Under the Wing of Ultrawoman Olga King
A Q&A with the mentor & crew chief of Cocodona 250 winner "Outdoorable" Annie
I intended to write about my experience at last Saturday’s Miwok 100K, but I ran out of time. I am writing this during a free period Tuesday at Telluride Middle/High School, where I am substitute teaching 7th-grade Spanish and 8th-grade ESL. I traveled to California for a blissful escapist week and came back stressed from work projects, deadlines, and obligations related to the local service organization I volunteer to lead. Overlaying it all is sadness that my mother, who has advanced dementia and is in assisted living with hospice aid, is rapidly declining, and it’s unclear whether she has more than a few days left. I said a long, emotional goodbye to her at a visit Monday in case it’s the last. I bring this all up because when life feels as turbulent as the wind-wracked flights we took, it’s important to use running to enhance wellness, not as an added stressor. I’m giving myself a recovery week post-100K, which means minimal running at a comfortable pace, no long run this weekend, and extra yoga.
For inspiration, I decided to spotlight a superwoman and her mentorship of a younger superwoman. I’ll aim to get my race report out by Friday!
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I got hooked on following last week’s second edition of the Cocodona 250, the odyssey of a race traversing Arizona and ending in Flagstaff. Last year, I paced and crewed my friend Soon-Chul Choi there, so I have some idea of the course’s challenges.
The event left me with mixed feelings about races that are 200+ miles, which I don’t have a desire to do but respect those who do. Many if not most of the participants devolve into zombie-like hiking after the first 100 miles, surviving and enduring. The event seems more like a pilgrimage and vision quest than a running race. I’d rather train to run 100 miles as best I can, in 24 to 36 hours, than slog, nap, and shuffle for three to five days to go 200+. Or, if I’m going to spend a week at an event (as I’ve done four times with the 170-mile Grand to Grand Ultra and its sister race, the Mauna to Mauna), I prefer the self-supported stage-racing format modeled after Marathon des Sables where everyone races a certain distance, rests at a camp, then gets up the next day to race another stage.
That said, the front of the pack at Cocodona is insanely impressive, appearing to move as well at 200-ish miles as if they were in the later phases of a 100. Their performance, and their leapfrogging of one another, revealed strong and steady running and hiking, along with smart management of all the variables in a multiday race.
The one who blew me away the most is Annie Hughes of Leadville, who’s known as “Outdoorable Annie” for her Instagram handle.
I don’t know Annie and have not interviewed her, but the fact that she’s 24—my daughter’s age—made me feel a connection to her as I tried to imagine my daughter in her shoes, and to sense the maternal pride mixed with anxiety I would experience if my daughter pushed herself to such extremes. To see Annie keep up with and then pass Jason Koop—one of the most experienced ultrarunners and coaches in the sport—left me in awe.
Annie ended up finishing 3rd overall and 1st female by covering the 254 miles in a little over 71 hours (71:10:22). By comparison, last year’s female champ Maggie Guterl finished 7th overall in 85.5 hours. (However, it’s not really a fair comparison because last year’s course was a lot more difficult in its first segment; this year’s route changed due to wildfires.)
Annie burst onto the scene in 2021 with wins at the Behind the Rocks 50 and Collegiate Peaks 50 (overall win), followed by wins at the Leadville 100 and Moab 240, then another win at the Coldwater 100 in January of this year. She has a background as a cross country and track runner in high school and at Adams State University, but midway through college she set her sights on the mountains—spending the summer after her sophomore year climbing all of Colorado’s 14’ers—and left collegiate running for trail running. Her first ultra was the Moab Red Hot 55K in 2019.
As I tracked Annie’s progress and followed her on social media during Cocodona, I also followed her mentor, pacer, and crew chief Olga King, who lives in Colorado Springs and works as a massage therapist. Olga and I have followed each other’s blogs and social media off and on for nearly two decades. We’re about the same age (she’s 52), and she’s one of the women in my age group I look up to because she’s done so much more than I have. Olga has finished 120+ ultras along with numerous through-hikes and FKTs. (Learn more about her by reading her About and Results sections on her blog.)
The Annie-Olga kinship captured my heart, so I reached out to Olga a few days ago to ask about her experience at Cocodona and her relationship with Annie, who on her Instagram referred to Olga as “like a mother.” What follows are my questions and Olga’s answers, lightly edited for length and clarity.
How and when did you and Annie develop this ultrarunning relationship?
Olga: Annie and I met as a serendipity while climbing Mt. Sherman in July 2020. Our friend John Sharp happened to travel through, stopped the night before at the restaurant Annie worked at as a waitress, and invited her to do Sherman. She couldn't say "no". [My husband] Larry and I met Sharp and Annie as we were coming down and waited for them at the coffee shop. The conversation was flowing, and suddenly John Sharp said: "Annie, you need a mentor. Olga should be your mentor." We still laugh at it because I was reluctant and hoped she'd never text. She did, the next day!
Just like that, it was obvious we have a connection. I was preparing for the [162 mile] Collegiate Peaks Loop unsupported FKT, and she decided to do it as supported right after. We bonded over that, both getting the records in September 2020 two weeks apart. From there, there was a lot of texting and a few visits, and she jumped into Mace’s Hideout 100 in June 2021 in part as a test prior to Leadville 100, and in part because I was there. She and her crew were thoroughly impressed by my one-minute transitions through the aid stations, as well as the fact that I ran the last 30 miles 20 minutes faster (granted, we had a pretty big gap before mile 75). We laughed, and she asked if I could crew her at Leadville to teach the ropes. [Annie became the youngest woman ever to win the Leadville 100.] … Our relationship is based on her utmost respect to my past and present character, and my respect for her hard work and willingness to learn.
As for the "mom" stuff—when Annie was struggling at Leadville, I told her, “Hey, everyone thinks we're a mother-daughter team (to cheer her on) because we look alike (blond, not too tall, not too skinny, blue eyes), and I treat you with tenderness and firmness.”
She said, “Well, I think of you as a mom.” I was like, “Oops, I guess I can't be a friend when I am more than twice your age, but I'll take it! My daughter never gets passed at the end, so haul your butt!”
I am blessed and fortunate that her real parents—Mom and Stepdad, Dad and Stepmom—full-heartedly accepted me into their wonderful family. Annie filled a hole in my heart exactly at the right time.
During Cocodona, what were the most challenging situations and miles for Annie and why? How did she get through them, and how did you help her through them?
During the first night, with me pacing, we got lost and missed a turn five miles out of Fain Ranch. Turns out at least a dozen others did as well, but since Annie was first, it was incredibly frustrating and infuriating, and bushwhacking through prickly stuff wasn't fun. Annie was really down from it, and I am glad I kept calm, and together we found the way out. Next one was an hour later—Annie has troubles, as everyone else at 3 a.m., with a sleep monster. Again, because I was with her for the first time at night, I made sure she knows that it is absolutely possible to overcome that, and she did. It gave her powers for the future. The first night seems to be the worst for Annie, not that she's not getting sleepy the other ones. Other than that, she was going through usual ups and downs, but truly, never too far down.
Annie is an incredibly driven individual. Like, she strives to be the best person, and the best endurance athlete—not just female, not just a runner, but athlete in a sense that is far out there. She's also incredibly humble and shy and almost uncertain at times.
Do you or Annie’s parents have any concerns about Annie doing so much so young that it might set her up for injury or to “flame out“?
Her Mom and Dad are fully trusting in what I think. I am not concerned, and believe it or not, what she's doing right now is me holding her back! She consults with me on whatever she's thinking of signing up. She's smart and very in tune with her body. But indeed, we do talk about burning up, adrenal fatigue (something I had for seven years), and being strategic in choosing races best for her and her sponsors.
She does not need a coach. We both prefer “mentor.” She hates structure (that's why she dropped out of cross-country and track in college and went to do all the 14’ers plus some high peaks in South America). She technically had a coach for a year (a great guy, though not an ultrarunner himself), and while he wrote schedules, she did her own running. She feels her body well, and if it's responding, then she pushes and goes faster and farther. If not much, then she backs off. So, mentoring her is a joy.
Speaking of joy, she has an incredible amount of that—for running and outdoors! It's her driving force besides being the best ultrarunner. She loves pushing boundaries, but doing it with a smile.
How much was Annie able to run in the second half?
Annie is actually not the greatest power walker—and she knows it—so believe it or not, she ran more than half of the second half of the race. It might have been a slow shuffle (that I could powerwalk), but she kept the running momentum and form. She is a runner in the true meaning of it. So, anything that is runnable—downs that are not ankle busting and all the flats and some smaller rollers—she ran. She ran the last 9 miles nonstop at a sub-8 minute per mile pace!
Did she have any significant physical problems? And how much did she sleep?
No injuries, just a couple of blisters we worked on. She slept 20 minutes at Munds [mile 171 aid station] on morning #3 and had three trail short eye-shut naps: one on night 2 for 5 minutes, and two on the last night for about the same.
Did you learn anything crewing and pacing this time that will help you as an ultrarunner?
No, I am a pro at crewing and pacing :). I love doing it, and since 20 years ago, I was told I should start a company. The thing is, I have to really like the person I am with, and they have to like me to be able to respond to both snapping hard and giving hugs. So far I have been fortunate with my runners. Personally, I prefer self-reliance and run my 100's without crew or pacers.
While I am her chief crew/mentor/motherly figure, and wrote all the pre-race docs/what to do/etc., this whole thing would not have been possible to go so smoothly without her incredible crew and pacers. Annie is a beautiful heart, and so many people love her. Her young friends, roommate Marley, boyfriend Taye, pacers Gwen, Lindsey and Lindsey and Jackson, and her dad and stepmom were there, on point, every second, fully in.
I might have been barking the orders, but the execution was done by the whole team. We all knew what to do and when.
Are you drawn to try a 200+?
No, because I don't want to pay such crazy money. [Aravaipa Running’s Cocodona 250 and Destination Trail’s Moab 240 both cost $1495 to enter.] I do a lot of fastpacking for FKTs, and that is free to me. I know I'd be great at this distance (not as great as Joe StringBean, but you get the idea), but I am just not into paying and calling it a "race." At this point in my life, I don't need to prove anything. When I wrote Annie's splits, I channeled what I would have been able to do, and I lived vicariously by helping her to be the best version of an athlete she can be.
Thank you Olga, and congrats on all you’ve accomplished as an ultrarunner and mentor!
UPDATE: Olga wrote a terrific blog post (all her posts are terrific!) about her experience with Annie at Cocodona; you can read it here.
What about you, do you have a desire to race the 200-mile or longer distance at events such as Cocodona, Moab 240, or the Tors des Geants? If you’ve done it, how do you like it compared to racing 100s? Please comment below.
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