Self, Health And Wellness

How A Record-Breaking Pikes Peak Marathoner Found The Strength To Run Again After Surviving Sexual Assault

Photo: photos courtesy of Ann Van Horn
How A Record-Breaking Pikes Peak Marathoner Found The Strength To Run Again After Surviving Sexual Assault

At 14,115 feet, Pikes Peak is the highest mountain on the southern Front Range of the Rocky Mountains and looms majestically over the city of Colorado Springs. The summit was named after explorer and US Army General Zebulon Pike who was sent out west by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the new Louisiana Purchase territory in 1806. After several failed attempts by Pike to climb the peak, he ultimately deemed it “unclimbable.”

In August of 1982, Ann Van Horn, a 19-year-old long distance runner from Colorado Springs conquered the summit (and came back down) in 4 hours 59 minutes and 23 seconds, a record for the renowned Pikes Peak Marathon that still stands today.

Despite her success that day on the Peak, Ann quit running due to a brutal random assault while she was in college. Emotionally, she felt she simply couldn't continue running as she had before.

Fortunately, her break from running didn't last forever. Ann found hope.

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To me, Ann is more than just another “inspirational story,” she is my friend.

We met within days of my moving to Colorado Springs. My husband had just been named President of Colorado College and when we arrived, our son, Sam, was just a few weeks shy of turning 5. It was early summer and we knew no one. I stared at the possibility of weeks of trying to entertain a little boy while simultaneously settling into a new home and diving into responsibilities at the college.

After too many hours of LEGOs and Teletubbies, I grabbed Sam and we marched ourselves to the Summer Programs office where we met Ann, who was the Director. She quickly endeared herself to both me and Sam and had him signed up for activities through the end of the summer. Ann’s husband was also a professor at the college, so we found ourselves at many faculty events and parties.

Painfully shy as a child, Ann’s father encouraged her to run. He showed up at her grade school one day and made her compete in a one mile run. Not competitive by nature and coupled with her timidity, she did not fare well as she was terrified to pass the older kids — even though she could have.

Eventually, she found her footing and excelled. Ann became a long distance star at Palmer High School and made the cross country team at Colorado College. The summer before her sophomore year of college, she decided to enter the Pikes Peak Marathon.

Ann Van Horn, far left, and her Colorado College track teammates

“No matter where you are in Colorado Springs, you see Pikes Peak every day and from every angle,” Ann mused. “It’s always there. You can’t forget about it. So, I thought I’d run to meet it.”

Meet it, she did, in a record that still stands 38 years later.

A few weeks later, Ann returned to college and started thinking about taking her running career to a new level. It was even suggested that she get a private coach to see where her talent could take her. But all of that changed one warm and sunny fall weekend day.

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Unbelievably, I had known Ann for close to 18 years and had never heard this darker part of her history until just a few weeks ago.

A friend hosted us at a Valentine’s Day dinner and we found ourselves chatting by the bar. I told her that I had just joined the YourTango team and had announced it appropriately on Valentine's Day. I mentioned that I would be doing stories about women who had faced adversity, about the power of friendship, and because the new US Olympic and Paralympic Museum was about to open in our home town, stories about Olympic athletes who had overcome obstacles to make the Olympic Team. It was then that she shared her story.

The author and Ann Van Horn today, photo credit: Ella Mahavier

On that day so many years ago now, Ann had set out for one of her usual 10 mile training runs from campus to Palmer Park, a locally beloved 730 acre regional park with spectacular views of the mountains. As she ran on the trail, a car passed her on the road and she heard a whistle — a cat call. She didn’t think much about it and continued her run.

A few minutes later she encountered a man running towards her. He was naked except for the nylon stocking over his face.

“I thought for a second that maybe it was a joke,” Ann recalled. “Like a streaker or something. But, the next thing I knew, he grabbed me and threw me into the bushes. He had one hand over my mouth which left him with only the other hand to try to get my shorts off. I dug my hand into his stomach and squeezed it so hard. I begged him not to do this. I cried. I tried to scream. The worst thing was, I was afraid I would die because I couldn’t breathe.”

Suddenly, Ann heard a car pull up near them and he jumped off her and got back into the vehicle. The driver sped off. Terrified and trembling, Ann ran to the road and flagged down a car with two women in it. She told them she had been attacked and they took her to the hospital.

“He didn’t rape me. He could have but he didn’t,” she said somewhat gratefully. “I think he did this on a dare or something. But, despite that, I realized quickly that the freedom I felt while running quickly went out the window.”

Ann returned to track practice the following day but in the middle of it had a complete breakdown. She quit the team. She quit running. She started feeling depressed and anxious. A therapist prescribed anti-depressants.

“Things were so different in the '80s,” she lamented. Nobody knew how to talk about trauma and PTSD. My father didn’t know what to say. My coach didn’t handle it well. Even my therapist made me feel ashamed and asked very creepy questions. I shut down. I didn’t know how to process what I was feeling. I suppressed everything.”

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Ann and her parents after her record-breaking Pikes Peak run in 1982

I completely understand what she means because I see the difference in my son’s generation compared with ours.

Sam, now 22 and about to graduate from college, shares openly his anxieties and sadness, as do his friends. They share business cards from good therapists, vent openly on social media, and come to each other’s “rescue” on a pretty regular basis. When I was in my teens and 20s, mental health issues, eating disorders, sexual identity were all discussed in hushed tones, with disapprovement and a taboo-like quality.

My best friend died by suicide during our freshman year in college. I’ve often wondered whether in today’s world, without the stigma attached to seeking out therapy, she would have found other options.

Like many survivors, Ann even found ways to blame herself. “Running and female athletes weren’t ubiquitous like they are now,” she said. Women in athletic wear wasn’t common. Everyone was preppy, conservative and covered up, and there I was in fairly short shorts and a thin top...”

Luckily, Ann’s best friend, Karen, stepped up.

“She was the only one I could talk to,” Ann recalled. “She also is a fabulous athlete and saw how trapped I had become with the inability to go running. If I was going to get healthy, I needed to be out doing what I loved.”

Not feeling safe running on the streets or in parks anymore, the two of them hatched a plan to climb all 52 of the 14,000+ foot mountains in Colorado instead. And they did.

Ann eventually returned to running a few years later.

Ann Van Horn points at Pikes Peak

“I got angry,” she said. “I had the right to be out there and feel safe. I couldn’t have my freedom taken away by that one event. I went back to running on my terms.”

At first, her terms meant running with three giant Grand Pyrenees pet dogs as her bodyguards and today it’s with a bottle of mace.

“Mostly, I feel safe,” she stated. “Every once in a while I’ll get a vibe from someone and I’ll literally turn around and run away.”

Whether this man’s attack was designed to harm her or was committed on a dare or a college prank, it was sexual assault. It was force. It was sexual violence. And it changed everything — but not forever.

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Last summer, at age 56, Ann once again ran the Pikes Peak ascent. “It took me 4 hours and 18 minutes just to go the 13.1 miles up the mountain,” she recalled. I didn’t dare try to run down because it is too hard on the knees.”

Since Ann and I spoke, she has been thinking about the events of almost 40 years ago through a new lens.

“I’ve not talked about it for such a long time,” she said.

“It was always easier to play music - ‘I Will Survive’ at top decibel. But if this isn’t the time to tell the story again, when is? The women’s marches, the #metoo movement, the outcome of the Harvey Weinstein trial and the women bravely coming forward to tell their stories in front of millions, are all part of a seismic shift. These actresses all wanted something big. They had the talent to pursue it and then Harvey Weinstein interrupted an honest trajectory. Just like my story with running.”

Ann running up Pikes Peak in 2019

After all this time of not talking about the trauma, last week in a unique twist of fate, Ann’s 17-year-old son decided to do a story about her record-breaking run for a documentary film class he is taking. He started asking questions about why she didn’t pursue running. He couldn't help but wonder why she waited 35 years to run the Peak again.

“I wasn’t sure he could handle the rest of the story,” she said. “I’m his mother!”

Although he was a bit stunned, he could hear it.

“We’ve come so far in honest conversations about our misogynistic world and how to deal with it,” she said optimistically. “It gives me a lot of hope that I’ve raised a son who would never imagine assault could be a prank and that sharing honestly with things like this lessens their fear in this somewhat fearful world.”

While we cannot undo the past or go back and change it, we do have control over our choices today. As Ann told me her story, I was reminded just how powerful the opportunity to heal can be, and how our stories can echo out through generations.

RELATED: Being Raped Doesn't Have To Ruin Your Life — Here's How We Should Talk About It Instead

Jacqueline Lundquist is an author of several books, a former CBS entertainment reporter, and former First Lady of the US in India where her husband served as the Ambassador. She is also the proud mother of a son who is about to graduate from USC Film School. Follow her on Facebook and on Instagram, @jrlundquist.

If you're a survivor of sexual violence, hope and healing are possible. For more support, reach out to RAINN or a local support group or mental health professional.