Meghan Hicks just became the third woman to complete the Nolan’s 14 line, which summits 14 14,000′ mountains in Colorado’s Sawatch Range, and the first one to do it from trailhead-to-trailhead in under 60 hours while also setting the FKT from the trailhead to the summit of her 14th peak. In the following interview, Meghan talks about why she undertook Nolan’s 14, what her biggest fears were, what finishing Nolan’s meant to her, and what her background in running is.
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Meghan Hicks 2016 Nolan’s 14 Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Meghan Hicks of iRunFar. Meghan, you just completed the Nolan’s 14 route setting an FKT for the 14th summit and being the first woman to go under 60 hours trailhead to trailhead. First off, congratulations.
Meghan Hicks: Thank you.
iRunFar: How do you feel about completing Nolan’s?
Hicks: I feel very proud.
iRunFar: You’ve done some really long things and some very mountainous things. How does this compare to Tor des Géants or the Hardrock 100?
Hicks: Nick Pedatella said on the morning we started—we were both at the Blank’s Cabin Trailhead standing around in the wee hours getting ready to go—he said that Missy Gosney had told him this was going to be harder than Tor des Géants. He said, ‘Keep that in mind while you’re out there because I want to know what you think.’ So as soon as I got to the finish, Nick was laying there…
iRunFar: Because he had done it as well.
Hicks: He had done Tor des Géants in 2014, the same year I did it. He got to the finish two hours ahead of me yesterday, so he had a couple hours to ponder it. His first question to me was, ‘What was harder?’ Sorry, Missy, but we both agree that Tor des Géants was harder than this.
iRunFar: That makes me think… you definitely swore off Tor des Géants again. Is there another Nolan’s in your future?
Hicks: I don’t see why I would ever have to do this again. I don’t know what the answer to that question would be if I’d come over the finish in over 60 hours, but I said to myself many times on the second night, Just keep going so you don’t have to do this again.
iRunFar: I remember that from Tor des Géants. Is that sort of your mantra for these…?
Hicks: Quite possibly. I haven’t given any thought to that. Possibly.
iRunFar: Having done Hardrock and Tor des Géants, what made you want to do Nolan’s 14? Why this project?
Hicks: I started coming to these mountains when I was a college kid, and these mountains are pretty special, the Sawatch, and the Colorado 14’ers just have this thing about them. I don’t know what it is, but they kind of get in you a little bit. I came to the Sawatch for the first time when I was a college kid, and then I’ve just been coming back every now and again. I started coming back regularly in the summer of 2013 and started exploring. I’d heard about people doing the Nolan’s route and started exploring it myself. It just slowly creeps into your blood, and you can’t get rid of it.
iRunFar: When did attempting it this year come into your mind?
Hicks: People have asked me in past years, ‘When are you going to do it?’ because I’d come to the Sawatch and hang out for a couple weeks and spend time on the Nolan’s line with other people who’d done it or they were training for it. It terrified me in a spectacular way. Going up one of the mountains and going down or maybe linking up two of them or in a long day three of them, that wasn’t terrifying, but the idea of putting it all together, that was unfathomable. For some reason this year, my mentality had changed. I don’t know if I had just grown comfortable enough with all the questions of the terrain and that experience, or if I’d done things enough that I was growing confident in my ability to do the whole line, but when I got here this year after Hardrock and started training and experimenting with the Nolan’s route, I just felt different. I just felt like, I think I might be able to do this. I could fathom it.
iRunFar: Going into it, what did you think would be the biggest challenge or the hardest part?
Hicks: I’m fearsome of the weather here. The storms are severe. I was fearsome of not finishing under 60 hours. I know it’s a very arbitrary time, but it’s what the people who designed the route established as the goal time, so…
iRunFar: It’s been around for 20 years, so…
Hicks: Yeah, I’m a very goal-oriented person, and I don’t like starting things I can’t finish. Usually when I start something, I feel pretty confident that I’m going to do what I’m starting. But I literally… you don’t know if you can do this until it’s done. I was also fearsome of the second night of no sleep. I don’t really function super well with no sleep, so I knew that was going to be rough.
iRunFar: The weather turned out to be perfect, chilly evenings but pretty much cloud-free and you didn’t have to worry about rain.
Hicks: No, I got sunburned.
iRunFar: A little bit. What ended up being the biggest challenge out there?
Hicks: I don’t think there was any one thing that was harder than anything else. I guess the most significant factor that impacted my ultimate finishing time was that my stomach just sort of shut off with 24 hours to go. Anytime I tried to put solid foods in it, it just rejected. I was on a liquid root beer and Coke diet for the last 24 hours. Even going over the last mountain, over Massive, my body finished with root beer. Mount Massive was sponsored by Coca-Cola yesterday.
iRunFar: There’s a little ramen up there, too.
Hicks: Yeah, I might have left a little ramen on the trail. Sorry about that.
iRunFar: You are, at least leading up to this, methodical in your preparation. You’ve seen all the course a couple times. You didn’t have goal splits, but you had estimates and many pages instructions for crew but in terms of just getting around and what you wanted. How did reality match up with preparation?
Hicks: I think pretty close. You crewed me, so you might have a slightly different version from the outside perspective looking in, but I felt like I had to take a very methodical approach to it and try to factor out and control some of the variables. For me, I just knew my ability, my own athletic ability, that I had the ability to finish it if basically the stars aligned and nothing too terrible happened. I had to factor out weather. I’m not fast enough to sit out a storm for two or three hours. I’m not going to finish under 60 hours then. I had to factor out navigation because if I lose an hour to screwing up navigation, then I’m not going to finish under 60 hours. I tried to control the most affecting variables. I think I did that. I screwed up little bits of navigation and lost a few minutes here and there, but—sorry Nick—I didn’t pull a Nick Pedatella and go off the side of La Plata…
iRunFar: The wrong side of La Plata…
Hicks: Yeah, and spend four hours mucking about trying to get back on course. Nick is a talented-enough runner that he had that wiggle room to still finish under 60 hours. That wouldn’t have happened for me. I’d have been over 60 hours.
iRunFar: But there were plenty of hiccups along the way?
Hicks: There always are.
iRunFar: How do you deal with those? Certainly some of them were probably frustrating in the moment. How do you get beyond?
Hicks: I feel like I’ve gotten to a point with the challenge of this sport—and by “this sport” I’m talking about running, I’m talking about adventuring, and I’m talking about time spent in wilderness in variable conditions—you just have to let things roll over you and just let it go. Stuff happens, and if you simmer on it too long… you spend hours by yourself out there, and if you spend that time simmering on some little thing that happened two hours ago, you’re wasting this beautiful experience. There’s always something that kind of gets in you a little bit. So, for instance, for me it was on the second night, I had the sleepies really bad. I was starting to let that control me. I had to keep telling myself, Put it in a box. Put it in a box. Compartmentalize it. You knew it was going to be a factor. Deal with it. Move on, you idiot.
iRunFar: There was one thing that had you almost at least wanting to stop. What was that?
Hicks: I don’t know. What was it?
iRunFar: Well, at least caused you a lot of stress or discomfort, and that was going out into night two, you knew you were right on your goal of getting trailhead to trailhead in 60 hours. What was that stress like?
Hicks: Well, I set up splits that were sort of what I thought were worst-case-scenario splits where if I consistently come into the different places where I’d timed myself over those splits, I was not going to make it. Pretty much almost every split I was under, so I was gradually building myself a buffer of time where if I had a problem, I could deal with it. A couple things happened that just chewed into that time a little bit, and then I screwed up my splits on La Plata really bad. I think when I wrote the splits, I didn’t factor in the two miles of road you have to run from Winfield to the actual trailhead to go up the south side of La Plata, so when I came in after La Plata, I was a half hour slower than the split, and I essentially on 60-hour pace. So I basically had to spend the entire last two mountains not knowing if I was going to finish in 60 hours. My stomach had turned, so I wasn’t able to get fuel in. Climbing had really slowed down a lot. I could still jog 15-minute pace in the alpine and do the downhill fast meandering that you need to do for the off-trail terrain. I still had that, but the uphills were slowing down a lot. Yeah, you’re right. That was really stressful not knowing if I was going to make it until… I don’t think I knew I was going to make it until you paced me over the last mountain, Mount Massive. When we finished the off-trail terrain and got back on the trail, we sat down for two minutes to empty all the crud out of our shoes and we had an hour and 10 minutes to run three miles on trail with no navigation.
iRunFar: And downhill.
Hicks: Basically downhill. That was the first time I knew I was going to make it.
iRunFar: What did that feel like?
Hicks: I didn’t feel a lot to be honest with you. I think Nolan’s 14 is a really good numbing agent.
iRunFar: Fair enough. Was there anything while you were out there that was particularly beautiful?
Hicks: All of it. Colorado is ridiculous right now. The aspens literally started to turn in the couple days prior to Nolan’s. You’re out there for two-and-a-half days. Literally, the groves of aspen are turning colors while you’re out there. You’re at 10,000 feet on Friday and the aspens are green. You’re at 10,000 feet on Sunday, and the aspens are this color. It’s unreal.
iRunFar: Were there any fun animal experiences out there?
Hicks: I saw a porcupine. I hallucinated a squirrel-bear.
iRunFar: Is a squirrel-bear a large animal with pointy teeth and a big tail or is it a squirrel that is fat…?
Hicks: Squirrel-sized, bear-shaped.
iRunFar: Did it talk to you?
Hicks: No, it came out and laid on the trail with its belly up like a dog would do if a dog wanted its belly rubbed.
iRunFar: Did you pet the squirrel-bear?
Hicks: No, because when I approached it, it ran off.
iRunFar: What else did you hallucinate?
Hicks: There was a tree trunk next to the trail and it looked like one of those small ammunition cases, like those metal army ones. It looked like it was 10 times that size. I was actually running by myself down a jeep road after Mount Elbert (I can’t remember the name of the road. It’s a jeep road that goes off of North Halfmoon Road). I announced to the world, ‘Hey, there’s a giant ammunition case!’ I turned into a tree trunk.
iRunFar: Did you have any auditory hallucinations?
Hicks: Yeah, climbing—it’s an extremely long climb up Mount Elbert, like four or four-and-a-half hours—and up in the high country there was a dude strumming a banjo. I couldn’t see him, but I could hear him. He was strumming away.
iRunFar: Any other?
Hicks: Conversations… distant—I could hear men and women talking to each other in these animated conversations. I couldn’t hear what they were saying. I’m sure it was just the wind whistling around. It was consistently very windy in the high country. But to me, the wind on the second day was definitely people talking to each other for sure.
iRunFar: You’ve been on the Nolan’s 14 course a lot over the last couple years, but Missy Gosney’s and Anna Frost’s effort last year, did that sort of spark anything to get you out here?
Hicks: Definitely, yeah. What they did was what no woman had managed to do before. Some women had tried, but not a lot in comparison to the number of men that had tried. I don’t know… I’d have to research to see if the number of women represents the number of women who do alpine sports or endurance sports. I have a hankering that the percentage is even less, the women who have tried Nolan’s that do big mountain sports. Seeing two women just ‘woman handle’ Nolan’s last year was definitely inspiring.
iRunFar: Did you ever feel the flipside of that while you were out there? I’m going to show women we can do this.
Hicks: Definitely there was impetus there to be a woman and to ‘woman handle’ it. It’s a course that anybody can do. It’s not your gender that defines whether you can do it or not. It’s various abilities. It was definitely some woman power that drove me there.
iRunFar: I guess I asked this to anybody I’ve not interviewed before. How did you come to running? What’s your athletic background?
Hicks: That’s really funny. When I was in eighth grade, I decided I wanted to join cross country and track when I went to high school the next year. My best friend at the time and I decided if we were going to be ready for running we needed to start training. So we would go to the local community center in the suburban Minnesota town that I grew up in, and we would run on the treadmills. That’s how I started running.
iRunFar: Did you run in college or high school?
Hicks: I ran in high school as a dual-sport athlete. I did track and field in the spring and tennis in the fall. I planned to do the same thing when I went to college, but it turned out that I was a pretty decent doubles tennis player and they played year-round tennis at college. I was a better tennis player than a runner, so that’s what I did in college.
iRunFar: Did you come back to running right away?
Hicks: Yeah, tennis doesn’t really travel well past tennis courts, and running goes anywhere. Our tennis team did tons of running as training. I naturally went back to road… well not ‘back to’… but I did road 5ks, 10ks, half marathons, and marathons. Then I discovered trail running.
iRunFar: How was that?
Hicks: I was working in Big Bend National Park in west Texas. I’d done a ton of hiking and a ton of backcountry travel. Off-trail travel was very popular there, so I’d go out on an all day off-trail adventure and then come back and go on an evening road run because I didn’t know trail running existed. Wow, you can combine those things! A girl called Amy moved to Big Bend, and we were co-workers and friends—not were, still are, she exists—and she was a trail runner. She opened my eyes to a new sport.
iRunFar: You’ve been doing it ever since?
iRunFar: Apparently longer and longer and longer?
Hicks: Yeah, it’s not the distance, it’s the experience. It’s getting to be in places like this.
iRunFar: That naturally leads to ask what other adventures inspire you in the future, not necessarily this season?
Hicks: I’m very inspired by sitting on a couch right now.
iRunFar: Fair enough.
Hicks: I don’t know. That’s a really good question. There are some things I want to do in the Sierra Nevada. I lived there for a couple years. I got to see and do a lot of stuff, but there’s more I want to do there. I have sort of a project of summiting all the 13’ers in the Uinta Mountains in Utah. I haven’t quite finished that. There’s a lot of off-trail travel. So I want to finish that. The Wind River Range in Wyoming, that’s another mountain range I’ve been to a couple times. I have some routes there that I really want to go back and do.
iRunFar: You are signed up for a race in about a month.
Hicks: Yeah, under a month. It’s the ELS 2900 in Andorra. It’s a 70k race that travels over the highest peaks in Andorra all over 2,900 meters.
iRunFar: Seven of them, right?
iRunFar: That’s a more technical adventure than Nolan’s 14.
Hicks: Yeah, it kind of has some adventure-racing-type aspects. There are a couple via ferratas that we’ll do, some off-trail navigation, and some Class 4 scrambling.
iRunFar: Harness and helmets at parts.
Hicks: Yeah, just a couple short bits, I think.
iRunFar: Obviously you had a hard effort at Hardrock almost two months ago now and this. Could you see yourself going to ELS 2900 and just taking it as an explorational adventure?
Hicks: Yeah, I don’t think I will ever go to that race wanting to try to be competitive because I’ve never… I’ve spent time on that type of terrain, but I’ve never spent time trying to be fast on that type of terrain. I don’t know that I’m comfortable with that. I really want to go and have the experience. I think it’s in my gearbox in terms of what I can do, but I don’t think I ever had speed as what I was going to be focused on there.
iRunFar: Over the next couple weeks, if you have the opportunity to get some training in on that type of terrain or those skills…?
Hicks: Yeah, once my legs bounce back a little bit, I’m definitely going to try to get out and freshen up on that stuff so I feel comfortable and ready. It’s just going to be a glorious adventure I hope.
iRunFar: Congratulations on Nolan’s 14.
Hicks: Thanks. Funny to shake your hand.
iRunFar: Ahhhh, good job.