“After 15 years in obscurity, Nolan’s 14, a hundred-mile traverse of 14 14,000-foot peaks in 60 hours, emerges as a new test piece for elite mountain runners.” –National Geographic Adventure
Yes, that’s correct — completing Nolan’s 14 entails traversing 14 summits, each over 14,000 ft (nearly 100 miles in distance!), in under 60 hours.
Ben shares what this particular group of 14 peaks means to him and how this traverse has shaped the last three years of his life:
In all my life, I have never been so prepared. But in all my life, I have never found the right sequence to complete this unending task, a three year commitment of endurance fitness topping 33 previous years of hard knocks and tussles with progress through the mountains. “Is this time different? Is it worth it?” I have to ask myself — this is the grandest journey on foot of my life — through them and through these years and it has taken longer than I ever thought. It has ground me down while building me up. It is so long, so enormous.
The last two summers I have “gone for it” 4 times on ultra marathon distance traverses over 10 mountains in central Colorado, on a route known as Nolan’s 14. In that two years I have seen my hopes of finishing crushed more than 75 of 93 miles into it twice.
Despite the setbacks along the way toward reaching an understanding of visiting all 14 of Nolan’s 14’s fourteen thousand foot summits in one push, its mystery and magnetism continue to compel me because I love the mountains and big days. I have made mistakes out there but had a satisfying and safe time pursuing this adventure and don’t want to give up on my original purpose for engaging with the line in it’s totality. It’s the biggest effort I can reach for these days and I feel like is suited to the most focused strengths I have trained for and within reason. Now that the time approaches for another long stretch, I’m happy to be exploring it on the best terms I can-those grounded on experience gained on the line and preparation refined each time.
My plan is to start at the north end of the trail and go in one long push from the Fish Hatchery in Leadville, Co. to the summit of Mount Shavano near Poncha Springs, Co. I’ll have no crew, but will have one pair of shoes, one pack (my Osprey Rev 12) and some pretty sweet food, enough gear to do all 14 of the fourteeners. I’m psyched about this. You might be wondering, how the hell is that possible if it took so much crew before to not finish? It will, after all, be me alone.
And this brings me back to the point of this journey, to answer my own questions, to staying committed to a purpose, to answering “is this time different?” No. This time is the same. I began my journey as a mountaineer in this same mountain range 16 years ago, before a decade committed to high altitude Himalayan exploration. In that time I lived many impressionable memories and shared moments with friends that indemnify a lifetime of happiness. It is worth it to know the mountains, and also their uncertain moments. I stopped taking physically consequential risks in the mountains when i became a father 3 years ago. I will always love the mountains and I wanted a safer way to explore them when pushing myself. Nolan’s 14 is for me, that path.
It is a return to my roots as a climber, I view it as the biggest climb in the world. It is minimal and asks for a high level of concentration and accountability during the experience. I will need to be present and own the outcome of every decision for days on end…and nights. I perform my best and truly enjoy the mountains when I have to do that. So many great friends helped me learn it is possible, only in the doing of this would we have known.
With 4 attempts already under my belt, the first 3 adhering to a set of pre existing conventions that led to 13 others completing sub 60 hour finishes on the line since 1999, and 6 since I first attempted it in 2013, I have learned a thing or two. Organized more like a competitive event than a mountain traverse, those rules can lead to success if the timing is good. But with so many opportunities to figure it out in that way specifically and still not completing it due to my own timing and logistical complications, I’ve had to forget those conventions and slowly develop my own personal style based on my experiences on it, what mountaineers would call our “fair means”. The means is a simpler version of things than what I had been doing or what might normally be done. Fewer things to line up means better chances, I believe, and still a whole lot of fun. I hope to flow over it now and to just “surf the chaos” as a good friend would say. I’m excited about the start rather than coordinating a party of people.
I will do my best with what knowledge I have to “finish” with as little time on my feet as possible and per the schedule below, which is still below the 60 hour goal I have had previously. This is not implied to be a “solo” journey as there are many people climbing fourteeners every day of the week and being alone out there any time other than night would be rare, it is just an unsupported trip alone and based around the most ideal weather window. I am heading out there to finish safely, under my own power with all my stuff on me and within a single push. There are no guarantees, but if history is any indicator and the X factor I have been missing is present then I believe it’ll go!!!!
“Life comes from water,” my friend Erich explained at the kitchen table over a beer. “Everywhere you look is something” he quipped, describing the lushness that fills the banks and surrounding terraces along the Colorado river as it carves through the Grand Canyon. Although Erich had made a month-long voyage through the canyon by boat before, this conversation was just 22 hours after our visit there. A journey that made an immutable impression on me as I traversed on foot from one side of the canyon to the other and then back — doing something known as a Rim 2 Rim 2 Rim.
To know something, I must dive in, get my hands dirty and commit. This was my first adult trip to the Grand Canyon so I set my bar high. Always an eager ear to listen to my river-loving friends’ tales of the months of their lives spent exploring this place, one of the seven wonders of the world, I came away with a sense that the canyon was quite large and almost guaranteed to free you from the technological and municipal tangles of daily life. It has walls that are five-to-six-thousand feet high, hidden trails that can only be reached by water and tales of explorations in rugged environments as variable as winter and summer in the same day. My friends always echoed that planning is critical to success, keeping it in check is critical to success and luck… well, that would be a part too. I had that this weekend, that was the most critical piece to my success venturing into this stunning terra firma — not for a month, but for a very long day.
At 5:06 AM in sub freezing temps on November 19th, 2013, the three of us, Erich, Heather and I, dropped over the South rim of the Grand Canyon via the South Kaibab trail. A feathery wave of warmer air softly invited us to descend into the chasm, guided by a full moon and anticipation of our long day. The trail was wide and well worn, with each foot strike powdery bursts of red dust erupted and sent a misty cloud into the follower’s headlamp beam. Massive jagged shapes — like those drawn in Dr. Seuss’s books — slowly rose above us as Gotham-esque outlines. In an hour we were warmed up and dropping 4700′ of vertical to the Colorado river minute by minute. Then suddenly it happened…”Ben” Erich exhaled from behind me “I fell.”
I knew how he felt, the day before I had stepped off a snow-covered front porch in Telluride, Co and ate it so hard. I fell directly onto my butt and took a diagonal impact across my entire lower back and sacrum to the point of some immediate swelling, bruising and an occasional pinch since then. Content to carry on and visit the canyon anyway, I iced it in the drivers seat, took some ibuprofen and figured that a six-and- a-half-hour car ride was plenty of time to determine how it would play out.
Unlike my klutzy self, Erich made it to the trail before going down. He caught a foot step in a powdery pocket of dust, hyperextended his right knee and sent his body hurtling forward. Starting from 8 mph and ending at 0 with a white flash and nausea, a crumpled red dust covered being barely set atop a rock is a tough place to be 5.2 miles into a 42.4 mile day. I walked 150′ back up to Erich and helped him assess the situation. His gear lay strewn about the stark landscape like a gypsy yard sale at a Phish show. The impact had been “big” and he sat on a rock, reeling from mild shock.
“Man, what do you think?” I said. “I think I blew my knee and I’m seeing white” he said. Ughhh, I thought, THAT sensation, when you have cratered full-on superman style into a pain cave, disorientation and a sense of despair so low, so ominously coursing through every inch of your body that retching is all that sounds good. Erich was going to need a few minutes to recover, then we would see where he was at. He is a strong dude with a solid chassis.
In a little time, Erich shuffled to his feet and walked 100′ downhill and it was clear that he could move, but rather than take that as a sign to continue, he wisely chose to use his energy to get himself out of the canyon less injured. He was finished. We both knew Heather, tactfully descending somewhere above us, would be a solid back up as she was doing a burly 14 mile day with 9400′ in vertical change, turning around at the bottom of the canyon and heading back up. I cleaned his shades, put his visor back on him and said good bye with his confidence I could still complete the day alone.
Off I went into the dark maw until dawn. I crossed the Colorado river and arrived at my first water break at Phantom Ranch some seven miles, 4700′ of descent and two hours into the day — a slow setup to a long sustained effort. Forty extra minutes of darkness and low temperatures were absorbed in the scenario above and it was important to cruise with a little urgency in the cool morning up a 6200′, 14.2-mile climb to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. I had time thanks to the early start and I wasn’t bothered at all about being off schedule, just aware that the sun would be up soon. I took off from Phantom Ranch after hastily replacing the half liter of fluids I had consumed and had a nice time running a little harder on the North Kaibab trail’s lower reaches and seeing the life Erich had spoken about, the life that comes from water in the depths of such a stark and craggy stack of monoliths.
As I strode through a broad section of opening valley, a hole burst in my hydration reservoir, right at the bottom of the pack and like that, at mile 13 — I had potentially blown this attempt. I had fumbled around in my pack in the dark and placed a sharp object too close to the durable plastic. When I filled the bladder to capacity at Phantom Ranch it put too much pressure on it. My jacket, gloves and two McDonald’s cheeseburgers were soaked in an orange solution of gatorade and fresh water. I was super pissed, this was my fault and now jeopardized successfully completing the traverse to one rim, making running back to the other nearly impossible. All I had left were two gels, three blocks, one granola bar and 29 miles to stretch it out.
I have not had an episode like this in a while, where a total meltdown could be so imminent, with nearly no solid food and no water or way to carry water. I was in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, six miles from people in one direction and going to have to pull off 22 more miles with what I had with only two chances for mere sips of water in between. This was a moment for contemplation as a bright wave of sunlight slowly pushed silhouttes of the enveloping 5000′ canyon walls down into the valley and soaked into my bare shoulders for the first time. I made my decision and went for it; I like to finish things, and figured that if had to hike out to conserve energy — I would, I could — even if it meant going into darkness.
This was my sixth “ultra marathon” distance run. I went into it expecting to just cruise it, albeit with a partner, food and water. I had strategically wanted to run hard from miles 21.2 to 35.4 for training, but other than that, I had no real goals other than finishing before dark and having a nice day on the trail with some friends. This was not a race, it was a day out. I had never set foot on a trail in the Grand Canyon so it felt like I should allow time for photos as well, you know, like a tourist. But now this, a chance for an epic draw on my deepest reserves instead became part of the experience. I hadn’t explored that kind of distance totally alone before and this was my last run before a mandatory prolonged break for a few weeks in between seasons.
Without belaboring the point or disrespecting the canyon, I will say the eight miles and 6200′ of uphill in the sun were hard with no water! As I neared the top and mile 21.2, I felt the pangs of desperation uncoiling from within and sequestering my brain to intervene and stop this messy attempt if I saw anyone at the parking lot. When I arrived, there in the frost-covered shade of a stone-planted National Park sign were three spigots of water I had planned on seeing. I strolled up, tried all three and not a trickle flowed. “Shit, no water, oh man, it’s over,” I thought! I sat down, it was cold, my clothing was soaked in my pack and I sort of zoned out and was trembling from the still, cool air in the shade. Moments later, a trio of climbers I passed on the way up appeared and I asked them if they had any disposable water bottles. They gave me a fresh 24 oz. water bottle that I opened and chugged. Damn I was lucky. Flat out, that gesture took this from being the longest day ever to the longest day on empty.
I crammed the awkwurd bottle in my pack and had revitalized my hydration to a manageable point that could be recovered. Cramping in my side due to dehydration and the fall off the porch from the day before inspired me to jog down the trail a little easier until it abated and soon the trail was flowing singletrack and a river ran nearby. I was never afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it and even got to push the 14 mile section I wanted to, not a ton, but enough to feel like I really “ran” the rim to rim to rim.
By mile 35 I had been through everything, I had lost my partner, my water, my solid food– but I gained the confidence I needed to carry forward and I took a chance that paid off because of luck. As I sat at Phantom Ranch the second time passing through, seven miles and 4700′ below the South Rim in post lunchtime sun, I wiped my salt covered face off with a wet handkerchief. Autumn’s golden foliage flowed from side to side and I sat undisturbed at a drinking water spigot outside the ranch’s canteen for nearly a half hour. Wow, I thought, it’s nice to sit down for a moment and reflect at the actual lowpoint of this trip. I had almost totally crossed this huge feature on foot with the bare minimum and couldn’t really complain about anything. It was all working out, just with some readjusted expectations. I was fast enough to get it done and slow enough to see it for an experience and not just an achievement, it was real and not just a blur.
With this in mind, I departed down trail to the Colorado River and stopped to observe portaging boats as they made their way to and through the beach at Bright Angel campground in the midst of their own three-week journeys through this magnificent feature — the same journey my river-loving friends were always bating me with. I thought about how still and tranquil it must have felt for them at times and how glad I was at the time to know my compressed journey was almost done and it was long before sunset. I was ready to head back to the world to friends and family.
Ascending out of the valley and up the South Kaibab’s 4700′ trail winding through dreamscape and postcard views, I soaked up the last of my water, an 80 calorie espresso flavored gel and just plodded along on empty. In perfect light above wild steppes and crumbling mountainsides carved out of a vastness so immense, I could understand now that which can only be understood after 42.4 miles and 22,000′ of elevation change in a place. My expectations were totally vanquished, I couldn’t help but revel in the sheer magnificence of this iconic National Park and at the same time still obsessively eyeball every 10th of a mile on my GPS watch until the end — about 54 in a row on the grueling return uphill. There is no way to come here and say it should be called, “pretty big canyon” or “yeah that’s a nice canyon.” This thing is the definition of Grand to the core. The running part, totally secondary.
The final four-tenths of a mile at the top were steep but Heather and Erich were there cheering as I approached the end of my first journey through the Grand Canyon. With sunken eyes and waning energy I was thankful for hearing their voices, the jug of water they handed me… and sitting down. Life comes from water, sharing a few sips and scanning the horizon for the last rays of the sun dappling the many features of the sterile and parched upper canyon, life indeed was coming back.
While I may be a champion freeskier and competitive ultra-mountain biker, I suck at running. I’m not sure if it brings back bad memories of being tortured by sports as a fat teenager in high school, or that I’m just not genetically bred for it, but I will certainly never be good at it. Yet now that my knees are recovered from eight knee surgeries and my brain is healing from tumor removal, I suddenly am drawn to this silly sport. Having never been good at meditating, it feels like an opportunity to clear my brain without all the rush and concentration of the speed of skiing or biking. My Akbash livestock guardian dogs also provide intense motivation, as they love to stop working on the farm and do what dogs do — explore, sniff and trot.
And that is exactly what I would rather call my form of running: “trotting” because it’s not about speed. I just plod along, sometimes for hours at a time. I love the sense of adventure I get out of it — exploring a new area or trail, watching the leaves turn, the snow fall and generally just enjoying the little simple things in life.
In fact, I’ve almost never enjoyed the little things in life more than right now. After brain surgery this summer, I was just hoping to live and breath. Then I was re-learning how to walk and talk. Then I got to experience the joy of being outside for the first time, feeling the sun on my skin, breathing non-hospital icky sick air. And so, on the 29th of September, I wanted to make a statement about my return and appreciation of this wonderful life I have. For the second time in my life, and first time in too many years, I entered a 10k, with my doggies of course! That day, I woke up and my scar was sore, but I pried myself out of bed and went for it.
The run was steep and challenging, which reduced the dogs to walking even before I felt the need. My goal was not placing, but just doing. I wanted to soak in the view, enjoy my happy working dogs, smile and have fun. If only we could all teach kids this at a young age, especially in this age of over-competitiveness! One third of the way into the run, I realized I did not see any markers and was lost — a couple extra bonus miles later, I was back on track and climbing the steep Jumbo Mountain trail, leaving third place far behind and now solidly in last place.
But I was LOVING IT. This run/walk represented my return to life.
Six hours into our “run,” Rhonda Claridge and I arrived on pace to the summit of Colorado’s 14,425′ Mt Harvard. Climbing to the fourth 14,000’+ summit of the day, we had played our hand in a limited window of time — it has been a tricky wet summer and multiple dry summits were a rare treat. But soon, while crouched in the nook of two frozen boulders harboring snow from the previous day and checking my GPS track, waves of frozen and mixed rain would plummet from the sky and to the southwest a hulking cloud front would devour the mountain a thousand feet at a time and rapidly envelope our position. I could tell you exactly where we were but nothing of where we were to go as we traversed shortsighted through complicated terrain led by the occasional stack of rocks 80′ in front of us. Fear and weather advanced upon us and here on Harvard’s airy summit ridge in an August winter storm, the certainty that we were high and wild sunk in. “I am not this type of adrenaline junkie,” I thought. These days I am looking for challenges and not all-out battles… but stopping to question philosophy gets you nowhere when it’s time to navigate a mountain, so I returned to primal instincts, we groped our way down and resumed course toward the target of this training day — the last day in my schedule for such an epic.
We had gone fast and carried light equipment to cover this ground in the heart of Colorado’s Sawatch mountain range. Rhonda and I were searching for the most direct way to climb these five “14’ers” — the affectionate term for 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado of which there are 54 official 14’er summits. As Walden-esque as traipsing through meadows and rugged forests may sound, we were now lost in an alpine world with no visibility and frozen hands, being suckered into the lore of an obscure challenge longer on ambition even than our present day’s objective. The challenge is Nolan’s 14, an unofficial race course born out of a conversation between two Hardrock runners, Matt Mahoney and Fred Vance, who ran together during the late stages of a 100-mile mountain run in Southwest Colorado in the late 90s, and their acquaintance, Jim Nolan, who coined the line of 14 14’ers in one stretch “Nolan’s 14.” Since 1999, only seven finishers have found that Nolan’s 14 is a mountain path that can be reasonably traveled on foot in a time of slightly less than 60 hours. If you’re one of them, then Matt Mahoney will put your name on a website. To understand how on earth anyone could possibly see a point to this, I have traveled 104 miles, 50,863′ of vertical gain and 52,251 in loss in these mountains in seven weeks, searching for the most efficient path between 14’ers Mt. Massive and Mt. Shavano — the beginning and end of this mountain oddity/odyssey.
I spent a dedicated year running in the mountains and enlisted Nolan’s 14 finisher and coach Matt Hart to fine tune my body in the hopes that I could be a finisher. I slowly ran five Ultra Marathons in nine months, followed by a busy summer collecting 32 summits in less than 50 days. There were weeks totaling 90+ miles and 30,000’+ of vertical in training where ambition became tempered by respect for the mountains and the balance of being a dad, husband and business owner. I showed up to the mountains as a working minimalist, carrying everything I need for precisely the moments we encountered but with the expectation that at all times I can and must continue moving.
Things can slow to a grinding halt while you’re lost in a boulder field, acrobatically navigating move after move between teetering rocks and precipices. Usually, though, you’re still moving forward, like when I got us lost descending off the summit of Harvard. The same will to succeed heading in a lost direction we negotiated that day would come in handy during the attempt. Carefully and cautiously, four hours and 46 minutes from the summit of Harvard, we managed to emerge out of the mountains in the bed of a black truck that let us hitch a ride into the valley after coming in four hours after our expected exit. We had descended cold and damp from two more summits — a 13,506′ peak and our final objective — 14,073′ Mt Columbia totaling 11,600′ of vertical gain for the day and soaked by a second storm on Columbia that reduced us to walking with great hesitation through muck and mire, sharpened stone and roots before running 3.7 miles out to a trailhead. This was August 8th, my last long training day on Nolan’s 14. I’m happy we stayed committed to grabbing the final summit, we’ll have to do the whole thing over again in the dark in a few weeks!
Since June 25th, I have explored the informal race course of Nolan’s 14 first hand, peice by peice in 5 “20 mile”sections and several smaller ones. Following pre-established routes set when up to 15 people at at time attempted this path from 1999-2001 in an unofficial race, I discovered a roughly 86 mile route with 44,000 vertical gain and some room for the unavoidable errors that will occur to finish in under the 60 hour cutoff time. All in, my “moving time only” projections are that it can be done in 41 hours, but not by this guy. I have put in eight days this year, five with over 6:30 hours of run time, and 29 more since 1999 when I discovered my first 14’ers in this range — starting with the formidable Mt. Princeton and wandering onto the 13’ers before attempting this. In 37 days on and around these peaks, I hope that with a few more, I can tell you that this line is possible to do safely in an amount of time closer to 60 hours.
I want to complete the course and observe the rules of the former race concept even though it is a daunting logistical support effort for one person running, hiking and climbing a continuous line up and down 14,000′ mountains that spans a highway that starts in Leadville, Co. and takes vehicles an hour and half to drive to Poncha Springs. I want to do it because far from that highway and far from any elevation profiles or historical stipulations, Nolan’s 14 is a journey that explores the heart of Colorado’s fourteeners and pushes an individual backed by a support team to meet the odds. Unlike the unofficial runs from 1999-2001, while the remoteness and fatigue set in, the runner must also be directing a moveable expedition. It is here that a group of friends will meet me in valleys and high summits and help me along the way as I wind my way North to South on a journey unlike any I’ve taken.
On August 25th, 2013 I plan to begin running from Leadville, Co. and to head south on foot only for two and half days with rest if the weather is good. If there is bad weather, I’ll adjust expectations accordingly. I’m not doing it to prove anything, raise money for charity or set the world on fire with an amazing time under 60 hours (who knows if I’ll even come close). I’m doing it because I’m curious If I can, if luck will be my side. I did the training and I learned that if I found time to visit so many places in the high mountains I otherwise would never have gone, then I’d be a fool not to take a look and at least see what I might learn from the last step. I’m 34 years old today and it has been a privilege, I may not have a chance like this again. I look forward to the attempt because I have truly enjoyed seeing what is out there and believe it is possible, and that the guys who finish might be nuts, a claim I may not be able to back if I haven’t been there myself! Either way, a whole group of us will be getting outside and enjoying Colorado’s 14’ers for a few days!
Let’s face it, every now and then we just hit the dirt. I don’t mean it figuratively; I mean sometimes we are muddy, wet, out of energy, used up and spent. I’ve been reduced to a swim up the last 10 feet to the world’s highest summit, a crawl across exposed ridgelines with lightning dancing around and once — only once in my life — have I been as muddy, wet and spent, and actually attained something without fear guiding me, just pure bliss and the unbridled confidence it inspired. It was two weekends ago in Richmond, Va. of all places.
I’ve had an interesting year. My family had a major emergency in the fall, business was tough as we dealt with an unfortunate loss of an inspiring ski guide we had filmed and when I thought it couldn’t get any more complicated or challenging… my ski clothes and most of my outdoor gear was stolen out of the back of my car in Grand Junction, Co. just as I was considering putting them on and finding the wind in my face again. “Damn!” I thought, “what next?” I drove to REI that day and bought the Brooks Pure Grit 2 trail shoe and started over on rebuilding my kit from the ground up. A frugal man, the task of re assembling $4,700 worth of gear seemed daunting as medical bills got larger and larger. I just wanted to keep it simple so right then and there I committed to running and nothing else until next winter. I had already run two 50 milers that fall and drank the Kool-Aid of simple travel on foot, so the crook who stole my gear only affirmed this decision.
Running was all that kept me in place during this last year, moving toward something I could envision and I alone would be accountable for. Running in the morning, mid day or even at night, running in knee deep powder, running on icy roads, running through the empty desert and running when it was dry and then when spring came and it rained. All along I told myself that if I made a committment to one sport for one year, I could see its merits, I could unlock its “flow.” Running in the mountains was the “secret” to my Himalayan speed and strength, it was also the elusive mistress of my imagination living in a wintry wonderland of dawn patrol distractions. I’ll be honest, it was hard wrapping my head around some of the biggest snow days when “running” three miles took nearly an hour, or when I struggled to the finish of my first 50 mile trail Ultra in September after just three months of running. But all along in that year since I last put my skis on and laid down fresh tracks in the high Himalayas, I believed it was time to leave my comfort zone and enter the empty space between pushing the envelope and sending it. This was a space I often visited on my journey from a Tennesse boy in 2001 to learning to climb and ski the world’s highest mountains for a decade. And an empty place where uncertainty isolates what is possible from what is true.
Now what I have to say may not inspire anyone, but for me, small milestones of discovery are the only thing that allow me to truly believe something big is possible. I have to have them at some point or I feel hopeless — don’t we all? But as an athlete who performs for the views as much as the challenges, I soon learned that competition can also inspire… this is where Richmond, Va. comes in.
As I lined up for a 10K in front of over 790 other people at 6PM on a Saturday night, my tight left hip slowly gained range of motion while I bounced around listening to Pink Floyd’s “Run Like Hell.” It had been a wet, muggy day, I had done my speedwork on a bike at the gym earlier that morning and then was on my feet the rest of the day walking around Belle and Brown Isle as a guest of the Dominion River Rock festival. As the moments counted down, my name came over a loud speaker introduced as an Osprey athlete and suddenly I realized something; I became a runner and somehow the announcer thought I was somebody and the lead pack might too — ha! I’m nobody special, but when that gun shot rang out and it was time to move, I was at least fast and up front.
The first six minutes were a blur, but a mile moved underfoot, the second six and change — much the same — but I was holding on. In front there were a few people who knew the way, this was a course that had wild urban intricacies broken by long stretches of single track trails and the occasional rock hop, sewage tunnel or fence and railroad tie climb. Put lightly, a badass sprint through an urban trail system that linked technical trail running with the speed of East Coasters who can crush the road. How did it feel? HARD
Halfway through it was impossible to pass, the rutted roots, slippery auburn-colored clay and ankle deep puddles put many people down on the ground. Two-thirds in I busted out a 12-mile an hour pace and passed a large group on a bridge and then settled in for what I hoped would subside — nasuea in deep humidity coupled with just under redline output. In the final moments I tapered back as we charged up a steep ramp across a pedestrian bridge and I thought I would have another .7 miles to go and open up into a fast flat homestretch where I could leave what I had left out there.
Instead… I finished. My GPS watch was .5 miles off due to the forest canopy hovering over the single track and there I was cruising softly through the finish line with energy to spare and a time of 45:24; 6.2 miles at 7:18 pace per mile. “Shit!” I was, as usual, frustrated momentarily at my result (I can’t ever be satisfied-just FYI) and not knowing the end was nearer. I walked away, grabbed my bag and wandered off to the Festival a sloppy mud-and-salt-covered mess and instantly tried to persuade any one who would listen to enter this awesome race next year. I genuinely enjoyed the course and as a mountain and desert open space kind of guy, felt this was every bit as fun –maybe even more so…
The moment of elation came not at the finish line, it came in an e-mail a few hours later. In the e-mail I learned I had finished 39th out of 799 racers. That is the top five percent. I had no idea because I don’t race short distance. I have only raced five times in my life, all over-50K races, and despite moving up each time, you can only see so much progress every couple of months in racing that distance.
I run a lot, every week up, down, across stuff. Often I am totally alone. I don’t care to compare myself to anyone, only to my results yesterday you know, there usually isn’t anyone out there on the trail but me for miles. I can always improve and believe that I always have to, nature certainly has enough spaces out there that take a while to get to. But for one moment, when that e-mail arrived and it set in as I sat there alone, I could call myself elite — something that I never would — and realize that all the miles, time and committing slowness in the snow this winter put me as a 33-year-old adult right there with an Olympic qualifier, college cross country athletes and some of the East Coast’s finest and fastest. What does it mean; I have to keep training harder to pull off what I really want to do — a massive traverse of fourteen 14ers in Colorado in 60 hours, but also that something I put a year into actually was worth it and if nothing else, I held it together that day becuase I held it together a lot of other days. Sometimes life is that simple — a pair of shoes, a small backpack, some water and you can go further than you ever imagined. Now I realize progress doesn’t have to be extreme distances in the wild places that normally inspire me, all it took was a six mile run though the city…
Today marks the kick-off of the Red Rock Rendezvous, and its 10 year anniversary, at Red Rocks Conservation Area in Spring Mountain Ranch State Park. The event is a veritable extravaganza of outdoor adventure, which includes back-to-back clinics focused on climbing, mountain biking, trail running and more. Powered by Mountain Gear and yours truly, Osprey Packs, we’ll be there to help celebrate and make it as unforgettable an event as ever!
Osprey Packs will be providing mountain bike clinics through the weekend at Red Rocks with the likes of Osprey Pro Athlete Alison Gannett and Osprey Amateur Athlete Jeff Fox. We’ll have demo bikes from our friends at Trek Bicycles and much more.
Saturday’s bound to be a big day, with Osprey-sponsored climbing clinics instructed by Osprey Athletes and pro climbers Majka Burhardt and Beth Rodden. Majka will instruct a “Learn to Trad Lead” clinic, and Beth will be leading a clinic on “Intermediate Sport and Techniques.” Adding to that, Saturday we’ll host a “Meet the Osprey Athletes” event from the booth with free poster signings. Come by the Osprey Booth from 6-6:30 to see Majka Burhardt, who will be signing posters and talking about her latest adventures. Right after, Beth Rodden will be signing posters and talking about her latest adventures from 7-7:30! For more information about the schedule and to sign up for clinics, visit the Red Rocks Rendezvous website here.
Throughout the weekend, Osprey Packs will also be stationed at its booth offering free pack demos, and we’ll have the brand-new line of men’s and women’s 2013 hydration packs and Variant and Mutant climbing packs there for you to try on. We’ll also be offering free pro pack sizings, fittings and advice from Osprey Packs experts throughout the event.
Adding a little more recreation to the event’s festivities, come by the Osprey booth to play our Access Fund Bola Bowl/Ladder Toss Game and you may win a free pack as we raise funds for the Access Fund! Then, try your hand at our “Fix a Flat Contest” and race against the clock to win prizes that include our spring 2013 line of Osprey hydration packs! To top it all off, we’ll have daily giveaways with swag, stickers and catalogs — so stop by to say hi!
We’ll see you at Red Rock!
It was the first big storm in a while, overnight it had dropped nearly a foot of powder and I broke away from my desk not to ski, but to run. Uphill on unbroken trail and then downhill knee deep in powder with frozen hands plunging to elbow’s depth, I had the giddy grin only a mountaineer could muster in conditions so ridiculous — training conditions. I was slightly scared things may be on the edge of possible as the afternoon drew darkly into evening, and seeing as this was the edge of my personal spectrum for reasonable “trail” running. But I had a goal in mind that got me out that day and I focused myself like any maniac would in an undisturbed wonderland, finding my way back to the town I live in, the end of another training run and one week from the day of my date with the desert in Moab, Utah, on the infamous Red Hot 55k race course. I figured surely this race would be a test of skills with all this snow scattering across our region as my Inbox met messages from the race director stating just that. This last run had me ready for the worst!
This was my third Ultra marathon race in the last five months and my life. You could say I’m out to have a big opening season or I’m just out to have fun and doing it — I like to aim high. After two 50-milers, I learned a lot this fall, finishing almost dead last in the first one, moving up in the ranks on the second one and then this time, setting and actually achieving a respectable time. Of course, I don’t win as a beginner, I just show up and run or hike or like this last weekend in Moab, greet a nasty course and finish it off despite a few moments of classic “WTF headspace,” an all too familiar spot for me, now just exhibiting itself in another arena. Despite a gigantic bruised foot that I suffered from in the first Ultra with 8300′ of vertical gain, unbeliveablable IT band pain that resulted in a 5 hour 4 mph power hike to successfully finish in the second and finally getting it dialed on training for this one, this was as close as I had come to a “good time.” No, there was no pain or injury this time, just a wimpering voice in my head that reminded me I am a mountaineer and a desert running novice when reduced to my own two feet and a time limit.
The day started right, I went to the start line, turned on my iPod and feigned a stretch before things got moving. Within the first hour, I had warmed up, held back on the pace and realized I was going to have a good day physically. The course had very little snow, it was in great conditions and fast underfoot so much so that after 21 miles and 2000 vertical in just over three hours, I was on to having the best day of my life and feeling good. I had already put 2/3 of the distance and the elevation behind me and the trail was mostly a flowing road with occasional slickrock benches and climbs. But alas, I resign myself detrimentally to being an adventurer on a constant basis so I had thought that I had a real shot at covering the next 13 miles in decent style and time. Then I saw it. I saw the slick rock and opened up to eat some humble pie… at least I had time on my side and an empty belly, I would need the next three hours to finish this 13 mile section — crazy, huh?
This section of the course was rumored to be very tough and for a first timer, it was for me. Jutting steeply from the plateau is a massive slick rock uplift tilted on its side and somehow I thought that this popular bike and off-road vehicle trail would be a cinch to navigate — even after 20 miles of my fastest running trail time this year. A little detail I was wrong about in a big way, I thought it would be easy to figure out, relatively flat with oil stains, tiremarks, white stripes all over the place, you know like a Moab off-road trail!
Well, it was beautiful in a different and revealing way. Although I will admit I heaved and sniveled the “F” word (no, not fun) more than a few times as I scaled another scrambly outcropping hoping to see another stop-and-go-sufferer groping about on this jagged, steppy and incredibly firm landscape where I was lost… in retrospect, I realize I should have concluded those “Fs” with a “yeah” as it was exceptionally breathtaking scenery. I was needlessly annoyed because I was looking at my watch and worried about my time — a factor that in hindsight should not have mattered and that compounded a hard time finding the trail. On top of that, I was hitting a wall and that forced me to lose some composure while in the complete solitude I should have reveled in. Walls are crazy though, so I’ve forgiven myself for taking the landscape for granted at that moment. This wall was just in my mind, a physical manifestation of caloric and energy deficits that erode rationality to the point of pain, distress and sometimes complete disconnect from reality and expectations — all in your head. Then they lift and you feel great or you’re done, whichever comes first. That is the “crux” as it were, to Ultra and marathon running — pushing through the wall to send your line, just like in rock climbing.
In the end, it was so incredibly hard on me, this section, but also so incredibly thoughtful of the race organizers to put something together so specatucular, so fantastic, so engaging and so enthralling that if this was your first time to the desert — it could also be your last and you would have a legitimate 34 mile adventure where if you hadn’t gotten lost at least once, you would’ve just been racing. It felt like a summit day. Except that unlike a summit day, when the route kicked back before a tough section, there would be aid stations with enthusiastic volunteers to encourage your success and support your nutritional needs — dreamy oasis’s like I often wished for on high alpine routes.
I really like this sport, Ultra running. It is nice to be in a compromising situation that involves serious personal challenge and “WTF” moments but not as severe as rescuing a buddy off a mountain, wondering how you’ll get off the mountain after the storm or running out of gear on a sew ’em up crack that ends a few thousand feet off the deck in a blank wall. Not to take anything away from those moments, I am grateful to count them in my bank of experience as well. Which leads me to a fact I can’t escape: Life is a little crazy, and should be. Like mountaineers, Ultra runners are crazy too, but I like them and am happy that in training for my summer goal of enchaining a massive amount of peaks, there is a fun community I can be part of; one that supports us as we hit walls, run through deep snow in the winter and continue to all look for ways to get outside for a day. I finished in six hours and 21 minutes on the faster half of the mid pack and couldn’t be more grateful for the chance to see so much desert, so many people having “fun” and another full day of pushing mental and physical boundaries to uncomfortable places and back.
Sometimes we all need a good motivator, a reason every day to get out, an excuse that actualizes our habits. I usually need a mountain, a big one somewhere far flung, and something I can obssess about for months and then go and set foot on. As such a goal usually demands, there is an inherent discipline that goes with it, including daily exercise, weekly planning and monthly milestones. Recently however, as I have been preparing to do not one, but 14 continuous 14,000′ mountains in one 60 hour push, I joined a website that allowed me to hold myself accountable, communicate my daily training with some modesty and to participate in a contest to win a treadmill. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: why the hell would I need a treadmill living in Telluride, Co.? Read on…
When I began this #nevermiss contest, I thought I would win. It was titled #nevermiss and inspired by Mark Covert, the current record holder for the longest running streak at over 44 years of at least a mile every day. I’m an endurance athlete and have a lifestyle that facilitated the daily minimum — to walk or run one mile a day each day and build the longest streak of doing so between 11/1/13 and 12/31/13. I hoped to win the treadmill for my wife, who with our recently born premature child, has not been able to get out much but is a very cardio-motivated person as well. I started on 11/2, the day after a man named John Di Rienzo (a Hawaiin resident). Although most of his mileage would stay localized in the beauty of Hawaii, I would hit multiple locations in Colorado and Utah as my quest to get outside battled mother nature’s quest to force winter!
Sure, it sounds like a decent idea, but this was no bare minimum contest for either myself or Mr. Di Rienzo. There would be some 25 mile days, 50 mile days and over 340 miles and 52,000′ of elevation gain during this time, as I attempted to stay committed through a race and a rest period afterwards. I checked in daily and stayed in the game with Mr Di Rienzo’s daily posts. He was getting it done every day and so was I. It’s funny how this motivated me and how it challenged me to execute every day. I found excuses to climb some of the coolest peaks I had seen for years just right off interstate-I-70 in Colorado; I finally got out of the car near Crested Butte, Co. and hiked to the Dillon Pinnacles on a 7 hour drive; I took much-needed breaks from work to just stroll a mile around my hometown and remember why I live here and almost every day take a picture. #nevermiss became an actualizer of opportunity for me so much more than just a contest to win, it became a fundamental excuse to be conscious of how awesome my life is and how fortunate I am to meet this criteria, of being able to walk or run a mile everyday and share a photo of where.
Although Mr. Di Rienzo won the contest having started one day before me and because he honestly stuck to the ethos a little better — running a mile everyday rather than hiking some like I did, I did not feel bitter that I could not win the treadmill for my wife. Instead, I felt thankful that I had a new habit and had opened my eyes to things that otherwise I may have ignored on my quest to do the lower mileage hiking days. Now that I am nearing almost 100 days and 500 miles since 11/2/13, I can look back and say that this streak has been a good thing in my life and that I hope other people take on challenges like these, not necessarily for the fitness but for the chance to take a break, get outside and do something you love every day!
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!