This article was originally published in the October/November 2023 issue of UltraRunning Magazine. Subscribe today for similar features on ultra training, racing and more.
If you’ve been following 100- and 200-mile races in recent years, it’s hard to escape the name Annie Hughes. Hughes’s race results speak for themselves but it was her age that initially drew my attention—there are not many 25-year-old women running and winning ultras and yet, since 2020, Hughes has run nine 100-milers and two 200+ mile events. She doesn’t just like long races, she likes to race a lot. Along with her age and impressive results (100-mile wins at Leadville, Run Rabbit Run and High Lonesome, and 200+ mile wins at Moab and Cocodona), I started to notice a face from the past ever-present at her side in aid stations during her races: Olga King. Newer ultrarunners might not know of King, but if you were to go back 20 years, she was a mainstay of the North American ultra scene. In a sport that seems to transition from one generation to the next, this is a striking partnership across generations.
At 53 years old, King is some 28 years older than Hughes, and racing less than in the past, formerly due to overtraining syndrome and more recently due to knee surgery. But her past results give an indication as to why she would be such a valuable mentor to a younger ultrarunner—130 ultras finishes including 20 100-milers, a top-10 finish at Western States and numerous 50k and 50-mile wins when she was a member of the Montrail team in the mid-2000s. Additionally, King’s experience extends far beyond her own racing—she’s an MD and research scientist, worked for seven years as a coach, and she’s also a former race director with a lot of volunteer experience over the years. Why wouldn’t a newer runner like Hughes be eager to learn from and reap the benefits of King’s wealth of knowledge from 20 years of involvement in the sport?
It was a chance meeting at a Leadville restaurant where Hughes was working in the summer of 2020 that led the two to join forces. A friend of King’s, John Sharp, got to chatting with Hughes during her shift and invited her to join them on a hike up Mount Sherman the very next day. Hughes showed up for the hike and when talk turned to ultras (she had run a small handful of races by this stage) John suggested that King become her mentor. King wasn’t eager but Hughes enthusiastically texted her the following day and they soon bonded over the mutual goal of the 160-mile Collegiate Loop FKT, which they both completed that September (King unsupported, Hughes supported). Ultrarunning was still a relatively new world for Hughes, and she was ready to learn from the best. But it wasn’t that she was without a strong background of experience, even at this early stage—Hughes raced track and cross country growing up, ran in college and completed all 58 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks in a year and a half. After gradually getting to know each other, King first crewed for Hughes at Leadville the following summer.
Both women emphasize that this is not a coach/athlete relationship—King might give some sporadic training tips but Hughes does her own thing when it comes to training while King helps mostly with race day specifics—creating pace charts, analyzing the course, researching the competition and helping formulate her race day nutrition plan. Then, come race day, King is her crew chief and an occasional pacer. This informal setup based on friendship and mutual respect works perfectly for them both but even so, any of us who have crewed or paced know that it can be a lot of hard work. So why does King so generously and willingly support Hughes? “She’s just a very grateful human. Also, like a mother watching her child grow, the rewards I see from our collaborations are exceeding any expectations. Seeing her face light up when she enters an aid station and spots me totally melts my heart. We just click. One day she’ll spread her wings or I’ll have other commitments or my own adventures, but so far we’ve made it work.”
Undoubtedly, it’s Hughes’s hard work and talent that has led to her racing success, but King’s crewing is an important factor too, so what is her tip on crewing a 200? “Be all in!”
It’s clear to see that King is indeed “all in” on supporting Hughes at each race—not only does she know Hughes as a person and thus what will help her, but she also uses her wealth of personal and professional experience to help create a race plan for her—though one that can be adapted when needed. In her own words, a good crew chief should be “a drill sergeant, but one with a heart.”