I originally signed up for the Quest for the Crest 50K as a training run for the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 in July (Read My TRT100 Race Report). However, as the race unfolded, I found myself in the midst of a far greater challenge than expected. Taking place in the Black Mountains near Burnsville, NC, the Quest for the Crest 50K would feature 23,000 feet of elevation change. We would be running over some of the most technical singletracks in the United States. With so much difficulty to experience on the course, the was included in the 2015 US Sky Running Series. Known for its exploitation of rugged terrain and massive vertical gain, the Sky Running Series picked a great race for the schedule.
I arrived in Asheville on Friday evening with my wife, Nicole, and got a good night of sleep. We spent most the day Saturday sightseeing through the historic downtown area. Then we drove to the packet pickup location at Albert’s Inn. As we winded our way through steep roads, I was beginning to realize what I had signed myself up for on Sunday. There was a quick race briefing from Sean, the race director, which elevated my nervousness even more. Then, I was off to dinner, final preparations, and every attempt to relax.
My alarm went off at 2:45 AM on Sunday morning and I drove back up the mountain road with fellow Charlestonian, Stephanie Fauvelle. The race required a 20-minute shuttle bus ride to the start line. With 149 participants in the 50K, it would take two waves with two 60-passenger school buses to get everyone there.
As we pulled up to the start area on the first wave of buses, Sean explained that we were going to 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 just tell them that we were part of a cult. So 80 some participants unloaded, sat on the side of a country road, and anxiously watched the sunrise.
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 to take place 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. In fact, two miles into the race I had to stop to loosen my shoes. The pressure in my calf muscles and feet was so great that I felt like they were going to explode!
I eventually made it to the top of the first climb. Running on along the ridgeline, I took advantage of the ability to open up my stride. When the course began a long descent to Bowlens Creek, I worked hard to make up lost time from the climb. Just as we had climbed over 3000-feet, the course now descended 3000-feet in 3.5-miles. Being good at technical descents, I moved past around a dozen runners through this section. I was feeling good about the rest of the day despite it taking nearly 2-hours to cover 8-miles. Still, with two major climbs to go over the next 23-miles, I focused on hydration and not pushing too hard.
Bowlens Creek Aid Station was a chance to refill water and grab a few snacks for the second climb of the day. The course now retraced its steps back up the mountain we just came down. However, from this side, the climb was much easier. Instead of going straight up, the course featured more switchbacks, which allowed for putting forth a more even effort.
As I climbed, I felt that I had finally recovered from the difficulty of the opening climb. The pain experienced during that section reminded me of my days running 5K and 10K races. I would sometimes start to fast in these races 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.
Again reaching the ridgeline, the course now took a right turn and cut along a different portion of the mountain. Yes, we were running along the ridgeline, which you would think would make for some easier running. However, it was here that I experienced some seriously uneven terrain. I did way more walking and jumping up and down rocks, than running for at least two miles.
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 difficult I was now having with staying in the race. As I was coming down the descent, my quads hurt, my calves were screaming, and my energy was gone.
I finally entered the Colbert Creek aid station, around mile 20, and fell into a nearby chair. At this point, I had already been going for six hours. All I could think about was how I have never experienced a more difficult 20-miles in my entire life. And unfortunately, I still had a significant distance left to cover and the terrain was not going to be any easier. I was feeling very dejected and inconsolable as Nicole tried to address my needs with food and positive words.
Finally, a friend that was crewing for someone else came up to me to find out why I was wasting so much time. He reminded me that the next 2-miles were on the road. I at least needed to get up and walk through this section to see if I could keep going. As I began walking away from the aid station, my thoughts were starting to worry less about my time goals. From here, it was going to be about physical and mental toughness. Exactly what I needed for running the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 later in the year.
As I made the turn back onto the dirt trail, 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.
Reaching Big Tom Gap aid station (mile 27), I thought it was going to 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 was undoubtedly thinking 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. Even if I wanted to, there was no way of running a single step of it.
All the motivation I had gained during the previous six miles of climbing evaporated in the heat of the day on this climb. There was only one way to get this challenge over with though…one foot in front of the other. It took me close to 40-minutes to climb to the top of Big Tim and come back down to the aid station.
There were lots of times of stumbling and almost falling both going up and coming back down Big Tom. With that challenge behind me, I refilled water, Tailwind, and ate some food at the aid station. There was no hurry to get going, so 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. Then, out of nowhere, I began running hard. My legs had come back to life with the vision of the finish line now so close!
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 trail averaging 10:30 per mile down a somewhat technical and long descent.
Sitting at the finish line, I was thinking about how pushing through this challenge was preparing me for the physical and mental challenges ahead. Not just for Tahoe Rim Trail 100, but for the continually desire to not 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.
I would highly recommend the Quest for the Crest 50K to anyone looking for an epic ultra-running experience. Someday I hope to come back to see if I can fair a little bit better on this challenging course.