Over the weekend, Meghan Hicks became the fourth woman to lower the women’s overall Nolan’s 14 fastest known time (FKT) over the past two months, in supported fashion in her case. In the following interview, Meghan talks about picking the right window for Nolan’s, how she was detail oriented but also flexible in her attempt, and what she’s grateful for.
Meghan Hicks Post-Nolan’s 14 Women’s Overall Fastest Known Time Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Meghan Hicks after her women’s supported FKT of Nolan’s 14. How are you, Meghan?
Meghan Hicks: Good, Bryon. How are you?
iRunFar: Good. We’re back here in Silverton, Colorado, after your great effort this past weekend.
Hicks: Yes, it snowed today. Or it is snowing today.
iRunFar: Well, then, let’s start with the weather. Nolan’s 14 is a multi-day effort for the women. You did it in 50 hours and change. Hitting the right weather window is really crucial. For much of the summer, there’s lots of snow on the ground, making the route slow or impossible. Then there’s the monsoon season in July and August. Then snow comes. There’s also the heat of the summer. And, this summer, there was smoke from wildfires. How did you choose when to go for it this time?
Hicks: I was looking to thread the needle between all of the factors that you just talked about. I think that most people who attempt Nolan’s go for either trying to hit it before heavy monsoon season and before the heavy electricity season sets in. Or, they wait for that window between when monsoon season starts to abate and some of these first big storms set in. So, for me, I was never going to be ready to traipse around some big mountains early in the season. I needed the summer to prepare my body. For me, it was taking that later window and just trying to set it.
iRunFar: Did you set a weather window or a particular range of dates?
Hicks: Originally, I thought I would set it for late August. That’s because there’s usually a week or so where the monsoons sort of abate before they come on strong again. I thought I would aim for that. In the end, it just worked out logistically to wait for the early September window at the end of monsoon season.
iRunFar: And you wound up moving your start date ahead by one day fairly late in the process.
Hicks: Yeah, I originally chose Friday, September 4 as the start of my window. I picked that because it’s when monsoons usually start calming down. It was after I thought I had enough prep and taper time and when I thought that crew people could be around to support me. Yeah, the weather window opened up Tuesday–three days before–so we went for it on Thursday morning.
iRunFar: You wound up having pretty much a perfect weather window.
Hicks: It could not have been more perfect. Honestly, with every potential climate factor, it was a few degrees warmer than normal for the first week of September, but I would trade that for any other factor that could’ve been there. It could not have been more perfect.
iRunFar: Plus, you started just after wildfire smoke cleared out, and quite literally one day after you finished, there was a huge influx of wildfire smoke.
Hicks: I really have to credit meteorologist Chris Tomer for giving me the couple-day window where it was going to be between these cold fronts bringing snow, where there was going to be enough of whatever the factors were keeping wildfire smoke away from the Sawatch. All the climactic stars really aligned.
iRunFar: So did your effort this weekend.
iRunFar: Four years ago, you set the women’s supported FKT of Nolan’s 14. You were the first to go under 60 hours from trailhead to trailhead. You ran 59:36. You ran just over nine hours faster this time, in 50:32. Did you think that was possible?
Hicks: Yes! I mean, I would never say those numbers out loud. Maybe not even to you. But I know what it takes for women to walk up and down those mountains. I know what it takes for women to walk up and down a string of those mountains. I knew it was absolutely possible. It was just a matter of having enough things not go wrong for some woman who was prepared for it. I think someone needed to believe it was possible.
iRunFar: There are so many things I want to unpack there. One thing is: How large a role does confidence play in attempting something like Nolan’s?
Hicks: The variable of confidence is probably different for different women. I think, for me, it’s like a balance of confidence. I’ve caught myself being too confident about something before and relying too heavily on one very short bout of training and thinking that represents a greater sphere of fitness than it does–the recency bias. I’ve also been caught by lack of confidence before–not believing I was capable of something that I was. For me, I think it’s about finding a balance.
iRunFar: How much of that is based on familiarity? What other factors play into that?
Hicks: I don’t know that I have a good answer to that question. I’m not sure. I know I’m quite familiar with Nolan’s at this point, but in between my two successful attempts I had a failed attempt and I think I was slightly overconfident going into that experience. Yeah, I sort of thought I could tame the mountains and tame the conditions, going out in whatever I could find. I found the opposite to be the case. I don’t know. I think that’s a really hard question.
iRunFar: You talk about taming the mountains and taming the environment. It sounds like this time you didn’t try to do that at all.
Hicks: Yeah, that was the biggest takeaway from my 2017 failure on the Nolan’s route: Mother Nature is really in charge of all things. She can tumble a rock down and really change your day. She can blow a pretty gnarly wind that makes it really difficult to be up there for so long. In the high country, it’s very exposed and there’s very little cover. You’re not in charge.
iRunFar: You’re not in charge, but how much can you mitigate by being prepared?
Hicks: I think that’s a huge part of it. I think in terms of preparation and organization and doing everything we thought we could with all of the potential risk factors, and the factors that would have prevented it from being a successful day…. Yeah, just going in with a mind open to the fact that you aren’t the boss…. That really helps me, anyway.
iRunFar: Obviously, the effort takes two-plus days. There’s not going to be perfection throughout. Unexpected things are going to happen. What was the largest challenge you faced out there?
Hicks: Again, it was nutrition. In my first successful Nolan’s attempt, I lost my stomach and my ability to eat solid foods about a day-and-a-half in. This time, I started to lose that only a half-day in. I had this large amount of time that I was relying almost exclusively on liquid calories. This time, I was better prepared for that. I had lots of different liquid nutrition on hand and was able to keep getting in lots of calories. I missed some of the volume. I was probably not getting 200 calories per hour because it was hard carrying that liquid in over so much vertical and so much time out there. It was a challenge.
iRunFar: But you had a plan to mitigate it and you followed that.
Hicks: Yeah, I had six or eight different flavors of liquid calories and different things to drink. It kept the palette about as happy as it could be. There were ups and downs, but overall it was pretty good.
iRunFar: So, this has been a summer of women on the Nolan’s 14 route. Up until this summer, I think you still held the FKT at 59:36. Then, I believe three women broke that in sequence.
Hicks: Yeah, like bam, bam, bam. From early July to mid-August.
iRunFar: You were aware and excited about all of these strong women who were running Nolan’s, and the others who were thinking about it.
Hicks: Yeah, I certainly think of this as the summer of women on Nolan’s in terms of the sheer quantity of women being out there, recce-ing the line and making attempts and then having success on the line. The numbers themselves show how far the women’s record has come down in a couple months’ time.
iRunFar: And more than double the number of women have finished.
Hicks: Yeah, I feel that situation has been building and it’s time for women to come into their own on the Nolan’s course. I couldn’t be happier to see the women who have been interested in the line. Even the women who have tried, done reconnaissance, and decided this wouldn’t be the year they try. Or the women who did try and haven’t made it to a finish yet. It’s exciting times. It’s really fun to watch and be part of it.
iRunFar: Even at the beginning of the summer, before anybody attempted it, you were training with some of these other women. You were talking with them and helping them out. You were sitting there on top [holding the FKT], what was your thinking about the situation?
Hicks: It’s just time for there to be more women doing things on big mountains. For me, there’s definitely the intrinsic motivators of being out on a mountain range that I really love. It’s the puzzle pieces of doing Nolan’s–I definitely get personal enjoyment out of doing that. Making space and keeping the conversation going about women out there and encouraging women to encourage each other…. Yeah, it’s time. It’s way past time. Whatever I can do. Whatever any little seed of motivation I can plant in another woman–it doesn’t have to be about Nolan’s–to get out there. Making space in our culture and our community for women…. Bring it on.
iRunFar: You mentioned that it’s not just about Nolan’s. You’d also be excited to see women attempting other big mountains. Are there any other mountains that are on your radar?
Hicks: Yeah, definitely! A project that I worked on in the past and didn’t reach success on was the Utah 13ers and linking all of those up on a single trip. I failed at that a couple of times, so that’s something that I’d like to go back to. I was really intrigued by Sarah Keyes and Alyssa Godesky tagging peaks and challenging each other out in the Adirondacks. I like watching what women are doing on the Colorado Trail and the Wonderland Trail. The John Muir Trail has always been intriguing and something that’s on my personal-interest list. That list could also go on forever.
iRunFar: Your mention of the John Muir Trail also makes me think of the Sierra High Route. So, you have tried Nolan’s three times. How has your motivation evolved over those three attempts?
Hicks: I like things that are puzzles, things that involve putting yourself together physically, mentally, almost spiritually. Things that require you to be very dynamic and changing puzzle pieces. Nolan’s fits that pretty easily. It’s close by to where we live, and this being the summer of COVID-19, it was easy to hone in on that and not think about going to something in another state.
iRunFar: In terms of performance and goals, what drew you out there specifically?
Hicks: I mean, it’s fun to see if you can get better at something. It’s fun to see if you can learn something more and, from year to year, have to re-learn and be reminded of something, “Oh, I forgot about that.”
iRunFar: What percentage of the route had you not been on earlier this year?
Hicks: I think one mountain: Huron Peak. I didn’t see all of that before we started.
iRunFar: You were talking about getting the details right and figuring out all of the puzzle pieces. People said you presented like you were a master out there, and this was your master work.
Hicks: That’s really nice of them to say.
iRunFar: Just watching a lot of races and performances throughout the world, plenty of people go out strong and fade to the finish. It doesn’t appear that’s what you did.
Hicks: I really wanted to feel strong on the last day and on the last mountains. I thought there was a lot of time that could be made up there, so my goal was to do the first 24 hours really easy.
iRunFar: Did you succeed on that?
Hicks: Yeah, I went a little slower than I hoped I would need to during the afternoon of the first day, going into the second day. It was quite hot and I could feel the effects of that, so I knew I needed to be careful. I went on my planned pace for the first 24 hours with the exception of during the heat of the afternoon for a little bit, where I eased off even more there.
iRunFar: On the opposite side, it seems like you made some really strong progress, timewise, during the overnight and early morning hours.
Hicks: I was really happy with that. I don’t always feel strong in the nighttime. I don’t love not sleeping [laughs], but I felt pretty good during both of the nights. It was fun.
iRunFar: Aside from getting sleepy, did the lack of heat help?
Hicks: Totally. The nights weren’t cold. I think I only put my jacket on for a period of one mountain on the first night and one mountain on the second night. It was a rain jacket [not a puffy jacket]. I think for most of the mountains I wore two wool shirts and gloves and a buff and very thin tights. It’s crazy.
iRunFar: What did go wrong out there?
Hicks: My nutrition wasn’t ideal. I made a couple small navigation errors. Over the course of the two days those maybe added up to 30 minutes in total. But I don’t know, it’s really hard to ding that because there were other places where navigation went smoother than expected or I was faster than expected because of getting it just right. Honestly, those little dings, it’s really hard to call them misses because it’s just going to happen.
I did not have ideal downhill runs on the last maybe three or four mountains. I think on Huron and La Plata Peaks I could have run pretty well, but I chose not to because I thought I was losing my downhill legs and didn’t want to. The last two mountains are off-trail mountains. It just requires a lot of eccentric contraction and my legs were tired for the actual downhill running. I think I could have made up some time with slightly stronger downhill legs.
iRunFar: To call into question your “small navigational errors,” there was an apocryphal story from one of your pacers that you went around one side of a rock and they went around the other and you insisted, “Oh, I F’ed it up!” They were like, “We, got to the same point at the same time.”
Hicks: That sounds about right. I have been called “very detail-oriented” before.
iRunFar: How many pages long were your crew packets?
Hicks: Many. Embarrassingly many [laughs].
iRunFar: Now that’s planning it out. What were some pleasant surprises?
Hicks: Lots of great wildlife. All three sunrises were off the hook. Two moonrises. I have to say both were awesome, but the first night’s was really blood red. There must have been some smoke in the air. It was unreal. I mean, nature always surprises, but there were lots of lovely things to watch.
iRunFar: Anything from the human side?
Hicks: I think everything went well. Our crew was amazing. I think there were eight crew and pacers put together and all of you were incredible: Super fun, super easy to be around. I couldn’t have done it without all of you.
iRunFar: What was the wildlife you saw?
Hicks: This summer, three times I have seen three ptarmigans near the summit of Mount Oxford. This run was the third time. That was fun. The day before we attempted, I saw a snowshoe hare. I think rabbits are good luck. I saw mountain goats in the dark on the summit of Mount Massive, the final mountain. Elk in the forest coming off of Mount Yale. Lots and lots of deer. Including the same deer I saw while doing reconnaissance as I did while attempting the FKT, coming out of Pine Creek toward Mount Oxford. I saw a mom and a baby and another one looking down at me from a ridgeline. It was such a particular spot that it had to have been the same ones. I lost my lip balm while recce-ing and found it during the attempt. Vince Heyd, my pacer for Mount Harvard, we saw a four-legged animal with a long tail and it moved so fast. The only thing it could be was a mountain lion or a fox. One or the other.
iRunFar: You mentioned you don’t like lack of sleep. Did you ever have to battle the sleep monster out there?
Hicks: Only going up the old mining road on the first part of Mount Elbert. You’re on this old mining track and it’s mindless, it’s warm, it’s the middle of the second night. I was sleepy.
iRunFar: You went through two-plus days and your feet held up well. What was your secret?
Hicks: I had one little blister on my right big toe. My feet were tired, they were sore. All of the extensor and flexor tendons were kind of at their max on the last downhill. It was kind of hard to plant my feet on the ground while trying to run. Yeah, I don’t have any great secrets. I know it comes down to your nutrition and hydration being good and having a good size shoes. I wore the Injinji compression knee-high socks and they have yielded success for me for years in terms of keeping toe blisters at bay and allowing you to have some movement in your shoes but not a lot.
iRunFar: You changed your shoes and socks a couple times, but not at every crew point.
Hicks: I think I changed them every day or every half of a day. I think I changed them three times.
iRunFar: So, you went out there and ran 50:32. Do you think you could go faster?
iRunFar: Do you think you want to go faster?
Hicks: I don’t know [laughs].
iRunFar: You’re not saying no.
Hicks: I’m not saying yes and I’m not saying no. For me, this was the perfect summer. We usually travel about seven times between the beginning of the year and now, taking us to places around the world for a week to cover races. We’re on long-haul flights and we don’t sleep and we don’t run with any quality. I had those seven weeks to train normally without any breaks. I’ve been at high altitude since March this year, courtesy of the pandemic because I didn’t have to go down.
I mean, I don’t know that in my regular life set-up I could be set up any more perfectly than I was this year. It’s awesome to dream and to believe in what you may be capable of, but I had so many stars align. Big picture, little picture, on the day, in training. How can you replicate that? This may have been as good an opportunity as I could have optimized and utilized.
iRunFar: Do you see concrete opportunities for where you could have improved?
Hicks: Oh yeah. If I could get my nutrition right, if I could run the last four downhills as well as I could run the first four downhills, if I could walk around the left side of the rock instead of the right side of the rock [laughs]… I don’t know. So many things went right.
iRunFar: Does it seem like a paradigm is shifting when it comes to women’s performances at Nolan’s?
Hicks: I hope so.
iRunFar: Was it just in 2017 when Iker Karrera brought the men’s record under 50 hours?
Hicks: Yeah. We’ve always known that Nolan’s could go so much faster than it has, but it’s just not one of those things that you can be a fit athlete and knock off, like a trail. You have to have route knowledge. You have to be acclimated to altitude. Getting the weather window and conditions right so you don’t have a ton of snow underfoot and you don’t have to wait out a storm. There are so many things that you have to get right.
iRunFar: So even on the men’s side, it would be possible for someone like Kilian Jornet or François D’haene to set the record, but it wouldn’t be near their potential.
Hicks: It would be fun to watch, but Joey Campanelli is an incredible mountain athlete who prepared himself specifically for this. He knows the route like the back of his hand. The men’s record is going to go lower than that for sure, but it’s going to take a man with really special talent, and specially honed to this route to do it.
iRunFar: How about on the women’s side?
Hicks: Same thing. Totally. Some of the same women who have been out there this summer. Give them another year of recce-ing. If they want to. The women’s record is going below two days this year or next year. Done. Done. And it’s going to go further, too, I believe it.
iRunFar: Do you feel good being a part of that? Of seeing what’s possible?
Hicks: Yeah, I know that there are women that are going to take it a lot further than I could ever take it. But just getting them excited, and getting out there and experiencing it–whatever I can do to get the bug in people’s ears and get them out there, I feel good about it.
iRunFar: What would you say to ensure that the Nolan’s line is well-preserved and cared for?
Hicks: Thank you for asking that question. The use of Colorado 14ers is going up. The use of the Nolan’s line is going up. I think that’s the natural progress of things out here. In my mind, it’s not about stopping people from going out there or trying to minimize the number of people going out there. It’s about encouraging people to develop care for being there. When you care about it, you take care of it. You travel ethically and you teach others.
iRunFar: What are some of those highlights to travelling ethically?
Hicks: There are some places where you can travel pretty fast going downhill, but you knock a lot of things down with you and that’s probably not a good idea for a lot of people to be out there doing that. It doesn’t take much to create an erosion problem. Going in small groups and dispersing your travel. Packing out your toilet paper.
iRunFar: Can you be more specific about what it means to disperse your travel?
Hicks: We as trail runners are used to moving right behind each other. But Leave No Trace, the nonprofit that creates guidelines for sustainable and ethical travel, they really ask people who are traveling off-trail to disperse their traffic and not walk one behind the other. I think the Colorado 14ers Initiative nonprofit started using this information to say that for some tundra plants, it only takes five footsteps on them for them to die.
iRunFar: So, it’s particularly important here. It’s a good principle to have anywhere, but especially in the alpine and on those tundra plants.
Hicks: Alpine environments and wet, boggy areas.
iRunFar: Spread wide, don’t just follow in a line.
Hicks: That’s it!
iRunFar: Well, what else would you like to share about these past two days?
Hicks: Gratitude. It just comes down to a feeling of gratitude. It’s just so cool. Being out there basically on your own, or mostly on your own for a couple days, through wild country. Not seeing hardly anybody. Having all of the factors of nature seemingly on your side. Sometimes when you’re out and about, it seems like the elements are stacked up a little bit. To have them unstacked and open for you, I just feel so grateful for that. Plus, we had such a fun crew out there–friends crewing and pacing provided a lot of laughter. I didn’t talk on all of the mountains because I was feeling a little ill on some of the mountains. But even if I wasn’t talking, I was having a ton of fun just listening to friends and being with friends.
iRunFar: Congratulations, Meghan.
Hicks: Oh, thank you.
iRunFar: What was your favorite piece of candy on the trail? I don’t think you had much of your own, but I think your crew provided some.
Hicks: My pacer, Eszter Horanyi, who was with me on La Plata Peak, was carrying a bag of Sour Patch Kids, Swedish Fish, and some kind of sour gummy worm. She was with me during the heat of the second day. I was drinking my calories. I really wanted to try to get some more calories in and her bag of food was wonderful. You can just stick those things up into your gums and they dissolve. At that point you literally, you feel the energy being converted as it’s dissolving in your mouth. It tasted great, it felt great, I loved it.
iRunFar: A gummy-food mélange?
Hicks: A gummy-food mélange.