Kim Dobson: Climbing to the highest

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Eagle runner Kim Dobson is one of the best uphill trail runners on the planet.
Vail Recreation District/Courtesy photo

Kim Dobson’s resume — atop numerous accolades are her seven wins at both Pikes Peak Ascent (where she also holds the course record) and Mt. Washington, arguably the two most prestigious uphill races in the country — would justify the assumption that the 38-year-old Eagle resident comes from a rich running lineage, went to a top-notch NCAA school, and eats, breathes and sleeps running.

While she may go down as one of the best uphill trail specialists in history, this local treasure’s crown jewel can’t be found on any podium. Rather, it’s the mother of two’s unique pathway to, organic love for and courageous longevity within the sport that makes her a true diamond in the rough.

Starting out

Born in Texas, Dobson moved to Littleton, Colorado with her family at 5. Her family enjoyed hiking and cross-country skiing in the mountains, but she wasn’t in sports.

“I was very uncoordinated and not competitive as a kid,” Dobson laughed.

Kim sometimes joined her mom, a recreational runner, for local 5ks or 10ks like the Bolder-Boulder.

“It was always only a fun thing I did on a whim – no training— but I liked it. I can see the seeds back then,” Dobson reminisced.

As a freshman, she joined the 100-person Arapahoe High School cross-country team. After a “mediocre” first season, Dobson remembers being inspired by the upperclassman and setting her mind on making varsity the following year, which she did.

“Running was important in high school, but it was definitely more of a fun thing,” she explained, noting her weekly mileage probably hovered around 30. She finished her prep chapter as a top-20 state meet finisher.

“So, nothing standout, but definitely year-to-year improvement … but nothing that made me think I should run in college,” she said.

At Colorado State University, the Human Development & Family Studies student, who was also enrolled in the Early Childhood Education teacher licensure program, kept running as a way to counterbalance normal college stresses.

And, because she loved it.

She increased the length of those jaunts, escaping the dorms and exploring Fort Collins. Eventually, she figured her cumulative pavement-pounding justified registering for something, so she signed up for the Easy Street Marathon as a 19-year-old sophomore.

“I had no clue what I was doing. I had no training plan — my training plan was ‘run so I don’t go crazy!’” she joked

She ended up running 3:11 and placing second. Later that spring, she ran at Boston, and by her senior year of college, she won her first 26.2 mile race, the Boulder Backroads. Still, there was no structure to her regimen. Dobson’s only compass was her internal, joyful compulsion to run. The only proverb she lived out was ‘Running is good, more is better.’

She married Corey, her husband after graduating, and in addition to providing a soulmate for life, the medical student also provided just the stimulus to take Dobson’s career to the next step.

Finding the narrow road

“At that time, I had no idea how to train. I just ran a lot; didn’t have any structure, workouts, rest days. So of course I ended up injured a lot,” Dobson explained. One of her husband’s dreams was for the couple to summit all of Colorado’s 14ers. They spent their summers checking off peaks. Then, he decided to try a marathon, albeit with a bit more physiologically calculated approach than his wife.

Corey’s Jack Daniels-infused weekly tempos and structured sessions — and sub-3-hour performance — lit a fire under his wife.

“I was just so inspired by seeing him work so hard,” she said. “Watching him made me curious, like maybe I could break three hours if I started doing tempo runs and put a little structure to this.” 

She was fortunate to meet wise coaches, and gradually, she built her own philosophy of training — a careful combination of proven science and intimate knowledge of her injury-prone left hip.

Even though she would eventually go on to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Marathon trials — dipping under the standard by four seconds (2:45:56) at the notoriously quick CIM course in Sacramento in December of 2011 — the high-paced road race scene, heavily reliant on both a runner’s natural biomechanic endowment and God-given threshold for withstanding high-mileage (both things Dobson was unable to express on the roads) meant the spotlight of the Chicago, London, or Berlin Marathons were probably never in the cards.

Injured again from a 2009 spring marathon, Dobson recalled joining Corey for one of his med-school summer rotations in Telluride. The school-teacher spent a month of her summer walking up the ski hill and riding the gondola down.

“At the end of that summer, I was like, “I should do that Pikes Peak Ascent race,” Dobson remembered thinking.

“My mom had done it when I was a kid, so I knew of it, but I was like, ‘I like to run, I’ve only been going uphill, we’ve been hiking the 14ers…I might as well do it.” 

On roughly 20 weekly miles of running, Dobson entered the race with “no expectations.”

She started slowly.

“As the race went on, it just felt so good to be going uphill and I was picking people off one at a time,” she recounted.

With the summit in sight, she was gaining on the last victim, Megan Kimmel. The established trail runner, who would eventually go on to win the 2015 North Face Endurance 50-miler and the 2017 Marathon du Mont-Blanc won the race, but Dobson, finishing second in 2:41:49, won the day.

“It felt so good and so natural and it kind of stole my heart to uphill mountain running.”

She would finish second the next year, too, before going on to win the next seven times she showed up.

Everything for a reason

Dobson’s late arrival to the scene is probably the rarest element of her story.

Kim Dobson trains about 10 hours per week, running close to 60 miles, mostly on the Vail Valley’s vast trail network.
Special to the Daily

“Looking back, I’m really thankful with how everything played out because I think if I was feeling controlled by a coach in my late teens and early 20s, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it,” she said, almost hinting at a providential purpose behind each piece of her story.

Free from the shackles of strict collegial concepts of what training, competing and fulfillment in running is supposed to look like, Dobson got out the door, well, because she liked it.

“It was a passion, but the passion also led me to a lot of injuries because I wasn’t being smart about it,” she admitted. Those injuries drove her to learn about and embrace proper training methods. Though her starting line pose isn’t buttressed by multiple All-American awards — or even an NCAA career of any sort – even that has worked out for good.

“As an injury-prone and impulsive 20-year-old runner, the collegiate experience could have fried me mentally or physically, or at least left me with a lot of running baggage,” she stated.

“I’ve seen a lot of wonderful runners leave the sport for these reasons and it’s unfortunate. My running journey has been very personal and intrinsically motivated. I’ve made my own mistakes and had to own them and learn from them. I think this has helped me develop my ‘why’ and made me a passionate lifelong runner.”

Her source and guidance — a naive love for the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other — would energize her as flexibility — socially and physically — became increasingly critical to her performance. At 30, after a Pikes Peak three-peat from 2011-2013, her life would truly become about more than climbing mountains.

Earning the titles ‘Queen of the uphill’ … and “mom”

Of the few blessed to ever cross a finish line first, fewer find a way to do so year after year. It’s hard to call Dobson’s long career, which is still shining after a seventh-straight Mt. Washington win this June, fortunate, though in a sense she obviously is.

She’s often injured, and yet, somehow, she seems destined to be united with running forever.

“My ultimate goal is to run. I love to run,” she stated point-blank.

“If I didn’t ever race again, I’d be disappointed, but I’d be ok…But if I could never run again, I’d be devastated.”

While injury-prevention is a continual priority, the character-building times she’s endured on the sideline haven’t been wasted. It’s been about coupling her expanding understanding of training principles with an introspection that considers her body and her goals.

“Through trial and error and learning, I’ve kind of figured out what works best for me, and I’m still experimenting and learning — that’s been a part of it, too,” she said, articulating her growth-mindset.

Guided by that youthful excitement — the only thing really terrifying might be the absence of something to shoot for, no matter the distance or venue — she’s naturally discovered what works and what doesn’t. Inevitably, she’s always gravitated back to her most obvious — and enjoyable — niche: uphill running. 

“I’ve thought a lot about why I do better on uphill,” she pondered before laying out her lack of synthesis with the stretch-shortening cycle.

“I think part of it is that on the roads, you’re getting that muscle elasticity and that rebound, and once you start going up something steep, you lose that ability. And I don’t really have that on the flat, so it doesn’t really change for me — because I’m not a bouncy runner,” she laughed.

Dobson likely wouldn’t compare her stride to the fluid and effortless gait of the invincible anomaly, Eliud Kipchoge, immortalized for both his sub-2-hour marathon stunt and his decades-long string of world-beating 26.2-mile performances. And while a Kipchoge-sighting even leaves non-runners breathless, incapable of comprehending anything beyond agreeing he is not like the rest of us, Dobson seems like a more relatable star.

Maybe it’s because valley residents can sympathize with her humanizing slippage on the steepest part of Vail Mountain during her second skimo attempt ever — at the 2022 GoPro Winter Mountain Games — while she panicked, thinking all the while how her worst fears were suddenly materializing. For what it’s worth, the skimo vertical event was “an awesome experience” and Dobson anticipates incorporating the winter cross-training tool into her arsenal.

Dobson competing at the Vail Winter Uphill run this February.
Peter Maksimow/Courtesy photo

“The awesome thing about it is when you go out to train, you’re out there and nobody else is on the hill. The sun is rising; it’s so neat to be on the ski hill before or after hours when it’s not a zoo,” she said as a chorus of amens erupted from every Vail Resorts lift line alumni.

“It’s a wonderful compliment (to running).”

But, when you think about her course record on the Pikes Peak Ascent, a masterful 2:24:58 – a time eight minutes better than the previously held 30-year-old mark — it becomes clear that uphill running gives Dobson the arena to express her truly once-in-a-generation aerobic talent.

The equalizing effect of the uphill contest, voiding almost everything but an athletes’ most primal attributes — the engine and the toughness — hearkens us all back to the lasting feeling from the gym-class mile: breathing hard and suffering. In one regard, it might be the purest competition in one of the most inherently fair sports.

Though the trail community lacks $250,000 checks to give out at the top (heck sometimes the finish line isn’t even ready at the top), many mountain runners, like Dobson, are equipped with authentic world-class stuff.

As kind and humble as they come, Dobson isn’t likely to revel in a soliloquy about her running prowess. She will, however, gladly speak to her true superpower — namely, being a mom.

For the stat junkies keeping track, Dobson won every Pikes Peak Ascent between 2011 and 2019, except for two notable missing years: 2014, when the course doubled as the World Long Distance Mountain Running Championship and 2017. In both cases, Dobson missed the races to give birth to baby boys. The then pre-kindergarten teacher and Grand Junction High School cross-country coach didn’t hesitate to stay at home to raise her sons.

“It was something we always wanted if it was possible,” she said of her and Corey’s decision.

“Both of us had moms at home and had a really good experience with that and see the value in that, and I have such a heart for young kids that I wanted to be a big part of my kids’ life when they were little.”

Dobson noted that both of her parents have also always supported her running career — from high school through motherhood— without applying pressure, something she knows helped her develop her personal passion.

Though her lesson planner was forever shut, the managerial multi-tasking spigot kept running, working overtime to ensure training made the schedule.

“It was hard because you’re always scraping together your runs and you don’t know how you’re going to run the next week, but if you get creative and you ask your friend for playdate swaps and this or that, it always ended up working out,” she explained.

“But there was that panic of ‘I don’t know how it’s going to work out.’ …I think the flexibility and looking at the big picture of how are the stresses coupled with the recovery working in my life is a huge piece.”

As Bryce, 8, and Nolan, 5, grow up Dobson is keen on passing along the transcendent values running has bestowed upon her.

“I think the first thing that comes to mind is that I really want them to know ‘try your best’ and that the effort counts,” she commented.

“There’s so much reward in giving your all and there’s so much joy in hard work. I think that gets forgotten sometimes these days because everything is so convenient, but there’s nothing like having a goal and working hard for it and achieving your goal — or maybe not — but knowing I tried my best to get there and feeling the gratitude of the whole process.”

She continued, stating, “I also want them to dream big. You truly never know what is possible when you pursue something with passion.” 

Some lessons will be transferred via osmosis. After all, the boys have picked up Mom, or, as Trailrunner Magazine named her, the “Queen of the Uphill,” at the top of more mountains than they can count. They also enjoy riding their bikes or playing at the track playgrounds while discipline and dedication manifest themselves in the form of another interval session. As they get older, Dobson will be more intentionally direct, too.

“I think you have to have the conversations on those things. There’s some things I haven’t talked about that I’d like to as they get older — (the) yeah, ‘why’ I do it,” she said.

The ‘why?’

“I think running just makes me a better person and it enhances life,” Dobson answered.

“I’ve always thought, I don’t want running to become my life, but I want it to enhance my life. And it has, sometimes become too important. Since having kids, they really keep you in check.” 

Of all the things that make her unique, her fundamental source of motivation is a good starting — and stopping — point.

“When you can find that healthy balance with it, it can just make your life so much richer,” she said.

“Especially now that my kids are getting older, I’m realizing, golly time goes by so fast … and running helps me live without regrets.”