K.K. Stewart-Paul steps gingerly into Jives Coffee Lounge in Old Colorado City. A tall, tanned and athletic brunette, she turns patrons' heads, but she is clearly hobbling, like a beaten-up warrior princess returning from a medieval battlefield.
Black-and-blue toenails will do that to a person. Stewart-Paul, 34, of Colorado Springs, competes in obstacle racing, a sport with a cult-like following that appeals to tough athletes who perform weird athletic feats — rope swings, monkey bars, mud crawls — while dashing hellbent from point to point.
She placed third among women in the Obstacle Course Racing World Championships on Oct. 17 in Ohio, and her toes took a beating on a hilly course.
"I lost one toenail," she says with a grin revealing an athlete's sense of humor. "I just pulled it off before coming here. I have one that's halfway off."
In obstacle racing, as in trail running, you're doing it right when your toenails turn blue.
And Stewart-Paul knows what she's doing. She trained four hours a day for a year for the second annual World Championships, where the course included 53 obstacles and covered 10 miles with plenty of hills thrown in.
She ran in first place for about half of the distance, then faded a little as the obstacles stole her momentum away, coming in with a final time of 2 hours, 13 minutes and 5 seconds. She collapsed when it was over.
"As soon as I passed the finish line, my body seized up," she says. "I had no control of my body at that point. I was in agony. I was a crying from the physical pain. I was crying from the emotion. I was a mess, but I was ecstatic."
Obstacle racing does not garner big headlines in the sports section, but it is kicking the door in on mainstream sports, such as running. It attracts athletes who want an endurance test, but who need something more than, say, a 10K.
Its popularity has exploded with multiple national series, including the popular Warrior Dash and Spartan races.
There were about 1,600 participants from 22 countries at the Obstacle Racing World Championships, and the top competitors, including Stewart-Paul, were tested for performance-enhancing drugs.
"That was a big move toward making the sport legitimate," she says.
Obstacle racing pays as well or better than running and cycling events. Stewart-Paul has won about $8,000 in her last three races, and has collected about $35,000 this year. Max King, one of the country's top mountain and trail runners (who has competed in the Pikes Peak Marathon), claimed $30,000 paychecks for winning the Warrior Dash championships in 2014 and '15.
For now, Stewart-Paul plans to make a living pushing herself to exhaustion in obstacle races.
"In obstacle racing, you have to be a little bit crazy," Stewart-Paul says. "It's something runners can relate to; CrossFitters can relate. It caters to all athletes. I think that is what draws so much attention to it. It's fun."
Stewart-Paul grew up on a ranch near Durango, where she began her day at sunrise by feeding the chickens and horses and performing any number of tasks to help her parents scratch a living from their land. She has four athletic brothers who played all of the regular school sports, and who still compete in rodeo events. She enjoyed working with barrel-racing horses herself, but says she didn't do well in competition.
"I'd fall off the horse, or knock a barrel over," she says. "I was horrible."
She began training hard about five years ago and advanced quickly to elite level in obstacle racing. Like many top athletes, she moved to Colorado Springs to be close to great trails and to train at high altitude.
One of her favorite workouts is to sling a 60-pound sandbag across her shoulders and trudge up the Manitou Incline.
Though there are few obstacle races in the Pikes Peak region, Stewart-Paul encourages any adventurous athlete to give it a try.
"The thing I like about it the most is the camaraderie," she says. "I have a lot of friends and we all support each other. I would tell people to just go and do it. Don't hesitate. Just have fun."