“200s” Are NOT About Speed
Annie Hughes, up-and-coming ultra running star from Leadville, Colorado, is 120 miles into a 240 mile race across the isolated and harsh desert environment of Moab, Utah. It’s the middle of the night, temperatures are dropping into the forties and she’s fighting off sleep deprivation. She plans to take quick one minute naps, which are turning into twenty to thirty minute “knockouts” on the side of the trail and she’s still not feeling energized. She’s leading the women’s race but second place is gaining on her. “Maybe this just isn’t going to be my day. I just can’t shake the tiredness.”
Facing her lowest low of any race, she knows she needs to turn things around. These kinds of extreme distance running events require absolute mental toughness and she knows she needs something to shift her mindset. In her weary and sleepy state, she receives a text message from one of her closest mentors, Olga King, that will change the course of the rest of her race. It’s the wake-up call she needs.
“Annie dear, you know I love you like my own. Now is the time for you to love yourself. These kinds of distances are not about speed but about mental toughness, attrition rate, perseverance, and believing in YOU. It’s all about lessons. So what you had a crappy night? You’re only halfway through, and there’s still lots of time to get it right. Now put your head down, stop the pity party and march on. You only have YOU to prove that you can…and yes you can! I love you and promise that I will be there for your next goal. Now let’s get to work!” Hughes thinks about this message and second place gaining on her, “I have to go!”
Who Is Annie Hughes?
If you find yourself interested in the future of ultra distance trail running, you should get to know the name Annie Hughes. At only twenty-three years old, Hughes is establishing herself as one of the best long distance trail runners in the country and she’s only getting faster.
This past summer, she won the Collegiate Peaks 50 Mile Race and became the youngest woman ever to win the Leadville Trail 100, one of the country’s most historic ultramarathon races taking runners across 100 miles of extreme Colorado Rockies terrain at elevations between 9,200 and 12,600 feet. But it’s not just her race results that make her an exceptional athlete. Hughes is the kind of runner who is inspired by adventures and puts herself through creative challenges in the mountains to test her physical and mental limits.
In January 2021, she made it the goal of her Sunday long run to run every single street in her hometown of Leadville, Colorado, the highest city in the country at 10,152 feet with an average January high of 31 degrees Fahrenheit! She ran every street, covering 51 miles on the snowy streets of Leadville in just under eight hours, and still had time to enjoy herself and take photos along the way.
Another incredible challenge was inspired by the view from her house of Colorado’s two highest peaks, Mount Elbert and Mount Massive. In November 2020, she ran from her house to the top of both peaks, covering 50 miles and climbing 10,568 feet. “I feel so much gratitude for the opportunity to live in such a special place, and now, it will be especially rewarding to look at those mountains that are basically in my backyard and think, “I ran all the way up there and back!”
Her “Ultimate Challenge”
“If I get lost, hurt or die…it’s my own damn fault.” This is the pledge recited by all racers on the start-line of the Moab 240, arguably one of the country’s most challenging footraces. Participants complete a 240-mile loop taking them through some of Utah’s most challenging and scenic terrain, crossing remote deserts and both the Abajo and La Mountain ranges.
This is not a stage race and runners only have 112 hours to finish the loop. In addition to the extreme mental and physical fatigue of running for that many hours, participants must deal with sleep deprivation, which has caused wild hallucinations for many runners in previous years. This is definitely not your average local 5-kilometer race.
The Moab 240 is the kind of challenge Hughes had been looking to complete for years. “I heard about Courtney Dauwalter running the Moab 240 in 2017, only sleeping for one minute and beating all the men by 10 hours! I had never heard of a race so long and was amazed that a woman could do that. I became fascinated with the race, started researching it and decided ‘Wow, this is the ultimate challenge.’”
Inspired by Dauwalter’s legendary performance at this race, it was fate that Hughes would not only get the chance to follow in Dauwalter’s footsteps and go for a win at the Moab 240 herself, but Dauwalter would move to her hometown of Leadville in 2020 and become a mentor for Hughes. “It’s so crazy to think, Courtney’s been my biggest inspiration and now she’s living just down the street from me and showing up to our group runs. She was my inspiration for running the Moab 240 in the first place and then I got to get to know her, run with her, and ask her for advice going into my race.”
Hughes knew she was ready to jump up to racing the 200-mile plus distance after securing a Fastest-Known-Time (FKT) of the Collegiate Loop in Colorado in September 2020. This route was 167 miles with 33,400 feet of elevation gain. “I had never run more than a hundred miles before this and I was planning it all myself and there was a possibility this was going to be a complete disaster! I ended up finishing that in 61 hours. After I finished that, I thought that the Moab 240 might take me a similar amount of hours and took on the mentality, if I can do this I can do that!”
Joining The 200-Plus Club
As of the time of writing this article in October 2021, 200-mile plus distance races are still few and far between. There aren’t more than a handful of races around the world and only a few hundred runners who will complete one such 200-plus mile race in any given year. Hughes has just established herself as one of those incredible athletes, and is also one of the youngest to do so, after finishing the Moab 240 at 3.A.M. on Monday October 11 in 68 hours and 50 minutes.
After overcoming her “lowest low” at 120 miles into the race, Hughes picked up the pace and put eight miles on the second place woman in the following eighteen mile segment. The mental boost she received from the text message of her mentor, Olga King (an accomplished trail runner in her own right), shifted her race experience from a “pity party” to a test of mental toughness she knew she would overcome. She won the women’s race, placed seventh overall, and ran the second fastest time by a woman in race history, second only to the great Courtney Dauwalter.
Hughes says about her experience running her first 200-mile plus distance race, “The main difference with two hundred plus mile races is that everyone is out there for multiple days. You go through multiple nights and there’s so much more that could go wrong. There’s more time to go through really low ‘lows,’ but also more time to come out of these lows. There’s more time to chat with runners out on the trail and get to know people. There’s more fulfillment and adventure from a two hundred than a hundred mile race. Two hundred is the new hundred!”
“Outdorable Annie Hughes” Hooked On Trails
Hughes challenges the traditional running progression in the United States. Runners typically start in high school and/or college competing in cross country and track (race distances of 10-kilometers of less), then transition to road marathons and half-marathons and eventually work their way up to ultra running when they are more experienced.
Many runners follow the logic of the common running phrase, “You can run farther when you get more miles in your legs.” The school of thought here is that the more years you’ve been running consistently, the more prepared your body will be for running longer distances.
Hughes is an exception, but she didn’t always think she would run ultramarathon races so early in her running career. “I love the longer distances and ever since I started running in sixth grade, I had this feeling that I could just run forever. I wanted to explore that more. I thought I would do that when I was much older. I’d go through the process of running in college, running marathons and then move up to the ultra distance.”
Hughes ran cross country and track in college for the prestigious NCAA Division II running school, Adams State University, for one year, but realized collegiate running wasn’t for her. “Coming into my sophomore year at Adam’s State I felt really burnt out. Every workout felt like a race and I wasn’t fully in it. I started to dread practice and running. I love running and have been doing it my whole life, I’ve never done another sport, and I didn’t want to lose that love of running. I felt like I needed to make a change.”
She spent her sophomore summer climbing Colorado’s iconic “14ers” – fifty eight 14,000 foot plus peaks scattered across several mountain ranges around the state – and getting to the top of as many as she could. “I was enjoying being in the mountains and thought that trail running would be the perfect thing to get into. I quit the team at Adam’s State my sophomore year and some friends encouraged me to do the Moab Red Hot 55K, which was my first ultra. After that, I was hooked and wanted to try a 50-miler. I ran the Jemez 50 Mile and won, which made me realize that maybe I am good at the longer distances.”
What stands out to Hughes is not just her impressive ultramarathon wins at the Leadville Trail 100 and the Moab 240 (arguably two of the greatest ultra trail performances this year), but her determination to test her limits with unique challenges on trails. In these extreme challenges, Hughes finds balance between gritty determination to test herself and pure enjoyment of playing and adventuring in mountains. Watch for Hughes to push the boundaries of what’s possible in our sport in the coming years. After only a week after completing the Moab 240, she’s already discussing plans for her next 200-mile run! Follow Hughes trail running adventures on her Instagram.
Got 200 mile racing questions? Read my article about 200-mile Frequently Asked Questions.