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A few days ago, Annie Hughes opened the door of her house in Leadville, Colorado, and set off on a morning run.
This wasn’t a typical morning run by any means, but, then again, nothing she has done lately has been typical.
At 4 a.m., the 22-year-old college student laced up her Hoka Speedgoat 4s, bundled up and headed west in the frigid, 18-degree weather. Her goal was grandiose yet simple: Run 12 miles to the west to the base of Colorado’s two highest peaks, then run up and down 14,429-foot Mt. Massive and up and down 14,439-foot Mt. Elbert, and back home.
Ho, hum, just a 50-mile day with more than 10,568 feet of vertical gain amid frigid weather and howling winds, all over 10,000 feet above sea level.
It was a rough year for a lot of trail runners because so many races and far-away adventures were canceled due to Covid-19. But if there’s one positive thing it taught us, it’s that there are always great places to run and amazing adventures to be had right in our own backyards.
Especially if you’re Annie Hughes and your backyard happens to include Colorado’s prodigious Sawatch Range.
“I look at those mountains every day. They’re so inspiring,” Annie said two days later, sitting in the sun outside of City on a Hill coffee shop in Leadville. “They’re right outside my window and right outside my door, so I kinda wanted to just plan a run there and back.”
It was so cold,” she recalled. “I was freezing and wasn’t sure I’d be able to finish it because I knew it was going to be colder and windier on the mountains.
The first part of her pre-dawn journey on the morning of November 17 was a brisk 12-mile run on the roads to the Half Moon Road trailhead between the two peaks. As she dropped into the Arkansas River valley, she could feel the temperature drop, too.
“It was so cold,” she recalled. “I was freezing and wasn’t sure I’d be able to finish it because I knew it was going to be colder and windier on the mountains.”
But, just as with ultra-distance races, it often takes a village to complete self-contrived adventures. Fortunately, her good friend Gwen Rudy was waiting there in her warm car to provide an impromptu aid station. After Annie fueled up and put on more layers, she and Gwen rambled up Mt. Massive together wearing Kahtoola Microspikes, postholing their way through deep snow drifts at times en route to reaching the summit by 10 a.m.
After retracing their footsteps and heading back down to another brief aid station stop at the car, Annie powered her way up Mt. Elbert alone, tagged the summit of the second highest peak in the lower 48 states at 3:15 p.m. As she looked back toward Leadville from the top, she knew she could make it back, even though it would be a rugged 16 or miles.
“I knew it was all downhill from there,” she said with an effervescent smile that lit up her blue eyes. “It was still a long way, but I knew I wasn’t going to have to deal with postholing and that I would be excited to be finishing.”
While that was a huge adventure, it wasn’t Annie’s biggest endeavor of the year. Two months ago, she set off to tackle the 160-mile Collegiate Loop, a massive circuit with 33,400 feet of vertical gain that encircles several 14ers in central Colorado. After a rough first 24 hours, she crushed the second half of that loop to lower the women’s supported FKT by 5 hours to 61 hours 19 minutes, thanks to help from her parents and several friends who crewed and paced her along the way.
“Doing the Collegiate Loop was definitely a turning point for me,” she said. “It made me understand what I can do and allowed me to be more confident in myself.”
This week’s adventure wasn’t even the first time Annie has looked out of a window and run to a high peak on the horizon line and back. This past summer, she and and a friend took on the bold, 60-mile roundtrip from Alamosa, Colorado, to the summit of 14,344-foot Blanca Peak and back.
She also ran (and won) her first 100-miler at the Bryce Canyon Ultras in late May and chalked up a win at the Indian Creek 50-miler on October 16. Not bad for someone who’s only been at trail running for less than two years.
Ultrarunning really takes you to places where you’re just stripped of everything and have nothing left, yet you can keep going,” she said. “I think that carries into all aspects of life.
If it seems like Annie is beyond her years given her recent success and tenacity, she’s definitely been a quick study in the endurance arts. But her earnest curiosity and dedication to running long has also seemed to bring out the best in her. She’s humble about what she’s done and gracious for those who have played a role in helping her.
Ultrarunning really takes you to places where you’re just stripped of everything and have nothing left, yet you can keep going,” she said. “I think that carries into all aspects of life. … You can feel the lowest of the low and yet you can still keep taking those steps and keep going forward.
“I think ultrarunning really takes you to places where you’re just stripped of everything and have nothing left, yet you can keep going,” she said. “I think that carries into all aspects of life. I think that’s one of the things that’s most inspiring to me. You can feel the lowest of the low and yet you can still keep taking those steps and keep going forward.”
The crazy thing is that she knew long before she moved to Colorado that she wanted to be an ultrarunner. As a kid growing up in Wisconsin, Annie was a good cross-country and track runner with a knack for running long. (As a third-grader, she busted out a 12-mile run on her own volition.)
She remembers her dad encouraging her to run cross country and being fascinated when he explained that long-distance races varied from 5K to the marathon to 100 miles. She was working in a running shop when Hokas were new to the market and was intrigued to learn that the maximally cushioned shoes were originally designed for running ultra-distance races in the Alps.
“When I heard that about Hokas, I was like, ‘I want to be an ultrarunner running through the Alps,’” she recalled. “I’ve always loved running long and felt like I could go forever. I really wanted to explore that more, but I thought it would be something I would do when I was a lot older.”
She got her first taste of big mountains after her freshman year in high school when her family visited Colorado and hiked up 14,360-foot La Plata Peak. Her parents were considering moving to the Centennial State when they retired, but Annie insisted they do it before she finished high school because she wanted to live in the mountains.
After they settled in Buena Vista, Colorado, four years ago, Annie remained mostly focused on track and cross country during her senior year in high school and for her first three semesters while competing for Adams State College in Alamosa.
But she soon found herself burned out on short and fast running and again felt a yearning to run longer. Some friends encouraged her to do more trail running and sign up for the Moab Red Hot 55K. Her first ultra was challenging but inspiring.
“I loved the vibe of the community,” Annie said, “and I liked the challenge of running farther than I had ever gone before.”
Ten miles from town on her way back from Mt. Elbert, Annie was met by her roommate Marley Seifert, a friend who’s crewed her at most of her ultra races over the past two years. She brought her hot ramen soup, which hit the spot and gave her the boost she needed to finish strong.
When she eventually got back, she made herself a plate of chicken tacos and indulged in a bowl of Tillamook Malted Moo Shake ice cream while watching through the window as the last glimpse of the sunset faded behind the two giant peaks on the horizon line.
When Annie was approaching her house in Leadville, her watch told her she’d only covered 47.2 miles. Instead of quitting and calling it a day, she opting to run a 5K lap around town to eclipse the 50-mile mark, eventually finishing with 50.6 miles. In all, it was a 15-hour, 13-minute day.
When she eventually got back, she made herself a plate of chicken tacos and indulged in a bowl of Tillamook Malted Moo Shake ice cream while watching through the window as the last glimpse of the sunset faded behind the two giant peaks on the horizon line. A day later she was back at her part-time waitressing job at a local café and taking online classes through the Leadville campus of Colorado Mountain College.
“I love Leadville. I’m so grateful to be able to live and run in such a beautiful place with so many inspiring people,” she said. “I thought it was a good way to show my appreciation for where I live and what’s around me. It really puts into perspective what’s possible in running and in life.”
Brian Metzler was the founding editor of Trail Runner and now serves as a contributing editor.