Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
How much time do you put into preparing for a big race or adventure? How often do you practice sections of the course as dress rehearsal? For Robert Barlow, a 36-year-old lawyer from Denver, the training was six years. His course? Nolan’s 14.
Nolan’s 14 involves connecting 14 Colorado peaks that are all over 14,000 feet tall, all in a single outing. The trek crosses the Sawatch Range, nearest to Leadville, Buena Vista, and Salida, destinations on many a trail runner’s list. The peaks loom. They’re always there. You can see the entire set of 14 from afar.
But for Nolan’s, there’s no trail — at least not for about half of it. And when not on a designated trail, the adventure requires navigating out of bounds. The standard time limit for Nolan’s 14 is 60 hours, which doesn’t leave enough time to climb and descend each individual trail, and then travel to the next on foot. Runners must make a line that doesn’t exist.
And though there’s no set course, most variations add up to about 100 miles and around 45,000 feet of climbing. Sometimes in the dark, over boulder fields, around drop-offs, hiking, running, climbing, falling, and getting back up.
Six Years in the Making
Robert Barlow began his trek at 3:41 a.m. on June 23, 2022, and finished at 3:10 p.m. on June 25. A cumulative time of 59 hours and 29 minutes. He made it.
But the journey actually started in 2016, when a friend and mentor first told him about the challenge.
“In 2016, I did Colorado’s 100 highest peaks without a car. And in getting ready for that, I spent some time with [ultra mountain runner and Nolan’s expert] Andrew Hamilton. And he said, ‘This will be really awesome because then you’ll be ready for Nolan’s.’”
At the time, Barlow had never heard of Nolan’s 14, so he looked it up. Because of Hamilton’s confidence, the seed was planted. “The obsession started with Andrew saying, ‘I think you can do this,’” Barlow said.
So in 2017, Barlow decided to get to work.
Failure is a Requirement
Attempts on Nolan’s have been made and recorded since 1999. “By my count, I’m the 41st person to finish under the 60-hour cut off,” Barlow said.
He had no idea how long-term the project would be when he started.
“I began scouting sections in 2017 and 2018. And in 2018 I ran a [100-mile race, the Run Rabbit Run] so I felt pretty good about the distance.” In 2019, Barlow ran a second 100-mile race, the Silverheels 100, and placed 2nd overall. He was starting to feel confident. “I thought, ‘I got this — no big deal.’”
But he was humbled with his first attempt at Nolan’s in 2019. “I quit at Avalanche Gulch, between Princeton and Yale.” Ten summits shy of the goal.
Nolan’s 14 can be navigated in either direction, south to north or north to south. In each of Barlow’s attempts he went south to north, starting at the Mount Shavano trailhead and ending at the Fish Hatchery in Leadville. The route summits Shavano, Tabeguache, Antero, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, Harvard, Oxford, Belford, Missouri, Huron, La Plata, Elbert, and Massive. Time doesn’t stop until you have fully descended the final peak.
Having only successfully summited 4 peaks in his first attempt, Barlow knew he had work to do. He realized that this project is more than just distance and elevation gain. It’s something far beyond numbers and traditional training. Barlow knew he’d have to fully immerse himself in the Sawatch Range. He’d need to learn all of the gulches between the peaks. He’d have to practice on-trail climbing and off-trail descending. He’d need to do it all in the rain and the wind, with hallucinations that only come after hours of exertion and lack of sleep.
In 2020, Barlow set out for a second attempt. He was highly motivated, mainly because he didn’t believe his first attempt was indicative of his fitness. This time he made it to the top of 13 peaks.
“I missed it that time because of La Plata. I went all the way off trail to the bottom of La Plata basin. I lost 2 hours there. It actually took me 10 hours to get to Elbert and that ended my day.”
Something happens when you spend so much time up high. You start craving it more and more. It’s always a bit of a relief to “come down,” but then the time it takes before wanting to get back up gets shorter and shorter. Which is why Barlow’s 3rd attempt came just 3 weeks later.
“I tried it unsupported, did 10 peaks, and quit on Missouri.” He was about an hour behind his previous attempt, did some rough math, and decided it wasn’t going to happen. It was time to regroup.
Barlow took a year off from attempting Nolan’s and concentrated on digging deep. In 2021, he was constantly in the mountains, constantly summiting those 14 peaks, sometimes one at a time, sometimes 5 in one go, sometimes in the winter.
Despite his conditioning in wild weather, for his next attempt, Barlow wanted to pick as close to ideal conditions as he could get. He consulted meteorologist Chris Tomer, who specializes in helping athletes pick weather windows for FKTs and other high mountain adventures. They picked a week in June. In the days leading up, Tomer sent Barlow a detailed report of the probable weather in the mountains.
“He gave me a report that basically said there’d be 100% chance of storms and up to four inches of snow or rain on the second day.” So Barlow scrambled to start the trek a day earlier than planned.
According to Tomer, “The key [to a successful Nolan’s attempt] is to avoid the Monsoon season. But this year, Monsoon season came 1-2 weeks earlier than normal.” Barlow contacted his crew. “I immediately started messaging all five of the folks helping me out, and I think by 7:30 a.m. all of them had committed to shift it one day earlier.”
In the 30 days leading up to his 4th attempt, Barlow made 29 14er summits. He went up and down the same mountains over and over. Then, in the dark, on Thursday, June 23, 2022, he set out.
Fourth Time’s The Charm
Resounding proof that the mountains are always in charge, not everything went according to plan. It seems impossible that such a trek, no matter the colossal preparation, could go off without a hitch. But that’s part of it. At some point, it always becomes survival.
Barlow’s team consisted of friends and seasoned mountain runners: people he trusted to anticipate his needs, keep things organized, and crack jokes. Besides organizing food and clothing — and 4 changes of shoes — various members of the team met Barlow at different points, which helped his morale.
“Rob is so strong and experienced in the mountains that supporting him generally doesn’t really involve pacing him,” said crew member Eriksen Van Etten. “Rather, just keeping him company and sometimes even distracted.” Van Etten tried to keep conversations light and fun, with plenty of reminders to eat and drink. “When you get to the end of really long efforts the brain can get a little foggy, so keeping an eye on the clock and the pace helps.”
But sometimes your vision just lies. Another crew member, Nick Medica, met Barlow on La Plata — a mountain that had become consequential. “La Plata has always been a bit of a crux for me. In 2020, I was seeing all these foxes. And this time, I hallucinated again, that I had a guest book and was rambling to Nick about the guest book and where were my guests?”
Seasoned Nolan’s runners Andrew Hamilton and Andrea Sansone also surprised Barlow on La Plata, which stands out as one of the greatest highlights of the trek for Barlow. “I ran into them around one in the morning. I can’t really remember the time — it was super dark. And they ran down the trail with us, which was so nice.”
“At the bottom of La Plata I picked up my buddy Eriksen Van Etten. He’s been my pacer for two [100-mile races]. I don’t eat meat anymore, but I used to, and I grabbed a sausage patty [in one of the 100-mile races] at like mile 90 because I thought it would be good. And I asked Eriksen to hold onto it. So he held it in his hand for like five miles. We have some good stories of Erickson taking care of me.”
A Nolan’s team becomes a family that wants nothing else in the world except for their runner to make it down that final stretch in under 60 hours.
“Sharing an adventure in the mountains with a good friend is always a gift, and there’s a really special energy involved in supporting someone through an ultra event,” Van Etten said.
Barlow got fairly sick between La Plata and Elbert, the second to last peak. “I was coughing up phlegm and a little blood. That made me very scared. I couldn’t breathe very deeply.” The team created a text chain with a doctor, made sure that Barlow’s oxygen levels were safe, and determined that he could keep going.
As always, when it comes down to it, serious tests of human strength and endurance are science experiments. Salt levels, calories, hydration, oxygen. No matter how many mind games we play and how much we want it, the answer is usually about balancing chemicals. Inevitably, as the heart rate goes up, the body’s demands for sugar and fat go up, too. “Cokes and Twinkies and Ho Hos and peanut M&Ms and Gummy Worms and pizza. Lots of pizza.” Barlow’s fueling strategy paid off.
RELATED: A Guide To Running Colorado’s 14ers
Down to the Wire
On Mount Massive — the final peak — Barlow knew it was going to be tight. And Van Etten knew exactly how to help him get it done.
“What’s amazing about Eriksen is he’s got so much experience with me. He knows what I need. And so, on the uphills, he didn’t push me. He knew I was exceeding a happy speed. He was only saying, ‘You’ve got this, you’re doing good.’” Once they were on the downhill, Van Etten called out pace. “I thought, I’m gonna finish this thing.” Utterly exhausted, Barlow rolled into the Fish Hatchery with 30 minutes to spare.
In preparation for the epic trek, Barlow cut out all alcohol 60 days in advance. “I don’t think I’ll go back to drinking, but one of my good friends did bring a bottle of Prosecco. I took a sip of that and honestly felt so drunk.”
Then, the team went for Mexican food in Leadville to celebrate.
“I ordered a cheese quesadilla. It came with like six slices. I ate two of them and was done.” It took a couple days before food tasted like food again. But it only took 9 days before Barlow was back up to 14,000 feet, playing in his favorite mountains.
“Six years of scouting, 3 failures, 158 summits of these 14 peaks added up to success. And even when it’s bad, if you keep going, you can get it done. I think that’s true outside of the mountains, too.”
Overall, Barlow’s takeaway is that teamwork does indeed make the dream work.
“I think we’re better together. People can achieve really big objectives when we put our minds together. I don’t think I could have done this by myself, particularly having tried it unsupported.”
Next, Barlow is signed up for the High Five 100 in August — a 100-mile race around Lake City, Colorado, that involves summiting five 14ers, with a total of over 40,000 feet of climbing. “I think that kind of fits in with some of my strengths,” he says, laughing.