Depending on your familiarity with mountain running, the term “Nolan’s 14” likely either evokes blank stares or a mix of awe and dread. Nolan’s isn’t particularly well known outside of hardcore ultra-running circles; among mountain runners, though, it is one of the crown jewels (if not THE crown jewel) of big mountain speed records.
Here’s what Nolan’s 14 is: a linkup of fourteen 14,000ft peaks in the Sawatch Range above Leadville and Buena Vista in Colorado. The rules are straightforward: start at either of two defined endpoints and tag fourteen 14,000ft summits, on foot, within a 60 hour time window.
Everything else is up to you - when to go, which end to start at, what routes to take between the peaks (much of the linkup is off-trail), whether to go supported or unsupported. By now, though, Nolan’s has been done often enough that there is consensus about practical route choices: depending on your tolerance for scrambling and 4th/5th class terrain, any Nolan’s linkup will entail a distance of somewhere between 89 and 104 miles with a minimum of 43,000ft of ascent.
I remember hearing about Nolan’s 14 for the first time when I was just finding my stride as a fledgling weekend-warrior ultra runner in Texas. Back then, I looked at the route and dismissed it as impossible. Too hard, too high, too much off-trail navigation, too much climbing. Back then, no woman had yet completed the challenge - and I thought that there was no way I would ever want to even think about giving it a try.
Well… that was eight years ago. In the meantime, a lot has happened. Anna Frost and Missy Gosney proved that women could complete the route. Megan Hicks came along a year later and improved on their time. And I moved from my midpack pitter patter in flat-and-fast trail ultras to the big mountains, where I knocked down a series of difficult high altitude endurance speed records across the world. Yet Nolan’s 14, to me, always was in a league of its own. “I have no business being on this route” is what my brain tells me. I have run with Anna Frost, one of the original Nolan’s queens and two-times Hardrock 100 champion; I know how fast and strong she is. “Mmmh but maybe I could try” is what my gut says, despite my brain’s best attempts to help me avoid a lot of suffering.
But the reality is - the only reason that I am here, today, preparing to give Nolan’s a go within the next 48 hours, is my friend Mercedes. Where I was dismissing Nolan’s as impossible, Mercedes was the one who had fallen in love with the line and the challenge. It was her who was determined to chase this wild dream, and it’s only because of Mercedes’ relentless passion and enthusiasm that I finally agreed to at least scout the route and wrap my head around attempting Nolan’s. Unfortunately, Mercedes got injured during her training cycle and had to abandon the attempt this season - but gave her blessing for me to move ahead. I count myself lucky to have friends like her. I feel equally lucky to be teaming up with not one but two other strong and inspiring women mountain athletes for the upcoming attempt, Tara Miranda and Ilana Jesse.
Of course managing the dynamics, strengths and weaknesses of a team of three on a mission as long and hard as Nolan’s is a challenge in and of itself. That’s the reason why we each will carry personal GPS tracking devices during the attempt, and you can follow all three of us right here: http://trackleaders.com/nolans14f. We hope to stick together and chase the completion of the line as a team, but we are all too keenly aware that a lot can happen over the course of ~sixty hours.
Based on the current weather forecast, we are planning to start at the Fish Hatchery in Leadville Saturday morning. If all goes well, we will all reach Blank’s Cabin together on Monday night; keep your fingers crossed. I already know that in my book, I will consider the mission a success if Tara or Ilana manage to get to Blank’s Cabin in under sixty hours… but I also will not lie - I want this.
Stay tuned, wish us luck, and follow our progress if you so please!
http://trackleaders.com/nolans14f (tracking starts as soon as we hit the trail - likely Saturday morning between 5am and 8am MT)