At 13,710′ at 4:41AM and groping for any landmark within a 20′ margin of visibility, moments passed frantically like the winds that whipped me and my friend Kendrick Callaway from side to side. I had been moving for almost 24 hours straight at that point and had just an hour earlier collected a fifth 14,000’+ summit on an obscure mountain path in central Colorado known as Nolan’s 14. Around noon that day a cloud layer settled at 13,000′ and began dumping rain before enveloping the next three summits in a row that I would visit (the last two in the total darkness of night). It was at that moment, 4:41AM, that a small clearing in the clouds revealed a flat basin to the South where two pond-sized lakes shimmered through a muted silvery veil and above us, the summit of 14,075′ Missouri Mountain silhouetted our next steps. In that brief 25 second window, I could see that we were in for a tough night. In the shivering cold I had backed us down the wrong ridge and we now had to go up and over the summit of Missouri Mountain a second time in order to find a certain way down. We were hemmed in by a massive storm cell, which meant that even though we could navigate the correct line forward with my GPS watch, we couldn’t see more than 6-8 feet in front of us until hours away at dawn, which stifled our efforts on the slender unmarked ridge to a crawl over moisture-soaked ground.
The clock was ticking and my patient struggle neared a critical mass of moments where I was running out of time to complete the other seven summits on the 60-hour journey of Nolan’s 14 that I was living on August 25th and those early morning hours on the 26th. Nolan’s 14 is a former ultra marathon race course of near 100 miles in distance that visits 14 summits over 14,000’+ with no set path. Nolan’s 14 has only been finished by seven people a total of eight times and has but one widely accepted social rule: a set time at which all successful attempts are judged, which comes to 14 peaks in under 60 hours. There are no DNF’s on Nolan’s, so you show up and try it and you’re added to a list on website. After this summer of traversing the course and 14 years climbing peaks in and around the area, this was my final exam: part one and what I thought would be a straightforward yes or no navigating at night that turned out to be a multiple choice test of efforts.
I don’t consider myself a runner. I spent a decade pioneering several rock, ice and ski routes mostly in the Himalayas before applying a year’s worth of focus on “running only” to understand what I do about Nolan’s 14. The approach to this ambitious experience has been a long and exacting process encompassing four runs of 50 + miles and two dozen or so 20 + milers in the last 11 months. And all of this from a guy who had never entered a marathon before but ran to train for high mountains my entire life.
When daylight broke around 6:40AM, the clouds remained for another hour and a chilly remorse for missing dinner and rest lingered as fuel for forward motion. We went up the ridge, down the ridge, over sandy sections of meager trail peppered by lichen-covered rocks and clumps of wet grass and sandy patches of pebbles and rocky fins. In running shoes and a full shell top and bottom, dressed as if for skiing, we continued the hunt until finally we saw 14,203′ Mt Belford — the next summit — and made sense of what we could see on other peaks below 13,000′ to determine that our epic was over and the light of a new day arrived with two more summits to gain before dropping into a new valley and below treeline for the first time in 11 hours. It was in the gentle rays of sun that I first saw opportunity again for a resurgence and it was here that my brain rejoined my body and my friends were able to help me make a safe and rational decision in the face of my driving ambition to complete Nolan’s 14, even in what were recognizably near disastrous conditions.
Although moving decently for the situation and having a lot of reserve due to the fact that I could never go too fast in the constantly wet terrain, I knew I could not go forever without true rest and a meal — at least a bowl of pasta and 30 minutes of sleep. To sum it up, I was feeling positive about being halfway at the halfway point even with eight hours lost to weather. As we descended the last summit, 14,106′ Mt. Oxford, to friends camped below in Pine Creek, I took note of my state and the clouds still present over summits eight and nine about to receive their dousing of the day, further adding more wet off-trail terrain that would be painstakingly slow to descend without injury. It seemed a nap might be the only wise thing to do in this case and to hope that when I woke up the mountains would clear.
Having willingly climbed up into and out of three major storms with another one looming large if I continued, I realized that these were not the conditions the other seven finishers had executed in and that I respected the boundaries already being pushed. This was my first time ever moving for 32 hours constantly, I had a 1/4 inch bleeding puncture wound in my left shin, a broken pole, torn gloves and feet that had been wet for 11 hours traversing almost no dry ground in that time and amassing casualties I never took in during the many training runs I did on the course prior in safe and dry conditions. My equipment was not going to and never did fail me having already made it that far in, but I just didn’t know when I would blow up or get really hurt and how that might affect my crew who had so graciously supported me on both ends of the epic section that undid all my padding on the clock. There at treeline, the weight of the scenario lifted from my shoulders as I lay down in the tent Jon and M’lin Miller hiked 7.8 miles in and set up. I slept 26 minutes before my body snapped awake on its own at 12:22PM. I ate some pasta and stepped back into the present situation of being in the middle of a 60-hour mountain traverse and having to make a call. It was clear to me what to do with only 28 and half hours left and at least 25 hours of moving with no errors and the weather forecast more of the same. We had all done our best and for many years in the mountains preceding this, it is not likely that continuing on in those conditions would be safe that much longer.
I had to ask myself: Do I leave it all out here and potentially send these guys in to get me with a broken ankle or arm on Mt. Princeton at 3AM or do I walk out of here and come back in a few weeks with this experience that I can recover from quickly? I’d done 100K and as I write this a day later, I feel awesome for that! I could re-adjust my expectations and stay committed to the old rules of Nolan’s 14 to finish more fourteeners in up to 60 hours and just go with it, possibly fending off more weather, getting off routes of the course I mapped for myself and in the dark and just be done with it, let it go this year, do a few more but not all 14 because of the weather. Most of my friends could stay and they all supported me if I wanted to make that decision, but I’d rather make no excuses, no apologies and no mistake that a course of action like that would not be my best effort this year — or ever. I had gas in the tank and could use this experience to come back in a few weeks and do it better, maybe. I’ll still need luck but I’d rather take a chance at doing it better with all the training I have behind me now. So instead of continuing forward at all costs for a hint of “success” and the mercy of being let go from this committing goal or forever being a failure at getting all 14 in a 60 hour effort, in that little primitive camp at Pine Creek I reveled in the friendship of the amazing crew that supported this endeavor, I marveled at their commitment that every inch of the way inspired me to give every bit of attention to being safe and succeeding — something that I could never do alone. I reflected on a debt of gratitude that warms my heart each moment I realize that in this solitary experience as a human being, together we were all a spirit and together everyone kept me safe. This experience made me feel loved, disappointed, respected… and all in an odd and very unexpected way, it validated to me that I could find the time to do this again next month, that my friends have my back and I have not only the strength to carry on but the spirit of a team I could honor and a goal that I can complete — but do right and within reason.
It is a privilege and a treat to be able to make time for such a thing and it would be silly to complain about having been in this blundering state discovering all the just desserts of a feast of mountains in the middle of Colorado. Please understand, I still dearly enjoyed this time for what it was and wouldn’t change anything. These are mountains and I learned from them, but I’m not done with this. I’ve got 100K of the toughest 100-mile mountain route out there under my belt and for better or worse (no, I actually do not want to have to climb 14,433′ Mt Elbert a 5th time this summer), I plan to set foot there again in September and take one more shot at 60 hours and however many fourteeners I get and if it’s good weather bet I can get all 14. This is my goal this year. It could be just as big a gamble on the weather, but I want to know the outcome for real and not be left wondering the rest of my life what it takes. As comforting as it might be to just go on being a mountaineer, I truly appreciate the art of running and having to transform my passion into an inventive new space that never lets me get too comfortable, never lets me stop exploring. This space between pushing the envelope and sending it that has extended my boundaries further than anything I’ve ever done and shown me results more satisfying than any summit.
As the sun rose over craggy desert mountains near Arizona’s McDowell mountain range, 60 some odd racers toed a start line and a race director was counting down from 5, 4, 3, 2… 1. At that same time, standing at a tent 20 feet from the start line in the warm desert dawn with headphones in my ear, I was filling the bottle to its 20-ounce capacity and casually realizing that these few seconds may not matter as much as the next few hours or the task ahead: to complete my second 50-mile ultra marathon. I told myself all week I was ready for this; after all, the course only offered one ascent to a 3914′ mountain and my mantra for the day was: I only have one mountain to climb! Seconds later with a topped off water bottle, I snuck into the back of the pack. I adjusted my pace to pass enough people to get some breathing room and eased into averaging 9-minute miles, my target for the day and a pace that would keep me ahead of mid-pack, ready for a charge after 30 miles if I did everything right.
I live in the mountains in Telluride, Co. and my gear closet has more shiny sharp edges, clangy items and weather-bleached nylon than dusty running shoes, so to be here in Pheonix, Az. on a weekend in December (a time I would normally be skiing Silverton or in past warm winters rock or ice climbing) was quite foreign to me. Then again, climbing this one mountain in the middle of an ultra distance race — 3914′ Thompson peak with cell phone towers on it and a partially paved road to the top — was even crazier. But this year marks a new chapter in my quest to explore peaks, one that will require greater fortitude for distance than I have exhibited in the past, and so running 50 miles and climbing one mountain in the middle is all part of the process… on paper. The reality of ticking off goal after goal in a longer process I’m scoping out but can’t reveal to you guys just yet today has taught me things I wish I had learned earlier in my mountaineering career and am incredibly grateful to be learning now.
I traveled to Phoenix for this race with a Telluride region local and experienced ultra runner, Rhonda Claridge. Rhonda has won a few 50 and 100-mile races and is a great person to travel with for an event like this, one she took second place in. On the eight hour drive, we recounted stories of long solo training runs in the San Jaun mountains, the seclusion and self reliance they often demand and the stunning beauty that we have been so lucky to experience triggered by curiosity and driven over summits and ridges to further summits and ridges, all because of running. For Rhonda, the goal was to win the race. For me, it was to have a fantastic time finishing as I think that at this stage of the game, entering my second 50 mile ultra in only six months of high mileage training after years of trail running alone, I enjoy just being there — and the training runs that I do to get to the start line.
Much like climbing mountains, racing them demands specificity in training. Whereas in the Himalayas I may sharpen my skills on mixed ground before attempting a climb on a steep line, for this race and my next two afterwards in February and May, I must train in the desert. Thirteen days before this race, I went out from the Wildwood trailhead in Colorado National Monument in Grand Junction, Co. and traversed the whole park and then back again completing a 25-mile run knowing that if I felt good and could move steadily, this desert race would be a lot of fun because it was at substantially lower altitude. This training run took me just over four hours. Mostly because I am a newbie to frequent weekly big distance runs, consistently now clocking mileage over 30 or more on most weekends and up to 70 a week, a nasty non-detrimental hindrance to joining the ranks as a distance runner popped up during this run — an irritated IT band. This is a common overuse condition that occurs frequently in runners escalating mileage and sitting for long periods at work as I often have to. At about mile 20, I started having less fun picking up my left knee and by mile 25, was reduced to a shuffle, albiet still at a running pace. I chalked it up to a lesson learned and completed the run as I couldn’t bail out anywhere anyway. Later that week I went to see a physical therapist and was cleared to taper off and keep my fingers crossed it didn’t spring up during the race but if it did, I could keep going as long as I could handle how it felt. “Ok, so I can race” I thought, “I can do this and get through it but I will have to have a day where I do everything right.”
The morning of the race, after the pack spread out onto the trail, I had a fantastic time shuffling along at a decent clip in 50 degree temps and passing many racers on my way to settling into the 9-minute pace I wanted to keep for 30 or so of the 50 miles. The trail was smooth, sandy at times and the low altitude meant that I could run uphill endlessly at the same clip without ever suffering as we do here in the mountains. It was bliss really and a great start. Around mile 11 I started to feel the IT band as my left hip got tight and my knee wanted to lock up a little. I told myself, much like I would on a nasty day in the high mountains, that like cutting cold weather, this condition would go away and everything would be fine if I just kept moving. Miraculously, by mile 15 it did and I had neither slowed down nor given in to the pain that had completely disappeared, and everything was plugging along on the desert trail exactly as I had wanted, as I had trained specifically for.
The crux of the race came around mile 19 as the ascent up Thompson peak loomed two miles and a couple thousand feet overhead up a steep partially paved road cut. I settled into a rhythm that felt totally relaxed and just motored my way up, passing several people who did not seem to anticipate the joy of reaching this summit and still having over 26 miles left in the race. I adhered to my mantra, I only had one mountain to climb and I was going to enjoy it! Having a moment to myself on the summit amid buzzing cell towers, I felt good, stretched and then let it rip on the “blisteringly” steep descent. My joy was short-lived as I reached the bottom of the climb at mile 23.2 and suddenly, after changing my shoes and beginning uphill again, my IT band flared to the point that lifting my knee initiated a stabbing pain. Apparently this suffer point was common as many racers were blistered, spent or out of gas after the climb and friction-producing descent of the steepest “paved” road any of us have climbed, one I could only imagine driving up with a winch and a few hours.
Undeterred and reeling from endorphins, I figured oh well, like the episode earlier, this shall pass. But it didn’t and so for the next six miles I would run about a minute or two, stop and then rub my knee cap as my physical therapist had instructed and then proceed pain free for another minute or two until it came back. This became a trying effort as I had seen the first half of the race fly by and set me up for a nine hour or so finish and now I would spend more than two hours going six miles, all the while feeling energetic and optimistic, just in pain in one critical spot but patiently trying to work it out thinking “Ok, I can do this in 10 hours!”
As I passed the aid station at mile 29.5, I ran uphill one last time and began the epic process of deciding what to do over a seven-minute stretching session that proved fruitless to the pain. I struggled with the decision to continue with more than 20 miles to go. I thought to myself, “there is no way I can run for two minutes at a time, stop, rub my knee for a minute and ever get to the finish line,” as I continued forward mile after painful stop and go mile. The worst part about an IT band issue is that although it might hurt then, in all liklehood, the next day it wouldn’t even be there, not even a trace. I continued forward, being a stubborn mountaineer and aware that I had to get somewhere if I was going to quit anyway. Soon, people started catching up to me and as I looked over my shoulder just past mile 33.5, a “large” tan shirtless man in his 50s with a giant belly approached and I began to suffer the agony of defeat, knowing I would be passed and bested by someone who even despite an unlikely appearance would beat me on old man strengh alone… NOOOO!
So I accepted my fate, called my wife and began a hobbling hike forward knowing I had to get to at least mile 39.5 before I could drop out of the race and told her what I thought I would do. As usual, we laughed and chatted about other stuff, it was fun sharing the time alone crossing the flat expanse of desert with my wife on the phone. She would never do this type of activity and for good reason, you have to get through some major barriers before you can experience the real pleasure of ultra distance and I was suffering this common one now in a race. I agreed to drop, hung up the phone and plowed ahead in the still 80 degree air for few minutes… but then, I looked at my watch and realized it was only 3:30 and I had travelled 35.6 miles in 8 and a half hours despite all this complication. I stopped and rubbed my knee and felt now that after a few miles of pure hiking I could walk with minimal pain and adjustment to my gait… hmmmm. This race was not going to be possible to finish at the six and a half mile an hour pace I had trained so hard to be able to run but I had a lower gear, one that would still get it done, one I had used many a time pounding out long approaches back to civilization after draining mountain climbs.
Playing hurt has been part of the game since frost-biting my foot on my Everest summit day in 2003, that is real pain and a pain that lasts. This, well, this was just something I would have to live with for a day. I was not going to make my goal of a sub 10 hour top 10 finish but I had gone fast enough in the beginning that despite burning nearly four hours on a measly 9.5 miles of running and stopping for maintenance for two minutes every two or so minutes of running, it became clear that with only a little above 14 miles left that if I just hiked like I knew I could, I could still finish under the 14 hour cutoff time. So I picked up the pace and motored to the end finishing in 12:24 minutes, the last four hours were at nearly a four mph pace hike. I didn’t care if I couldn’t run, I was just there to get the mileage in and yet still, improved on my previous 50 mile time (especially the first half) and beat nine other finishers to the finish with nearly 20 miles hiked after a painful 30 mile run.
In the midst of this “successful failure” I learned something, something that I think is important. I learned that I could overcome a mistake I had made eagerly two weeks before by running too great a distance too close to the race and taking as much joy and enthusiasm in training as I thought I would experience in racing. It happens, I have to balance a family, work and an athletic schedule and ultra running is one more arrow in the quiver of being a mountaineer and I am taking a real liking to it. After all, I’m doing these races because I have a secret bigger distance mountain goal coming up and this is the only way I can solve the puzzle to get there. But unlike the field of 55.4 percent of people who entered this race and dropped, many after the mountain climb long before nightfall and some champions afraid to lose, I could claim I hung in there and solved the problem. I didn’t let my ego or expectations get in the way of doing what I love doing, being outside all day. After all, I only had one mountain to climb all day — the icing on the cake: the next morning there was no pain in my knee, none…that’s an IT band for you.
Can’t wait until the next race 2/16/13!