now you have those experiences to draw on. This may be really tough, but you know you’ve done hard things. And you're going to come through this."
Name: Kim Levinsky
Hometown: Highland Lakes, N.J.
Number of years running: 13
How many miles a week do you typically run: “Depends on the time of the year. Right now I'm building at around 40 miles a week. I'll work up to around 65 to 70 by early spring as I'm training for an ultra in July.”
Point of pride: “Seeing the community at Sassquad Trail Running grow over the last six years — it's full of some of the most authentic, kind, weird and amazing trail runners and hikers out there.”
Favorite race distance: “I really enjoyed the 200 mile race I did this past year!”
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: “I like to run in the morning; smoothies work well.”
Favorite piece of gear: Hands down my Alpha Hoody from Lightfoot Athletics. I wore it all 200 miles at Tahoe in June. It's an incredible piece of gear.”
Who inspires you: “There is a runner in our community named Kathleen. She is 77 years old and comes out to many of our events throughout the year. Every time I talk with her, I leave the conversation with a new bit of wisdom. Kathleen has been encouraging me this last year as I shared my story about mental health with our trail running community. I wrote down something she shared with me a couple of months ago and reread it from time to time when I need to be reminded practical steps to walk out of dark place, ‘Any time you want to talk, or get some help dragging yourself out of the black hole, here’s my hand. Find the things that make you happy and healthy. Seek out friends and share your difficulties as you can. You can now be a leader in ways that you couldn’t be before. Take advantage of your new power. Take your meds.’”
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I guess I need to find an inspirational song!
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “’Running is dumb.’” :) Hmm I guess my serious answer would be ‘We can do hard things.’”
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• @kimlevinsky on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.
• @sassquadtrailrunning on Instagram and Facebook.