It’s nearly midnight when Andrew Hamilton races down the trailhead, jumps in the back of a red van and sprawls out.
As soon as the back door closes, the van takes off. A member of the crew peels off Hamilton’s shoes and socks. Somebody else rubs his legs. They mend his injuries with athletic tape. His wife and mom pack his next bag.
Hamilton lets out halfway snores during the bumpy ride, as his crew puts his worn-out body back together. An hour or two later, the car jolts to a stop: it’s time to wake up, scarf down a quick meal and start the next hike.
This was Hamilton’s routine for nine days, 21 hours, 51 minutes in between climbs. To smash Colorado’s longstanding fourteener speed record, he needed to keep a blistering pace with seamless transitions. Still, along the way Hamilton would ask himself “Will I make it? Can I actually pull this off?”
‘Here we go again’
Days before Hamilton started his record-breaking journey, he wasn’t sure about the timing. The Denver athlete worried about early monsoon rains, late-season snow in the high country and lightning strikes. He pushed his start date back a week and thought about canceling.
“But if I didn’t do it and the weather turned out to be great, I’d be really mad at myself, so I knew I had to try,” Hamilton said.
He logged on to 14ers.com and typed a message that would serve as his formal announcement. “Well, here we go again,” he wrote.
“When I sent that message, it became real. That’s the moment I finally made up my mind that I was doing it,” Hamilton said. Within an hour, dozens of responses came in on 14ers.com. People would track his movements via GPS. There was no turning back. To grab the speed record, Hamilton would need to climb up and down each of Colorado’s 58 peaks above 14,000 feet – in less than 10 days, 20 hours, 26 minutes.
The 40-year-old stay-at-home dad tried to break the record in 2014, but injuries stopped him. He briefly owned the record in 1999, but his time of less than 14 days was bested by Teddy Keizer a year later. Since 2000, Keizer’s record was the one to beat.
“He beat it by so much. I mean, he took three days off of it, so nobody thought it was approachable. Nobody touched for a long time,” Hamilton said.
So, the fourteener community tuned in when Hamilton said he was going to try for the record. Behind their computers, hundreds, if not thousands, of people from Arizona to Boston to Seattle followed him on his blog or 14ers.com.
“In the old days, nobody really knew about it, so it makes it more exciting to know lots of people were following along,” Hamilton said. “And it adds pressure, too. I put a disclaimer up that I wouldn’t care if I stop early, but it’s not necessarily true because I didn’t want to leave anybody hanging.”
Around 4:30 a.m. on June 29, Hamilton took the first steps of his journey. He had each move planned to the minute on a spreadsheet. Everything he would need was labeled and stacked in the back of the red van: clothing, food, rain gear, extra shoes, meds, etc. He had a team of people to hike with him, prepare his food (mostly pad Thai, calzones and potatoes, as Hamilton is a vegetarian) and drive him from trail to trail across the state.
To average hiking one marathon a day for nearly 10 days, you don’t sleep much. “There were a lot of times I thought I was awake the whole time in the back of the van and then they’d tell me I was sleeping for the whole ride,” Hamilton said.
Overall, he covered 265 miles on foot. He spent 176 hours on his feet and 62 hours in transition.
There were high points, like seeing his kids, two of which have hiked all the fourteeners with their dad (at ages 6 and 8) and enjoy listening to Taylor Swift and Meghan Trainor songs on repeat to stay awake. And there were low points. Like when his van got stuck in a mudslide on day three near Mount Lindsey.
“It was discouraging, because everything was going so well and then to run into that – there was a good half hour where I thought it was over,” Hamilton said. “Luckily, we found somebody nearby with a bulldozer to tow it out.”
There were washouts and hailstorms near Mount Princeton and some lightning strikes. By the end, a tendon in his ankle was throbbing so much that he was wobbling.
What kept him going? Hamilton is quick to say he’s not the fastest hiker, but he knows how to plan and how to suffer.
“You can’t just decide one day to just do this,” he said. “It takes so much training, and knowledge of the routes and planning – that’s why I had a shot.”
A quiet excitement
It’s past 1 a.m. on July 9 when the crowd sees the shine of Hamilton’s headlamp. He’s coming down his 58th and final peak and he’s beat the record by more than 24 hours. A group of roughly 50 people huddled around him, holding homemade signs and sounding noisemakers. He received dozens of congratulatory messages online.
“I was just expecting my wife and kids to be there, so it was a shock to see so many people waiting there in the middle of the night,” Hamilton said. “It was amazing, in the moment I was so tired, but I was trying to take it all in.”
They passed around champagne and wine. Keizer flew in from Oregon to shake Hamilton’s hand.
“I felt so satisfied that we had a plan, and even though there were setbacks, we executed it,” Hamilton said.
Mike Thurman and his wife, Imma Ferrer, were among the crowd. The couple had never met Andrew, but after seeing the post on 14ers.com, they decided to make the short drive to Rocky Mountain National Park to cheer him on.
“While we were waiting for him it was a quiet excitement, but as soon as we saw him, we all went nuts and started yelling,” Thurman said. “I really think Andrew symbolizes the best of all of us, someone who loves what we love, but can do more than we can.”
“He’s superhuman,” Ferrer said. “I cannot comprehend it, not only the speed, but not much sleeping much and the endurance of it.”
After a few days of rest, Hamilton said he’s happy with his finishing time.
“I know when a really fast runner tries this, they’ll smoke me, but it feels good to have this for now,” he said. “As a house dad, you can start to feel a little under appreciated – because you’re not solving the world’s problems. It’s really amazing to feel like you’re making a difference and touching people.”
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