Redemption, Wrong Turns, Silver Linings and Cigarettes: How a Few of the Nation’s Top Mountain/Ultra/Trail Runners Found Their Way to the Trails.
Written by Shannon Payne. Shannon is a Colorado native currently residing in Auburn, California. She was a 2-time qualifier for the US Mountain Running Team, 2-time winner of the Mt. Washington Road Race, and a 7-time All-American at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Above photo by Richard Bolt features Allie McLaughlin, Joseph Gray, Nancy Hobbs and Zach Miller at the 2014 USATF Mountain Running Championships.
When Allie McLaughlin broke the finishing tape after a final push up the unrelenting 40% grade that comprised the last half mile of the 2014 USATF Mountain Running Championships on New Hampshire’s Loon Mountain, her victory marked only the second time she had pinned on a race bib since 2009. The time before that? A month preceding the national championships, at the GoPro Mountain Games Vail Pass Half Marathon in Vail, Colorado.
Prior to those races however, McLaughlin had only just begun to scratch the surface of her collegiate career at the University of Colorado, where she staked her claim as the fastest freshman in the NCAA since Shalane Flanagan after her 5th place finish at 2009 NCAA cross country nationals in Terre Haute, Indiana.
But it would be one of the final times that she would face any real competition against anything other than injuries for the next several years. That is, until the spring of 2014, when she took to the trails and discovered that dirt don’t hurt, and McLaughlin’s mountain running campaign began in much the same way that it began her junior year of high school: seemingly out of nowhere and with a bang.
In reality though, McLaughlin’s immediate success should not have come as a shock to anyone. Living at the base of Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs, she had spent years hiking and running up the famous Manitou Springs Incline as cross-training. “The Incline” –a trail comprised of hundreds of irregularly placed wooden stairs that is slightly short of a mile, gains 2,000 feet of elevation from its base to its summit, and boasts grades of over 50% in places–acted as an alternative to running when she couldn’t run, and as supplemental training when she could. McLaughlin still holds the women’s fastest known time of 20 minutes and 7 seconds.
“I realized that I always felt especially strong on the trails, and especially going uphill,” she remarked. McLaughlin’s win at the 2014 USATF Mountain Running Championships catapulted her onto two national teams that year: the World Mountain Running Championships in Cassette Di Masa, Italy, as well as the World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships on Pikes Peak in Colorado. In Italy, she would go on to finish 3rd in a highly competitive international field, while she would lead Team USA to a first-place finish with her win on Pikes Peak.
“Throughout college, a lot of people would tell me that maybe I wasn’t meant to be a runner and that I should just move on, but I still had all of these goals and things that I wanted to do,” she recalled. “The mountain running championships was definitely a redemption race for me, and I regained the confidence that I could compete at a high level again.”
It would seem that many runners find their way to the world of Mountain/Ultra/Trail (MUT) racing in search of a different challenge, a second wind, a new beginning, or just by accident, although in McLaughlin’s case, success was certainly no accident.
“The Cruise Ship Kid”
Perhaps the least surprised by McLaughlin’s dominance in running up mountains was friend and fellow Colorado Springs runner Zach Miller, who had accompanied her on several runs up The Incline the summer of 2014, and knew of her prowess on grueling climbs and steep descents, and it was partly due to his encouragement that McLaughlin made the decision to take a crack at the USATF Mountain Running Championships. Suffice it to say, Miller recognized a kindred spirit who liked to take on exceptionally difficult physical challenges, much like himself.
“I love the challenge of running partly because it’s something that people view as difficult and unappealing,” explained Miller. A new face at that time for the Nike Trail Team, Miller himself was no stranger to accomplishing impressive running feats in ways that could be considered a little unorthodox and not quite by the book.
Maybe slightly atypical of many elite athletes, he had never been remotely phased by abrupt alterations in routine and constantly changing surroundings. His parents being missionaries, his earliest memories are those of living in Kenya, before spending most of his life in Lancaster, PA where he ran to stay in shape for soccer.
But the allure of spending all day outside and running on the trails was strong to him even then, and at 18 he jumped into a local race that he had his eye on–The Ugly Mudder—but that up until then had been too young to participate in. “The course was covered in snow and I just remember slipping and sliding all over the place,” he recalled, “I showed up to indoor soccer practice afterwards covered in mud, scratches, and blood. I didn’t win that race, but it was my first real taste of racing away from the track and roads.”
After a mediocre college running career at The Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), the newly-minted mechanical engineer took a job on a cruise ship, but not before racing one more time in his hometown of Lancaster at the 2012 Conestoga Trail Run, a ten mile race with $100 up for grabs to anyone who could crack 90 minutes.
“It had never been done,” Miller explained of stakes for the race, “I toed the line on race day, won in a little under 90 minutes, and people seemed really impressed. I went home thinking, ‘I think maybe I just found my thing.’ And then I got on a cruise ship and disappeared.” While maybe a little ironic, Miller’s time aboard the cruise ship only served to grow his love for trail running. As with everything, he adapted to life at sea, training on treadmills and in stairwells, but he relished the freedom that came when the ship went into port. Whether in the fjords of Norway, the Canary Islands, or a myriad of other places often only seen in postcards, Miller would be off for a run.
“I loved getting off the ship, setting my sights on a mountain or the highest point I could find, running to it, then running back before the ship set sail. There were a few close calls, but I never missed the ship,” he recalled. Whenever opportunities presented themselves, Miller would use his time away from the ship to explore the spaghetti bowl of trails across Europe or wherever else he found himself.
“In the fall of 2013, I was on vacation from my job on the ship. So, I disembarked in Europe, flew to Switzerland, took a bus to Chamonix, tried to race the Haute Route, got super sick, ran back to Chamonix, puked my guts out, and ran around Mont Blanc instead.”
Returning stateside later in 2013, Miller finally put his abilities to their first real test at the famous JFK 50 Mile, a spur of the moment, last-minute decision after a disappointing race at USATF 50 km Trail Championships two weeks before. “I didn’t know what I was doing, I barely even knew who I was racing. I had to ask Rob Krar what his name was as we ran side by side in the middle of the race,” he recalled.
Coming away with a win in the race’s fourth-fastest time ever recorded, Miller signed his first professional contract, got back on the boat, and became known in the trail-running world as “The Cruise Ship Kid.” Since disembarking the ship for the last time, Miller has since resided off the grid, six miles up Pikes Peak, in a 120 year old cabin known as Barr Camp, that acts as a hostel for runners and hikers ascending and descending the mountain and where he has served as caretaker for over four years.
Unconventional though it might be, the set-up is a perfect fit for someone drawn to running in the mountains. Even with Miller’s dizzying array of records, wins, and finishes since his humble, Ugly Mudder beginnings, his motivation for continuing to hammer high mileage up even higher mountains stays constant: “I love being outside exploring, I love the simplicity of it. The elements of exploration and self-improvement never end, they just keep going. There’s always something to chase.”
Cigarettes and a Bet
Elsewhere in the Pikes Peak region in 2013, Kristina Mascarenas lost a bet, laced up her running shoes, and snuffed out her last cigarette. Although a competitive gymnast throughout her younger days until high school, for many years she would never have considered running competitively. In fact, she made fun of it and made special efforts to ridicule her brother Jesse regularly for his “slow times” that he reported to her as he trained for the Pikes Peak Ascent that year, logging many miles well above tree line.
“Jesse would tell me that he would be running 15 to 16 minute miles near the summit of Pikes Peak,” Mascarenas remembered, “Not fully understanding the demands of running at 14,000 feet, I truly thought I could walk a mile up there in that time and that there was nothing impressive about his running.”
Mascarenas had quit and sworn off all sports and physical activities a few years before, having found herself burned-out and nursing injuries from the rigors of hours-long gymnastics training sessions throughout her younger years. But hailing from a family known throughout the Colorado Springs running community for being highly competitive in all of their pursuits, she certainly was not about to do anything half-way, including quitting.
“I ate all the food and I made all of the questionable friends,” she said, “Then later in high school I started smoking cigarettes too.” Continuing her sedentary and unhealthy lifestyle until well into her 20’s, Mascarenas eventually had enough of her brother’s constant needling of her to drop her bad habits.
“It was part of every conversation that we had,” she recalled, “Our talks would always be something like, ‘Hey, how’s it going? Are you still fat? (in a joking/loving sibling banter sort of way), have you quit smoking?’ And I’d respond, ‘Good. Yes. No.’”
One day, Jesse made a bet with his sister that if she could make good on her claim to be able to walk a mile as fast as he had run a mile on top of Pikes Peak, he would never ask her to quit smoking again. She enthusiastically consented. “It sounded like a win to me! I thought I’d just go walk one mile and then he’d leave me to smoke in peace for the rest of my life,” she said.
Ultimately, it took her over 25 minutes to walk one mile at the summit of the 14,115 foot mountain, and so Mascarenas started running and stopped smoking. Now the only thing that she smokes are trails; gnarly, technical descents in particular.
Since 2017, a couple of years after her lost bet to her brother, Mascarenas claimed the women’s record for the fastest descent recorded on Pikes Peak, covering the 13.4 mile, rocky, technical, 15% grade in 1:28.51 en route to her Pikes Peak Marathon victory that same year, which paved the way for her to compete on the international stage in some European mountain races later on. “I lost a bet, but I gained a lot more,” she concluded.
More about the author: Having spent over 10 years working in running stores across the Front Range, Shannon Payne learned way too much about running shoes, ask her anything. Outside of running, her interests include anything with lots of words, anything involving being outside for long periods of time, baking anything, learning about beekeeping, ice cream, and most recently, chasing QOM’s on her bike (she retracts every ridiculing statement she ever made about Strava).