Tackling the Mind-Boggling Nolan’s 14 Challenge

Nolan's 14 Overview

Nolan’s 14 is a challenge in the Sawatch Range of the Colorado Rockies in which people summit fourteen 14,000’ mountains in a single push. It is not organized or official, so anyone can try it anytime and can take whatever route desired as long as it starts at one trailhead, the 14 peaks are tagged and ends at the other trailhead. It’s generally around 70% off-trail, 100ish miles, has a total elevation change of 90,000’ (45k up, 45k down), the average elevation is 12,000’ and the goal is to do it in under 60 hours.

 

Just finishing the line in a single push is rare. Nolan’s 14 has been around since the late 90’s and only around 40 people have completed it. Those people include mountain ultra elites like Joe Grant, Jared Campbell, Anna Frost and Iker Karrera.

Trial & Error

I began scouting Nolan’s somewhat on a whim, when my wife/coach/crew chief/teammate suggested I check it out with a group in 2016. By the end of that summer, I’d made my first attempt and got 7 peaks. It took that attempt to bring the reality of the enormity of Nolan’s into focus for me and that maybe it was way beyond my abilities. I was not familiar with failing. I’m proud of having zero DNFs (“Did Not Finish”) on my Ultrasignup page.

 

In 2018, I came back for another attempt and failed again. This time getting 11 peaks before getting caught in a freak ice storm at 13,000’ at night and bailing 70+ hours in. Beat up and sobered by that experience, I wasn’t sure I’d ever be going back for another try. 

Time heals and also allows unfinished business to dig a cozy little spot in the psyche. So with the support of my wife, I came back in 2020 for another try. Breathing issues caused me to stop this third attempt in early July after 10 peaks and about 40 hours. It was crushing because I had been moving well and also for all the work it had taken both of us to get to that point.

A couple weeks later, I was recovering well and feeling super fit again and we both found ourselves set in the mindset that another attempt was in order…again, unfinished business on a challenge that was tantalizingly close to the edge of my capabilities. So, three weeks after the attempt in early July, I was back at it.

Again, I got 10 peaks and about 1000’ up peak #11 before pulling the plug, feeling unsafe to continue upwards in my fatigued state (no sleep for 48+ hours) at night. That was it for me. I’d found my limit. Many people considered it a huge limit, but it was still disappointing for me. I even drafted a blog post proclaiming I was done and although not satisfied and not accustomed to failing, I was on the path to acceptance…really, I was…seriously.

 

I never did post that blog.

Reflecting on the Failed attempts

At 51, my recoveries have been pretty remarkable. I attribute this to a few things:

  1. I think there’s just some physiology that we’re born with (luck of the draw) that has provided me with a high level of durability.
  2. The body’s amazing adaptability to stress and repair. My recoveries have actually shortened over the years of doing mountain ultra distance races and adventures. I feel that there are long-lasting adaptations at the cellular level that occur as the result of year over year endurance training that bring resiliency. 
  3. A thoughtful approach to diet. I’m a pescatarian and generally eat clean. It’s a main reason that I rely on Gnarly Pre, BCAAs, Vegan, Whey and Greens before, during and after physical activity and in daily life with Greens and Vegan. During my attempts, when I was no longer interested in eating even my favorite foods, my wife could always get Gnarly Vegan, Pre or BCAAs into me with no problem each time I met her at a crew location.

Check out these products that helped john before, during and after nolan's 14:

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It's not over 'til it's over ...

In mid-August, looking at our calendars for the coming weeks, my wife asked, “are you still planning on Nolan’s?”

 

Well, apparently the door was still open for a THIRD attempt this summer. After all, with my June of scouting the line and two serious attempts in July, I was the proud owner of the best Nolan’s-specific fitness possible. Shame to waste it. This time, top priority was just finishing the line and not the 60-hour time limit, prioritizing a little sleep along the way and having a trusted buddy join me for the latter stages.

 

So, I set out at 3:57 a.m. on September 2 from the Leadville Fish Hatchery with the full determination and confidence to get myself over 14 big mountains and to finally meet my wife at the finish at the Blanks Trailhead outside of Salida a few days later. It took a little over 72 hours, but I got there and finished the line and Nolan’s 14…finally. 

My takeaways

I learned that I’m cautious in the mountains. I was prodding my way deeper and deeper into the line as a single push with each attempt and only when I was acceptably confident was I able to proceed further. I learned that I needed the help of a trusted partner to get through the latter stages. I’d never had a pacer in previous endurance races or challenges.

I learned about the depths of my physical, mental and emotional toughness and that those depths can only be intimately known by pushing to their limits. I learned that hope is the biggest tool to achieving your dreams and sometimes you need a little help to keep it alive.

*This has been formatted for Gnarly’s blog. Click here to read a longer version of this story. 

John Danese

John Danese

John is a technology professional, mountain ultra trail runner, triathlete, mountain climber and animal lover. When he's not traveling for business, he lives and adventures in Colorado with his wife/coach/cheerleader/nutritionist/best friend.

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