Cindy O'Neill fell in love with the Pikes Peak Ascent the first time she ran in the race. But it wasn't until her sixth attempt, in 1998, that she crossed one of the most famous finish lines in all of running as the top woman.
She'll tell you it doesn't get much better than reaching your arms to the sky — which, from the summit of 14,115-foot Pikes Peak, isn't all that far away — and celebrating a championship.
But there is a little more to her story, too, another "first" that happened along the way.
Just below the summit, where only marmots live, O'Neill's husband, John — a dry-witted curmudgeon with a heart of gold — awaited her arrival that day.
"He has such a loud voice, I can hear him from a mile away," she says.
She ran by John on her way to victory, and there were tears on his cheeks.
"That was the first and only time I've seen him cry," she says. "He's usually not very emotional. That's my favorite memory."
The Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon, which will run for the 60th time this weekend, is that kind of race, especially for local runners who see the peak every day and dream of racing up her granite sides. It can be a bona fide spiritual experience.
Cindy O'Neill has become one of the event's most successful runners. She has nine Top 3 finishes in 15 Ascent attempts. She won it three times, placed second three times, and has three third-place finishes.
Long and leggy, O'Neill is a 53-year-old software engineer — John refers to her, lovingly, as "Geek" — who still giggles like a kid and asks as many questions as she gets in an interview. She'll line up to race again in the Pikes Peak Ascent at 7 a.m. Saturday in Manitou Springs.
"I think it got in my blood the first time," she says.
Like all of the great mountain runners, O'Neill loves the high altitude. It hurts, but she feels free to fly above timberline.
"I've always loved the upper part of the mountain the most," she says. "So I look forward to getting above tree line. I always feel better there because it's nice and cool up there and you can see forever."
O'Neill started running to stay in shape for college tennis. But she didn't find her niche until she moved to Colorado and met Pikes Peak running legend Matt Carpenter (12 Pikes Peak Marathon wins) training at the Manitou Incline.
"I really didn't know how to train for Pikes Peak until I met Matt," O'Neill says. "We ran up the Incline and he timed it and I think I did about 25 minutes, maybe high 24. He said if I trained I could do really well."
Carpenter's best advice?
"Training up high," O'Neill said, adding "if you try to run continuously from Barr Camp to the top, I can't think of a run that is harder than that. It kills me, but I still try to keep moving."
She recorded her fastest Ascent time of 2 hours, 45 minutes, 11 seconds, in her 1998 victory. Then she lined up the next day and finished third in the Pikes Peak Marathon, running to the top of the mountain and back in 5:05.
She's run most years since then, but took two years off in 2012 and 2013 while fighting two tough bouts of mononucleosis.
"I have a feeling that as your hormones change, your immune system changes," she says, "and I was trying to train like I used to, and I couldn't do that. That was too much stress."
O'Neill expects that this year will be her last chance to record a competitive time, though she won't make any predictions. After one more hard effort, she plans to take a break from competition to enjoy skiing (she is a self-described ski bum) and long, easy trail runs with her friends — as well as the early morning walks through Manitou Springs that she and John's three rowdy dogs demand.
"I don't want to do any hard training like I used to," she says. "I know how bad it hurts and I can't recover from it."
But she won't stay away for long.
"Never say never," she says. "I'm pretty sure I'll be back."
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