May 30, 2023

LEADVILLE, Colo. — In the wee hours of last August, 71-year-old Marge Hickman slipped the brace off her sprained ankle and headed to the starting line of the 100-mile Leadville Trail Race. A part of her told her to go home. The fight wasn’t what it used to be. She didn’t feel wanted anyway. She liked this tribe. He hated this race. Her whole life revolved around this struggle.

She was going to finish this fight, she told herself. She supported herself with her positive phrases. LND (leave no doubt). One direction: forward. Let fall; let God When the shotgun finally opened, Hickman, a five-foot-five, 100-pound runner, darted nervously into the thin, icy Rocky Mountain air. 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 traverses the mountains at an elevation of 15,744 feet. She’s masochistically obsessed with race, according to friends, who point to two surgeries on her shoulders. two procedures for plantar fasciitis, which causes heel pain. and a plate went into her wrist.

He has finished the race 14 times, but not in over a decade. She ruefully admits it, but is adamant she’s still kicking and, in her words, “taking names.” Her training schedule – averaging 80 miles a week – and a string of ultramarathon results back up her claims. “I learned to let go of ageism a long time ago,” he said, adding, “Without this race on my calendar, I don’t know what I’d do or who I’d be.”

Ultrarunning has long held a strong attraction for true eccentrics. They include Bob Wise, who suffered a brain injury in a car accident but found that the bigger races provided a respite from the noise in his head. Despite his slumped stance and tendency to run into trees, he took part in many six- and seven-day races and walked 903 miles in the first certified 1,000-mile race.

Then there’s Scottish runner Arthur John Howie, who once held three world records: running 360 miles non-stop, a 1,300-mile race in 16 days and 19 hours, and the speed record across Canada in 72 days and 10 hours. His preferred fuel? Copious amounts of beer.

Jameelah Abdul-Rahim Mujaahid, a single mother of five, started running ultras on the weekends after a day job as an area manager for four Burger Kings and night shifts at Waffle House. At 54, she has completed over 200 ultramarathons.

For Hickman, the exercise had to be extreme to offset lifelong bouts of anxiety and depression. In her 20s, she said, she left Pittsburgh and a childhood marred by insecurity and neglect for the Colorado mountains. The snow-capped peaks loomed over the horizon and the rush of the clear mountain streams became symbols of her transformation from a timid child, made to wear glasses by her parents in an attempt to outsmart her, to a self-possessed athlete.

When the doors to her gym opened at 6, she was running on the carpeted track. “Then an aerobics class,” she said. “At lunch, I would take an hour and a half and run five miles. I’d do a quick wipe down, put the jeans back on and some perfume and get back to work. After I got off, I came back for a racket.”

But it was at a store in Denver in 1984 that fate seemed to find her. He met Jim Butera, a bearded hippie who ran obscure races called “ultras,” sold running shoes, and declared extreme running a lifestyle. “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 in the sky—it seemed impossible. She was hooked.

Her induction at Leadville in August of that year was a terrifying element of the relationship she would have with the race for the rest of her life. After face-planting a root near Mile 13, she pushed off with blood pouring from her knees and face and a twisted ankle swelling rapidly. Eighty-seven miles later, the tears began to flow as she crested the final hill and saw the finish line.

The same year her love affair 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 dove back for the next 27 years – finishing 13 more times – making her the most prolific female runner in Leadville’s storied history.

In 1997, she married again, this time to a runner at an iconic summit of the course during her favorite race. The couple moved to the city of Leadville in 2004, and she became further involved in the ever-expanding Leadville racing series.

But in 2010, the line was sold to Life Time Fitness. What felt like a cozy relationship between like-minded bums became a Disneyland of the mountains. Prices went up, a gift shop was added and the field grew from 625 participants in 2011 to 943 until 2013.

Hickman became scornful after Butera’s death in 2012 and the fight went back and forth without mentioning the former fight manager. By that time, the race had long been led by Ken Chlouber and Merilee Maupin. Chlouber has been widely credited with popularizing the breed. In her book on the history of the Leadville 100, Hickman made her views clear: The race was the brainchild of Butera alone. She and Chlouber have been feuding ever since, and in 2019, her insolence got her 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. He had another shot to cross the line.

Hickman was exactly where she wanted to be when she reached the halfway mark. He had completed 13 hours and still had over 16 hours to go. She felt stronger than she had in years. In any other big 100-miler, barring injury, she would have been home free.

But not in Leadville. New rules introduced weeks before the race now gave her just four hours to reach the next aid station. According to race officials, the changes were made to relieve congestion. In effect, Hickman, and slower runners like her, were disqualified even though they likely could have finished before the 30-hour cutoff time.

She sat relaxed in a chair at Mile 50 while a volunteer cut off her wristband, effectively disqualifying her from the race. Dazed, Hickman didn’t seem to notice. She looked at the clock, confused as to what had gone wrong, emotion rumbling in her gut.

First, Hickman took a conspiratorial stance and referred to the fact that she is Leadville’s most decorated veteran not to be inducted into the Leadville Hall of Fame. “They say they’re waiting for me to retire,” he said. “I say they expect me to die.”

Public closing statements followed. Done with Leadville. He had enough. It was spent. her heart was no longer in her.

He signed up for the 2022 race five weeks later. Those who know her said it was inevitable. “Leadville was half my life,” Hickman joked sarcastically, a mixture of glee and gravity in her voice. “It’s in your face — the hand of the mountains just reaches out and grabs you by the heart and sucks you in.”

In the third week of August, she will line up again in Leadville, determined to write her own ending.

“Yeah, I like to read books and stuff, but I’m practical,” added Hickman, now 72, as she applied makeup over a black eye from a recent fall. “My plan is to continue. If they cut my wrist, I will continue. I will finish my fight.”

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