Annie’s Accidental DIY Grand-Slam
Written by Annie Hughes
My 2022 racing season quickly turned into an unintentional DIY grand slam. I completed five 100(+) milers, one of which was the Cocodona 250. In order to prepare for the longest race of my season, I ran two 100 milers. The Coldwater Rumble 100, a loopy course in the Arizona desert, was my first race of the new year. Similar to Javelina 100 (the final race on my calendar this year), it consists of five 20-mile loops through rolling hills with vast views of Saguaro cacti. My dear friend/mentor/mother figure, Olga, traveled out to Coldwater Rumble with me to crew, and run a 52K race herself. The two of us are truly a great team. Olga crewed every race I have run this year, and completed her goal to run one ultra race every month during 2022. Olga has played a monumental role in my ultra running success, and I could not be more grateful for her support… I’m honestly a little scared to run a race without her!
Olga and I treated Coldwater Rumble as more of a training run as I was coming off a break after my 2021 racing season. My training was minimal, but enough to get through 100 miles, with a goal to run a PR on the fastest 100-mile course in my running career. I did just that, and crossed the finish line in 18:47 and set a new course record! What a confidence boost to start out the year!
Running Up for Air by Suffer Better
Between Coldwater Rumble 100 and my next 100 miler, I added a 12-hour race in Staunton State Park called Running Up for Air by Suffer Better. It really was a "sufferfest” right from the beginning. We started in -10 degree weather and ran the 7-mile lollypop course on a packed snow covered trail. I was so chilled that I took the first loop out faster than I intended, and found myself leading the race over all men and women. Each lap, I calculated exactly how far ahead I was from the first male once I left the turn-around aid and saw him pass by. Each time I saw him, I inched a little farther ahead until I finally lapped him on my last loop completing 57 miles with almost 11,000 ft. of vert. The many freezing Leadville winter runs finally prepared me well for something! I am certainly well-adapted to cold, snowy conditions with lots of elevation.
A Hardcore Birthday Run
Next on my schedule, I created a fun challenge for myself on my 24th birthday in March. I decided I wanted to celebrate by running for 24 hours. I started at midnight, and literally ran for my whole entire birthday! I picked a small 2-mile loop around town, and would sometimes venture out onto a dirt road just outside of town to make one loop/lap a whole 6 miles. This made it easier for my friends to find me and join in throughout the day. I had many wonderful friends, including Olga, who came out to share some miles with me. One of my friends even brought me donuts from my favorite bakery in Boulder, Lucky’s Bakehouse, which basically became my whole nutrition plan for the day! The night's start was brutally cold (it was Leadville, Colorado in the winter after all), but I was still excited about my goal and some of my friends joined me as early as 2 and 4 a.m.! The sun warmed us right up on a beautiful, bluebird Colorado sky day! I had lots of great company and treats! It could not be a better way to celebrate. I even made it to 100 miles in 19.5 hours!
However, when the sun set behind the two tallest peaks in Colorado, Elbert and Massive, things started to get hard. All of my friends went to sleep, it grew very cold, and then started nuking wet, heavy snow. I could barely see through my snow-coated eyelashes. I also discovered around this time that running for 24 hours fueled on nothing but donuts, water, and hot coffee isn’t the greatest nutrition strategy (I definitely wish I had taken some Tailwind!). I also noticed the warm lights in the windows, and the people of Leadville inside cozied up on their couches watching the television like normal human beings. Oh how nice that looked! I have to say, I was never more ready for my birthday to be over, but I pressed on, and eventually, the clock struck midnight ending my 24-hour 24th birthday run. I completed 117 miles in 24 hours, and it was by far the most memorable birthday I have ever experienced.
After a long winter of racing, high mileage training in the freezing Leadville temps, and a week-long trip to Moab to get some warm weather desert running in, I was ready to take on the Cocodona 250. Cocodona is a 250-mile point-to-point ultra run across Arizona. We started in Prescott and ran all the way to Flagstaff, passing through many historic towns along the way, such as Jerome and Sedona. I felt much more prepared going into Cocodona after completing the Moab 240 in October 2021. I became so fascinated by these ULTRA-ultra distances after Moab, and couldn’t wait to sign up for my next 200(+) mile adventure! Cocodona is a new race that began in 2021. It was so fun to follow along with the race during the inaugural year, and I knew it was definitely a race I wanted to complete myself someday. Little did I know that I’d be running it the very next year!
Olga, my crew leader, wrote my pace chart and predicted a 70-hour finish. We planned for zero sleep on the first night, my nemesis in Moab 240. I lived up to our goal of no sleep that first night, but it made for one of the greatest mental challenges I’ve ever experienced in an ultra. It was 2-3 am, Olga was pacing me, and we had been “running” through a prickly, unmarked cow field (we found out later that some hungry cows ate the markings!) for the last two sections that were barely runnable. We both had our phones out with the GPS download of the course, trying as best we could to keep our little arrow on the red line. However, at one point, the red line showed a sharp turn, and as we veered off to the right, we were surprised to shine our lights on a thick clump of bushes and trees. “This can’t possibly be the course,” we both exclaimed! We were still on the course according to our GPS track. Sadly, we had no choice but to get down on our hands and knees and crawl through the prickly bushes, trees, and all kinds of nonsense getting totally scraped up in the process. Eventually, we found our way out of that mess, but probably wasted half an hour wandering around trying to stay on course. I tried to not get too frustrated, but I definitely let it show a little. Olga kept calm. Next came the sleep monster as we crawled up a steep climb to Mingus Mountain. I was moving so slowly that Olga finally took my hand and started singing Russian songs to try and keep me awake. What a sight that must have been! Two women holding hands and singing Russian songs while walking up a mountain at a snail pace in the wee hours of the morning. I should also mention that Olga is from Russia and has a thick accent that definitely adds to her personality. She’s very direct and no-nonsense, but also has a very soft side.
Eventually, the sun came up as we worked up a jogging pace into the Mingus Mountain aid station. The next section was promised to be a nice downhill single track followed by another smooth dirt road all downhill into Jerome. I was very excited for this section because I was starting to feel good and awake again now that the sun was finally up, and I figured I could make up all the time I lost wandering around in the bushes in such a sleep-deprived state. Oh, was I wrong! The “nice trail” was basically one step above a bushwhack. It was steep, loose, overgrown, and I was barely able to work up a jog. The smooth downhill road turned out to be a rough jeep road full of baby-head rocks, and more of that road was uphill than down. I tried my very best to run as much as I could, but the temperature was rising quickly on top of the horrible terrain, which made for an extra challenge. I also hit 100 miles somewhere in that section. I stopped to swallow a gel, and Olga just happened to see my watch hit 100 miles as I squeezed it into my mouth. Too funny!
Next up on the ultra adventure… rattlesnakes! Olga was leading the way, and we were about a half mile away from the actual nice, smooth dirt road that dropped down into the aid station. All of a sudden, Olga jumped 5-feet into the air and let out a blood-curdling scream. She had just jumped over a rattlesnake that dry-striked her calf, and oh, was it angry! I stood there in shock while Olga threw rocks at it (missing every time) until it finally slithered off the trail. We continued on, and about a quarter mile down the trail we saw another angry rattlesnake. Luckily, Olga was able to get out of the way in time before it struck. It was so hard to see them as they blended right in with the baby-head rocks. Hot and sleepy, I was over it! The terrain hadn’t been runnable for miles and miles, and now RATTLESNAKES?! The running/attitude factor improves per usual if you just keep moving. Never once did I think about quitting, but I did think about never doing this race again even though I’m sure I will!
The next few sections were nice and runnable, and I finally felt like I was getting somewhere. Olga and I came up on a beautiful ridge right as the sun was setting over Sedona, and it was absolutely magical. Howie and Mishka were also up there taking amazing photos. What a great way to begin the second night of the race!
My friend Lindsey picked me up in Sedona for her 30-mile pacing section into Munds Park. We had a deep creek crossing that chilled us both to the bone, a big steep climb, and a runnable dirt road into the next crew spot. I hadn’t slept yet, and knew I would probably have to take a trail nap or two at some point during this section. I barely remember walking up that steep climb following Lindsey’s feet. I’m pretty certain I was practically sleepwalking the whole way up. When we finally reached the top, I tried to run but started stumbling around and couldn’t seem to keep my eyes open. I decided to lie down for a few minutes, and collapsed right in the middle of the road. I woke up after a few minutes shaking uncontrollably. It was below 30 degrees, and all I had on were shorts, a T-shirt, a wind-breaker, and some thin gloves. I can’t describe how uncomfortable that was to be so cold, sleep-deprived, and having to run. It was miserable, but eventually, we made it to the aid station where I decided I was going to take a nap. I got passed by two men going into that aid, which bumped me into 4th place overall, but I didn’t even care to chase after them out of the aid. I was more than ready for a proper nap. However, when I arrived, I was disappointed to learn that this was not an aid that had sleep stations, so there was no option for taking a nap. Instead of crawling up on a cot that I had been dreaming about for the last 15+ miles, I sat by their heater and drank a couple cups of coffee to try and warm up, but when I stepped away from the heater into the frigid air, I felt even colder! I was too far gone at that point for any amount of caffeine to have an effect on me, so we soldiered on.
Lindsey was able to text my crew that I was desperate for a nap, so they heated my crew car and put out my sleeping bag for me to crawl right into as soon as I arrived. Those 20 amazing snoozing minutes were enough to make a huge difference. I even left that aid station before one of the men who had passed me in the night, so I moved into third place overall, and thought to myself, “I’m holding this to the finish!” I was able to run much of the third day, and even though the sleep monster hit hard the third night, I knew I was almost done and didn’t want to waste time taking a nap. I did lie down on the trail a couple of times for a quick shut-eye, though.
My pacer, Gwen, and I reached the bottom of the last climb of the race right at sunrise with about 9 or 10 miles to go! At the top of Mt. Elden, we cleared the very last aid station and it was all (runnable) downhill into the finish. As soon as we came into Buffalo Park, the finish line was real! I got excited and started running sub-8 minute miles to close out the last few miles of this epic 250-mile race! We ran down the sidewalks along the streets of Flagstaff until we reached a sharp turn into Heritage Square, and there was Olga and my parents holding a piece of orange tape across the FINISH! Always such a surreal moment in these long, multi-day races. I crossed the line in 71 hours, placing 1st female, and 3rd overall! What an accomplishment in my running career that I will always treasure!
Even though my winter and spring felt like a big enough season in itself, I still had three 100-milers ahead of me! Luckily, the snow did not quite melt off the Colorado mountains for the rest of May, so I wasn’t too tempted to go crazy and ruin my recovery from Cocodona. The rest of May was very relaxing… lots of walks, easy runs, and even a couple short bike rides (I don’t bike!). By the time June came around, the snow had melted. I was ready to start mountain training for High Lonesome 100 and Run Rabbit 100 in July and September.
High Lonesome 100
High Lonesome is a fairly new 100-miler in the Sawatch Mountains, which is basically my backyard. There is 21,000 feet of climbing, and much of the course is above 10,000 feet with some long sections on the Continental Divide Trail above 12,000 feet. It is truly a stunning course, and a race that had been on my list for a while. My parents also live just two miles from the High Lonesome start line, which made for a very convenient training hub. Through June and July, I spent so much time on the course, and in the mountains in the area, preparing for the race. I even spent a full week camped out where the first aid station was, doing all kinds of epic training days with my friend, Eszter.
Training on the actual course gave me so much data to create a very accurate pace chart. Olga thought I could go sub-25, which would be a new course record, but I wasn’t so sure. I predicted 25:30, and thought I could possibly rally for the record in the last 30-miles, since I know I am a strong closer. However, I trust Olga’s judgment much more than my own, so I decided to just follow her pace chart as best I could. One thing she made very clear was that I was not to show up to the first crew spot at mile-30 in under 7 hours. Olga’s directive forced me to take the pace out slower than I probably would have. However, I still got within 3-miles of the aid station a little after the 6-hour mark, and it was all downhill. I slowly walked the whole way down to the aid-station and arrived precisely on time. Olga was happy, my legs were happy, and I still left the aid station in the first place female position.
By the time I got to the 50-mile aid station, I realized I was on track for a sub-24 hour finish and was feeling really good, even though I knew it was still early in the race. Olga jumped in to pace me, which was not part of the race plan, and gosh I was glad I had Olga with me because I started to really struggle while still keeping up the pace. Olga kept me on track and snapped me out of any negative thinking I was mumbling about out loud. My friend, Lindsey, took over pacing duties from Olga for the last 30-miles, and brought me home crossing the line as the first female, second overall, and with a time of 23:40! A whole 2 hours faster than I thought I could do, a new course record, and I became the first woman to break 24 hours at this race.
High Lonesome was truly a break-out race for me. It was the first race where I felt like I executed a smart race plan, and pushed beyond what I thought was possible to accomplish. I really worked, and pushed, and rallied for that time, and felt like I was truly outrunning myself for the whole second half of the race. It was definitely a hard, but very rewarding race experience. And that finally brings me to Run Rabbit Run 100.
Run Rabbit Run 100
I actually wasn’t planning to run this race, but one of my sponsors, UltrAspire, asked me if I would run it since they were one of the main sponsors of the race, along with Tailwind. I figured it would fit pretty well with my schedule, and it would be nice to represent two of my sponsors at this race. However, the recovery from High Lonesome was a bit slower than I expected, and my legs felt trashed the whole month leading up to Run Rabbit. “Did I over-commit? Did I over-train/race? Should I pull my name from the race?” These thoughts were racing through my brain for that whole month until it was finally the week before the race, and I had no choice but to run. My sponsors were counting on me, and my family had booked plane tickets and accommodations to see me run, which was so kind of them, so there was no going back now!
My mom wrote me a note the week before the race that said, “your body is your thought.” I could go into this race with a negative attitude expecting to feel tired like I did on every run leading up to the race, or I could choose to be grateful for the very special opportunity to run 100 miles, and go out there and do my very best. I truly believe that your thoughts manifest physically, so I decided to take the more positive route and focus on all the support I had from Olga, and my family, who came all the way out to see me run. I also had so many friends running the race it almost felt like a big family reunion at the start line!
I lined up next to my friend, Genevieve, who invited me to train with her on the course a few times throughout the month leading up to the race. We became even closer friends after training together, and it was so special to be there to start the race we had been training for. The race began at the base of the Steamboat Ski Resort, sending us straight up a ski slope, so it was practically impossible to start out too fast. I focused on being smooth and strong on that first climb, and even had some fun chit-chat with Genevieve, and other friends, Katie and Maggie! When I cleared the top of the climb and arrived at the first aid station, I checked my watch and saw that I arrived precisely at the time that Olga wrote on my pace chart. There were still a handful of women ahead of me, but I wasn’t concerned. I was racing a time, and I knew if I could hit that time, 21:30, that would put me in the top 3 women. I arrived at the first crew spot exactly on time and with a big group of women. Olga was waiting for me right at the entrance and grabbed my hand and pulled me off to the side where she stuffed an avocado cheese wrap into my mouth before I could even see what I was eating. She pulled out my bottles and my trash, and stuck in fresh bottles filled with Tailwind, gels for the next section, my lights, and a handful of potato chips that she continued to stuff in my face as we walked out of the aid. I left in the second place female position.
The next section was all uphill, my specialty, and I felt rejuvenated after that snack. I quickly passed the first-place female and moved into the lead, still sticking to the pace chart. However, I arrived at the next aid station a little behind schedule, and the other women were basically right behind me. Then the hail, rain, and wind started. I got pretty chilled and didn’t eat well through that next section, but it was all runnable dirt road, and I RAN! Mostly just to keep warm and try to gain more of a lead on the other women. The rain finally stopped, and we weaved through what felt like hundreds of switch-backs through aspen groves as the sun was beginning to set. It was truly magical, and I felt good and strong! It grew completely dark as I came into the next crew spot, and I could barely see the crews lined up along the dirt road leading up to the aid station. Olga usually grabs me as soon as I come in, but she was nowhere to be found. I walked up to the aid and gave them my bib number to check in, then I looked around for Olga, but no sign of her. Huh! Well, it was only 6 miles downhill to the next spot where I would see her, so I was about to head out when I saw her standing in the middle of the road. “Oh thank goodness,” I thought. I waved and said “OLGA!” She turned and stared right at me, but said nothing. I knew she had to know it was me, “Should I say, it’s Annie?” I wondered. We continued to stare awkwardly at each other for probably 5 seconds or so before she said, “OH MY GOSH, why are you so early?” I was only a few minutes early, but apologized and explained that it was very cold running through the rain and hail, so I picked up the pace a bit. She later said that she was just so stunned with herself for not expecting me that it caused her to just stare at me for a few seconds. I took a few sips of coffee, and ate a few bites of Ramen noodles while Olga stuffed fresh bottles with Tailwind into my pack, and off I went.
By the time I came into the next aid around mile 50, I had a 45-minute lead on the next female. I felt strong and was still sticking to the chart. Things were clicking. Then, a couple of hours into that section, my waist light died. Thankfully, I still had my headlamp along with extra batteries, but no extra batteries for the waistlight or a spare. I’ve used that light for so many other races, and it’s never failed me to last through an entire night, but of course, it fails me in the one race where I’m not allowed to have pacers and need to pay extra close attention to the course markings. It was annoying because my vision is already bad enough at night, so the extra light made a huge difference, but oh well! Unexpected things happen, and I’ve learned to just shake it off. When I arrived at the next crew spot, I had put another 15 minutes on the next female and was now an hour ahead, so I was still making good time despite not being able to see quite as well. Little did I know that the worst of my vision problems were still in the works!
Mile 70 was the last place I would see my crew for the rest of the race. When I arrived there around 2 a.m., I was over an hour ahead of the next female. I ate nearly a whole thermos full of Olga’s famous Ramen mixed with mashed potatoes. Fine dining! More gels and new bottles stuffed in my pack, and off I ran! It was dark and lonely for the rest of the night. I did catch a few men, and we exchanged some words of encouragement, but for the most part, I was all alone. Two reflective course markings were hung together sometimes, so when I would shine my light on them, they looked like a pair of eyes from far away. At this point, I was too tired to care if it was a mountain lion, a bear, or any other creature who would be out and about in the middle of the night. For some reason, in a race it’s completely different. If I was on a training run in the dark like that by myself, I would be scared and listening to every little rustle in the trees, but in a race, it’s like I’m not out in the middle of nature at night by myself. I’m in a race, so I am determined that nothing can happen to me. It’s a blessing and a curse, I guess.
Coming into the 80-mile aid station, I had about an hour and a half of darkness to endure. It was an encouraging thought, but then some heavy rain came out of absolutely nowhere, which made an hour and a half of darkness and freezing rain feel like a long time. I was less than a mile from the aid station when the rain started. I opted not to stop and just waited until I got to the aid station to put my jacket on under the shelter of the tent, but by the time I got there, I was completely soaked, not to mention, blind. I wear a pair of prescription transition lenses when I race because I’ve learned that contacts really irritate my eyes in these long, overnight races. However, I have never worn them at night in the rain during an ultra, and I realized that contacts would have been a much better option. The glasses started fogging up as soon as the rain started and collected a million little rain drops, which I tried to wipe off, but that almost made the situation worse. My vision was so poor to the point where I could barely see 3-feet in front of me. The kind volunteers at the aid station cleaned off my glasses, helped me put on my rain gear, gave me some hot Ramen soup and a paper towel to wipe my glasses off for the next section. Back out into the cold rain and darkness for this runner!
The glasses quickly turned into a fogged up, raindrop mess as soon as I left the aid, and luckily the volunteers pointed me in the right direction out of the aid or I might have not made it back out on the correct section of the course. I tried taking my glasses off, but I’m so blind that it was better with them on. The next section was following one single trail, the well-established Continental Divide Trail for 9 miles to the next aid. I’m sure it was blatantly obvious where to go if you could actually see, so that section was very sparsely marked. There was practically one marker per mile, so nine total markers in a 9-mile section. I was cold, wet, blind, completely alone, and constantly questioning if I was on the course or not because I hadn’t seen a marker in so long.
After an hour and a half of misery, the sky started to light up enough to see the trail, the rain stopped, and before I knew it, the sun was beating down, warming me right up. What a relief! I cleared the next aid station, and I only had a little over 10 miles to go! I was moving as quickly as I could and passed a couple more men in that next section. I was starting to overheat a bit bundled up in all of my rain gear, but I was on a roll and didn’t want to stop to deal with it until I got to the final aid station. Oh, did it feel good to finally peel off the layers! I grabbed a piece of watermelon, and began the steep 6-mile descent down to the finish! It was a beautiful, bluebird morning, and I was running well down that steep ski road. Finally, I turned the corner at the bottom of the dirt road, and there was my mom and Olga holding the finish tape! I crossed the line in the first place female position, 10th overall, and ran a time of 21:26! A few minutes faster than my chart! My friends and family were all there to give me big hugs at the end, and it was so fun to share that moment with all of them. There’s nothing like a 100-mile finish line!
There is always some kind of wild adversity to work through in these long races that you never expect, but that’s what draws me to them. The unknown. Whenever I’m out in a beautiful place, pushing myself really hard with all kinds of set-backs or limitations that seem to get in the way, and I’m able to push past them and accomplish my goal despite all of those things, it becomes the most meaningful and memorable experience that sticks with me for a really long time. I feel the most present, the most connected to nature, and the most raw version of myself when I’m out there running these really long ultras. There’s something so special about them, and I feel the most alive when I’m running 100 miles, or more. I love being out there for multiple days and nights just in my head thinking about whatever I want to think about, or not thinking about anything at all. It’s so freeing and empowering to accomplish a goal like that, and I’m so grateful for all of the opportunities I had this year to do what I love! I’m now looking forward to my final race for 2022, the Javelina 100 in October on Halloween night. It's going to be a party! But first, it’s time to enjoy the mountains and amazing fall colors before the snow flies!
Follow Annie's adventures via Instagram here.