Leadville, Colorado. – In the crisp dawn hours last August, 71-year-old Marge Hickman slipped the brace off her sprained ankle and eased to the starting line in the 100-mile Leadville Trail Race. Part of her said go home. The race wasn’t what it used to be. It didn’t feel required anyway. I loved this race. I hated this race. Her whole life has revolved around this race.
She told herself that she would finish this race. She supported herself with her positive words. LND (Leave no doubt). One direction: forward. leave it; Let God. When the gun finally exploded, Hickman, a five-foot, 100-pound sprinter, roared nervously into the cool thin air of the Rocky Mountains. If she could finish, she would be the oldest woman to ever do so.
Hickman is a well-known character in Leadville 100, a brutal high-altitude race that weaves through mountains at an elevation of 15,744 feet. She’s masochistically obsessed with sweat, according to her friends, who noted two surgeries on her shoulders; Two procedures to treat plantar fasciitis, which causes heel pain; A plate was inserted into her wrist.
She’s finished the race 14 times, but not in over a decade. She shyly admits this but is adamant that she still resists and, in her words, “takes names.” Her training record — averaging 80 miles per week — and a host of Ultramarathon results back up her claims. “I learned to let go of ageism a long time ago,” she said, adding, “Without that race on my calendar, I don’t know what I would do or who I would be.”
Ultrarunning has always made a solid draw for true eccentrics. Among them is Bob Wise, who suffered brain trauma in a car accident but discovered that longer races provide relief from the noise in his head. Despite his droopy status and penchant for tree-running, he competed in many six- and seven-day races and raced 903 miles in his first certified 1000 mile race.
Then there is Scottish sprinter Arthur John Howe, who once set three world records: run 360 miles non-stop, run 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.
Jamila Abd al-Rahim Mujahid, a single and mother of five, started running the terrace on weekends, after a day job as area manager for four Burger Kings and night shifts at Waffle House. At the age of 54, she has completed more than 200 ultramarathons.
For Hickman, exercise must be vigorous to offset lifelong episodes of anxiety and depression. She said that in her twenties, she fled Pittsburgh and her childhood was marred by the insecurity and neglect of the Colorado mountains. Snow-capped peaks curving into the horizon and rushing clear mountain streams have become a symbol of her transformation from a shy child, made by her parents to wear glasses in an effort to make her smarter, to a self-possessed athlete.
When the gym doors opened at 6, she was working on the carpeted track. “Then separate aerobics,” she said. “At lunch, I would take an hour and a half and run five miles. I would do a quick wipe, put on jeans and some perfume and get back to work. After I got off, I went back to playing tennis.”
But it was at a running store in Denver in 1984 that fate seemed to find her. I met Jim Butera, a bearded hippie who ran in obscure races called Ultras, sold running shoes and proclaimed excessive running as a way of life. “I thought it was the best thing since canned corn,” Hickman said. When he showed her a pilot his last idea, a 100-mile race in the Colorado mountains — a race across the sky — it seemed impossible. She was addicted.
Her debut in Leadville in August of that year was a shocking harbinger of the relationship she would have with racing for the rest of her life. After planting her face on a rootstock near Mile 13, she squeezed blood oozing from her knees and face and quickly swollen her sprained ankle. After 87 miles, tears began to flow as they rolled up the last hill and saw the finish line.
In the same year that she began her affair with Leadville, 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 has returned as a carrier pigeon for 27 years – finishing 13 more times – making her the most prolific female runner in Leadville history.
In 1997, she married again, this time to a runner at an iconic pinnacle of the track during her beloved race. The couple moved to Leadville in 2004, and they became involved in Leadville’s ever-growing racing series.
But in 2010, the series was sold to Life Time Fitness. What seemed like an intimate relationship between like-minded tramps became Disneyland of the Mountains. Prices went up, a gift shop was added and the field swelled from 625 participants in 2011 to 943 by 2013.
Hickman turned to disdain after Butera’s death in 2012 and the race came and went without mentioning the former race director. By then, the race had long been led by Ken Klopper and Merrill Maupin. Klopper is widely credited with promoting the race. 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 at odds ever since, and in 2019, she was brazenly banned.
Klopper did not respond to requests for comment.
Hickman was sent back for the 2021 race, after pressure from sprinters, including Gary Corbett, son of super sprint legend Ted Corbett. She had another shot to cross the line.
Hickman was exactly where you wanted to be when you got halfway through. She had completed 13 hours and still had more than 16 hours to finish. She felt stronger than she had been in years. In any other 100 Millers, excluding the injury, she would have been free from home.
But not in Leadville. New rules enacted 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 ease congestion. In fact, Hickman and slow runners like her were eliminated even though they likely were able to finish 30 hours early.
She sat flabby in a chair at Mile 50 while a volunteer cut her wristband, effectively disqualifying her from the race. In a daze, Hickman doesn’t seem to notice. She was staring at the clock, confused as to what had gone wrong, passion raging in her guts.
At first, Hickman took a conspiratorial stance and pointed to the fact that she was the most veteran of Leadville not inducted into the Leadville Hall of Fame. “They say they are waiting for me to retire,” she said. “I say they are waiting for me until I die.”
This was followed by public announcements of the closure. You’re done with Leadville. She had had enough. I have spent. Her heart is no longer in it.
I signed up for the 2022 race five weeks later. Those who knew her said it was inevitable. “Leadville was half my life,” Hickman joked sarcastically, her voice a mixture of joy and heaviness. “It’s in your face – the hand of the mountains just comes out and holds your heart and sucks you in.”
In the third week of August, she will line up in Leadville again, determined to write her own ending.
“Yeah, I love reading books and stuff, but I’m an actor,” added Hickman, 72, applying makeup on a black eye from a recent fall. “My plan is to keep going. If they cut my wrist strap, I will keep working. I will finish my race.”