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On Tuesday, August 1, Tara Dower broke the longstanding Colorado Trail women’s supported fastest known time (FKT) with an unofficial time of 8 days, 21 hrs, and 59 minutes. The previous record was 9 days, 10 hours, and 52 minutes, set by Betsy Kalmeyer twenty years ago in 2003.
The Colorado Trail (CT) connects Denver to Durango over the course of 567 miles. The trail involves six wilderness areas, eight mountain ranges, and climbs nearly 90,000 vertical feet. The 567-mile CT combines both Collegiate East and Collegiate West sections. Dower, a 29-year-old ultrarunner from Virginia Beach, Virginia, went East to West—Denver to Durango, taking the 486.4-mile Collegiate East route. (There are four variations on the route—East to West, West to East, then Collegiate West and Collegiate East.) Dower’s FKT is on the route with the greatest number of FKT’s, making it the more competitive route.
Despite crushing the record by nearly 13 hours, the goal of the trip started very differently than how it ended. On day one, Dower set out with Liz Derstine in a team attempt to break the self-supported FKT record. But Derstine was struggling to keep pace, and had to drop out after four days. So the goal pivoted and became a supported effort for just Dower. Derstine, 37, an accomplished trail runner and long-distance hiker from Cambridge, Massachusetts, meticulously documented the whole trip on social media. She also continued to share many miles with Dower along the way.
“We started this as a team self-supported FKT attempt,” Derstine wrote in an Instagram post. “Tara completed the first four-plusdays carrying the weight of a full pack with no outside support. By the third night I was having trouble keeping pace, but Tara showed no signs of slowing down. On the fourth morning, we decided I’d get off trail and Tara would keep going. I scrambled to find a rental car and recruit local support to help Tara the rest of the way as a supported FKT attempt.”
“I Felt Like I Saw the Entire State”
Dower and Derstine met, fittingly, on the Appalachian Trail (AT) in 2020. Derstine was in the midst of her own supported FKT going northbound on the AT, and Dower was managing Jennifer Pharr Davis’s bunkhouse in Hot Springs, North Carolina.
“She was preparing for her first multi-day FKT attempt on the Mountains to Sea Trail in North Carolina,” Derstine said. “And so she was kind of excited to see up close and personal what it was like to go for an FKT, so she hiked some pretty long hours with me on the AT.”
They kept in touch, and Derstine crewed for Dower’s first 50-mile trail run in 2021. Then, every time they met up, it was to support each other’s huge adventures. Eventually, they decided to go for one together. “We were like, we’ve supported each other for different things, but we should do something together. We had both been interested in doing the Colorado Trail, so decided to go for it as a team,” Derstine said.
The morning of day four, Derstine posted: “After struggling with major fatigue the last ten miles or so of day three, I worried how day four would go. I woke up extra early to eat a bigger breakfast, hoping that would give me the energy I needed to start the day. We were treated to gentle, smooth trails but my body did not want to go. Tara was moving well. She waited for me a couple times but a gap kept easily forming between us. I tried everything I could think of to get my body moving better: more food, water, electrolytes, caffeine. Nothing seemed to help.”
Derstine also chronicled the decision to drop out of the attempt and support Dower.
“Major highs and lows are inevitable on this sort of endeavor, but this low wasn’t one we could afford with the goal we’d set for ourselves. Thankfully we had a conversation before the hike about what to do in this kind of situation and what our priorities would be. We decided Tara would move on, going at her pace, and I’d see if I could turn things around for myself then reassess at Twin Lakes. Unfortunately things continued to deteriorate for me, which gave me the answer I was seeking. I took a side trail down to Twin Lakes, ending my hike.”
Derstine quickly made arrangements on the fly, to rent a car and rally support for Dower. She reached out on social media to help gather supplies and “aid stations” to keep Dower rolling as efficiently as possible.
“The running and hiking community came through in a huge way in helping Tara,” Derstine said. “They got [Tara] to Durango with pacing, foot care, logistics, navigating backcountry roads, bringing supplies, helping with the rental car cost. We are so appreciative and grateful.”
For Dower, the highs included being able to see so much of Colorado.
“The first two days spending time with Liz in the mountains and doing the hike together was a lot of fun,” Dower said. “Another high was seeing the community come together when it turned into a supported effort. I didn’t feel like I had to worry about anything. It just came together so naturally. And the views were amazing. [The CT] is so expansive. I haven’t really done a lot of travel in Colorado, maybe a couple of trips, but I felt like I saw the entire state.”
Forced to Change Gears
And the struggles were there, too. One of the most intense lows hit Dower when Derstine dropped out. “One of the lows was definitely when Liz left near Twin Lakes. Because I didn’t know what was happening,” Dower said. “I felt extremely lonely. And exposed. I don’t know why, but I got this feeling of being completely alone.”
It became very clear in that moment that the shift in the challenge was going to be much tougher mentally. “I knew I wasn’t going to feel like that always, because we had talked about how it was going to be after it turned from self-supported to supported. I wasn’t going to be alone, but in that moment it felt really epic. Really daunting.”
Dower also experienced extreme exhaustion most mornings—moments when she felt she just couldn’t get moving. “I would get so uncomfortable. And I couldn’t keep pace. So I would get down on myself and upset, and then I would have to think, as long as you’re moving, it’s OK. But it was difficult. A lot of times that was from 1:30 A.M. until the sun rose.”
Derstine met Dower several times along the way, but the last time was in the final push near Molas Pass, with about 70 miles to go. “We were playing the Frozen Soundtrack and singing Frozen and Moulin Rouge and I was trying to keep her awake,” Derstine said. “But on our way up that last exposed pass there were storms coming in. So I said, ‘you’ve got to just go.’ I was going to filter water and catch back up to her, but she took off. She was running, with 20 miles left to go on the trail, and I couldn’t catch up to her.” Derstine says that Dower is so full of grit that even when she’s very uncomfortable and tired, she pulls out this other gear.
“I ended up getting a ride from random strangers to meet the crew and run the last couple miles with her,” Derstine said. “But she did a good chunk of the last 20 miles totally by herself.”
With the mission accomplished, Derstine and Dower planned to make a trip to Durango’s urgent care to get Dower’s feet cared for, then to Walmart to get some fresh clothes and shoes because all they had with them was what they packed for the self-supported version of the trip. Then maybe a trip to the hot springs to relax before flying back to the east coast.
One of the biggest takeaways for Derstine is to always, always expect the unexpected. “For any FKT attempt you can plan all you want, but the unexpected will happen,” she said. “The events of this journey all came together in such an organic and beautiful way for something really special to happen. It all seemed to work out the way it was supposed to.”