The day had begun to grow long when Stephanie Wurtz painfully crested the saddle of Hope Pass, high in the central Colorado Rocky Mountains. The shadow of La Plata Peak crept across the Upper Arkansas River Valley and the tiny town of Twin Lakes far below.
She had ventured about 60 miles in the Leadville Trail 100, one of the most famous ultra runs in the country, known for its punishing high-altitude course that rarely drops below 10,000 feet.
The view from Hope Pass is beautiful, and Wurtz, a 34-year-old Manitou Springs resident who works as the internal communications director at Colorado College, became inspired. Though she would have to run deep into the morning hours the next day to finish the race, the end had become more than a possibility. It became likely.
"Coming down Hope, I didn't want to think about finishing because I had a long way to go, but once I hit Mile 51 it was uncharted territory for me," Wurtz says. "I had never run farther and I started thinking, this has been a long journey. I think I'm going to make it."
Into the night she ran, with her husband Mike Shafai pacing her through some of the toughest miles in all of competitive running. With stars still hanging in the sky, Wurtz hit the finish line in Leadville. She had covered the 100-miler in 23 hours, 21 minutes, good enough for fifth place among the women.
And she had made history. Wurtz won the mind-boggling Leadwoman Series — a competition for the toughest mountain-sports athletes — in record time. Finishing the 100-mile run is one thing. But completing the series? Whole new ballgame.
How difficult is it? Only four women finished. It works like this. The series began June 18 with the Leadville Marathon. The 26.2-mile race is a major challenge for most runners at sea level. At altitude, it is a lung-bursting suffer fest. Wurtz clocked in at 4 hours, 42 minutes.
Then came the Silver Rush 50-miler on July 10. She placed third in 8:32 and gained confidence for the bigger races ahead.
It's not all about running, though that is her specialty. The series gets nasty in its last week. On Aug. 14 she raced in the Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race, an event that finishes with riders covered in dust and sleeping in their saddles like cowboys on a long cattle drive. Just talking about it made her palms sweat. "I'm a mountain biker, but I'm not advanced. The bike [race] was the biggest concern for me." She rolled into downtown Leadville to finish in 9 hours and 38 minutes, good enough for 18th place out of 134 women cyclists.
The following day, as if to taunt the competitors, the series continued with a 10K run. Wurtz placed second in 44:13. "It was painful after the mountain bike, but honestly, I'm just so much more comfortable running. It felt good to be out there."
Wurtz is a natural runner. She spent last year working on her marathon time. She had a goal of running under three hours and accomplished that feat at the San Antonio Rock 'n' Roll Marathon in December. "I think it was always in her mind to run the Leadville 100," says Shafai. "After breaking three hours in the marathon, it was obvious that this was the year to do it."
Wurtz didn't spend a lot of time thinking about it. She wanted to complete a 100-mile race; why not go for the whole series?
She focused her training with hard runs on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Mondays and Wednesdays included power intervals — like windsprints — on the bike. The weekends included longer runs and rides. "The training is all part of the challenge when you have other things going on, like a real job," Wurtz said.
The training included some fun adventures. She and Shafai pedaled 200 miles on the White Rim Trail in the Canyonlands National Park. They also completed the famous rim-to-rim-to-rim run in the Grand Canyon.
At 4 a.m. on Aug. 21, she stepped to the starting line in downtown Leadville for the series' final 100-mile leg and ran west into the mountains. When she returned the next day, she had rocked the ultra-running community, which quickly buzzed with news of her finish. With a cumulative time of 43 hours, 17 minutes over the five events, Wurtz had beaten the Leadwoman Series record by three hours.
And get this. The Pikes Peak region is apparently becoming famous for producing gritty women runners and riders. Laura Hronic of Colorado Springs finished second in the Leadwoman Series.
At Mile 95, with her friend Elisa Sundahl pacing her to the finish, Wurtz allowed the enormity of the accomplishment to sink in. "I finally thought, I'm going to do this," she says. "The whole summer, you are dedicated to doing this race. A lot of people supported and helped me. I felt this sense of gratitude that I got there and I didn't let anyone down. I was so happy, but so tired. A couple of minutes after the finish my body said, that's it, I needed to get horizontal."
Her times in the long races were very competitive. Will she consider more 100-milers? Not going to happen, she says.
"I would not consider doing the Leadwoman Series again," she says. "I don't want to press my luck. It went so much better than I had hoped. I love trail running, and I can see myself exploring some other trail races. At this point, I can't see myself doing 100 miles again.
"But I might look at a 50."