Nolan’s 14 is a line that connects 14 of the 14,000ft peaks in the Sawatch Range of Colorado. More history and background info can be found on Matt Mahoney’s website:http://mattmahoney.net/nolans14/
Last year I made an attempt to complete the Nolan’s 14 line with my good friend Jason Poole. Sadly, I quit after 10 peaks. I was mentally done. But, we always teach our kids to finish what they start, so within a day or two I knew I’d have to go back and finish this thing. Amazingly enough, my whole crew was also down for another attempt. I think my buddy Doug texted something like, “I’m in.” Followed by, “Damn we’re stupid.”
Honestly, I spent the next 3 months a little stressed and full of dread. I had gone far enough in 2016 to understand how hard it would be to complete. My legs and body had held up, but mentally I needed to be a lot stronger.
By spring 2017 I had started reading Travis Macy‘s book: The Ultra Mindset. I googled articles on endurance and mental strength. Basically I jumped on anything I could that might help my head stay in the game so that I could stick with it.
Amazingly enough I got off the waitlist and into Hardrock just two weeks before the race. Hardrock has been a dream of mine since I started running ultras. I wasn’t even convinced I wanted to run 100s until I found Hardrock. As soon as I realized you had to run a 100 just to get into the Hardrock lottery, I began planning on how to make that happen. And as anyone who has been on the waitlist can tell you, it almost feels impossible to get a spot. Once I got in, I knew I couldn’t blow it.
Hardrock went fairly well. It wasn’t my best day physically, but it was my best day mentally. I knew I had to finish. There was no way I was going to throw away this opportunity with a DNF. That mental state taught me a lot about what it was going to take to finish Nolan’s.
Suffering is Optional
After a few more weeks of scouting, the Knotts family found ourselves back in Leadville and driving to the start at the Blank’s Cabin TH. It was on this drive that my amazing wife Mandy gave me one last tidbit to pull me through. She was just recounting how Cy Wakeman had been speaking at Cisco and had said, “suffering is optional.” By the Grace of God, I latched onto this and immediately made some of the connections described in this article.
Ultimately the idea that I knew that 14 14ers were going to hurt, but I get to choose how I respond to that pain is HUGE. I didn’t know it at the time, but that idea, combined with my amazing crew, was going to get me to the Fish Hatchery.
At 7:21am on September 1, I gave hugs and kisses to my family and headed up Mt. Shavano. I was solo and wanted to make good time, so I probably went a little fast. It was great to summit and not have any snow or frost across the top like last year. This definitely made it quicker and before I knew it I was over on Tabeguache.
I followed what I think was roughly the 2016 Ted/Sully line off of Tabeguache. It’s steep, but doable. Looking back up from the bottom is pretty intimidating, but it went OK.
Towards the top of Antero it was clouding up a little so I pushed harder than I wanted just to get across and down as quickly as I could. I took Nick Pedatella’s advice and went north and then west off of Antero. It’s not awesome, but it is probably quicker than backtracking to the road.
It was great to see my family at Baldwin Gulch. The kids were running around rock hunting and Mandy had a bacon cheeseburger from K’s in Buena Vista! I probably ate too much, but it was too good to pass up.
I slowed down as much as I could going up Princeton. It felt hot, my stomach wasn’t great and in the big picture it was still very early in a south-to-north Nolan’s attempt. Thankfully, I was still making good time and even though I made a mistake on the descent, I was down on the Colorado Trail well before dark.
The cooling temps, and knowing I was well ahead of last year’s pace, felt great and I ran almost all of the CT. It got dark just before I reached the road and I couldn’t wait to see my crew and have some company for the next stretch.
Another bacon cheeseburger and I was off with Josh Wyseup Yale in the dark. After a long day by myself it was great to be with a friend and we even shared the trail with Julian Smith for a mile or two. We followed the route Jared and Gary had taken earlier in the summer that cuts off the CT quite early and then ascends a ridge from the south. It’s hard following off-trail routes in the dark, but I think we did pretty well. I was cold on top so I don’t think we even stopped — just touched the high point and kept moving.
Though I think it would have been impossible to do any worse than our route last year, this year’s descent of Yale was much better. That said, I think Josh put it best when he said, “it’s funny how much Nolan’s lowers your standards.”
Thankfully Laura Wyse hiked in to N. Cottowood Creek and met us with supplies for the next big stretch. More bottles of Tailwind, some noodle soup, and we were off up Columbia.
The Columbia ascent went well. It kind of felt like it was taking forever, but then we hit the summit ridge and it took me a second to recognize it! It was still very dark and cold so we scurried across the top and dropped north as quickly as we could.
I had never counted on being fast enough that we’d be in that tricky section between Columbia and Harvard in the dark. But as Josh was good enough to point out, it was a good problem to have! On the far end it got light enough that I could see we didn’t exactly nail the line, but it also wasn’t horrible.
Harvard went well. I always like the easy scrambling across the ridge to the summit and even though I was 24 hours in at this point, it was still pretty fun.
The downside to Harvard is that at this point you’re pretty far into Nolan’s, you’re getting tired, and you can see the next mountain, Oxford, looking impossibly huge and far away! We took our time and filtered water in Pine Creek. I was feeling hot again so I even pounded an extra bottle of Tailwind before starting up Oxford.
At this point Oxford felt really really big! Stopping didn’t feel great, so I just tried to trudge along at a pace that meant I could just keep moving. I think Josh was even like 15 hours in at this point, so I think we were both really looking forward to summiting and hopefully having an easy walk over to Belford and then to a crew spot at Elkhead pass.
By now it was late Saturday morning and so we had plenty of company in the form of other hikers on Oxford and Belford. More folks than I had expected had heard of Nolans and they had heard there were several attempts happening. I’m super thankful for those who were out there with words of encouragement. Things were getting pretty hard by this point, so it was really helpful.
I held back tears when I saw Laura on the summit of Belford. And then meeting Jared Winick and Doug Oatisdown at Elkhead was about the best thing ever. Jared had Tailwind, coffee, chips & guac, and Torchy’s tacos!! Plus a beer for Josh! Josh had gone over five 14ers with me, including a stretch of almost 11 hours without crew! That support means more than I can describe.
Now it was Doug’s turn. Over Missouri was fine, but I guess the tacos and the high of seeing friends of Elkhead was wearing off as we descended towards Clohesy Lake on our way to Huron. By the time we were really ascending Huron in earnest, I was pretty sleepy and out of it. I was moving like a snail over and under logs trying to get back up out of the trees. Without Doug, I’m not sure I would have gotten through that section. Once we got above treeline I was a little better. But down low, bushwacking through the trees, I likely would have been sitting on a log hating life had I been on my own. It was here where I really started relying on the “suffering is optional” mantra. It let me really take the emotion out of the situation and assess how I was actually feeling. And for the most part, I was like, “yea, it’s not that bad. I can keep going.”
The top part of the east side of Huron is about the worst thing ever. It’s literally hands and feet trying not to slide back down all the loose marble-y scree. Doug pointed out that I should finish just so that I never have to do that section again. It’s hard to put into words how motivating that thought actually was! Between that and acknowledging the amount of support I had out there, at this point, I knew I had to finish.
With some Saturday evening thunder around we rushed up Huron and then down to Winfield. 11 down, 3 to go! That was super motivating and at this point I knew I had to finish. But starting night two was something I had never done before and sleep deprivation definitely started taking it’s toll.
At Winfield I tried to sleep, but it really just made me cold, tired, and not that happy. It made me want to go to bed for real. In theory, closing my eyes helped some, but at the time it did not feel that way. Thankfully Niko tagged out Doug and joined me over La Plata. His fresh legs and mind provided great energy up La Plata. I was feeling good and super psyched to knock it out. As we neared the summit, I was definitely cold again. And even though we had the main trail to follow down, in the dark it looked foreign to me and it seemed like it took 100 years to get down to the trees.
Once below treeline, sleep deprivation hit me hard and I started falling asleep while walking. At one point I accused Niko of making me walk an extra 20 miles while I was asleep! Getting to the trailhead and seeing Mandy and Jared was about the best thing ever.
I tried to sleep in the car again and this time I think I actually dozed for about 5 minutes. I thought this would be key, but unfortunately within about 15 min of starting up Elbert I was in full zombie mode. Jared did his best trying to keep me awake, but I was sitting on rocks and leaning on trees every few minutes so that I could close my eyes. My eyes even closed and I stumbled while walking up the trail several times. This continued even as the sun came up and I was super frustrated to be so dang tired.
trying to wake up and actually move up Mt. Elbert. La Plata in the background 📷: jaredwinick
But then Jared started doing the math on how much time I had left and this lit a bit of a fire under me and woke me up! For some reason, from Huron on, I think I had been in such a sleep deprived stupor that I had been under the impression that we were still just scouting the line. When Jared started talking about what I needed to do to finish safely under 60 hours, it really hit me again that no, this was my attempt. This was for real and I had to get it done!
I didn’t move awesome the rest of the way up Elbert, but I moved and we got it done. The descent sucks and I was tired and uncoordinated, but again, we were moving. I knew where I was, and what was left, and I knew I could do it.
Seeing the crew at the N. Halfmoon TH was amazing. It was sunny, spirits were high and I knew there was just ONE MORE left! I couldn’t believe it. Rick and Andrew led us up the trail and I felt almost normal. Maybe a little tired and slow, but generally I was good. I even hammered across the top when I realized I could break 55 hours to the summit of the last peak. I might have held back tears a little, but in general it was more of a fired up “oh yea!!” kind of emotion.
I wanted to move down the descent quickly and still feel like I was putting in my best effort, but my body started quickly shutting down on the descent. Everything hurt. My feet, my legs. I got all achey and fever-y and my nose clogged up entirely. I was starting to feel like I was fighting for survival. Thankfully Rick was there and just his presence and the eagle shorts he was wearing told me I was over-reacting!
Josh met us where we regained the trail and a little further down my buddy Mark had hiked up to join us as well! Now we had a little party going and slowly my body felt more like normal — well normal for 57 hours in I guess!
I had probably whined to Rick about wanting a faster time so it was in here when he decided to mention that if I could run we could still break 58 hours. While I was not happy he called me out, I knew he was right! And so 57 some odd hours in we began to run. And the trail got flatter and more buffed out and my legs loosened up and strided out until we were actually running. Really running! And it felt good! And the Fish Hatchery was right there!
57 hours 55 minutes after starting at the Blanks Cabin TH I had arrived at the Leadville National Fish Hatchery — crossing 14 14,000ft peaks along the way!
The biggest thing for me is that I know there’s no way I could have made it without my friends and family. I know there are people who do it solo and even totally self-supported, but I am not one of those people. I love the mountains and train plenty totally solo, but after a few hours I’m ready to get home. I am better with my people.
- Josh & Laura Wyse: sadly these two are now quite accustomed to rescuing me! At this point I think if I run into trouble out there, I’ll just start looking around for them! Thank you Laura for hiking into all the hard places to bring me Tailwind and other goodies. And thank you Josh for joining me on the longest possible stretches of everything I do. Pretty sure your time pacing just short of doing the whole thing yourself is about up! 😉
- Doug Oatis: even if I’m so out of the current pop culture that I have to google his references, the dude is among the funniest people I know. Thank you Doug for getting me up the east side of Huron one lasttime!
- Niko Kovacevic: a fellow Pittsburgh native… that’s probably all I really need to say except that the dude is so smart and thoughtful that he actually kept me awake with interesting conversation for quite a while! Thank you for taking me over La Plata, I probably would have just slept somewhere on the descent for 8-10 hours without you!
- Jared Winick: the guy runs flat sidewalks everyday and then somehow comes out and kicks butt on 14ers. I don’t know how this guy was so patient with me going up Elbert. Thank you Jared, it probably would have taken me 12 hours to get over Elbert without you!
- Andrew Bainbridge: dude is more solid than anyone else I know at his age. Thank you for pulling me up Massive!
- Rick Hoberg: I don’t know how Rick does it. As far as I know the dude doesn’t train. He just goes and does epic stuff whenever he wants! Thank you Rick for your constant encouragement over Massive. No doubt I ran my fastest while you were there, especially that last mile! #myMile
- My family: Knowing I was going to see my kids and Mandy’s mom Betty at certain crew spots is always exciting and motivating. I know I can count on their joy and enthusiasm and they lift my spirits every time. Thanks for being there and being my little fan club during all my silly adventures!
- Mandy Knotts: the best for last and most important of all, my beautiful wife who also gets to put up with my crap pretty much 24/7. She was at every crew stop that wasn’t a hike in (because she was also juggling three kids and a dog!). I couldn’t do any of this without her support. Knowing she supported me out there and also knowing how much she had given up to make this happen meant that quitting was notan option. Thank you babe, I couldn’t do any of this without you!
I also need to give a shout out to my Evergreen training buddies Jason Poole and Travis Macy. Both these guys are stronger, faster, smarter and more experienced than me. Sadly for them they’ve had to put up with my Nolan’s obsession for quite a while now! Training with them on a regular basis has meant that I’ve had no choice but to level-up my game, both physically, just to keep up with them, and mentally as they always had solid wisdom and advice for such an endeavor.
- Blanks Cabin TH – 7:21am
- #1 Shavano – 9:09am
- #2 Tabeguache – 9:42am
- #3 Antero – 12:19pm
- Baldwin Gulch TH – 1:49pm
- #4 Princeton – 5:28pm
- Avalanche Gulch TH – 8:50pm
- #5 Yale – 12:08am
- bridge over N. Cottonwood Creek – 2:18am
- #6 Columbia – 4:58am
- #7 Harvard – 7:40am
- #8 Oxford – 11:28am
- #9 Belford – 12:18pm
- Elkhead Pass – 12:58pm
- #10 Missouri – 1:57pm
- #11 Huron – 6:07pm
- Winfield – 9:00pm
- #12 La Plata – 12:37am
- La Plata TH – 3:57am
- #13 Elbert – 9:15am
- N. Halfmoon TH – 11:30am
- #14 Massive – 2:15pm
- Fish Hatchery – 5:16pm
Strava or it didn’t happen: Strava file here — It goes until I ran out of storage on my watch which was almost at the top of the last climb, Mt. Massive.
- Shoes: Salomon Sense Ride (one pair, start to finish!)
- Socks: Injinji (6-8 pairs just to keep my feet dry as much as possible)
- Shorts: Patagonia Strider Pro
- Hat: Footzone Boco Trucker
- Sunglasses: Goodr
- Packs: Ultimate Direction 2017 Hardrocker (to Winfield) and Salomon S-Lab Adv Skin 12 Set (Winfield to the finish)
- Poles: Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Poles
- Lights: Black Diamond Spot headlamp & Ultraspire Lumen 600R waist light
- Food: all the Tailwind! — I ran Tailwind non-stop start-to-finish and only ate real food at crew stops: 2 bacon cheeseburgers and fries from K’s, 8-10 pieces of bacon, 3 bowls of the healthy organic rice noodle ramen-type soup from Natural Grocers, 3 Torchy’s tacos, chips & guac, one of those gas station cheese and cracker packs, one sugar-free Red Bull, some coffee and zero gels!