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First Women Complete Nolan’s 14, Colorado’s Most Demanding, Obscure Mountain Challenge

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Anna Frost on the Nolan’s 14 course in the Sawatch Range, Colorado; Photograph courtesy Anna Frost and Missy Gosney

Update: We checked with Matt Mahoney, the Nolan’s 14 record keeper, on how the Nolan’s 14 finish is defined. He said: “Like any challenge, the participants make the rules. Traditionally, the clock stops on the last summit.”

Yesterday, ultrarunners Missy Gosney and Anna Frost finished Nolan’s 14, meaning they climbed 14 14,000-foot peaks in succession over about a hundred miles in the highest mountain range in Colorado, from Mount Massive near Leadville, all the way down to Mount Shavano near Salida. This is an accomplishment so large that even most ultrarunners can’t fathom what these runners did. Indeed, out of dozens of attempts, only 11 people have ever finished the route. The effort took them just shy of two and a half days, non-stop, and during that whole time they slept about half an hour. They endured lightning storms, nausea, intense fatigue, and more than a few hallucinations. But they got it done, and in doing so, they became the first women finishers of this most demanding of obscure mountain running challenges. Their effort was supported with a crew and aid points. (Learn the history of Nolan’s 14.)

Let me try to give you some perspective here: Thousands of people climb Mount Elbert, Colorado’s highest mountain, each year. It’s a big peak, but it’s not technical and just about anyone who can hike can reach its summit. A slightly smaller number of people climb next-door Mount Massive, the state’s second-highest peak, each year, which is fittingly massive, but equally approachable from a technical standpoint. Occasionally, ambitious hikers complete both peaks in a single day, in doing so covering over 9,000 feet of climbing over the course of about 14 miles. That’s enough to floor your average strong hiker. But for Missy and Anna, those two peaks were only the beginning of an odyssey that would eventually stretch for 12 more “14ers” and almost 58 hours in total. (Runners must complete the feat within 60 hours to be official finishers.) Here are a few things they had to say about their adventure. Find your own hike here >>

Storms

“The lightning was on top of us. I was literally sh** scared,” says Anna of their descent from Mount Yale in the evening of their second day. Caught in a thunderstorm above treeline, they increased their pace significantly and sprinted into the nearest trees, where they hunkered down and did sit-ups and “arm flaps” in order to stay warm. “There was no time between lightning strike and thunder,” says Missy. “Do you know how loud that is?”

Route Finding

“We got lost on the easiest part of the course, that I’d done a million times,” says Anna. “Both of us know the route super well,” reports Missy, “and we didn’t really ever go off route.” This is saying a lot; over the course of roughly a hundred miles, more than half of which was off-trail, they nailed every bit except for a quarter-mile section on a good trail, which only happened “because I was hallucinating like crazy,” reports Anna.

Hallucinations

“I was really hallucinating,” says Anna. “All the rocks were animals. Mickey Mouse was probably the craziest. There were giraffes and elephants. I saw a black koala.”

Nausea

“Neither of us puked the whole time,” says Missy proudly, but goes on to say that “we both felt super nauseous above 13,000 feet.” Which, keep in mind, comprises about 25 percent of the whole endeavor.

Food

“I ate a salami stick on the top of Harvard,” recounts Missy. “Meat and grease—it was the best thing ever.” Their food tally seems literally impossible. Anna says that between aid points she ate “a few bars, maybe four caffeinated gels (not because I wanted them but for the caffeine), lots of Shot Bloks, baby food.” Missy was even worse: “I had some almond butter and honey sandwiches, two caffeinated gels, one bar and a few chewies.” They both drank lots of water, occasionally with some electrolyte powder. At aid points, where they met their crew, they managed to get more down. “I ate so many of those tortilla/avocado/turkey wraps,” says Anna. They both ate some pizza, soup, and chips. “Oh yeah!” says Anna, “I ate a lot of PB&J’s, but with the crusts cut off because I didn’t want to get curly hair.”

Injuries

Missy leans in close and talks in a low voice, as if embarrassed for what she has to say: “you know, I’m 48 years old and I didn’t have any issues out there. That’s so lucky.” She says her feet were sore at the end. Anna’s feet suffered mightily over the first half of the run. “My feet were literally wet the whole time,” she says, “and the friction in my shoes was horrible.” Wet feet can lead to deep creases and eventually to straight-up trenchfoot. However, during the second day Anna managed to get her feet dry enough at aid points to limit damage, and she was less bothered by the pain thereafter.

Clothing and Gear

“Of course I wore a skirt,” says Missy. “I always wear a skirt.” She also carried capris and rain gear, a puffy jacket and wool hoodie, gloves, a buff, a warm hat and a headlamp. “I even took a freaking space blanket.” Anna took much of the same. “I couldn’t believe how heavy the pack was the whole time,” she marvels. Both girls carried poles for much of the route, and Anna grudgingly carried a SPOT tracker, allowing people all over the world to follow their route. “With a GPS,” she says, “people know where we are, even when we don’t. But Nolan’s is about being out there, in the mountains. It’s safer to have the emergency button, but it takes a lot away from the experience, too.”

Men vs Women

Does a route like Nolan’s level out some of the differences between men and women? “Totally,” says Missy. “Nolan’s isn’t just about how strong you are. It’s more about skill sets. Have you ever run with Anna before? She’s a f***ing rock star. She can see the perfect line up a mountain in a flash, she can walk on loose, angled scree for hours, she’s totally comfortable in mountain terrain. Those are skills that must be developed over time, and that’s the kind of thing that makes the difference on Nolan’s.”

Why?

At dinner after finishing, a couple asks Missy what she’s celebrating and she explains that she and Anna just completed the Nolan’s 14 route, which doesn’t seem to stun them as much as one might expect, likely because they can’t grasp the magnitude of the accomplishment. Few people can. But they gamely respond with a philosophical question: “Are you doing this for some….purpose?” Missy laughs. She explains that she was in fact raising money for Colorado Outward Bound, but she knows that’s not the answer they want. They’re trying to fathom why anyone would voluntarily suffer so deeply, for so long, for so little reward. So she says, “Most people do this because it’s a pretty good test of mountain and ultra-running skills. It’s little on the crazy side, but Nolan’s is a cool line. It was a fun goal.”