‘They’re waiting for me to die’: 72-year-old runner won’t let go of this race

LEADVILLE, Colo. – In the crisp morning hours of last August, 71-year-old Marge Hickman slipped the brace off her sprained ankle and headed for the starting line of the Leadville Trail 100-mile race. Part of her said to go home. The race wasn’t what it used to be. She didn’t feel wanted anyway. She loved this race. She hated this race. Her whole life revolved around this race.

She would finish this race, she told herself. She supported herself with her positive sentences. LND (let there be no doubt). One direction: forward. Let go; let God. When the shotgun finally boomed, Hickman, a five-foot 100-pound runner, plodded nervously into the thin, cold air of the Rocky Mountains. If she could finish it, she would be the oldest woman to ever do it.

Hickman is a well-known figure at the Leadville 100, a brutal high-altitude race that weaves through the mountains with an elevation gain of 15,744 feet. She’s masochistically obsessed with the race, according to friends, pointing to two surgeries on her shoulders; two procedures for plantar fasciitis, which causes heel pain; and a record stuck in her wrist.

She has finished the race 14 times, but not in more than ten years. She sheepishly admits this, but is adamant that she is still kicking and, in her words, “taking names.” Her exercise log — an average of 80 miles a week — and a string of ultramarathon results back up her claims. “I learned a long time ago to let go of ageism,” she said, adding: “Without that race on my calendar, I don’t know what I would be doing or who I would be.”

Ultrarunning has long provided a powerful attraction for true eccentrics. Among them Bob Wise, who suffered brain trauma in a car accident but found that longer races offered a break from the noise in his head. Despite his droopy stance and a penchant for running into trees, he competed in numerous six- and seven-day races and ran 903 miles in the first 1000-mile certified race.

Then there’s Scottish runner Arthur John Howie, who once held three world records: a 360-mile non-stop run, a 1,300-mile race in 16 days and 19 hours, and the speed record across Canada in 72 days and 10 hours. His favorite fuel? Abundant amounts of beer.

Jameelah Abdul-Rahim Mujaahid, a single mother of five, started running ultras on weekends, after a day job as a district manager for four Burger Kings and night shifts at the Waffle House. At age 54, she has completed more than 200 ultramarathons.

For Hickman, exercise had to be extreme to offset lifelong bouts of anxiety and depression. In her 20s, she said, she fled Pittsburgh and a childhood marred by insecurity and neglect to the Colorado mountains. The snow-capped peaks bent against the horizon and the rushing of clear mountain streams became symbols of her transformation from a shy child, who was forced to wear glasses by her parents in an effort to make her smarter, into a confident athlete.

When the doors of her gym opened at six, she ran on the carpeted track. “Then an aerobics class,” she said. “At lunch, I took an hour and a half and ran five miles. I’d do a quick clean, put the jeans back on and some perfume and get back to work. After I got out, I was back for racquetball.”

But it was in 1984 in a Denver running shop where fate seemed to find her. She met Jim Butera, a bearded hippie who did obscure races called “ultras,” sold running shoes, and claimed extreme running as a way of life. “I thought it was the best thing since canned corn,” Hickman said. When he showed her a flyer for his latest idea, a 100-mile race in the Colorado mountains—a race through the air—it sounded impossible. She was addicted.

Her initiation at Leadville in August of that year was a shocking harbinger of the relationship she would have with the race for the rest of her life. After planting her face on a carrot near Mile 13, she pushed on with blood seeping from her knees and face and a twisted ankle that quickly swelled. Eighty-seven miles later, tears began to flow as she stumbled over the last hill and saw the finish.

The same year that her love affair with Leadville began, her first marriage ended. “Because of my sports addiction,” Hickman admitted.

The following year, she won the women’s division and placed 11th in the overall standings. She returned as a carrier pigeon for the next 27 years – finishing 13 more – making her the most prolific female runner in Leadville’s storied history.

In 1997, she married again, this time to a runner at an iconic peak of the track during her beloved race. The pair moved to the town of Leadville in 2004 and they further entangled themselves in the ever-expanding lineup of Leadville racing.

But in 2010, the series was sold to Life Time Fitness. What had felt like a sociable affair among like-minded trail bums became a Disneyland of the mountains. Prices rose, a gift shop was added and the field of participants increased from 625 participants in 2011 to 943 by 2013.

Hickman grew disdainful after Butera died in 2012, and the race came and went without mentioning the former race director. By then, the race had long been led by Ken Chlouber and Merilee Maupin. Chlouber is widely credited with popularizing the race. In her book on the history of the Leadville 100, Hickman made her views crystal clear: the race was only Butera’s brainchild. Since then, she and Chlouber have been at odds and in 2019 she was banned for her brutality.

Chlouber did not respond to requests for comment.

Hickman was reinstated for the 2021 race, under pressure from runners including Gary Corbitt, son of ultra running legend Ted Corbitt. She still had a chance to cross the line.

Hickman was exactly where she wanted to be when she was halfway there. She had completed 13 hours and had more than 16 hours left to complete. She felt stronger than she had felt in years. In any other major 100-miler barring injuries, she would have been free.

But not in Leadville. New rules in effect weeks before the race now gave her just four hours to get to the next aid station. According to race officials, the changes were made to ease congestion. In fact, Hickman and slower runners like her were eliminated, though most likely they would have been able to finish before the 30’s closing time.

She sat limp in a chair at Mile 50 while a volunteer cut her wristband, effectively disqualifying her from the race. Dazed, Hickman didn’t seem to notice. She stared at the clock, confused about what went wrong, emotion rumbling in her stomach.

Initially, Hickman took a conspiratorial stance, alluding to the fact that she is the most highly decorated Leadville veteran not inducted into the Leadville Hall of Fame. “They say they’re waiting for me to retire,” she said. “I tell them to wait until I die.”

Public statements of closure followed. She was done with Leadville. She had enough. She was exhausted; her heart was no longer in it.

She entered the 2022 race five weeks later. Those who know her said it was inevitable. “Leadville is half my life,” Hickman joked sarcastically, a mix of glee and heaviness in her voice. “It’s in your face — the hand of the mountains just comes out and grabs you by the heart and sucks you in.”

In the third week of August, she’s back in Leadville, determined to write her own ending.

“Yeah, I like to read books and stuff, but I’m a doer,” added Hickman, now 72, as she applied makeup to a black eye from a recent fall. “My plan is to keep running. If they cut my wristband, I’ll just keep going. I’m going to finish my race.”

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