Finding Herself in the Extremes

Zimmermann, who lives with her family in Germany, ran the Marathon des Sables in 2016. The race is a 160-mile, seven-day race across the Moroccan Sahara Desert.

Holly Zimmermann, M.S. ’93, started her racing career with a 5K. Now this author and mom of four has pushed her body to its limits in the Sahara Desert and on Mount Everest. She shares why she does it and what’s next.

How and when did you start running? When did that become a desire to do extreme races?
Like many children growing up in the United States, I took part in team sports. Soccer, field hockey, cross-country, skiing—I loved anything active, especially outside sports. But it wasn’t until after my fourth child was born that I started racing. I began with a 5K and was hooked. Armed with a GPS watch, which motivated me to go longer and faster, the distances quickly went to a marathon and beyond. The exhilaration you feel at the finish line, knowing you’ve given it your all, is indescribable. It brings me back time and time again.

What would people be surprised to know about you?
People think that I am strong and confident and that I know exactly what I want out of life. But I wouldn’t run 160 miles through the Sahara Desert if I weren’t looking for answers. I don’t do these races to prove something to other people, I do them to find my true self, and that grounds me and gives me self-confidence.

Why URI?
URI runs in my family—both my parents and my sister are alumni, and my grandfather was a professor there for many years. After graduating, I worked in engineering research and development. Although I no longer work in engineering, the tools that I learned at URI are always with me. And believe me, planning a multi-stage adventure race involves some serious calculations in terms of calorie consumption, fluid intake, gear selection, risk analysis, timing, and logistics that may have been very challenging for me without a technical education.

Why did you decide to write about being an ultramarathoner?
When I was planning for the Marathon des Sables across the Moroccan Sahara Desert, I couldn’t find much information about preparation, gear, and what to expect, so I kept a journal, which I intended to publish as a guide. That became a book, Ultramarathon Mom: From the Sahara to the Arctic. My second book, Running Everest, is the story of my 10-day trek to Base Camp Mount Everest and running the highest marathon in the world. Both books are based on running, but can be enjoyed by anyone, athlete or not.

What advice would you give someone who wants to do what you’re doing?
Find a race that inspires you and register for it. The rest will follow.

What’s on your bucket list?
I’m considering a 10-day adventure race in Patagonia in 2021. I’d love to see that part of the world, and what better way to do it than on foot?

How do you balance your training, races, travel, writing, etc. with your personal and family life?
My kids are aged 12, 15, 17 and 19. The three youngest are still in school and the oldest is studying at the University of Regensburg. A typical day for me starts with getting the kids off to school. Then, with an empty house, I start my training, which can last between one and four hours. After a healthy meal, I work for a few hours before the kids storm home, and then I hustle them back and forth to sports, music, or other activities, just like most moms. Currently none of my children show much interest in extreme sports other than to support me. They especially love to join me at overnight races. My husband takes them in the SUV and they meet me at checkpoints along the course. They bring their bikes and follow me for varying distances, then hop into their sleeping bags and get some shut-eye during the night, making their own adventure out of it.

What do you spend your time on when you’re not running?
Running has drastically changed my life in more ways than one. My adventures have caught the eye of the local media, so I am asked regularly to participate in many things, including speaking engagements, school functions, charity auctions, and, of course, races.

Why did you become vegan and how does that impact your training and racing?
When I first began racing, I got into the habit of eliminating meat and dairy from my diet for about a week before a race. It just made me feel lighter and I had more energy. I then read about an ultrarunner who never ate meat or dairy and was competing and winning some of the toughest long-distance races in the world. So, I thought, if a plant-only diet makes me feel so good, why should I only do it before races? At the time, I’d never heard the term “vegan.” Living in Germany, veganism was non-existent until only a few years ago. Many people gave me a hard time and criticized me for being too extreme. Now vegan products are mainstream and even my critics have come around.

“The exhilaration I feel at the finish line brings me back time and time again.”

What do you miss most about Rhode Island? How often do you come back home?
Two things I miss most: Del’s Lemonade and Allie’s Donuts. No, seriously, the beaches will always bring me back, as well as the people. I have family and friends in Rhode Island, but all the people there are so friendly and always joking and laughing, which is in stark contrast to the serious Germans.

What do you like most about Germany?
I’ve lived in Germany now for 20 years and I love it. The quality of life is very high for everyone, with much less distinct class separation. But what I enjoy the most here is being able to hop in the car and within a few hours I can be in one of a half-dozen different countries, where the culture, language, food—and even the climates—are different. It’s a real-life Epcot theme park.

How has the pandemic impacted your life and your training?
The pandemic has only indirectly impacted my life. I can continue training as before, but my husband and children were home for an extended period which changed my daily routine. I helped them with home schooling and getting through a period of isolation that was traumatic for them. They have questions that I can’t answer, because we’ve never been in a situation like this before and we are not sure if and when we will get back to “normal” life. Until then, all we can do is accept the situation, stay positive, and enjoy one day at a time.

How would you describe what a person needs—mentally, spiritually, and physically—to do the kind of training and competitions you do?
Everyone has their own passions in life. My father used to build intricate model boats, which would take months to complete and required extreme patience and concentration. I admired his focus and tenacity, but could never do that myself. He would say the same thing about my running adventures. Passion is the key. You must love what you do—or find another hobby.