LEADVILLE, Colo. — In a crisp predawn last August, 71-year-old Marge Hickman slipped a brace from a sprained ankle and eased back into the Leadville Trail 100-mile race the starting line. Part of her said to go home. The game is not what it used to be. In any case, she didn’t feel like she was needed. She loves this game. She hates this game. Her whole life has revolved around this game.
She will finish the game, she told herself. She supports herself with positive words. LND (no doubt). One direction: forward. Let go; let God. When the shotgun finally went off, Hickman, a 5-foot, 100-pound runner, stepped nervously into the thin, cold air of the Rocky Mountains. If she can finish, she will be the oldest woman ever.
Hickman is a well-known figure in the Leadville 100, a brutal high-altitude race that traverses mountains with an elevation gain of 15,744 feet. She was masochistic about the game, according to friends, who pointed to two surgeries on her shoulder. Two surgeries for plantar fasciitis, causing heel pain; a plate inserted into her wrist.
She has done it 14 times, but not in over a decade. She sheepishly admits it, but insists she’s still kicking ass and, in her words, “taking names.” Her training log — an average of 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,” she said, adding, “If that game wasn’t on my calendar, I don’t know what I would do or what I would be.”
Ultrarunning has long provided a powerful attraction for true oddballs. Among them was Bob Wise, who suffered brain trauma in a car accident but found that longer races gave him respite from the noise in his head. Despite his sagging posture and his penchant for running up trees, he competed in many six- and seven-day races and ran 903 miles in his first certified 1,000-mile race.
Then there’s Scottish runner Arthur John Howey, who holds three world records: running 360 miles non-stop, 1,300 miles in 16 days and 19 hours, and the speed record across Canada in 72 days and 10 hours. his favorite fuel? Plenty of beer.
Jameelah Abdul-Rahim Mujaahid, a single mother of five, started superrunning on weekends after serving as regional manager for four Burger Kings and working night shifts at Waffle House. The 54-year-old has completed more than 200 ultramarathons.
For Hickman, exercise must be extreme to counteract lifelong anxiety and depression. She said she fled Pittsburgh in her 20s, a childhood marred by insecurities and neglect in the Colorado mountains. Snow-capped peaks towered over the horizon, and clear mountain streams became a symbol of her transformation from a timid child to her parents who made her wear glasses in an attempt to make her smarter and a disciplined athlete.
When the doors to her gym open at 6, she runs on the carpeted track. “And then cardio classes,” she said. “At lunch, I’ll run five miles in an hour and a half. I’ll wipe it off quickly, put on my jeans, put on some perfume, and go back to work. After I get out of the car, I’m back playing squash.”
But in a Denver running shop in 1984, fate seemed to have found her. She meets Jim Butera, a bearded hippie who competes in a humble race called “Superrunning,” sells running shoes, and claims extreme running is a way of life. “I think he’s the best thing since canning corn,” Hickman said. When he showed her a flyer of his latest idea, a 100-mile race in the mountains of Colorado — a race that spanned the sky — sounded impossible. She is addicted.
Her induction in Leadville that August was a jarring harbinger of her relationship with the game for the rest of her life. After a face planting on a tree root near mile 13, she moved on, blood oozing from her knees and face, and a sprained ankle that swelled rapidly. Eighty-seven miles later, tears began to flow as she limped over the last mountain and saw the finish line.
That same year her romance with Leadwell began and her first marriage ended. “Because of my exercise addiction,” Hickman admitted.
The following year, she won the women’s championship and finished 11th. Over the next 27 years, she returned as a carrier pigeon – completing 13 more times – making her the most prolific female runner in the legendary Leadville history.
In 1997, she married again, this time to a runner on the course’s iconic peak during her beloved race. The couple moved to Leadville in 2004, where she further integrated herself into the ever-expanding Leadville series.
But in 2010, the line was sold to Life Time Fitness. Something that feels comfortable among like-minded wanderers becomes a Disneyland in the mountains.Prices climbed, a gift shop was added, and the field surged from 625 participants in 2011 to 943 to 2013.
After Butera’s death in 2012, Hickman became disdainful, and games came and went without mentioning the former tournament director. By then, the race was already led by Ken Chlouber and Merilee Maupin. Chlouber is widely credited for popularizing the game. In her book on the history of Leadville 100, Hickman makes her point clear: The game was the brainchild of Butera alone. She and Chlouber have been at odds since then, and in 2019 she was banned for her brazenness.
Chlouber did not respond to a request for comment.
Under pressure from runners including Gary Corbett, son of ultra-running legend Ted Corbett, Hickman is back in the running for 2021. She has another chance to cross the line.
When she got halfway through, Hickman was exactly where she wanted to be. She has completed 13 hours and has more than 16 hours to complete. She feels stronger than she has in years. In any other major 100-mile race, she is free to go home unless injured.
But not in Leadville. New rules enacted weeks before the race now give her just four hours to get to the next first aid station. According to race officials, the changes were made to ease congestion. In fact, Hickman and joggers like her were eliminated, even though they would likely be able to make it to the 30-hour deadline.
She limped on a 50-mile chair when a volunteer cut her wristband, effectively disqualifying her from the race. The dazed Hickman didn’t seem to notice. She stared at the clock, confused as to what was wrong, emotions churning deep inside her.
Initially, Hickman took a conspiracy-theoretic stance and mentioned that she was the most respected Leadville veteran not inducted into the Leadville Hall of Fame. “They said they were waiting for me to retire,” she said. “I said they were waiting for me to die.”
The closure was then publicly announced. She and Leadwell are screwed. She’s had enough. She was spent; her heart was gone.
Five weeks later, she signed up for the 2022 race. Everyone who knew her said it was inevitable. “Leadville is half my life,” Hickman joked sarcastically, her voice mixed with joy and heaviness. “It’s right in your face—the mountain’s hand just reached out, grabbed your heart, and sucked you in.”
In the third week of August, she will be lining up again in Leadville, determined to write her own ending.
“Yes, I love reading and stuff, but I’m a doer,” adds Hickman, 72, who wore makeup on her latest fall under-eye circle. “My plan is to move on. If they cut my wristband, I’ll move on. I’m going to finish my game.”