September 29, 2016 5 min read

By: Nicole Birkhold

At 9:00 AM on August 26th, Ted Mahon set out to accomplish something no one had completed yet this year and only 14 people had completed before him… ever.

Turns out, 14 is a rather auspicious number for what Ted was setting out to do. The Nolan’s 14 course got its name from the fourteen 14ers one must summit to complete the mission. But that’s not all, it has to be done in under 60 hours. To break it down by numbers a little bit more, the course is roughly 100 miles and scales over 45,000 vertical feet.

Ted Mahon at trailhead
Scree on Nolan's 14

If you haven’t heard of the Nolan’s 14 course, you’re not alone. It’s revered in mountain running communities in Colorado and got it’s start in 1998 when a group of runners asked Ken Nolan, a legendary peak bagger who has been a kind of godfather/ mentor to the Colorado mountain community, to set a course that would be challenging and aesthetic at the same time. He determined there were 14 peaks over 14,000 feet in the Sawatch Range that could be traversed in one go. He set the specifications fairly loosely — you could go from north to south or south to north, you can pick the route you take as long as you reach the summit of each of the 14 peaks, and start and end at the designated trail heads. The one strict stipulation… It has to be completed in under 60 hours. For the first few years, no one could complete it in the designated time frame.

Antero Summit
Foggy ridge in Collegiate's

Eventually however, Mike Tildon, Blake Wood, John Robinson and Jim Nelson finished in under 60 hours in 2001. Since then, only ten others prior to Ted completed the course. The peaks that must be summited include: Shavano (14,229’), Tabeguache (14,155’), Antero (14,269’), Princeton (14,197’), Yale (14,196’), Columbia (14,073’), Harvard (14,420’), Oxford (14,153’), Belford (14,197’), Missouri (14,067’), Huron (14,003’), La Plata (14,336’), Elbert (14,433’), and Massive (14,421’). This order is the south to north route that Ted decided to embark on.

One of the confusions people have about what Nolan’s 14 is, is this is not an officiated race. Unlike the Hardrock 100 or the Grand Traverse, this is just man versus mountain and the only thing you are trying to set is either your best time or maybe an FKT (Fastest Known Time). The chase of FKTs has been on the rise over the past few years as races have been harder to get into and they have to happen on a set day of the year. Additionally, sanctioned races are not allowed to be held on wilderness space, so many of the mountains on the Nolan’s 14 course can never be part of a traditional race.

“Setting out on something like Nolan’s is more of a mountain purist type of outing,” says Ted.

“Chasing an FKT is open to anyone. It also makes you more open to your surroundings without the crowds, aid stations and following the flags on a traditional race.”

Midnight snack
Message in snow

This isn’t to say Ted doesn’t get down on traditional races, a mere six weeks before his Nolan’s attempt he took 7th place at the famed Hardrock 100 trail race.

“There are pros and cons to both. With a race, there are other people out there to push you and you don’t have to think about the route. Both of these things make you faster. And aide stations are nice.”

So what lured Ted into Nolan’s this year?

“The thought of Nolan’s has been with me for years, but I didn’t think I was ready until probably this year,” says Ted. “I had to gather data and talk to other people about their experiences.”

“I pulled inspiration from other people and I was ready to put myself up against that. And I hope that somewhere down the line I help inspire other people who are maybe just getting started in this sport to get out there and try something like this.”

So back to 9:00 AM on August 26th and Ted sets off from Blank Cabin about 2 miles north of the Angel of Shavano campground on the Colorado Trail. He is with his friend Eric Sullivan and has his wife Christy and other friends with him who will drive to the six or seven crew spots where they will meet him after certain descents with food, water, dry clothes and twice, a sleeping bag for about an hour worth of rest. The weather this particular weekend had looked like it was going to be clear and dry up until about the morning he took off. As weather in Colorado is apt to do, things changed. Clouds rolled in and rain dotted the sky on and off throughout Ted’s weekend.

“The weather was challenging,” said Ted.

“A dryer course would have changed things a little. Keeping my feet dry would have been nice and you inevitably have to be more careful with wet feet and wet scree and talus boulders.”

Ted descending rocky trail

But that didn’t stop Ted and his crew. In just under 56 hours, Ted clocked in at the fish hatchery having ascended and descended all 14 peaks of Nolan’s 14.

“Afterward I was more beat up than anything I’ve ever done and I swore I’d never do it again. But by the next morning… I was planning what I would do different next time.,” said Ted. He was just shy of a FKT by about two hours. Andrew Hamilton currently holds the FKT with a time of 53 hours and 37 minutes.

“Preparation is the most important thing in an attempt like this. And now that I’ve done it once, I would do things a little differently. I could do some ascents and descents in different ways and make it shorter in mileage. And the weather could have been better.”

Ted has no concrete plans to attempt Nolan’s again. Nor does he have any concrete plans to go after any other currently standing FKTs.

Ted muses more about creating his own course — finding something novel and aesthetic; maybe something in the Elks, a place he’s very familiar with in both the summer and winter months.

At this point, Ted is taking it day by day… going up stairs still pose a discomfort this soon after completing Nolan’s! And after completing the Centennial Peaks with partners Chris Davenport and Christy Mahon last spring, 2016 has been a big year for Ted. Congratulations, Ted, from all of us here at Strafe. We’re excited to see what is up next for you!

Ted with time on mountain