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!
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!