Running on Top of Mountains: Laura Parson Sets Women’s Speed Record for the Collegiate Loop

Fellow Salty Running writer Laura Parson recently took on the Collegiate Peaks Loop Trail in Colorado, 161 miles of rugged terrain around the heart of the Colorado Rockies. The route travels around the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, passing by a dozen 14,000-foot summits while traveling through high forests and alpine terrain.

Not only did Laura complete the route, she also ran the women’s supported Fastest Known Time (FKT) for the trail, clocking in at 3 days, 16 hours, 32 minutes, all to raise funds for Girls on the Run International. When discussing the run with her, I thought it would be exciting to share with you what it was like, what’s next and what motivates her to take on these enormous challenges. 

Congrats on your accomplishment! Growing up, did you ever think you would do something like this?

Never. I was the quintessential bookworm. One vacation when I was in sixth grade I ran out of books to read so I read my father’s college textbooks, including his calculus textbook. 

I dreamt about running, but when I tried to do it I couldn’t. Eventually I gave up, put my focus into school. That lasted until my early 20s when I realized I didn’t want to live like that. I weighed 235 pounds. I started by walking on the treadmill. Two years and 70 pounds later, I ran my first 5k. A year and a half after that, 120 pounds down, I ran my first marathon.

Laura Parson poses with her pacer by a sign that reads "Colorado Trail. No. 1776. Harvard Lake 3 miles. Wilderness 3 miles."
With pacer Thomas at the start, 5:50 AM, July 29. Photo credit: Kristopher Cargile

Why a FKT?

Since I’m hoping to set the women’s speed record for an American crossing in 2021, it made sense to begin training, physically and mentally, with smaller FKTs. Plus, it felt like a natural progression from ultramarathons.

What inspired you to choose this particular trail?

It was a process of elimination. I wanted something on the west coast, where it isn’t humid. I also wanted it to be challenging yet doable in the short amount of break time I had between summer and fall semesters. For logistics, a loop was easier than an out and back, so I didn’t have to get a ride back to my starting point. I pored through trails and trail reports and was immediately compelled by descriptions of the Collegiate Loop. Running the entire Continental Divide Trail is something I’d like to do someday, and since the Loop includes the CDT and Colorado Trails through Colorado, it was an easy decision.

You ran the supported FKT. What kind of support did you have?

Kris Cargile was the crew chief and entire support crew. It is not exaggerating to say that without Kris, this speed record wouldn’t have happened. He was the only person there the entire time, and he did everything except run. The crew chief basically organizes everything, makes sure I start and stop when I need to, shows up at various points throughout the day to allow me to refill my hydration pack and refuel, coordinates with runners joining me to help us connect, and he took care of all of the social media during the attempt.

Runner Laura Parson (middle) poses with her crew chief and a pacer
With Kris and Jeff at Cottonwood Pass before beginning the 16-mile remote section to Tincup Road. Photo credit: Kristopher Cargile

Other runners helped as well: Thomas joined me the morning of day one and ran the first 26 or so miles with me. Jeff joined me the evening of day two and ran 16 miles. Brian joined us the evening of day three and ran the final mile of that day with me. He then ran the first 35 or so miles with me on Thursday.

What was a typical day like out on the trail?

I never really slept well the entire attempt, so I’d lie awake for the last few hours of the morning just waiting for it to be time to boil water for my first cup of coffee. Just like in my real life that AM coffee was my favorite part of the day. I’d slowly drink coffee and then get dressed, leaving Kris to pack up. We’d record a video for social media and I’d head out on the trail. From there, it was just about constant progress forward while constantly monitoring myself—did I need to drink more, eat more? The trail climbed up and down, and I just kept moving. I’d set a plan of starting and stopping points for each day, and my only job was to keep moving and limit my time out there while still staying ahead of hydration and fuel as much as possible.

What were some of your most memorable moments, whether they were good or bad?

The evening of day two, after running 26 miles alone, Kris surprised me at Cottonwood Pass with fresh fruit and a runner, Jeff, who would join me for the last 16 miles that day. The last segment of the day was 16 remote miles on a part of the Collegiate West trail called “High 23.” A majority of this portion of the trail was at 12,000 feet or higher. It was inaccessible, so I had to finish it in one trek. It was the hardest part of the trail, and I couldn’t eat, but it was easily the most beautiful. We literally walked on top of mountains and watched clouds form around us. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like it before or will again.

On the final day, I went from almost having heat stroke to almost getting hypothermia. On top of Mount Princeton, the weather shifted and suddenly it was hailing and sleeting. I spent four or more miles sprinting down the mountain to stay warm and get to Kris, who had a truck. When I arrived, I took an hour to warm up. I could have stopped there, but I was determined to finish as I’d planned, so with less than 9 miles to go, I warmed up, changed into warmer clothes, ate a sleeve of Pringles and half a jar of pickles, and set off. All day on that final day I’m been consumed by how much I had to do and how hard it was going to be, but coming through almost-hypothermia and with only 9 miles to go, I wanted to savor my last hours on the trail. I did those miles alone, and they were physically hard, but mentally and emotionally, I enjoyed them the most.

Laura Parson runs a peak of the Collegiate Trail Loop
Photo credit: Jeff Spencer

What was your most crucial piece of gear? Tool in your mental arsenal?

Gear-wise, I finally added the trekking poles the last segment of day 3 and they made a huge improvement in my climbing ability. Mentally I just knew I had to keep moving, no matter how slow it was at times. Stopping wasn’t an option. I had to trust that Kris would tell me when I shouldn’t go any further. I’d told him before I began that the only reason I could quit would be if I risked medical injury that would keep me from running again or risk life or limb. Otherwise, I needed to finish. There were no other options.

How did you celebrate?

Ha! Celebrate. I’m not good at celebrating accomplishments, I’m just good at selecting new ones… Ooh, but I ate real ice cream, two scoops, the next day. It was delicious. Salted caramel.

What would you say were your lessons learned?

Lessons: 1. Bring a better variety of food, especially salty food. 2. Use trekking poles from start. 3. Prioritize sleep. 4. Always carry waterproof gloves in the high desert. 5. Leave any failures from the previous day, real or perceived, in the past. Fixating won’t change them. 6. Ask for what I need, “Suffering” in silence isn’t a FKT success plan. 7. Take more pictures for sponsors.

What’s next?

I’m attempting a FKT of the Camino de Costa Rica in December and the Pinhoti Trail (Alabama and Georgia sections) in March. I’m really excited about both! Pinhoti is a local trail which will allow me to train right on it, and the Camino de Costa Rica is a new trail that crosses Costa Rica. I’m working with the organizers to ensure that we highlight the beauty and diversity of the trail and the different cultures and peoples that live in the regions I’ll be crossing through. It’s going to be a life changing experience, and I can’t wait.

Thank you so much to Laura for providing us with a behind-the-scenes peek at what went into her FKT. We can’t wait to follow along on her next attempt!

Are you as inspired as we are? Leave her some love in the comments!

Southern transplant who loves 90s boy bands, outdoor adventures and college basketball, although not necessarily in that order. Recovering running perfectionist.

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