Fast Times (and Aesthetic Lines) - Page 2
Ben Nephew in typical New England terrain. Photo by Scott Mason
The Presidential Range of New Hampshire is home to perhaps the most consistently technical terrain in New England. It’s also host to some of the windiest and foulest weather in the country—“the stuff that’ll blow you off the mountain,” says 38-year-old Ben Nephew, who holds the Presidential Traverse FKT.
The Presidential Traverse runs north-to-south for about 18.5 miles over the range’s spine, passing over eight mountains named after U.S. presidents and delivering roughly 8,500 feet of climbing. Nephew, of Mansfield, Massachusetts, set the current FKT on September 7, 2013, at 4 hours 34 minutes 36 seconds.
There’s a reason for that 15-minute-per-mile pace, explains Nephew, a biomedical-research scientist: “The route begins with a 4,000-foot climb, and the northern section is ridiculously technical. Picture loose, sharp rocks the size of an ottoman to a small couch. Some have moss on the edges and are very slippery.”
Former FKT holder Ryan Welts, a 33-year-old small-business owner from Northwood, New Hampshire, describes the traverse’s second half, “If you make it to Mount Washington in under three hours and with any gas in the tank, it’s time to open it up across the southern peaks, which are more runnable but still demand the use of your hands plenty of times.”
“You have to decide what level of risk is acceptable,” says Nephew. “In going fast, you’re going to fall at some point. The faster you go, the harder you’ll go down. It would be easy to have a life-threatening accident.”
When Nephew set the record in September, he improved upon a record set just a couple weeks prior by Jan Welford at 4 hours 35 minutes 29 seconds. The Presidentials are covered with a big blanket of snow now, but will soon see summer action among a cadre of local guys vying for the FKT. Says Nephew, “Anyone who dips that record under 4 hours 30 minutes is either going to have a massively elevated level of fitness or is willing to take bigger risks.”
Nolan's 14 in Colorado's Sawatch Range rebuffed all suitors in 2013. Will a new FKT go down in 2014? Photo by Matt Trappe.
Nolan’s 14 is a point-to-point route of about 100 miles that traverses 14 14ers in Colorado’s Sawatch Mountains. Athletes who try Nolan’s 14 can choose any route they wish, as long as they summit the designated 14ers. Nolan’s 14 hopefuls use a combination of singletrack, unkempt mining trails, dirt roads and cross-country travel. Let’s be accurate—most of the trek is cross country. The route’s high altitude wrecks bodies and attracts severe weather. And, finally, the creators of the Nolan’s 14 line, ultrarunner Fred Vance and mountaineer Jim Nolan, established a 60-hour time limit to reach the last summit.
The route is so absurd that few men or women have the cajones to give it a shot. In fact, only seven people—all men—have completed the line in under 60 hours. The fastest guy was John Robinson, in 2002, in 54 hours 57 minutes. (Just in case you need more evidence that Robinson is baller, the FKT was his second Nolan’s 14 finish.)
Eric Lee, a 32-year-old research scientist from Boulder, Colorado, is the most recent of the seven Nolan’s 14 finishers. Says Lee of his 2012 battle, “While spending two sleepless nights on the trail was difficult, the relentless thin air of high altitude took the biggest toll. The most memorable part of the adventure was how all three sunrises brought the mountains to life in different ways.”
Last summer, according to the Nolan’s 14 website, six people made a total of eight attempts. Colorado Springs, Colorado’s Julian Smith came closest to success. He finished 12 14ers before reaching the 60-hour time limit, where he then called his effort a day (well, uh, two-and-a-half days).
The 47-year-old engineer says, “I’m a mid-packer, not the fastest out there.” But Smith is an ultrarunner who has twice completed the Hardrock 100, often considered the hardest 100-miler in the U.S., and has a history in rock, ice and mountain climbing. “Nolan’s is twice as hard as Hardrock,” says Smith. “Remember, Hardrock is 13 climbs up high-mountain passes with Handies Peak, a 14er, thrown in. Nolan’s is 14 summits over 14,000 feet. Not only do you go up higher more times, but the terrain of Nolan’s is much harder, too. Less trails and more exposed places where you could fall and really hurt yourself.”
Smith plans to again join the small, almost-insane corps of men and women who will brave the route in the summer of 2014. “I have a ridiculously bad habit of picking up challenges without giving them much thought.”