Around mile 28 of the High Lonesome 100, when thunder rumbled overhead from slate-gray clouds to the west, a man ahead of me turned back to ask, “What do you think, is it safe to keep going?”
We were at the tree line, where aspens and pines thin out and the trail cuts through spongy alpine tundra lined by wild flowers, and we needed to ascend another 800 feet on a fully exposed mountainside to a 12,300-foot saddle called Laws Pass. Race director Caleb Efta had warned runners to be sensible and hunker down at lower elevation in case of lightning.
I answered enthusiastically, “Oh yeah, we’ll be fine!” I told him to look north, where we were heading, and take comfort because the clouds looked a lighter shade of gray. He told me he was from Washington state, and this was his first time in Colorado. I sang out, “What an awesome introduction to Colorado!”
Almost everything, including the threatening clouds and rain, made me happy during the fourth edition of the High Lonesome 100 that took place July 30—31. A month earlier, I had been worried about wildfires turning the sky brown and canceling the event, so the return of the monsoon pattern that delivers afternoon storms to the high country felt like Christmas.
Atop Laws Pass, one gets a panoramic view of the Collegiate Peaks of the Sawatch Mountains west of Buena Vista and Salida, where a chain of 14ers make up the infamous Nolan’s 14. The mountains rise like massive elephant rumps, balder and grayer than the craggy San Juan Mountains to the southwest.
The race route follows a giant loop connecting the Continental Divide Trail and Colorado Trail, and though it doesn’t summit any 14ers, it shoulders Mount Antero, reaching a high point of 13,100 feet, and then dances along a ridgeline around 12,000 feet for many miles. The course’s average elevation is about 10,400 feet, and the total elevation gain is about 23,500 feet —features that make it hard and mountainous enough to be a qualifier for the Hardrock 100. A 36-hour cutoff means runners have to run the runnable stretches; those who intend to hike most of it likely won’t finish in time.
When Caleb began scouting a 100-mile-race route in 2015 for the event’s inaugural running in 2017, he sought an immersive experience in the mountains. “I wanted the route to be the most organic and scenic line you could find,” he said. He also wanted it to be challenging enough to be a Hardrock qualifier, but attainable for first-time 100-mile runners.
“It’s hard, but we have people who come from the Midwest with a 50-mile qualifier who can finish this race,” he said. “I wanted to attract a broad range of runners from different backgrounds, experiences and locations to make it an everyman’s race.”
The out-and-back 12-mile spur over Laws Pass, between miles 25 and 37, is the one portion that deviates from the giant loop and that Caleb admits is “contrived,” but he needed to add mileage to the route, and the Forest Service limited options for expanding the loop elsewhere. Contrived as it may be, I relished this out-and-back section because runners get to spot others in the two-way traffic and socialize.
I kept my eyes peeled for the top women, and the first two zipped past, unrecognizable. Later I’d learn that the lead woman, Salynda Heinl, is a 36-year-old mountain-crusher with a past win at the San Juan Solstice 50 and numerous top-10 finishes at Run Rabbit Run 100. She’d go on to win and set a new course record in 25:06, finishing seventh overall.
Around mile 30, I saw the two leading women I knew: Maggie Guterl, who struggled with asthma and nausea on her way to eighth place, and Kaci Lickteig, who was close on Maggie’s heels. Kaci and I paused to hug on the trail, and she looked fatigued as she breathed deeply to catch her breath in the thin air. She said to herself as much as to me, “We’re just out here to have fun, right?”
In one of the race’s biggest and most thrilling surprises, Kaci would rebound and reignite her racing legs the next day, closing a 22-minute gap after the final aid station by chasing down Silke Koester, the 2019 High Lonesome female champ. Kaci snagged the second-place spot by beating third place Silke by a mere minute, in 26:40.
More and more women passed me on this out-and-back section, and I passed as many women as men. The high female representation felt jubilant and undeniably empowering, because it’s the rare exception rather than the norm in mountainous 100-milers. It felt to me as if, at this race, we women have critical mass both to race competitively and to support one another. At this race, we matter.
The gender representation is the direct result of the race director’s decision to design a lottery with two equal-sized pools, one for men and one for women.
Caleb, the RD, is pursuing a graduate degree in statistics, so he likes to sink his teeth into data. He also cares about female representation in ultrarunning. When the high demand for entrant spots necessitated moving to a lottery in 2020 (the 2019 edition of the race sold out in seven minutes), he thought long and hard about how to design one that promotes gender equality. He and his team even held focus groups on the myriad socioeconomic factors that discourage more women from participating in ultras.
“We realized we can’t fix massive issues” that create barriers to entry for women, Caleb said. “When we looked at what we can control, we can control our lottery, and we said, ‘Fuck it, we’re going to make this equitable, out of a statement of wanting these people here and wanting to build this community.’ This is the most immediate and biggest impact we can have — saying 75 of 150 slots will be for women.”
On race day, the gender split was closer to two-thirds male, one-third female due to several factors; some women dropped or deferred their entry, and some of their spots were filled by males on the waitlist. Plus, more discretionary spots ended up going to men. Nonetheless, the 50 female starters among the 92 male starters felt like a high number compared to other mountain 100s where women make up only 10 to 25 percent of the starters.
A mile or so after hugging Kaci, I spotted my silver-haired friend from Northern California, Suzanna Bon. I was stoked to see an over-50 woman so high in the ranks. “You’re number 11,” I told her, since I had been counting the women passing me on the out-and-back, “and I want to see you in the top 10!” She would go on to finish seventh.
Days later, Suzanna shared her thoughts on what makes High Lonesome special. “The event exceeded my expectations, not only because of the tight organization, kind volunteers and attentive RD, but more importantly, the vibe created by their standards. The clear dedication to gender equality, inclusivity, ecological awareness and general ‘peace, love and mountain running’ popped my eyes a bit. As the sport grows, ultrarunning has been leaning into the struggle of addressing long-held inequalities and environmental impacts. Through their policies, High Lonesome is leading the way.”
Some 24 hours after crossing Laws Pass, early in the afternoon of day two, I shuffled with other mid-packers along the relentless Colorado Trail toward the finish.
The landscape of the first 75 miles had felt dramatic. A 2,000-foot nighttime climb between miles 55 and 60, at a snail’s pace in drizzling rain, nearly did me in. That climb delivers runners to the 12,000-foot-high, wide-open, wind-swept ridgeline that gives High Lonesome its name. Along that stretch of the Continental Divide Trail, hulking bear-sized rock cairns mark the way and transform into Shrek-like characters when hallucinations take hold after midnight.
The final 25 miles, by comparison, felt relatively dull and deceptively difficult. The meandering forested trail is lovely for a few miles but then turns monotonous. Below the tree line, it’s also hot. The course elevation profile makes this final portion of the race appear runnable, but in reality, it’s nearly impossible to sustain a good rhythm of running. The undulating, rocky route repeatedly delivers short yet depleting hills. I imagined the trail forming a giant fist that wanted to punch or squash me as I trudged ant-like along its knuckles.
A sense of urgency replaced the tedium, however, after my pacer Clare Abram and I passed the final aid station with six miles to go. The temperature dropped, thunder rumbled and ominous dark clouds gathered overhead. We knew we needed to move faster to beat an impending storm.
The forecast had warned of severe hazardous weather that could trigger flash floods. Caleb had warned in the pre-race meeting of possibly suspending the race if the weather turned too severe. Apparently, those warnings were justified.
As we ran along a gravel road with three miles left, claps of ear-splitting thunder rang out like rifle shots and lighting flashed directly overhead. A microburst unleashed a drenching downpour so heavy that I struggled to see while running through ankle-deep water and dodging passing cars. The route transitioned to a paved county road where mud and debris sloshed over the shoulder.
At the base of the final hill—nicknamed “Swear Hill” because runners have to ascend 400 feet in a mile to get to a meadow where the start/finish line stands—an SUV pulled up to my side. The window went down, and I saw it was Caleb. He shouted, “Get in!”
I felt momentarily confused and defiant, wanting to charge up Swear Hill and finish. But he ordered Clare and me to crawl into his crowded vehicle, where we encountered other wet and dazed runners.
Caleb was picking up runners along this final stretch to make sure they were safe and directing his communications team to hold runners at aid stations until the storm passed. The immediate and dangerous threat of lightning and flash floods warranted the temporary hold.
I sat shivering in a stupor, nervously laughing with others about the situation. I had just run 100 miles—because the race actually measures 101.5—but I hadn’t actually finished. I was relieved to be in a cocoon of safety in the vehicle, but I wanted to get out and get the job done.
Some 23 minutes later, the storm blew out as quickly as it had blown in. Caleb gave the green light for us to return, on honor system, to the spot where we had stopped and to start running again.
My pacer Clare and I went to the base of Swear Hill. Then I restarted my watch and began hiking. My husband decided to add some humor to the situation and drove slowly along beside us while shouting through his open window, “Looking good! Doing great!” It was obvious we didn’t look good, and we could barely move our cold, stiff legs, but we found ourselves laughing with other soggy runners slogging up the slope.
I give Caleb credit for making the call to momentarily suspend the race, thereby prioritizing runner and volunteer safety. He passes that credit on to the volunteers and runners.
“Our volunteers continue to be some of the best in the sport, and our runners embodied the best characteristics of mountain athletes,” he said. “Our weather delay policy worked, but also needs some work to increase the speed of communication between the team. We really appreciated the support and grace runners gave us while we sorted things out more or less on the fly.”
Of the 142 starters, 94, or two-thirds of the field, finished. In hindsight, I genuinely valued the unexpected stop-and-restart to the race. Who cares if the finishing times for us mid-to-back-of-the-packers are longer and less precise due to the race hold? Those bonus minutes made our finishes more hard-earned and memorable.
Sarah Lavender Smith is an ultrarunning coach, writer and mom of two who lives near Telluride, Colorado. She finished 16th female, 58th overall, in a time of approximately 33:30—33:53 as listed in results, minus the 23 or so minutes she waited out the storm.