With only one more rocky switchback to go on Saturday, Allie McLaughlin looked up.
There was nothing more to see than the finish line banner, a giant blue sky and a cheering crowd. She threw one last surge into her tired legs and won the 2014 Pikes Peak Ascent and the World Mountain Running Association’s Long Distance Championship.
A graduate of Air Academy High School and the University of Colorado, McLaughlin grew up with Pikes Peak in her backyard. She had always wanted to race in the ascent, and she made the best of her first attempt.
“To win on my mountain is everything I wanted,” McLaughlin said.
She finished in 2 hours, 33 minutes and 43 seconds, the third-fastest time by a woman in race history. She is the first female runner from the Pikes Peak Region to win the race since Cindy O’Neill in 2000.
McLaughlin helped lead Team USA to a sweep of the podium and victory in the WMRA’s team competition. Morgan Aritolla, of Sun Valley, Idaho, was second in 2:35:41, followed by Colorado Springs’ Shannon Payne in 2:40:29.
From the start, McLaughlin was the woman to beat. She held her lead nearly the whole way and found her legs after Barr Camp, where the trail becomes technical and the altitude begins to crush runners who aren’t prepared to run in thin air.
“After Barr Camp I seemed to have a lot of speed and I was mixing it up with some of the guys, playing yo-yo with them,” McLaughlin said.
It was tempting for her to celebrate early as she scrambled across Pikes Peak’s broad eastern face, but she kept it together and charged on the summit at 14,115 feet.
“At the last switchback I was hiking a little, and then I just told myself to go,” she said.
It is the second time in six weeks that McLaughlin – who didn’t compete for three years because of injury – has broken the tape in a major mountain race. She claimed the U.S. National Championship in July at Loon Mountain in New Hampshire, and will run in the world championships in Italy in September.
Payne, who runs for the Boulder Running Company/Adidas team, also cleared a hurdle by proving herself in another big race. A determined runner who had reached a plateau in cross country and road races, she found new life going up-hill this year. She won the Black Canyon Ascent and shocked many when she charged to the win at the Mt. Washington Road Race. But she had a poor showing at the U.S. Mountain Running Championships in early July and questioned whether mountains were the proper place for a flat-land runner
But she plugged away on Pikes Peak, and climbed with authority on the mountain’s final treacherous stretch, the famous 16 Golden Stairs. She crossed the finish line with nothing left to give.
“That was honestly the hardest race I’ve ever run,” she said. “You just have no idea how you’re going to react when you get above treeline.”
Third place felt good, but winning the team competition was also important, Payne said.
“Just to get the U.S. sweep like that,” she said. “Sometimes the U.S. gets a reputation for not being competitive on the international scene, but I think we kind of knocked it out of the park.”
Italy finished second, in the team competition, followed by Slovenia, Scotland, Germany and Canada.