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Andrew Hamilton has never won a race. He has never even gotten close to a podium. But when it comes to big peak linkups, he has put down times that many of the country’s best trail runners can’t touch.
The 42-year-old Denver native has held the record for summiting all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks—14ers, in local parlance—on three separate occasions, twice in typical supported fashion and once “self-powered,” linking all of the trailheads by bike.
Just 10 weeks after his latest record run, in 2015, he nabbed the overall FKT—53 hours 39 minutes—on Nolan’s 14, a choose-your-own-route challenge to link 14 14ers in Colorado’s Sawatch Range in under 60 hours. He did so unsupported.
Last week, in the space of 72 hours, Hamilton added two more FKTs to his resume, adding a 15th summit to Nolan’s 14 for an Only Known Time (OKT) on what has been dubbed Holy Nolan’s and, in the process, also setting a new FKT for the north-south direction on Nolan’s proper, in 53 hours 42 minutes.
One missing summit
When asked where he got the idea for Holy Nolan’s, Hamilton simply responds, “It was an idea whose time had come.”
The concept of linking all 15 Sawatch 14ers has, according to Hamilton, been “floating around for a long time.”
“Over the last decade plenty of people have asked me why we didn’t add on Holy Cross after Nolan’s,” he says. “It wasn’t a brand new concept.”
One of the first people to act on the thought was Mike Priddy, 41, of Superior, Colorado. A long-time ultrarunner with an “increasing appreciation for the aesthetic of stringing multiple peaks together,” Priddy had known about Nolan’s since the early 2000s, but always felt it was incomplete, since it only included 14 of the 15 peaks that make up the Sawatch Range.
“I briefly considered Nolan’s 14 as a target project,” says Priddy. “[But I] rejected it as a mere part of a whole for its exclusion of Mount of the Holy Cross.”
Instead, Priddy christened a challenge he called the Sawatch 15. Priddy’s challenge was different from Nolan’s in that it did not impose a 60-hour time limit on the Nolan’s 14 summits, and did not have required start or end points. In fact, the northern terminus of the Nolan’s route—the Leadville Fish Hatchery—is significantly out of the way.
Hamilton was inspired to link the Sawatch 15 concept into an official Nolan’s run after talking with fellow Nolan’s attemptee Kendrick Callaway, who had already mapped out a route between Holy Cross and the fish hatchery.
By going out of the way to tag the official start and end points, and make the 60-hour cutoff, “Andrew conformed to the ‘rules’ as defined by the original Nolan’s event,” says FKT-aficionado Peter Bakwin. “I think these precedents are important.”
Most of the other runners Hamilton knew who had considered a Holy Nolan’s run had conceived of doing it south-to-north, adding the extra summit at the end. “A smart person would probably have done [that],” says Hamilton. “Because by the point [you reach Holy Cross] you’re done with the Nolan’s portion and you don’t care about time.”
But Hamilton had already completed Nolan’s in the south-north direction. “I wanted to do it north-to-south,” he says. “Because I had never done it.”
A computer programmer by trade, Hamilton approaches all of his peak linkups and record attempts with mathematical precision. Unlike his previous Nolan’s FKT, which was unsupported, Hamilton chose to bring a crew. The reason: he wanted to see if he would run faster with the lighter pack made possible by frequent restock points, or if the refueling stops would add back the time he had gained. In short: if supported, could he beat his own FKT from 2015?
He ditched the 20-liter pack that had accompanied him on previous Nolan’s trips, and instead readied three different packs, which his crew would carry between aid points. At each meet-up point, Hamilton switched packs depending on what he would face in the upcoming segment—a large pack for the 15-plus-mile unaided sections, a small pack for mid-sized sections and a minimal vest for the few sections of road.
“In between sections, I would come in to my crew point and sit on a camping bad with storage boxes in a horseshoe around me,” says Hamilton. “We had a footcare box, a medical box, a box of rain gear and warm layers, a box of shoes … ” At each crew stop he changed his socks and shoes, attended to blisters, added or dropped layers and got out before he was tempted to linger.
Initially, he had estimated an 84-hour finish: 15 hours on Holy Cross, eight hours to sleep at the Fish Hatchery (the only sleep he would take) and 60 hours for Nolan’s.
But when he finished the initial Holy Cross leg in just 12 hours, three hours ahead of schedule, he decided to change the plan and commit to a 72-hour finish. “I thought, how cool would it be to finish in three days,” he says.
On a normal Nolan’s run, Hamilton doesn’t sleep at all. However with the added summit (and time on trail), he knew he would need to catch at least a few hours of shuteye. After completing Holy Cross he spent six hours at the fish hatchery resting and regrouping, before continuing.
“Going from less than 60 hours for a regular Nolan’s to about 72 hours for Holy Nolan’s, as Andrew did, is a big add, since it requires a whole extra night,” says Bakwin. “It’s way harder to go three nights with minimal sleep than just two. Andrew is just a monster when it comes to dealing with sleep deprivation.”
Indeed, Hamilton cites his ability to handle sleep deprivation as a major asset. Where an elite ultrarunner might move faster on the trail but take long stops with their crew, Hamilton makes up time by not stopping, and not sleeping (or, doing so as minimally as possible).
“I am a terrible runner,” he explains. “I would get my ass kicked at Leadville or Hardrock. But when you’re running 100 miles over the course of 53 hours, speed isn’t important so much as the ability to keep moving.”
A smooth ride (mostly)
For the most part, things went according to plan. The weather was perfect, though the air was laden with smoke from wildfires in nearby Utah, which caused Hamilton’s asthma to flare up—”by day two, my voice had changed,” he says.
The biggest issue was his legs. “My climbing legs never kicked in,” he says. “Luckily I was able to make up time on the descents.” Frustrated, he pushed away the thought of beating his 2015 FKT, and focused solely on finishing in 72 hours.
When he tagged Blank Cabin, the official southern terminus of Nolan’s, he was just three minutes shy of his 2015 time—still good enough for a north-south FKT.
“Looking back, I see that my unsupported time [from 2015] was really amazing,” he says. “Even when someone else comes and crushes it, I’ll still be happy with it.”
He has no shortage of goals for the future, though. Next year, he is considering a centennial record (linking all 100 of the highest peaks in the U.S.). “I’m trying to work out if I can get under 20 days,” he says.
He may not be done with Holy Nolan’s, either. “Secretly, I wonder if I could do the whole thing in 60 hours,” he says. “If I took away the six hours that I spent at the fish hatchery, that’s 66 hours … it is a mathematical possibility. It would be amazing.”