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Leadville champion Annie Hughes runs with gratitude

By Henry Howard

Annie Hughes remembers her first race in Leadville, Colo., a mere two weeks after her family moved from Wisconsin. Hughes, then a high school senior, was on the high school cross-country team.

“I remember when I went out, I was at my normal pace that I would go out in Wisconsin,” she says. “I felt great! I was way ahead of everyone and then I just completely blew up, and I got fourth. I had a huge lead and then I just completely blew up and couldn't breathe.”

Hughes has come a long way since then, training in Colorado and eventually moving to Leadville. And earlier this month she took first place with a 21:06:58 in the historic Leadville Trail Run 100-miler. (Hughes’ victory is among my seven key takeaways from the 2021 Leadville race.)

“I thought Leadville was a cool town but I never imagined myself living here,” she says, referring to when she was attending Adams State University in Alamosa. “I wasn't sure where I was going to live after that but definitely Colorado.”

After her first year of college, she got “burned out” from competing on the team and discovered mountain running.

“The Sangre de Cristo Mountains, over by Alamosa are really incredible,” she says. “I started just hiking those and then figured out that trail running was a thing and wanted to get more into it. I needed to make a change because I was not excited about running and being on the team, so I decided to quit the team after that cross-country season and started running trails.”

A friend persuaded Hughes to move two years ago to Leadville, where she could finish her degree at Colorado Mountain College as well as focus on trail and mountain running.

“I just forgot how charming a town it is,” she says. “I didn't know anyone when I first moved here but definitely think it's a really cool place to live. It’s so beautiful and a great place to train. Then I met all kinds of wonderful people, so it's been a really good experience.”

From the flatlands to the mountains

Hughes has no regrets moving from Wisconsin to Colorado with her parents when they retired. While she misses some friends, she embraced the smaller high school size.

“We would come out to Colorado on family vacations since my dad had grown up going to a camp in Buena Vista,” says Hughes, noting the town is just 45 minutes from Leadville. “It was always a really special place to him. We'd come out on big family vacations. I just loved it so much and fell in love with the mountains. It was always so hard to go back to Wisconsin.”

During those vacations, Hughes fell in love with Colorado and decided to attend college there. Knowing her parents would be retiring there, Hughes pitched the idea to establish residency there for the in-state tuition break. In the process, she enjoyed running her last high school season.

“It felt like a little family,” she says. “My cross-country team was really sweet and we were all super close. At my high school in Wisconsin there were 100 girls on my cross-country team, and 100 guys on the guys' team. I really liked the smaller team. I thought it was a lot of fun.”

Fun in the mountains

While at Adams State, Hughes kicked off her ultra-running journey. She hiked all the 14ers in Colorado and dabbled in ultras like the Silver Rush 50.

Hughes skipped the usual progress from short distance to marathon to ultras. To this day, she has never raced a road or trail marathon. Her first long-distance race was the 55K Moab Red Hot Ultra in Utah.

“I thought that was really fun and wanted to try a 50-miler next,” she recalls. “I did the Jemez Mountain 50-miler in Los Alamos, N.M. I had no idea that that was a really challenging course. It was 10,000 or 11,000 thousand feet of vert, and I was training in Alamosa, which is pancake flat.”

Apparently the vert didn’t matter too much. Hughes won the race.

“Maybe I am good at the longer stuff," she thought. Silver Rush followed, which qualified her for the Leadville 100. "I guess I'll try 100 miles now."

Her early inspiration came from a friend of her family. Her dad was a cyclist but the friend would regale Hughes during dinner conversations with his tales about running 100-milers. “I was just always so fascinated by how he ran these 100-milers ... I couldn't even imagine it.”

A strong year

Hughes’ Ultrasignup page is filled with solid race results.

Just this year, in addition her victory at the Leadville 100, Hughes has won the Mace’s Hideout 100, the Collegiate Peaks Trail Run 50-miler and the Behind the Rocks Ultra 50-miler.

In May 2020, she did her first 100-miler at Bryce Canyon, finishing as the third woman. Then did a Fastest Known Time (FKT), the Collegiate Loop, which is a 160-mile section on the Colorado Trail.

“That was kind of my training for Leadville,” she says. “I really like this longer distance stuff. I wasn't even sure if I could do it because I had only one 100-miler before that and 60 miles is quite a bit more. It was a lot more work. I was also planning the whole FKT myself. I thought ‘This could all fall apart and be a disaster.’ Just trying to organize where the crew's going to meet me and everything I need was kind of a lot. But I ended up finishing it and getting the FKT, so that was really cool.”

Next up was the 100-miler in June. “Having those three experiences, I felt really dialed going into Leadville. I just knew exactly what to expect and exactly what I would need. They had awesome crew. I just felt really prepared and mentally ready because I had been thinking about it for so long. I knew I was ready to do this.”

Eyes on Moab

Up next for Hughes is the Moab 200, which is actually around 240 miles.

“That’s a race that I've always wanted to do since I started ultra running,” she says. “I thought it wouldn't be for a really long time.”

Her mind changed after her FKT on the Collegiate Loop, which took her 61 hours.

“I did really well with the sleep,” she recalls. “The first night was pretty rough but the second night I only slept for one minute and had a total comeback. That was promising to me that I can feel even better on the second night and day. Moab would take me, more or less, 10 hours more than the Collegiate Loop. If I can do the Collegiate Loop, I think I can do Moab."

Hughes has the mileage on track for her Moab training. The planning is another critical part.

“I’m starting to get all my stuff together for that race,” she says. “There’s a lot that goes into it, so it's going to be a lot of planning.”

One of the biggest differences between 100s and multi-day races is sleep. Hughes is going to sleep when she needs to, rather than plan it out.

“I usually just wait until I absolutely have to sleep, like I'm falling asleep while I'm running and I can't hold my eyes open,” she says, adding she’ll carry an emergency blanket and use it whenever she needs. “Then I just drop wherever I am and have my pacer time me for a minute or two. I'll just fall asleep instantly and be dreaming. Then the pacer will pick me up and it's like you feel like you had a full night's sleep almost. It's crazy.”

Hughes has toyed with the ides of returning to Wisconsin to do the Kettle Moraine 100, and has been thinking about Western States and wants to do the Tahoe 200 and finish the Destination Trail 200s.

Loving life in Leadville

At 23, Hughes is at home in Leadville. Reflecting back to her time in Wisconsin, it may not be what she thought life would be — it’s better.

“I don't think it was quite what I envisioned there but I definitely wanted to run ultras,” she says. “When I first started running in sixth grade, I remember my dad telling me about people who ran 100-mile races. I mean, long-distance for middle school is like a mile or two. But compared to everyone else on my team, I was always the one who liked to run the longest. I just always felt like I could run forever. I don't know why.

Hughes credits her success to consistency and staying healthy.

“I haven't had any really big injuries,” she says. “I've been running year-round since I was in sixth grade. I think running for that long and being so consistent has really been huge. All of my injuries were in college because I was running 50 miles a week in high school, and then in college I was running 90 miles a week. It's a pretty big jump, and I got injured. Getting that injury out of the way and getting my body used to the training miles.”

Now Hughes runs six or seven days a week, taking a rest day when she needs it. She knows strength work and cross-training are important but who’s got time for that when there are mountains to explore? The community of Leadville, the scenic beauty and the ability to follow her passion fill her with gratitude.

And that’s her mantra, "Run with gratitude."

“I really love the idea of gratitude,” she says. “When you're out on an ultra, it can feel like it sucks. It's the worst thing ever but you can always find something to be grateful for. That's what I turn to when I'm really struggling. It helps when I say, ‘I have all the support and people helping me trying to complete my goal.’ And I'm grateful to be able to do this. Not many people get to run 100 miles, so I can find something to be really grateful for.”

Speed drill

Hometown: Grew up in Oconomowoc, Wis., then graduated high school in Buena Vista, Colo.

Number of years running: 10 years.

How many miles do you run in a typical week: “I typically run 90-100 miles a week when I’m in full training mode.”

Point of pride: Completing the FKT on the Collegiate Loop (160 miles).

Favorite race distance: 100-plus miles

Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Kombucha and a good burger… and ice cream of course!

Favorite piece of gear: “My Hoka One One Speedgoats. Running shoes are the most important piece of gear.”

Who inspires you: “My mentor, Olga King, who crewed me at Leadville. And Courtney Dauwalter.”

Favorite inspirational song to listen to: “Tokyo Drifting by Glass Animals (or pretty much any song on that album).”

Favorite inspirational mantra or phrase: “Run with gratitude.”

Where can other runners connect with you:

Instagram: @outdoorable_annie


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