Allie McLaughlin stepped on the first railroad tie at the base of the Incline and began her ascent up the ragged old railway bed.
The steep climb known for dishing out punishing workouts had become her friend — or perhaps a habit — in the summer of 2010. McLaughlin could slay the Incline. Going up came naturally to her.
A state champion runner at Air Academy High School, McLaughlin was well known in the running world. She'd become an instant star as a freshman at the University of Colorado, burning up college cross-country courses in the fall of 2009. She shocked everyone with a fifth-place finish at the NCAA national championships.
Spring track season at CU held great promise. And then injuries stole it all away. She came home with tendonitis in her right foot, frustrated and unable to run. Of course, when you're 19 with the metabolism of a hummingbird churning beneath your skin, there is no sitting still.
McLaughlin took to the Incline, and its famous 2,000 feet of elevation gain in one mile. Since running was out of the question, climbing filled the need.
Runners live in a world measured by minutes and seconds. McLaughlin's first Incline attempts that summer were fast and encouraging. She set a training plan, climbed three times a week. Some days she'd torch her legs and lungs by ascending in difficult three-minute bursts, scramble down for a minute, then push toward the sky again, over and over.
And then the magic happened. On July 29, she recorded the fastest known time on the Incline for a woman. She started her watch at the bottom tie, near where the city of Colorado Springs' informational signs are now posted. She stopped it at the Incline's summit. It read 20:07.
That's not a typo.
"I had a goal of breaking 20 minutes," she says. "I tried two times after that, but I was slower."
Conversation about Incline records often leads to debate about the overall fastest male. Some believe that triathlete Mark Fretta has the record at 16:42. Others insist that 12-time Pikes Peak Marathon champion Matt Carpenter's 18:31 is the best. But the women's mark is rarely discussed.
And though new technology, such as Strava, will now accurately measure an athlete's time over a specific distance, there of course is no regulating body certifying Incline times. So runners on it and other backcountry trails will continue to compare their efforts by "fastest known time," or FKT. For instance, Scott Jaime of Denver owns the FKT on the 486-mile Colorado Trail: 8 days, 7 hours and 40 minutes. Few, if any, question the feat because trail runners, a closely knit tribe, respect their sport and each other. It's part of the culture. You never lie about an FKT.
Still McLaughlin knows some doubt the 20:07.
"I hesitate to say anything about it in public sometimes, because some people don't believe me," McLaughlin says. "But I don't care. I try to not let it affect me too much."
Now 24, McLaughlin is the defending U.S. Mountain Running Champion. Wearing the colors of Team USA — the dream of most any American runner — she placed third at the World Mountain Running Championships in Italy in September. And she thrilled the home crowd with a win at the 2014 Pikes Peak Ascent, recording the third-fastest time by a woman in race history, 2:33:43. Nancy Hobbs, executive director for the American Trail Running Association, says McLaughlin may still have a sub-20 minute Incline time in her.
"Allie's FKT of 20:07 on the Incline is really no surprise," Hobbs says. "That gal has lungs, legs and determination. I've seen her in action, and she's one focused athlete."
McLaughlin may have a size advantage. She stands 5 feet tall — in running shoes with thick soles — and weighs 85 pounds.
These days she usually climbs once a week with Zach Miller, an elite mountain runner who has placed second to McLaughlin during a few competitive Incline training sessions. His personal best is 21:12.
"People look at her and say she's fast because she doesn't have that much weight," Miller says. "But there is more to it than that. You have to be powerful. She is deceptively strong."