Osprey Athlete, mountaineer, filmmaker and ultra-runner Ben Clark has attempted the formidable challenge of completing Nolan’s 14 multiple times in the past — and he’s getting ready for his next attempt, this weekend. Ben has been candid about the difficulties, the uncertainties and the unrelenting commitment to add his name to the very short list of individuals who have completed Nolan’s 14.
What exactly is Nolan’s 14 and what is its allure to the most elite ultrarunners? Nolan’s 14 is a run — a traverse unlike any other — one without clear markers or even trails at some points, linking fourteen of Colorado’s 14,000-foot summits, one that covers nearly 100 miles of some of the Sawatch Range’s toughest terrain, one that must be completed in less than 60 hours.
Ben’s determination — fed and fueled by moments of elation, disappointment, triumph and patience — has led him to doggedly attempt this physically-demanding, emotionally-challenging route that is undoubtedly one of the hardest in ultrarunning’s history. Join us as we cheer Ben on this weekend as he laces up his shoes, pulls on his pack and sets out on his final attempt this summer to achieve this incredible, daunting feat.
We caught up with Ben recently to better understand some of the mental and physical preparation for Nolan’s 14 and to get a sense of what it’s like to answer the mountains when they call.
Osprey Packs: This will be your sixth attempt at breaking the 60 hour mark; what about Nolan’s has its claws in you?
Ben Clark: Nolan’s makes me miss the Himalayas. Not a day goes by that an image or memory doesn’t haunt me from there. So I’d say the mountains, in my experience, are the essence of “infectious” to me.
I learned that there are safe ways for me to venture deep into the mountains, and my own soul for that matter, that if I am truly reaching I will not need the fear of deadly consequence to attain my goal. I used to need that fear, as much as I might deny back then I didn’t. The motivation of having the knowledge of what it is like to execute something like Nolan’s 14 in the way I want — safely but with no distraction — is a nice motivator for me to keep seeing what I can do.
60 hours is a long time to immerse into the heart of a range of 14ers. But you can walk away from the mountains if they gets too rowdy, so that means I have to really want it in my heart, to be willing to keep trying until I’ve experienced it. I feel like maintaining the health and fitness to do so is a lifelong reward as well.
OP: After spending countless hours on the Nolan’s “course” — both training and during the main event — what has gone well?
BC: I think being prepared for anything is probably the best evidence I can offer of anything going well. It has been exhilarating at times, but always safe, thanks mostly to the crews that supported the early attempts.
OP: On that note, what hasn’t gone particularly well in the past? Is there anything you are planning to change significantly this time?
BC: I feel sometimes when people fail to meet their expectations in the mountains they will say that the mountains are humbling. I don’t think that. I think the mountains are “mountainy.”
If I start my expectation equal to their conditions then I’m never humbled — schooled sometimes, yes, because rather than scale them down to me I accept them for how much more beyond my control and scale they are and I like that about them. That has led to an appreciation of their many moods and an attitude of embracing them to have an understanding of this or any mountain line.
This line’s lack of consequence has completely transformed me physically and mentally, it has innovated everything about what I think I need to move along on a big day and what I don’t. This time I’ll be carrying just an 18 L pack, with a better and more substantial sleeping/shelter kit.
OP: Endurance athletes can be incredibly particular about food and fueling, are you a supplement/gel/salt-tab scientist or more of a cheeseburger/candy/whatever-I-can-find fueler; what’s your strategy?
BC: I eat a mix of things — some that I make myself, mostly a higher fat concentration during sustained endurance efforts. Of packaged food, Clif Bar products keep me well-fueled and allow me to change it up both flavor- and calorie-wise if/when I’m “over” my other food. McDonald’s plain double cheeseburgers also happen keep well.
OP: What puts your mind at ease the day/night leading up to the main event? Do you have any pre-run traditions?
BC: I’m as at ease with any event, including this one, as I can be. I travel half the month and I am a Dad. Even though I have all the commitments that come with that, I have very few things that are as much a pillar to my daily routine as my training as I balance a career as a filmmaker and athlete. It’s all in the numbers when it comes to training and as long as I restrain enough to avoid injury and I’ve put in the time and miles, I look forward to the release I feel the moment I hit the trail. It is all fun to me, to just go and do it.
OP: Gear choice is critical on something this demanding, which Osprey pack do you bring and what’s critical about that piece of gear? What else is on your gear list?
BC: The Rev 18 pack is as light and small as I can go but substantial enough to handle the weight of 3 days food and all my gear, roughly 25 pounds. Because it fits more like an article of clothing than a traditional pack suspension, the Rev stays snug and compact while I move quickly and doesn’t snag as I bushwhack through dark forests or bounce while I quickly trot downhill through loose terrain! My Rev has been modified to include a Stow-On-The-Go™ system for my trekking poles when I need my hands free and has an in-line water filtering system so I don’t have to pump water.
My gear list includes:
3 peanut butter cookies
10 kits organic Clif Bars
12 Clif gels
6 Clif organics pouches
12 salt tablets
5 via lattes
9 Clif electrolyte drink mixes
3 litre reservoir
Sawyer inline water filter
New Balance Fresh Foam Hierro
Superfeet Carbon Pro insole
2 Smartwool compression sock
2XU calf sleeve
Patagonia Strider short
Patagonia fleece tights
Patagonia Forerunner L/S Shirt
Patagonia Fleece vest
Patagonia Leashless jacket
Patagonia Super Cell pants
Patagonia Nano Air hoody
Patagonia Ultra Light down Sweater
Patagonia Duck Bill Hat
Osprey Packs beanie
4 pairs of gloves
Esbit fuel cell stove
8 fuel cells
Montbell 10oz summer seeping bag
Outdoor Research Helium Bivy Sack
Sol 96″ x 54″ emergency blanket
Stainless steel cup
Med kit with bandages
3 spare batteries
Goal Zero Venture 30 Charger
1100 Lumen compact Flashlight
Delorme InReach Explorer
Suunto Ambit 2
“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!!!!
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.
In May somewhere along the Annapurna Circuit’s long, winding, dusty road, I began to believe that after a safe and successful slaying of snow on two peaks that I had finally achieved my goals as a Himalayan mountaineer. This shouldn’t be that shocking since I have spent ten years pioneering first ascents and descents in the world’s highest range with narrow-minded focus and more than a handful of narrowly missed catastrophes blending the good times with the bad and no regrets for how we did it. This insight was forced upon me in January, when my friend Jack died in my climbing partner Jon’s arms and then I decided to take a day off from filming heli-skiing in Haines, Alaska and my friend Rob died on a routine run guiding clients. The number of passionate people I have seen meet their demise in the mountains now takes up two handfuls of digits and that is likely too close for comfort, and forces me to ponder my own fate.