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Nolan’s 14: Lessons Learned

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Nolan’s 14: Lessons Learned

Last year, shortly after I set an unsupported speed record on the Pfiffner Traverse, I wrote a piece for TrailRunner Magazine in which I called Nolan’s 14 - the legendary 100-mile-long fourteen-14ers line in the Swatch range -  a “superhuman peak bagger's linkup.” 

Here’s the amusing part about that description: I completely pulled it out of my backside, because I hadn’t yet ever set foot on any part of Nolan’s 14. My assessment of the route was based entirely on hearsay, various mountain running movies, and a perfunctory look at a couple USGS Quad sheets for the Sawatch Range.  

Almost as good as a USGS Quad Map.

Well - fast forward twelve months and I can now confirm first-hand what previously I had confabulated: Nolan’s 14 truly is a mad mission for superhuman peak baggers.  Over Labor Day 2019, as the culmination of many days of scouting and strategizing, two women crusher friends and I gave the route a go with the goal of setting a new women’s FKT.  We didn’t crush the speed record nor did we even finish - OK, one of us did finish.. just well above the official sixty hour time limit - but we did have an epic adventure out there (which you’ll be able to read more about in an upcoming issue of TrailRun Magazine).  

In the meantime, here are the lessons that Nolan’s taught me.

  1. Nolan’s 14 is a runner’s route.
    Before we attempted Nolan’s I thought I had the perfect strategy all figured out. I knew that the vast majority of Nolan’s attempts end in defeat, and I was confident that I understood why: because - this is how my reasoning went - everyone looks at Nolan’s and thinks that they have to push as hard and fast as they can early on, to not gamble away their chance of finishing. That, I reasoned, led people to go out to fast and blow up later in the course. I thought that most contenders treated Nolan’s as a race course, when it really needed to be a fastpack. Which is why we were going to throttle our pace and not push hard early on, to conserve energy and set ourselves up for success.
    After tagging 13 out of Nolan’s 14 peaks in just about seventy hours, I can now tell you: Nolan’s in fact is a race course. To complete the line in under sixty hours, you have to push hard right from the start. There is so much complicated, slow terrain (read: gnarly talus) on the course that you have to run those sections that are smooth enough to allow for it. Yes, conserving energy is key to sustain a 50-60 hour effort without blowing up… but you have to thread the eye of the needle right from the start. There is no time buffer to allow for even the slightest amount of relaxation - on the ups or on the downs.

  2. Scouting is essential.
    I though that I was incredible well prepared for Nolan’s. I had scouted the line for weeks prior to our attempt, and had been on most stretches of the route at least twice. There were only about 10% of the route that I hadn’t previewed at all, and only a slightly larger percentage that I had been on only once instead of two or three times.
    In retrospect I now know this: the preparation that I put in was a solid B effort, but it wasn’t A+ work. I needed another seven to ten days on the route to preview every last (off-)trail mile, and to go back to a few hard sections that I had scouted only once early in the summer. Knowing exactly where to go and what best line to pick would have saved me and my friends several hours during our attempt.

  3. My footwear plan paid off.
    Even though I came of age as a mountain runner in the time of the light-and-fast mentality (case in point: I wore glorified running shoes to the top of 22,838ft Aconcagua when I set my first speed record on the mountain!), I have recently come to appreciate the benefits of well-made mid-top boots again. Nolan’s has a lot of really difficult and potentially ankle-breaking terrain on it, which is why I decided ahead of time that I would switch off between running shoes and lightweight boots in strategic intervals. This strategy worked tremendously well and allowed me to charge through steep scree and talus (particularly on the downhills) without a second thought, where my friends in running shoes had to pick their way down the mountain much more carefully. You can read more about my thoughts on footwear strategy over at lowaboots.com following this link.

  4. Trying to set a Fastest Known Time as a team is fun, but not fast.
    Tara, Ilana and I decided that we would tackle Nolan’s as a team. For Tara, it was in a way a foregone conclusion: since she was flying in from out of town she didn’t have the luxury of scouting the route and needed help with navigation. For Ilana and myself, going as a team was a more balanced decision but we both decided that the psychological benefits of having partners would outweigh the potential speed disadvantage of having to manage team dynamics while on route.
    Turns out that’s exactly how things played out: going after it as a team was an incredible experience, and not something I would trade for the world - but it’s not the recipe for breaking a competitive speed record. Unless everybody in the team is very alike in strengths and weaknesses (which we weren’t; my raw speed is a lot less than Ilana’s and Tara’s, but my scrambling and downhill game is strong), a team record attempt means that you can only move as fast as the weakest member of the party at any given point. Speaking of pure physical speed this means that, rather than combining everyone’s strengths, you end up stringing together everybody’s weaknesses.
    The shared team experience is what made Nolan’s so special to me, but from purely a pragmatic perspective it’s not the fastest option.

  5. The power of community is magic.
    We were blessed to have both friends/family and the broader community rally around our attempt. From my and Tara’s husbands, over friends who came out to crew us (Dana, Andrew, Emma, Jordan, Jaime & mom!), to Nolan’s 14 veteran Gavin MacKenzie who was a stranger at the beginning of the weekend but ended up pacing us through a full night - the stoke from everyone around us made all the difference. In the past I mostly dabbled in unsupported or self-supported missions, but after Nolan’s I am not sure I’ll ever be able to go back to an effort without crew. The physical support was of course tremendous, but the mental boost was beyond compare. Thank you crew!!

Since our ‘failure’ to set a record on Nolan’s I have been asked the same question over and over again: will you go back and try again? My personal answer, at least for now, is somewhere between ‘no’ and ‘probably not’, and here is why.

Eyes on the prize halfway up Antero

My time on Nolan’s this summer was fueled by curiosity and the desire to find out about the line, as well as about my own ability on it.  After spending several weeks and a seventy-hour attempt on the route, I feel like I have gotten out of it what I wanted: a lot of new terrain, a lot of learning, and a healthy dose of humility.  Another attempt on Nolan’s, for me, would be driven primarily by ego and the desire to nab a record rather than by curiosity and a love for the line itself.

Will I be back? Probably not.  Am I proud of what we did: Hell yes. Would I team up with Tara and Ilana again, preferably on an adventure that doesn’t involve bagging fourteen 14ers in a row? In a heartbeat.    

And with that… on to the next adventure!

Tara, Ilana and I all smiles on Mt Elbert, Colorado’s tallest 14er and summit #2 of Nolan’s 14.

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Record Spontaneity II: CHINA!

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Record Spontaneity II: CHINA!

A year and a half ago I wrote an article about record spontaneity, or rather a spontaneous record: my 2017 Annapurna Circuit FKT which Outside Magazine ended up calling ‘crazy’.

Impressions from my Annapurna Circuit FKT

Today, I’m writing about a different type of spontaneity - also linked to running and to and FKT attempt, though I have somewhat limited faith in the ‘record’ outcome of this one, ha.

This is the story:

A shot from a prior edition of the Ultra Gobi. This would have been a cool experience! PC - Ultra Gobi.

A few months ago, I was invited to participate in the Ultra Gobi, a 400km non-stop footrace on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau in China. The race is taking place this coming week, but the Chinese authorities at the very last minute closed the region to all foreigners - which resulted in me and ~a dozen other foreign nationals being uninvited just days prior to the race start.

You can imagine the mix of emotions when you learn that a 400km effort that you’ve been training for is no longer happening. Disappointment, on the one hand, about missing out on this very special experience. On the other hand, a certain level of relief to be missing out on a tremendously tough experience!

That said, I am not one to sit idle. My invitation to the Ultra Gobi was tied to a film project, and since both filmmaker extraordinaire Ben Clark and I found ourselves with air tickets to China and two weeks of time… we decided to change course and go for a spontaneous adventure instead. Which means that in about twelve hours, I’ll be getting on a plane to China in order to tackle the TransQilian - a 104km/65-mile mountain loop with ~50,000ft of vertical change at an average elevation of 10,500ft.

Some of the terrain on the TransQilian - PC TransQilian

I know very little about the course other than it is high, steep, and gorgeous; I can’t wait to get to China and see for myself just exactly what I said yes to with about 72 hours of lead time! The plan is for me to go after the TransQilian FKT (at this point, the loop has only been run in race format and not by independent runners… but the winning race times are in the 25 hour range, which seems blistering fast!) though truth be told: I am in it for the adventure and the scenery; any speed record would just be icing on the cake.

And with that - I better get off my laptop and start packing; my plane leaves in less than 12 hours.

If you want to communicate with me while I’m in China or follow along while the speed attempt is underway, head over to my GPS page (and you know I always love messages; don’t be shy to write). I expect to have close to zero connectivity while I’m in China so don’t be surprised if you don’t see any updates from me on Instagram or Facebook. I should be back in the US by August 18. See y’all on the other side!

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Ouray 100: A Race For The Ages

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Ouray 100: A Race For The Ages

“I’m signed up to run the Ouray 100 in July. Why don’t you join me?  It’d be great training for Nolan’s 14, and allow us to log some proper mileage together.”

My friend Mercedes is sitting across a small wobbly table from me at Boulder’s Red Rock Coffeehouse. She is looking for a partner to attempt Nolan’s 14, the famed Sawatch peak bagger’s ultra linkup, which only three women have completed since the challenge was conceived by Jim Nolan and Fred Vance in the 1990s.  I know that Nolan’s is an extremely ambitious goal, and I am hesitant to commit - but I am also intrigued. 

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Where man himself does not remain

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Where man himself does not remain

A conjugal scramble in the Flatirons above Boulder

The sound of an ambulance washes up from the plains far below.  From up here at 6600ft, in velvet early dark below the summit, Boulder’s lights and the humming noise of civilization are a short half mile away; the tumultuous ocean of humanity washing over rocky mountain shores. 

I love the mountains; Colorado is good for that. I am charmed by Boulder’s easy access to the wild, yet I yearn for more. More wild, more free, more silent solitude: unadulterated untouched country. I drift off into memories of space. 

Two months ago I found that untouched space.  I walked for weeks, four weeks and four days to be exact, from one side of Utah to the other.  I walked through desert canyons and high mountains, sand and water, I waded and I bushwhacked and I climbed and fell and scrambled.  I walked across the Colorado Plateau, right through the heart of one of the most remote desert backcountry out there: Grand Staircase Escalante. An untouched roadless area so vast I didn’t see another human soul for days, where I could walk for weeks without ever setting foot on asphalt. A dream for some, nightmarish desolation for others: true wilderness.  

Day 3 of 32 on the 812-mile Hayduke Trail, heading into the unknown

I grew up in Germany, just one among eleven million German children with their seventy-one million parents and grandparents and grownup aunts and uncles all crammed into an area not even quite as big as California. Germany is exemplary: so safe, so clean, so civil. Every last little spec of usable land has been improved upon, to build neat towns and well-run farms and autobahns and big grand metropoles and tightly-managed forests.  Germany’s rise from the ashes after World War II is the stuff of textbooks; chaos and destruction turned systematically to meteoric order and success.  A triumphant return to civilization, and in its march there is but one thing that got overlooked: the necessity of wilderness. 

That’s why I so value the existence of unspoiled wildness. Because I remember what it feels like, having none of it.  I remember being a kid in Germany, standing in our back yard, looking out across the fields.  I remember feeling the urge to explore and to get lost, and I remember how disappointingly the world closed in on me once I was old enough to walk the talk, to head off on my own to see my little German world: there was no exploration to be had. The fenced-in backyard of my childhood was bordered by a field was bordered by a road and three more fields and the two local farms and fences and more farms and roads and fields and towns. You see, less than 1% of the land in Germany is undeveloped; there was no wilderness. 

Deep, dark, unspoiled wild

That’s why I was so captivated when I first saw the American West’s great public lands at age 12. I remember that first time I tasted the desert, feeling small and feeling wild. It’s a feeling that has stayed with me since.  It’s the feeling I set out to live fully and taste deeply when I started my long solitary walk across the Utah desert along the Hayduke Trail. 

The fence line on the left marks the boundary of Arches National Park 

I set out north of Moab at the northern edge of Arches, enveloped in the darkness of a moonless night. The first few miles of my month-long journey take me through protected lands inside the iconic national park.  Soon I find myself traversing along the very edge of the national park boundary, and this is what I find: on the inside of the fence, cryptobiotic soil, deep and undisturbed; on the outside of the fence, inches from the boundary, dirt roads and natural gas pipeline infrastructure. Stark contrasts and a powerful reminder of the importance of protection.  

Weeks later I walk through the roadless heart of Grand Staircase Escalante: a 1.9 million acre landscape so complicated and fantastic in its revelation of progressive sandstone layers that 'Staircase' had to be its name.  Days go by without me seeing another soul; I feel more alive and human to the core than I have in years.  Living among wilderness brings out human essence; there is a primal peace to existing simply, a natural rhythm of living with the land. Being small and part of nature drives home life’s beautiful simplicity. 

I spend hard long days on the Kaiparowits Plateau, crossing through its hellish heat and desolation. “It is a fierce and dangerous place, and it is wilderness right down to its burning core.” I didn’t know these words before I headed off into Kaiparowits, but having come out the other side I know first-hand how true they are. 

Surface coal on the Kaiparowits plateau

It is here on the Kaiparowits that I first walk alongside surface layer coal beds. It is here I realize that I have no excuse to not speak up for public lands. The Kaiparowits drives home for me what wilderness entails: existential clarity, unforgiving solitude and irrevocable experience. Development is just the same but on the flip side of the coin: unforgiving, irrevocable. Once development starts up there is no going back; once wilderness is lost, it’s lost for good.  

There’s a funny thing or two about how natural treasure works.  

Size matters. Three individual parcels of wilderness don’t carry the same value as a single area three times the size of one.  Contiguous wild spaces are the most powerful form of preservation, for wildlife habitats and historic study just as well as for adventure and explorers. 

Pure existence matters. We don’t have to actually be out there hiking and exploring; simple knowledge of wilderness’ existence changes our understanding of ourselves, our past and our future.  We don’t have to constantly - or ever! - venture off into the wild to feel its value; simply knowing that it’s there, that we CAN get lost if we just wanted to, and that our children have that very option, changes our lives. 

Do you remember the feeling you had when you got the keys to your first car: all a sudden, the possibilities are endless; you could drive over to your friend’s house, or even all the way across the country! Did you actually drive all the way across the country? Your answer doesn’t change the power of the notion. 

The car... wreck? 

Another ambulance starts blaring. I am far above the lights of Boulder still, abruptly taken from my desert dreams.  My Hayduke hike was a dream. This, here, is life; it’s real.  And for now it’s time for me to sink back into the depths of the turbid ocean of humanity.

For now, wilderness is far away yet still in reach.  Out west, just on the far side of the Rocky Mountains, there still are those places that are vast and wild and free.  Grand Staircase is still wild; Bears Ears is still on the brink of monument protection. For how much longer… we don’t know.  
Go visit your wild lands while they are wild, go see the marvels that may soon be paved and mined; and if you believe in the value of knowing wilderness is out there, for yourself and for your children: speak up, post and tweet, and let Trump know that public lands deserve protection. 

Spotted in Moab, Day 1 of 32 on the 812 mile Hayduke trail

As I head down the well-built trail towards Chautauqua Park, Congress’ definition of wilderness reverberates within me: “An area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” How I long already to return to those areas where I may not remain. 


'Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.' [Edward Abbey]

Existential clarity, unforgiving solitude; irrevocable experience.

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