[Update: After we published this article, Fred Vance responded to our request for comment, saying of Gosney and Frost, “I think they should be congratulated for setting a new record and deserve bonus points for style. I like the idea of champagne on Shavano.”]
Last week, we reported that ultrarunners Anna Frost and Missy Gosney had become the first women to finish Nolan’s 14, a gnarly adventure run that summits 14 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado’s Sawatch Range.
But almost as soon as Frost and Gosney arrived at the final summit, Mount Shavano, around 4 p.m. Tuesday, August 18, commenters on a 14ers.com forum began questioning whether the duo’s run should be considered an actual finish.
And it wasn’t just internet cranks or armchair adventurers. Nolan’s finishers Eric Lee and Gavin McKenzie, as well as ultrarunner Peter Bakwin, who keeps track of trail-running speed records on his popular Fastest Known Time site, all weighed in.
While no one debates the magnitude of what Frost and Gosney achieved—and many find the whole discussion trivial—the 14ers.com thread has exposed disagreement about how to define—and who gets to define—one of mountain running’s most legendary routes.
The Roots of Nolan’s 14
In Colorado’s Sawatch Range, 14 14,000-foot peaks cluster in a roughly 50-mile north-south line. Naturally, this unusually high concentration of 14ers inspired the state’s hardest-core mountain runners to come up with a challenge: start at a trailhead on one end of the cluster and tag as many of those peaks as possible within 60 hours. To finish all 14 requires covering around 100 miles and 44,000 feet of elevation gain, mostly on steep trails and difficult off-trail terrain.
Fred Vance, an engineer and ultrarunner then living in Colorado, conceived of the idea in the 1990s. In 1999, Vance and two other ultrarunners, Blake Wood and Gordon Hardman, made the first Nolan’s attempt, all ending after the seventh summit. (Read the complete story of Nolan’s 14 here.)
Nolan’s existed as a small, informal event—a semi-organized buddy run, really—until the U.S. Forest Service shut it down in 2003 for allegedly violating wilderness-use regulations.
The Finish, in the Beginning
Runners involved in Nolan’s before 2003 say they considered the end to be the final trailhead, whether Blank Cabin in the south or the Fish Hatchery, near Leadville, in the north. (Nolan’s can be run in either direction.)
It was commonly accepted “that you got all the way down to the trailhead by the 60 hours,” Ginny LaForme, an early Nolan’s runner and the first woman to make 12 summits, told Trail Runner in November. But because of the run’s informal nature, it “was always a bit of a nebulous area,” she added.
For instance, in 2001, 14 years before Frost and Gosney would arrive at the very same spot, Mike Tilden topped out on Shavano and became the first person to reach the 14th summit of Nolan’s.
“I’m done!” Tilden radioed Vance, who was waiting on Mount Princeton, three summits back, with LaForme and a few others.
“We couldn’t tell for sure whether Mike was just being humorous, or was genuinely unclear on the location of the finish,” LaForme said recently. “But it seemed like the latter.”
According to Vance, he radioed back to tell Tilden, “To give an official time, you have to get down to Blank Cabin”—which Tilden did, clocking 58:51.
But, Vance told Trail Runner in October, “I was being a little bit, I don’t know, not totally serious about it.” When he had conceived of the route, he had never actually expected someone to finish within 60 hours; that was simply a way to “keep it separate from backpacking.”
Adding to the ambiguity was the “no-DNF rule,” LaForme says. “People’s results were their times to the farthest peak achieved within the 60 hours.”
Fred Vance told Trail Runner in a recent email that in a Nolan’s 14 report published in Ultrarunning in 2001, he listed both summit and trailhead times for all finishers. “I also noted that Ginny LaForme was the first woman to run N14 ‘and equaled the course record for the previous year,’ i.e. 7 summits,” Vance said in the email. “I know this seems a bit contradictory, but the fundamental idea is to see what an individual can accomplish on the N14 course using an endurance mountain-running style.”
Or as Eric Robinson, LaForme’s husband and another longtime Nolan’s participant, put it earlier this year, “They were just Nolan’s runs. Nobody said, ‘I’m gonna do a Nolan’s attempt.’ You said, ‘I’m gonna go do Nolan’s. I might get five peaks, I might get seven, I might get 13 or I might finish the whole thing.’ ”
Still, early runners like LaForme, Robinson and Blake Wood have generally considered the “whole thing” to be the two trailheads and the 14 summits in between. A notable exception is Matt Mahoney.
Mahoney joined the Nolan’s gang in 2000, the second year, making 10 peaks, and served on the Nolan’s run committee with Vance, Wood and others. Around that time, he set up an unofficial web page with information about the run. The page is still in use today; it is the main repository for records of Nolan’s finishes and attempts, as well as route beta, old photos and tidbits of mountain-running lore. On the web page, Mahoney writes, “Cutoff is 60 hours to the last summit.”
“My personal opinion is that the finish is the last summit,” Mahoney says. “I don’t think this is so unusual. The FKTs [fastest known times] on the John Muir and Appalachian trails end on summits but you still have to hike down.
“Fred Vance originally said that there were no DNFs,” he adds. “Your result was the number of summits in 60 hours. That was the interpretation I was using.”
Depending on your definition, six or nine individuals have finished Nolan’s as an FKT route—running solo or in small groups and arranging their own logistics—since 2003. At least five of those finishers—Matt Hart and Jared Campbell, in 2012; Eric Lee, also in 2012; and Gavin McKenzie and Brandon Stapanowich, in 2014—followed the trailhead-to-trailhead precedent set by Vance.
The sixth, Brandon Worthington, also in 2014, summited Shavano in 57:24, then kept the clock running until reaching the Blank Cabin trailhead in 59:24. Worthington could not be reached for comment, but his trailhead time indicates that he likely saw the 60-hour cutoff as applying to the trailhead-to-trailhead definition.
The seventh, Andrew Hamilton (who this July set a speed record for Colorado 14ers) completed the Nolan’s route unsupported—a first—in September 2014. He made the final summit in 57:18 and the final trailhead in 60:19. As Mahoney described to the Denver Post, Hamilton was “kind of bummed” to have just missed what he thought of as the cutoff—until Mahoney told him the 60 hours applied to the final summit.
The eight and ninth were Frost and Gosney. “I have always approached Nolan’s as a 60-hour endeavor from the starting trailhead to the top of the last peak,” Gosney says, adding that Mahoney met the two of them on the Shavano summit, “confirmed that we were official finishers in a time of 57:55 and congratulated us for being the first female finishers of Nolan’s 14.”
Vance has not been actively involved in Nolan’s since 2004. Meanwhile, Mahoney—whose website is an invaluable source of information for Nolan’s aspirants as well as journalists and the simply curious—has become the closest thing Nolan’s has to an official record-keeper and public face.
Some recent Nolan’s runners say that they prefer to honor what they view as Vance’s original definition of the route. Others, such as Gosney and Frost, see Mahoney’s definition as authoritative, since, in the last decade, he has had a crucial role in informing and encouraging Nolan’s aspirants while Vance, who now lives near San Francisco, has essentially retired from the run he created.
So Did They Really Finish?
Frost and Gosney arrived at the Shavano summit with 2:05 left on the clock. They probably could have made it to the trailhead. Last year, McKenzie and Stapanowich ran the same section—with Frost pacing—in a little over an hour and a half.
But that wasn’t their goal. “We had ample time to run to the trailhead in under 60 hours, but felt there was no good reason to do so,” Gosney says. (Frost declined to comment for this article.) “Instead, we decided to celebrate on the summit of Shavano with our great friends and crew with a bottle of champagne, and cherish the moment and the camaraderie while descending the mountain. I would not trade that walk for anything, even a lack of ‘controversy.’ ”
Everyone Trail Runner spoke to while researching this story praised Frost and Gosney for their milestone achievement—regardless of whether they thought of it as a Nolan’s 14 finish or a trailhead-to-summit FKT—and most allowed that participants can ultimately come up with their own definitions of the line. After all, Fred Vance initially barred pacers, but that rule has largely been dropped.
“Nolan’s was originally conceived and executed as being trailhead to trailhead in 60 hours,” says Blake Wood, who finished Nolan’s in 2001 about 45 minutes after Tilden. “That said, this is not an organized race with set rules. I think there is latitude for people to do it in their own way, as long as it is clear what they did.
“Missy and Anna went the whole way in ‘about 60 hours,’ ” Wood continues, “and I consider them to have finished it—just as I have always considered Jim Nelson and John Robinson to have finished it with Mike Tilden and me in 2001.”
(Nelson and Robinson both reached the final summit, but not trailhead, within the 60-hour cutoff that year.)
Ultimately, the current debate is not really about whether Frost and Gosney are “official” finishers—if there can be such a thing—but the larger questions of what, exactly, a Nolan’s finish is and who gets to determine that.
“I hate the fact that we have to have the discussion,” says McKenzie, one of the 2014 finishers. “It’s a distraction from what they achieved over those three days. Whatever label you want to put on it, it was an amazing accomplishment.”
At the same time, he says, it’s important that the ultrarunning community figure out how to talk about Nolan’s in a clear and consistent matter: “What happens when—not if—another woman finishes in the same direction, and gets to the trailhead in under 60 hours?”
Some 14ers.com commenters complained that inconsistent or vague information on Matt Mahoney’s much-cited website has led to the current confusion. Though the first paragraph of his Nolan’s page states unambiguously that the cutoff applies to the final summit, a 2001 results page lists final-trailhead times for Robinson (60:01) and Nelson (62:09) and notes that each was “after cutoff.”
The Nolan’s page also links to race and run reports, by various runners, that offer different definitions of the route. One 2002 report by Mahoney himself describes that year’s race as “starting at Blank Cabin near Shavano at 6:00 AM Aug. 22 and ending 60 hours later at the Leadville Fish Hatchery near Massive”—a construction that seems to imply a trailhead-to-trailhead definition.
“It absolutely needs to be clarified,” says Matt Hart, one of the 2012 finishers and a contributing editor for Trail Runner. “The Nolan’s website run by Matt Mahoney is ambiguous and contradictory. I give the girls full credit, personally. They are amazing athletes and did something special.”
“To keep it fair, I report both times although I emphasize the summit time,” Mahoney says. “It is the participants who make the rules.”
So does that mean Frost and Gosney finished Nolan’s? It depends on who you ask, and it’s possible a consensus definition will develop in the wake of the current debate. But for now, given the multiple accepted interpretations, it seems fair to continue calling Frost and Gosney the first female finishers of Nolan’s 14—and, whatever one’s opinion, to celebrate their remarkable run.
“[Nolan’s] requires a lot of hard work and discipline to get even partway through it,” says Wood. “The journey is more important than the result—at least, that is how it was for me in 1999 to 2001, and I suspect Missy and Anna would agree.”
Paul Cuno-Booth is the associate editor of Trail Runner.