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fastest known time

Nolan’s 14 - we’re going for it!

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Nolan’s 14 - we’re going for it!

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.  

Hikers nearing the summit of one of Nolan’s many 14,000ft peaks.

The northern end of Nolan’s 14

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.  

With Ilana during a scouting mission

Tara stretching the legs during a Mt Princeton scout

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)

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A bond that transcends: the TransQilian Fastest Known Time

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A bond that transcends: the TransQilian Fastest Known Time

Running on the TransQilian course. Photo Credit TransQilian media.

How are your feet?” Siri’s electronic voice jars me out of my trance. I shake my head, both to clear the fog from my brain and as a response to the question. “Not good.” I smile. “But we’re only 30 kilometers from the finish; I’ll be OK.

My Chinese pacer An, the one who just inquired about the state of my feet with the help of his voice-enabled phone’s translation app, nods and gives me a smiling thumbs up. I try to match his pace as he lengthens his stride and we continue plodding down a steep mountain ridge high up in Gansu province, over five hundred miles west of Beijing, while the evening sun is painting long soft shadows in the rice terraces below us. I have been moving non-stop since 3am this morning, and I am ready to stop running.

I am breathing rarefied air here at 11,000ft on the TransQilian course, a gorgeous 100km+ circumnavigation of Qilian mountain in remote China. Ten days ago I didn’t know that this trail existed. A week ago, I had just heard about TransQilian for the first time but I was at home in Colorado and not sure if I’d even be going to China. Yet right now, I am in the middle of attempting to set a new TransQilian speed record; sometimes you just have to go with the flow (read this for the backstory: Ultra Gobi to TransQilian).

Going with the flow is my mantra for the day. I’ve been mono-focused on relentless forward motion since I started running in the middle of the night some fourteen hours ago. Mountain speed records are my specialty - I have set a few of them, and in mountain ranges across the world - but this is different: I typically pursue fastest known times (FKTs) in a solitary fashion, unsupported and mostly under the radar. Here at TransQilian I have a local crew of more than a dozen people supporting my FKT attempt as pacers - like An, who is at my side this very moment fiddling with his phone’s translation app - but also aid station volunteers, logistics coordinators, media. It is amazing to see how big mountain running is rallying excitement from China’s budding adventure community.

The TransQilian FKT team. Photo Credit TransQilian media.

Amazing support for me to pursue a speed record on this amazing cour. Photo Credit TransQilian media.

But there is another way in which this FKT is different: my past speed missions have often involved projects that are so remote and difficult that nobody else (or at least no other woman) has completed them - rather than being “fastest” known times, many of my past projects were OKTs: “original” or “only” known times. My records on the Aconcagua 360 and in the Colorado Rockies are prime examples. The TransQilian FKT is different: not only has the trail been completed before, there is an actual ultra race on the very same course. This means that I’ll have to break the existing race record of 25 hours and 24 minutes in order to succeed, and I’m in no way confident that I’m capable of that.

On one of the faster sections of the Transqilian course, with one of the podium finishers of the 2019 TransQilian race which happened just a few weeks before I set a new course record. Photo Credit TransQilian media.

Which is why, at this very moment, I am picking up the pace and willing my legs to go faster - despite the dull pain on the soles of both of my feet. I know what this particular type of ache means: trench foot, from spending long hours in water-logged socks and shoes. I also know that there is nothing I can do to change it, other than to stop running (not part of my plan) or taking ibuprofen (not smart). I’ve had to contend with trench foot once before, in 2013 during the final forty miles of the legendary Western States 100 Mile Endurance Race, and I’m not excited about repeating the experience - but I would be even less excited about not finishing TransQilian.

So I plod on. The enormousness of the landscape, bathed in golden hour light, almost makes me forget the pain. An and I are running through the sky but we are now at the very edge of the Qilian mountain range, the plains with their million-person cities and smog-producing power plants far below us; the contrast blows my mind.

Above Qilian town in the early evening. Photo Credit TransQilian media.

Miles, views, and friends - what could be better. Photo Credit TransQilian media.

I let out a deep contented breath and take mental inventory of all the amazing moments that this run has already given me - from the camaraderie and immersion that I have found over the last few days with China’s core outdoor community, to the brilliant shooting stars that I saw in those early pre-dawn hard uphill miles of the FKT (three of them!), to reaching the highpoint of the course all by myself while my pacers were still struggling through big talus hundreds of feet below my alpine high-pass perch at 14,600ft.

Early morning at 14,000ft in the Qilian mountain range, not far from the course high point. Photo Credit TransQilian media.

Love the challenge of big mountain runs needs no translation. Photo Credit TransQilian media.

My Chinese friend An feels the magic of TransQilian just as I am. We now move swiftly towards lower elevations, back towards humanity, and there is an understanding between us that doesn’t require a translation app. The life experiences that have brought us here may be worlds apart, but to share the joy of unbridled love for mountains and adventure creates a bond that transcends cultures.

That’s why, when we finally reach the 80 kilometer checkpoint that both marks the end of An’s pacing segment and signals the start of the last 20 kilometers of the run, he doesn’t miss a beat. I turn to thank him for his company and say goodbye, but this time it’s him who shakes his head and smiles. “I go with you to the finish.

————

Sunny, An, and a few other hardy Chinese mountain runners eventually crossed the TransQilian finish line together at 11:59pm local time, 20 hours and 59 minutes after Sunny had started out her run. In the process, Sunny became the second woman to ever complete TransQilian and established a new overall course record that is more than four hours faster than the old (men’s) record.

Approaching the finish line seconds before midnight, surrounded by enthusiastic pacers. Photo Credit TransQilian media.

Celebrating the new TransQilian FKT - I couldn’t have done it without these guys and gals. Photo Credit TransQilian media.

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