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1 Day, 2 FKTs: Runners Make History on Brutal ‘Nolan’s 14’

Alex Nichols Nolan's 14
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On the same day, Colorado runners Alex Nichols and Joe Grant set supported and unsupported records, respectively, for the grueling Nolan’s 14 challenge.

Nolan's 14

Nolan’s 14 is a crazy personal challenge. It’s a point-to-point route that links 14 consecutive 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado’s Sawatch Range over the course of 80 miles, with 44,000 feet of elevation gain. Only about 15 percent of people who attempt the route complete it.

Nichols, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, set the fastest-known-time supported record in 46 hours, 41 minutes on June 29. He ran the route northbound, beating Spaniard Iker Karrera’s previous record by about one hour.

Joe Grant of Gold Hill, Colorado, near Boulder, set the unsupported marker the same day. Running the route southbound, he finished in 49 hours, 38 minutes. That crushed the previous crewless record by four hours.

We talked to Nichols about the feat. For additional context with Grant’s run, listen to the snippet below from Billy Yang’s podcast.

Grant started about 12 hours before Nichols.

“I was able to get an update once [Grant] had finished and set the unsupported record. When I heard that, it really motivated me to keep pushing when I was feeling terrible,” Nichols said.

“Even though we went in different directions and only saw each other for a few minutes along the way, I feel like we are somehow connected by what we experienced during those long hours in the mountains. I’m still incredibly impressed with what he did and glad we can share a page in the record book of Nolan’s 14.”

What It Takes to Finish (and Win) Nolan’s 14

For the record, Nolan’s 14 is nuts. The mountain course is over 80 miles and gains 44,000 feet of elevation over 14 summits. It’s often compared to difficult traverses like the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim, only at higher altitude. Competitors are breathing around 40 percent less oxygen than what’s available at sea level.

But the race is more like climbing the Empire State Building 35 times over an ultramarathon distance — in scree without any stairs. Oh, and there’s no official trail. Runners find their own way.

To be considered Colorado Nolan’s 14 finishers, runners can tackle the 14 14,000-foot mountains in any order, using any route. But they must finish in 60 hours.

Nolan’s was another feather in Nichols’ cap. He’s already a two-time Pikes Peak Marathon winner and last year’s Western States 100 runner-up.

But setting the record required strategy, not just a good base. Nichols had scouted the route and went by memory on “race” day, carrying a compass and few map sections as a backup.

Colorado’s Sawatch Range. Photo: Flikr Commons

The ultrarunner’s wife and friends supported him. “There were only four spots I could have help from my crew,” he said. “My friend, David Hedges, ran with me through the second night. Having someone there to keep me sane with so much sleep deprivation and fatigue was very helpful.”

Gear helped too. Nichols wore the Scott Supertrac Ultra RC shoe. “It has a very deep lug pattern that provided much-needed traction on the really steep and loose terrain,” he said. “I was also really happy with how durable the upper material was. It handled the bushwhacking and off-trail stuff without ripping or tearing.”

For cold weather, he relied on the RC Run waterproof jacket and pants from the same Scott collection. “Both the jacket and pants weighed only a few ounces but kept me warm above treeline during the night,” he said.

Sleep Deprivation Hits High Up on Colorado Nolan’s 14

Even with good support and gear, Nichols hit some rough spots. Ironically, his lowest point occurred on the summit of La Plata, the 12th peak. The sun was rising, Nichols had been running for 32 hours, and he was seriously sleep deprived.

While stocked with Honey Stinger products, “a nice assortment of candy, and a few egg and cheese breakfast burritos,” Nichols admitted he wasn’t fueling enough. He was only drinking water and soda.

“I remember sitting down on some rocks and wishing I could stop this stupid challenge and go to sleep,” he said.

“I ended up starting to move again just because I knew I had to get down the mountain one way or another. If I could have quit the attempt at that point, I probably would have. But I started feeling better later on, and things turned around for me.”

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