Mountain Runner Luke Nelson on Tracing His Own Lines

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This past year, mountain runner Luke Nelson doubled down on what excites him the most: FKT attempts and big peak linkups. He still races, the steeper and more technical the terrain the better, but he no longer structures his season around skyrunning events and organized ultras at home and abroad. Here he explains what led him to go all in on to-your-limit-and-beyond challenges.

By Uphill Athlete Luke Nelson

About 35 hours into our Nolan’s 14 attempt this past September, I was intent on quitting. I couldn’t imagine what we still had left after what we’d already done.

There are 14 fourteeners in the Sawatch Range in Colorado, and for Nolan’s 14 you start at one end and pick your own route through the range, summiting each of the peaks. It’s about 100 miles with 46,000 feet of ascent. Jared Campbell and I were trying to break the record and set an FKT.

Earlier in the day when we were standing on the fifth or sixth summit, before I’d hit that wall, I asked Jared to point out the last mountain we’d summited. “You see that mountain on the horizon?” he said. “It’s past that.” My mind exploded because I could barely see this peak clear out on the horizon, and the one we’d end on was still farther away.

I’ve always been drawn to moving efficiently in the mountains. I didn’t come to running from a running background; I started mountain running about 10 years ago, and before that I traveled through the mountains by other means: I kayaked, I climbed, I backcountry skied and snowboarded. Movement in the mountains was the most intriguing part of endurance to me.

For several years my main focus was trail racing—I’d compete about once a month from April through October—but there were always these secondary mountain projects calling to me. They remained secondary because I had to taper for a race or recover from a race; I’d do them between races or would use them as long training runs. Then I made one a primary focus: in August 2014, Jared and I set the FKT for the 12,000-foot peaks in Idaho. We climbed all nine of them in a single push. The previous FKT was 38 hours, and we cut that down to 28 hours.

I began to feel more of a desire to channel my race-type efforts into FKTs and moving on my own in the mountains. This time of soul-searching came down to a pivotal discussion with Uphill Athlete Master Coach Scott Johnston. “Look, you have to make a decision between doing these amazing adventures and racing, because you can’t do both,” he said. “It’s just too much to do well.” He played devil’s advocate to help me decide where I’d be happiest, and that is seeking these mountain objectives.

Pulling back from racing is a hard thing to do as a professional mountain runner, because that’s where the community comes together, and that’s how the community and your sponsors gauge your ability. To march to your own drummer is tough. At first I was really nervous, because I didn’t know what their reaction would be, but the companies I work with have been extremely supportive.

So I made projects like the Idaho linkup the theme of my summer this past year. Jared and I did a multiday crossing of what was the Bears Ears National Monument—about 140 miles self-supported in three days—and followed that up with an FKT of all the 13,000-foot peaks in Utah in a single push. There are 19 of them, and we did all of those in 33 hours.

Jared and I dream big—sometimes too big—and this coming year promises to be more of the same. We’ve talked about doing a long trip to the desert in the spring that will probably be four or five days of self-supported running. Then, on my radar for summer is the Wasatch Ultimate Ridge Linkup, called the “WURL,” in Salt Lake City. There’s also one race that’s always been on my bucket list that I very much want to do, and that’s the Hardrock 100. I’ve been applying to the lottery for years and have not yet been selected. This year I’m 11th on the wait list, which is kind of the worst place to be: it’s just far enough out that I probably won’t get in, but just close enough that I might. I have to train like I’m in, which I fully intend to do, but it’s tricky to plan the summer around that. If I don’t get in, there’s another 100-mile mountain linkup in Colorado that I’m very interested in.

It’s a unique challenge to come up with a schedule for the year when you aren’t just selecting from organized races. But I love that you can have a loose date range for when you’re aiming to do an objective. You can wait for things to align perfectly—whether that’s training or weather or conditions—and get after it when everything is ideal. With Nolan’s, the date range was August to mid-September. As soon as it looked like the monsoon season was coming to an end and the weather window was shaping up, we nailed down a date, did our final prep, and went for it.

Out there on Nolan’s, when I decided I was going to quit over a full day in, Jared played some brilliant mental chess to get my mind going in the right direction. We spent hours moving forward, Jared listening to me insist I would drop when we reached my dad, who was crewing. Then we finally reached my dad, and Jared took his shoes off and started eating some food. Five minutes later I told him, “Hey, man, let’s keep going.” I understood that even though I wasn’t mentally prepared for the task, physically I was. It doesn’t matter whether or not you can imagine how far you still have to go; all you have to do is keep putting one foot in front of the other.

I understood that even though I wasn’t mentally prepared for the task, physically I was. 

So we rallied and got it done. We didn’t break the record, but we have the second-fastest time in 53 hours and 29 minutes.

While trail racing is super fun, and races are great places to gather with the community, I see a lot more potential to do very interesting things moving independently in the mountains as opposed to just going to a race. At a race you are tied to a course; you are limited by someone else’s imagination—by what they think is difficult. One of the biggest catalysts to my transition away from racing was that I was looking to draw my own lines in the mountains, to follow a little different path than most.

Nolan’s is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. The sleep deprivation, the altitude, the off-trail travel—all of those things combined in 100 miles was pretty amazing. It goes to show that most of us can do more than we think we’re capable of. That’s a recipe for an incredible adventure: when it exceeds what’s considered possible.

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