2015 Quest for the Crest 50K Race Report
Training run turned significant challenge, the Quest for the Crest 50K was an experience for the books. I initially signed up for the race as an opportunity to prep myself for the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 in July (Read My TRT100 Race Report). Never did I imagine the mental and physical toll that awaited me. In the Black Mountains near Burnsville, NC, the Quest for the Crest 50K featured 23,000 feet of elevation change and some of the most technical singletracks in the United States. The race was even included in the 2015 US Sky Running Series, which features courses with the most rugged terrain and massive vertical gain. Did the Quest for the Crest earn its place on that list? Definitely.
My wife, Nicole, and I arrived in Asheville on Friday evening. After a good night of sleep, we spent most of the day Saturday sightseeing through the historic downtown area (the beauty of traveling for events!) Then, we drove to the race packet pickup location at Albert’s Inn. Then, as we wound our way through steep, uneven roads, reality began to sink in, and I thought to myself, What have I signed up for? When we arrived, the race director, Sean, gave a quick briefing of the course, which elevated my nerves even more. Then, we ended the day with a fuel-packed dinner, final preparations, and every attempt to relax.
My 2:45 AM Sunday morning alarm woke me up before the sun, and I soon drove back up the mountain road with fellow Charlestonian, Stephanie Fauvelle. From there, it was a 20-minute shuttle to the starting line. With 149 participants in the 50K, it took two waves of two 60-passenger school buses to get everyone there.
After the shuttle reached the starting line, Sean explained that we would be left sitting on the side of the road for 45-60 minutes. To poke fun at the remoteness of the location, he joked that if anyone came along, we should tell them that we were part of a cult. So there we sat on the side of a country road, 80 participants anxiously watching the sunrise.
A Rocky Start
The race started around 6:20 AM with more than 3000 feet of climbing in the first 5 kilometers. In most trail races, you would expect this climbing on switchbacks. Not here, though. We were going straight up the mountain! As I climbed, I noted how my heels did not even seem to touch the ground. I had to stop to loosen my shoes two miles in because the pressure in my calf muscles and feet was so pronounced! I felt like they might explode! This pain reminded me of my days running 5K and 10K races. I would sometimes start too fast, and by mile 2 or 3, the lactic acid would be so intolerable that I would slow to a jog over the final miles of the race.
Race tip: Avoid burnouts by adjusting your pace to the terrain. You can always make up time over a more accessible section of the race.
I eventually made it to the top of the first climb. Running along the ridgeline, I took advantage of the ability to open up my stride. As the course began its 3000-foot descent to Bowlens Creek, I worked hard to make up lost time from the climb. Skilled at technical descents, I was able to pass a dozen runners over the 3.5 miles. Despite it taking nearly 2 hours to cover 8 miles, I felt good about the rest of the day. So I focused on hydration and reserving some energy for the two significant climbs that awaited me over the next 23 miles.
Running Back Up the Mountain
Bowlens Creek Aid Station was a chance to refill water and grab a few snacks for the second climb of the day. Then, it was back up the same mountain. Thankfully, the climbing would be much easier from this side. Instead of going straight up, the course featured more switchbacks, which allowed for a more steady pace and effort. As I ascended, I felt that I had finally recovered from the difficulty of the opening climb.
The course took a right turn at the ridgeline and cut along a different portion of the mountain. When I thought I was about to get a few miles of easy running, I came upon some seriously uneven terrain. I did way more walking and jumping up and down rocks than running for at least two miles.
Descent to Colbert Creek
Around mile 15.5, I began the second technical descent of the day. I knew that I was running toward the Colbert Creek aid station where Nicole would be waiting for me. Unfortunately, that happy anticipation was no match for the difficulty I was battling with continuing the race. My quads hurt, my calves were screaming, and my energy was just about gone.
Once I arrived at Colbert Creek aid station, I immediately fell into a nearby chair. At this point, I had already been going for six hours. All I could think about was how I had never experienced a more challenging 20 miles in my entire life. To make things worse, I knew I still had a significant distance left to cover, and the terrain would not be any easier. I felt very discouraged and inconsolable as Nicole addressed my needs with food and positive words.
Finally, a friend crewing for someone else reminded me that the next 2 miles were on the road and that I should at least walk through this section to see if I could keep going. As I began walking away from the aid station, my concerns shifted from my time goals to mentality. From here, it was going to be about physical and mental toughness. After all, this mindset would be needed for running the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 later in the year. Then, with a refocused mind, I suddenly found a renewed sense of energy and settled into a steady power hike for the next 6 miles and 3000 feet of climbing.
Big Tom Gap and Oh S#!t
Reaching Big Tom Gap aid station (mile 27), I thought it would be a steady run downhill to the finish. However, the kind volunteers informed me that I now needed to climb a half-mile straight up the mountain. Sean undoubtedly thought about how much more he could make people hate him when he designed this final climb. It was about 500 vertical feet of boulders to get a stamp on my bib and come back down to the aid station. So even if I wanted to, there was no way I could run a single step of it.
All the motivation I had gained during the last six miles of climbing evaporated in the heat of the day on this final push. There was only one way to get this challenge over with, though…one foot in front of the other.
Run to the Finish of the Quest for the Crest 50K
Through many stumbles and almost falling, I managed to make it up and back down Big Tom in 40 minutes. I refilled water and Tailwind and ate some food at the aid station with that challenge behind me. I let my body and mind relax for a few moments. When I decided to leave the station, I walked the trail for 2 miles. Suddenly, I began running hard. The vision of the finish line finally in my reach had brought my legs back to life.
After 50K (34.8 miles on my watch) and over ten hours, I crossed the finish line of the Quest for the Crest 50K. I had closed the last section of the trail averaging 10:30 per mile down a somewhat technical and long descent.
Sitting at the finish line, I thought about how pushing myself through this race had prepared me for the physical and mental challenges ahead. Not just for Tahoe Rim Trail 100, but for the fight to never give up. I was exhausted, happy to be finished, ready for a cold shower, and excited to continue my training toward my next 100-miler.
Are you looking for a challenging yet epic ultra-running experience? The Quest for the Crest 50K is the race for you. An actual test of strength, endurance, and, most importantly, a runner’s mentality. And that feeling of achievement after finally crossing that finish line, then there is nothing better!