Tara Dower is done with toenails. It’s a decision she came to terms with when she returned home to Virginia Beach, Va., after capturing the supported and overall women’s fastest known time (FKT) on the 486-mileColorado Trail (Collegiate East route) at the tail end of July 2023. Out of all the trials and tribulations climbing up the nearly 90,000 vertical feet from Denver to Durango, that was the worst thing.
It’s a tough list to top. It includes getting caught in storms; losing her trail partner, Liz Derstine, on the fourth day; and having to backtrack after missing a detour. But her feet hurt almost the entire time.
When she got home, she set up multiple appointments with her podiatrist to have all her nails removed. “I got my two of my toenails permanently removed already,” Dower said. “I’m so done with my toenails.”
While that’s been a project of hers since her July 31 finish, Dower has also had time to reflect. Not only did she set an FKT, she broke the longstanding record set by Betsy Kalmeyer in 2003 of 9 days, 10 hours, and 52 minutes. That record would’ve been standing for 20 years come September.
There are countless thru hikers on the Colorado Trail, and countless runners who have sought the record since. Yet, it was an East Coaster who found herself conquering the high country. It took battling some self-doubt and anxiety before and during the effort, but Dower made it happen.
“It was fulfilling. It made me realize my abilities,” Dower said. “I say all the time, ‘This race made me realize what I’m capable of.‘ But I really think this one was different, and it made me think about other things that I could do in Colorado.”
Tara Dower’s finish time was 8 days, 21 hours, and 59 minutes for the East to West Collegiate East route.
Breaking a 20-Year-Old Supported FKT: An Ambitious Start
Having arrived a little over a week early to acclimate to the Colorado elevation, Dower and Liz Derstine started their adventures going for the self-supported FKT on July 24 with two heavy packs and 15 pounds of food on their backs. Setting out from Denver, the duo had four big-mileage days ahead. Split in half, they eyed 119 miles total over the first 2 days and 110 the following 2 days.
This is what they had planned for almost a year. Wanting to be the first women to break 9 days end to end, this is what it would take. They started strong, moving well together up the first mountains. It wasn’t really until the second day that things started turning.
While finishing up day two, fatigue set in. This caused Derstine to miss a turn and add a mile and a half to her day. Dower was ahead of her and was hallucinating from exhaustion. She, too, ended up missing a detour. They’d have to backtrack that 1 mile and back to make sure they did the entire route.
“The screws were coming a little loose,” Derstine said. “We ended up leaving our packs at the hotel we stayed at near the trail and did the 2 extra miles. That meant our day started a few hours later. We had 55 miles planned, and it started straight up a pass.”
Despite a rough night’s sleep, Dower was able to keep up her pace. Derstine, on the other hand, was feeling off. “I wasn’t hurting, I wasn’t injured,” she recalled. “My body just didn’t want to go. I felt bad that Tara had to keep waiting for me.”
They ended the day 11 miles short of their goal. They had a hotel booked for the fourth night, and they’d have to add that 11 miles to the 55 already planned. When Derstine finally caught up, it was time to have a difficult conversation.
“We had talked about this situation months before we started and what we’d do,” Derstine said. “It was kind of an awkward conversation to have because we had to be really honest with each other. Even though it was a sad decision for me to get off trail, we know that the women’s supported record had stood since 2003. It just seemed like an amazing opportunity to do something [about it].”
Calling in Reinforcements
For Dower, she was now alone in going for the record, unsure of when she’d see Derstine next. What kept her going was reminding herself that all she needed to do was keep moving and crank some audiobooks.
“I have this trick where I listen to FKT books, and I was listening to Heather Anderson’s book about her Appalachian Trail FKT,” Dower said. “It felt like I was hiking with another lady, another partner again. I listened to that the entire day.”
While Dower continued the FKT, Derstine went on her own side-character adventure. She had to balance her woes of dropping out of the run with suddenly becoming a runner’s crew chief. Her first mission was to obtain a car starting from a mountain town.
Trapped in Twin Lakes, Colo., she found a ride to their fourth-night hotel, the Mount Princeton Hot Springs, via a friend of a friend. There, some other thru-hikers shared a list of trail angels with her. Out of the 10 she contacted, only one was willing to drive her to the nearest town with car rentals — 90 minutes away.
Simultaneously, Derstine put out a plea for help on Instagram to see if anyone could help with the FKT attempt. She didn’t expect anyone to answer. She was wrong.
“It’s a good thing to be overwhelmed with messages, but it was actually overwhelming,” Derstine said. “I’m trying to sort out logistics on a trail that I didn’t know the access points for, while many people are reaching out wanting to help. It was really heartening to lean on others who came out there just because they wanted to.”
And it wasn’t friends, but complete strangers dropped everything to come out. Dower’s would-be support crew started with four people on day five. Christine Reed of Denver drove out and specialized in working on Dower’s feet. She came in clutch, bringing a chair. Lindsey McDonald from Gunnison came out and paced Dower for a bit. Doug and Melinda McCaw drove 4 hours from Grand Junction and helped find access points.
Michael Robertson, a runner from Durango, came out on day six and paced Dower over a 55-mile section that had no crew access. He carried most of her supplies for her as they battled thunderstorms that rolled through.
Every time she met up with the crew, Dower thought, “Who’s going to be there?” “I’ve never had this great a crew before on an effort like this,” she added. “I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Finishing that 55-mile stretch was one of the hardest sections, Dower said. When she reconnected with her makeshift crew, she had 73.3 miles to go. Downing some food, she prepared to sleep for a few hours before setting off on one final push. And she wouldn’t be alone.
“Tara kept asking if anyone would be with her on this next section,” Derstine said. “I told her I was going to go out with her.”
Final Push to Durango
This was it. The final push. Dower was exhausted and sleepy. Derstine was refreshed and focused. It was 11 p.m. when they set off up the pass with no one else on the trail. To keep Dower awake, Derstine found music they could jam to through the night.
“We were singing along to the ‘Frozen’ soundtrack,” Derstine said. “Then we had this beautiful morning together when we saw two herds of elk. It was just a great moment.”
But then the duo was entered a long, exposed section of trail. At the same time, they saw storms would be in the area soon. If they had to wait out a storm, the record could be in jeopardy — as could going under 9 days.
Dower, wanting to do anything to not get caught in more storms, asked Derstine, “Do you want me to wait for you?” Derstine responded no. And Dower was gone.
“I got to the top running on this ridge, and I could see this neon dot in the distance,” Derstine said. “She was half a mile ahead. That’s when I knew she was running hard.”
Dower resupplied one final time with 20 miles to go. The record was in reach, as was breaking 9 days. She quickly took off while her crew packed up and prepared to meet her at the finish. To do that, they drove to a Durango hotel to get Dower a Subway sandwich, and then got a message from Dower’s GPS tracker. The message: “Bring balloons.”
The crew obliged, decorating the trailhead before hiking in to meet Dower to run in the final section. Dower found them as she was flying to the finish, running faster than a couple of crew members could keep up with.
“Getting over the last pass, I was relieved,” Dower said. “I kept thinking about how I could be the first woman to go under 9 days on this trail. The closer I got, the more liberty I gave myself to get excited about this record. And this might sound weird, but I was also thinking a lot about Courtney Dauwalter. She is somebody I look up to. I just kept thinking, ‘I want to make her proud.’”
At the trailhead, Dower touched the marker and stopped her watch at 8 days, 21 hours, and 59 minutes. She and her crew made their way back to the hotel in Durango, where Dower immediately downed some vanilla-chocolate swirl ice cream and took a shower.
Post-Colorado Trail FKT: What’s Next?
Now, she has her eyes set on two 100-milers later this year: Run Rabbit Run, a 100-mile where she took second in 2022, and Javelina Jundred, where she wants to compete for a Western States Golden Ticket. All out West.
But before she does any of that, she plans to get rid of her worst enemy: her toenails.