LEADVILLE, Colo. – In the cool dawn hours of last August, Marge Hickman, 71, slipped the brace off her sprained ankle and moved to the start line of the Leadville 100-mile race Trail. Part of her said go home. Racing wasn’t what it used to be. Either way, she didn’t feel wanted. She loved this race. She hated this race. She has revolved her whole life around this race.
She would finish this race, she told herself. She supported herself with her positive phrases. LND (leave no doubt). One direction: forward. Let’s go; leave God. When the shotgun finally went off, Hickman, a five-foot, 100-pound runner, nervously walked through the thin, icy air of the Rocky Mountains. If she could finish, she would be the oldest woman ever to do so.
Hickman is a well-known figure in the Leadville 100, a brutal high-altitude race that weaves through mountains with an elevation gain of 15,744 feet. She’s masochistically obsessed with running, according to friends, who point to two surgeries on her shoulders; two procedures for plantar fasciitis, which causes heel pain; and a plate inserted into his wrist.
She has finished the race 14 times, but not in more than a decade. She shyly admits it, but she’s adamant that she’s still kicking and, in her own words, “taking names.” His training diary – an average of 80 miles per week – and a series of ultramarathon results back up his claims. “I learned to let go of ageism a long time ago,” she said, adding, “Without this race on my calendar, I don’t know what I would do or who I would be.”
Ultrarunning has long provided a powerful draw for true oddballs. Among them is Bob Wise, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident but found that longer runs offered respite from the noise in his head. Despite his droopy posture and penchant for running in trees, he participated in numerous six- and seven-day races and completed 903 miles in the first certified 1,000-mile race.
Then there is Scottish runner Arthur John Howie, who once held three world records: running 360 miles non-stop, a 1,300 mile race in 16 days 19 hours and the speed record across Canada in 72 days. 10 hours. His favorite fuel? Copious amounts of beer.
Jameelah Abdul-Rahim Mujaahid, a single mother of five, started running ultras on weekends, after a day job as a district manager for four Burger Kings and night shifts at Waffle House. At 54, she has completed more than 200 ultramarathons.
For Hickman, exercise had to be extreme to compensate for lifelong bouts of anxiety and depression. In her twenties, she says, she fled Pittsburgh and a childhood marred by insecurity and neglect for the mountains of Colorado. Snow-capped peaks leaned into the horizon and the rush of clear mountain streams became symbols of her transformation from a shy child, forced to wear glasses by her parents in an effort to make her smarter, into an athlete. autonomous.
When the doors to her gymnasium opened at 6 a.m., she would run on the carpeted track. “Then an aerobics class,” she said. “At lunch, I would take an hour and a half and run eight kilometres. I would do a quick wipe down, put the jeans back on and some perfume and get back to work. After I left, I was back for racquetball.
But it was in a running store in Denver in 1984 that fate seemed to find her. She met Jim Butera, a bearded hippie who organized obscure races called “ultras”, sold running shoes and professed extreme running as a way of life. “I thought it was the best thing since canned corn,” Hickman said. When he showed her a flyer for his latest idea, a 100-mile race in the mountains of Colorado – a race through the sky – it seemed impossible. She was addicted.
Her initiation into Leadville in August of that year was a shocking omen of the relationship she would have with the breed for the rest of her life. After planting her face on a root near Mile 13, she continued with blood oozing from her knees and face and a twisted ankle swelling rapidly. Eighty-seven miles later, tears began to flow as she limped over the final hill and saw the finish line.
The same year her romance with Leadville began, her first marriage ended. “Because of my exercise addiction,” Hickman admitted.
The following year, she won the women’s division and placed 11th overall. She returned as a homing pigeon for the next 27 years – finishing 13 more times – making her the most prolific runner in Leadville’s storied history.
In 1997 she remarried, this time to a runner on an iconic peak on the course during her beloved run. The couple moved to the town of Leadville in 2004, and she became more involved in Leadville’s ever-growing series of races.
But in 2010, the series was sold to Life Time Fitness. What had seemed like an intimate affair between like-minded trail enthusiasts became a Disneyland of the mountains. Prices have gone up, a gift shop has been added, and the field has grown from 625 entrants in 2011 to 943 by 2013.
Hickman grew dismissive after Butera’s death in 2012 and the race went back and forth without mentioning the former race director. At that time, the race had long been led by Ken Chlouber and Merilee Maupin. Chlouber has been widely credited with popularizing running. In his book on the history of the Leadville 100, Hickman made his point very clearly: the race was Butera’s idea alone. She and Chlouber have been at odds ever since, and in 2019 his audacity got him banned.
Chlouber did not respond to requests for comment.
Hickman was reinstated for the 2021 race, after pressure from runners including Gary Corbitt, son of ultrarunning legend Ted Corbitt. She had another shot to cross the line.
Hickman was exactly where she wanted to be when she got halfway there. She had finished 13 hours and still had more than 16 hours to finish. She felt stronger than she had in years. In any other major 100 miles, barring injury, she would have been home free.
But not in Leadville. New rules enacted weeks before the race gave him just four hours to get to the next pit stop. According to race officials, the changes were made to ease congestion. Indeed, Hickman and slower runners like her were eliminated even though they probably could have finished before the 30-hour deadline.
She sat limply in a chair at Mile 50 while a volunteer cut off her bracelet, effectively disqualifying her from the race. In a daze, Hickman didn’t seem to notice. She stared at the clock, puzzled by what was wrong, emotion rumbling in her guts.
Initially, Hickman took a conspiratorial stance and referenced the fact that she is the most decorated Leadville veteran not to have been inducted into the Leadville Hall of Fame. “They say they’re waiting for me to retire,” she said. “I say they are waiting for me to die.”
Public declarations of closure followed. She was done with Leadville. She had had enough. She was exhausted; his heart was gone.
She signed up for the 2022 race five weeks later. Those who know her said it was inevitable. “Leadville has been half my life,” Hickman joked sarcastically, a mixture of joy and heaviness in his voice. “It’s in your face – the hand of the mountains has just come out and grabs you by the heart and sucks you in.”
During the third week of August, she will return to Leadville, determined to write her own ending.
“Yeah, I like to read books and stuff, but I’m a doer,” Hickman, now 72, added, applying makeup over a black eye from a recent fall. “My plan is to continue. If they cut my bracelet, I will continue. I will finish my race.