The Quest for the Crest 50k runs up and down the Black Mountains outside of Burnsville, North Carolina. You go up and down the mountain three times. During those three trips up and down, there is a little over 11,000 feet of ascending and descending respectively and some exceptionally technical terrain.
Fellow Nashvillians, Kurt and Lauren, would also be at the race. Kurt was running the 50k for the second year in a row, while Lauren came along for a weekend getaway in the mountains. It’s always more relaxing and enjoyable to share the race weekend experience with friends.
Training had gone well leading up to the race. I had been getting plenty of climbing in and had no injuries that took away from training. However, I did have an intense bout of allergies the weekend before the race that forced an extreme and not ideal taper.
First Climb and Descent
The race started just after daybreak at 6 am. There was a brief section on a gravel road to thin out the conga line, before starting up the Woody Ridge Trail.
The forecast was surprisingly cool for May. Mountainforecast was calling for the temperature to be in the 30s above 6,000 feet with 30 mph winds.
The first climb gains 3,000 feet in 2.5 miles and is the steepest of the day. I started out fast on the gravel road section to warm up and then quickly shifted into power hike mode upon starting up the Woody Ridge Trail. I can usually power hike pretty strong, but I was getting passed and gapped by people on the first climb. It felt like I was going up a set of stairs on all fours, while other people were walking up an escalator.
At around 5,000 feet there was some frost developing on the trees. Upon topping out on the Crest Trail, just above 6,000 feet, we were greeted to hoar frost blanketing all the trees and grass. I’d never seen this phenomenon before. It was so beautiful that it brought tears to my eyes. Actually, that was from the frigid wind smacking me in the face. The wind was in full assault mode as the trail was exposed on the ridge. Thankfully, we only spent half a mile on the exposed Crest Trail before descending down to Bowlens Creek.
The trail down to Bowlens Creek was the most runnable terrain of the day. I was able to run down the four-mile descent relatively effortlessly and savored the fun downhill running.
I arrived at the Bowlens Creek aid station with renewed confidence after feeling good on the descent. I refilled my bottle, grabbed a banana and some orange slices, and started the climb back up hoping I would feel stronger this go around. Well, I felt strong for about 5 minutes. I left the aid station with Misty Wong (eventual 3rd female and 6th overall) and made it my goal to keep up with her all the way to the top. I put my head down to hike for a minute or two, looked up, and she had gained significant ground on me in that short amount of time. Dang. For whatever reason, the ability to efficiently power hike still wasn’t there. Kurt soon caught up with me. This was our third leap frog of each other 8 miles into the race. He had now passed me on both climbs, while I passed him on the first descent. He looked strong, and I was happy to see him doing so well. I wasn’t sure if I would see him again during the race the way he was moving.
I was passed by three or four people during the climb back up to the ridge. It was discouraging to be passed, but I told myself to relax and enjoy the day. No need to get worked up with 20 plus miles and who knows how many hours to go.
I put my Houdini on right before reaching the ridge. We had seven miles of semi-exposed running along the ridge before the second big descent. The wind was still intense, but thankfully the sun was out and made it feel slightly warmer. The Crest Trail along the ridge is relatively flat compared to everything else in the race, but it is still technical with many rocks being covered up by the tall grass.
The race effort that I wanted to put out still wasn’t there as I moved slowly along the ridge. Yes, it was technical, but I was walking way too much.
The views of the mountains off of the Crest Trail are hard to beat. You have unobstructed views of the mountains that seem to roll forever with barely any signs of human development. At this point, I decided I was going to approach the rest of the race like a long run. There was no need to push myself beyond what I was capable of that day. I didn’t want to ruin a long day in some of the most beautiful terrain this side of the Mississippi has to offer. The sky was clear and blue as can be. The hoar frost was starting to melt off the trees and blowing off in coconut like flakes. Birds were whistling their songs in the trees. Trying to race harder would only turn my focus inward, rather than appreciating the beauty all around me.
I no longer worried about my pace or time for the next few miles and took my time to soak in the views. No one was in front of me or behind me, so I felt like I had the mountains all to myself.
My John Muir philosophic solitude was coming to an end as I neared the out and back section to Cattail Peak, a new addition to the course this year. Rather than going immediately down descent number two off of the Crest Trail, we took a mile and a half spur to Cattail, stamped our bib, ran the mile and a half back, and then carried on down descent number 2. This added around three miles and 1,000 feet of ascending and descending respectively.
As slowly I was moving along the Crest Trail, I thought the leaders would have been long gone down the descent. To my surprise, the leaders passed me a few minutes after I started the out and back. Yeah, they were about 3 miles ahead of me but I started to entertain thoughts of “racing” again as I realized I wasn’t as far behind as I thought. The eventual winner, Kyle Curtin, passed with a smile and looked like he was on his way to a picnic. He was making it look easy. Doug Daniel, who I briefly met at Yamacraw a month earlier, passed by extremely focused. It was nice to catch up with him at the end of the race.
The trail out to Cattail Peak was extremely technical with gnarly roots and rocks littering the trail. I was moving efficiently as possible (read not quickly) as I was being passed by people returning back from stamping their bib. I don’t know if it was seeing and interacting with others or that my energy was just coming back around, but I started to feel good. The racing mindset started to creep back in.
I tagged my bib at Cattail Peak, the highest point of the course at 6,584 feet, and started back. I had passed Kurt about 5 minutes before that and made it my goal to eventually catch him. I started to move confidently, rather than cautiously through the gnarled terrain. My effort level was finally where I wanted it to be without feeling overtaxed.
I made it back to the aid station that marked the end of the out and back. I loaded up on water, shed the Houdini, downed a Honey Stinger waffle, and started the descent.
Enough thanks cannot be bestowed to the volunteers of this race. Two of the aid stations high up on the course required lengthy and challenging hikes carrying all the water and food they brought with them. Not to mention the sub-freezing temperatures in the wind they endured while helping runners for hours. They earned a lot of karma points that day.
The aid station workers said that first mile and a half down the Colbert Ridge Trail was very technical and it then smoothed out. True story. The trail was essentially a creek bed. I didn’t want to break my face, so I moved slowly and carefully for the next mile and a half. The trail “smoothed” out and I was able to get a little turn over going for the remaining descent.
I rolled into the aid station at the end of the trail just as two other runners were leaving. Another confidence boost for catching up to two more people. I made sure I had enough water for the last 3,000-foot climb of the day and started the brief road section before the climb up the Buncombe Horse Trail. My goal was to catch the two runners in front of me on the climb and hopefully pass them.
The first couple of miles on the Buncombe Horse Trail are relatively mild in their grade and runnable. Wondering the state of my climbing legs, I decided to try and run. My climbing legs had returned! Granted, the running didn’t last long on the Buncombe Horse Trail. But I was finally able to move at a pace on the climb that I was happy with. I quickly passed the two runners from the previous aid station. One of the guys I passed was the epitome of power hiking. He looked relaxed but was motoring up the trail. He would catch up to me on the power hiking sections after I had put some distance on him during the runnable sections.
After a mile or so, I saw Kurt’s golden curls up the trail. I caught up with him, and we briefly chatted. I was finally feeling better, while fatigue was setting in for him. It’s so weird and impossible to predict when the highs and lows come.
I enjoyed our brief conversation and pressed on up the trail. There were about four miles and 2,000 feet of climbing left. This was the first climb of the day where I wasn’t getting passed by people going by on what seemed like an escalator. I passed two more people towards the top and was running with another person as I arrived at the final aid station.
The last mile of trail leading up to the aid station comes out of the trees, and you have more incredible views of the surrounding mountains. The peak of Mount Mitchell towers above another 1,000 feet to the right of the trail. This section is reasonably runnable, but the climb had zapped some energy from me, and I was walking more than I should have.
The other runner (I can’t remember his name) and myself arrived at the aid station close together. I had just run out of water and was happy to chug a bottle and refill for the last descent. We shuffled out of the aid station and saw Lauren who had hiked up. She was very cheerful and encouraging.
“You guys are doing great. You’re in the top 10.” I responded not so cheerfully. “I don’t know how. We are moving so slow.”
Just after the brief interaction with Lauren, three runners passed. They looked fresh and full of energy. I was not discouraged, just envious. Them passing did not spark one last push to stay with them to the finish. I was pretty spent. My only hope in catching back up was that I could make up some time on the final descent.
The finish, perfectly situated at Briar Bottoms Campground, was only four miles away. The other guy I ran into the final aid station with had surged with the group of three that passed us earlier. I had the descent all to myself, which was nice because I didn’t feel any pressure to push it. The trail was just as technical as everything else earlier in the day. Trying to hammer this last descent on tired legs would have surely ended with a rolled ankle or my face in a tree.
This section seemed to go by quickly. I started to pass some day hikers, which is always a good sign that you are close to the trailhead. I did manage to pass one more runner. He was having to stop and stretch his quads when I passed him. I muttered some encouraging words and was thankful that my quads had held up all day.
I could hear what sounded like finish line commotion and knew I was close. I glanced at my watch and realized I could break 9 hours. An arbitrary number but something to push for in the last mile.
I rolled into the campground at 8:57:39. Good enough for 12th place. My goal was to keep my top 10 streak of finishes going. After how I felt for the first 15 miles, I was elated to come in where I did.
Kurt rolled in about 10 minutes later, and we sat in camp chairs swapping stories from the long day. This race has the perfect finish setup. You can finish within a short walk of your car, and then hang out in a small field chatting with fellow runners while also cheering in finishers.
Say what you will about Run Bum Sean Blanton, but he puts on some of the most beautiful and challenging races in the southeast. The race went off without a hitch. The course was perfectly marked, and all the volunteers were exceedingly helpful.
I definitely want to do this race again and highly recommend it. It would be hard to find a more beautiful and challenging 50k on this side of the country, if not the entire country.
I left a lot of time out there and would like to see what I could do on a day where I feel good from the beginning. But who knows. Maybe feeling good from the start would have set me up for a suffer fest those last 15 miles. The cool thing about this sport is that your best and worst day can all happen in one day.
Thanks again to all the volunteers, Sean, and his wonderful support team.