Quest for the Crest 50k: One Hell of a Sky Race

Quest for the Crest 50k, advertised as the toughest 50k in the world, had crept up on me. After battling with an injury earlier in the season, I was nervous my fitness wouldn’t be up to par for this race. I managed to get in a solid month of training (focusing on more technical ascents and descents) before I hopped on a plane to Asheville, North Carolina.

I had never been out east for a race I was excited but also scared . . . for a couple reasons. One, the humidity could destroy me and two, they boast some of the most technical trails in the U.S.. Sure, I’ve run technical terrain in Run the Rut 50k and Speedgoat 50k back in 2014, but from the pictures I had seen, the stories I had heard, and the constant warnings posted by Sean (Run Bum)’s race website, I was beginning to get a little scared.

snake

Plus, the race required me to carry my whistle, an emergency blanket and a jacket. Why on earth would I need all these? I thought it was a bit much to have these requirements . . . it wasn’t until Friday, on my shake out run, that I realized why I would need them. These mountains (the Black Mountains of North Carolina) are remote. Unlike in colorado where there are many roads that can intersect trails, there are very few points of access to these trails, a fact made explicitly clear by having only 2 fully stocked aid stations on the entire 50k course. On my shake out run, I made it over to Mount Mitchell trail (the final descent of the race) to test out the trails. Rooty, rocky, gnarly. This race was going to be fun!

mt mitchell

I planned to carry all of my own fuel (200 cal per hour, so 14 hammer gels, and a couple Hammer bars for good measure). I also filled up a bladder to carry along with two Ultimate Direction soft flasks. My pack was so flipping heavy, the heaviest pack I have ever raced with, but I didn’t want to chance not having water or food. I was definitely nervous about racing. I wanted to do well, I wanted to win. But, above all, I wanted to have fun. I was psyched on exploring these gnarly trails and the technical ridges and rooty descents. This was why I came to North Carolina, to play in the Black Mountains and explore new trails.

hills

On race day we were all shuttled to the start: a junction of two country roads out in the middle of nowhere. Once everyone arrived Run Bum started us off running up the road to a trail on the right. The first mile of trail was runnable, but then it got steep, fast. We were starting the 50k with a vertical kilometer, climbing about 3500ft, in about 5km, not an easy thing to do. I was impressed. Properly steep trails through lush, green, dense forest. I couldn’t see where we were going, just up up up.

At this point in the race I was ahead, but Becca Much and Sarah Woerner were pretty close behind. I wasn’t trying to push things too hard on the VK,  mostly because I couldn’t. My calves were screaming at me! So much so, that I had a nauseous feeling in my stomach. OH well I thought, hopefully I feel better on the second uphill. I tried to focus on the beauty of the terrain and to drink water, since I was basically already drenched in my own sweat.

The course was simple: 3 climbs, and 3 descents in about 31 miles. I was almost done with the first climb, looking forward to stretching my calves out on the downhill. But first, I had to stumble my way through some overgrown grass and rocks before I could really open up. We had 4.5 miles of downhill only to turn around and run straight back up. It definitely was a runnable climb. I tagged the table at the aid station, grabbed a salted potato and some M&Ms and was off. I was with Becca ad Sarah at this point, but as soon as we started the climb I found myself alone again.

trail

My race strategy was to fuel, DRINK, and run as much as I could. My calves felt a lot better and it was fun to see all the other racers coming down the hill as I ran/hiked up. I was really enjoying the trail.

Running on the ridge was breathtaking, sweeping views of the green forested hills in every direction. The trail threw me around a bit, but I was feeling pretty good, confident that I had two climbs over and only one more to go! But first, I had to tackle the technical descent from Colberts Ridge (6100′ down to 2700′ in only 4 miles). My quads were gonna be toast! I focused on quick feet as I danced and jumped down the rocks and roots. By this point I was needing the mile 18 aid station, my bladder of water was empty and I was soaked in sweat.

view

I couldn’t drink enough water.  I was quick at the aid station. I re-filled my soft flasks and was off. I had managed to catch a few guys and made the goal of breaking into the top 10 overall. I needed to catch a few more guys to do this (and keep my lead). I had no idea where the other ladies were, but I figured they were close behind.

We had a 7 mile climb until the next aid through “switchback hell”. This climb was a tough one. It was all runnable grade, but on tried legs it’s hard to run all of it. I made the goal of run/hiking. This is a really good strategy for me late in a race to keep a good pace moving forward during the hardest miles of the course. I usually hit a wall close to the marathon point, so I play games to break up the trail into run sections and hike sections. It really helped.

runnable

On this climb I ran into some new friends I’d met the night before. I passed Tim Sykes early on, he seemed to be having quad cramping issues (humid conditions were brutal), then Michael Owen. I was pleased to see Michael on the climb, it was great to have some company. We definitely helped each other work our way up this climb, doing our run/hike routine, and chatting to keep our minds off the never ending switchbacks.

We were both out of water at the top, and we had to run along a never ending ridge-line before reaching a spring. I got a bit frustrated on this ridge-line because it was hard to move fast despite it being fairly flat. The trail was so overgrown I had to be very careful I didn’t twist my ankle. We finally reached the spring and could only get a bit of water before heading up a steep riverbed to reach the highest point on the course. I wanted this to be over quickly so I really turned on my power hike. Sometimes I just have to get angry at the hill. It definitely hurt.

After stamping my bib at the top of the climb I let out a yell and then a big smile and started to run down. I didn’t see anyone heading up while I was descending the riverbed . . . Yay! I just needed to run strong on this downhill and I had the win. The ridge-line was tricky though. Super uneven footing and overgrown trail with hidden rocks and branches to trip and slip on. I passed Michael Barlow on this section with cramping issues, this course was brutal . . . I think the GU roctane gels saved me from cramping.

I was moving well, but my mind was starting to wander, I was definitely ready to be done. I knew I had to focus for the last descent, since it was equally as technical. However, I was a bit discouraged that my watch ready over 29 miles at the last aid station with about 4.5 miles to go. Time to focus and dig deep. So I took a gel, concentrated on my breathing and quick feet as I descended  through the rocks and roots. I was so impressed with how consistently technical the course was. There was no letting up, EVER.

roots

The last few miles of the descent were familiar from my shake out run a few days earlier. I was getting closer. Progress. I tired to keep a positive mind and focus on my feet, moving well. It wasn’t until I rounded the corner to enter the campground that I smiled knowing that I had won the women’s race. I finished right around 7 hours  (7:02:39) and took 8th place overall.

It was a great feeling to finish such a technical and difficult 50k even though I didn’t’ feel so great during it. The beauty of the course was worth it. So remote, technical and steep! I can’t wait to come run again in the Black Mountains and explore other areas out east. Run Bum did not disappoint on this race.

mewin

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3 thoughts on “Quest for the Crest 50k: One Hell of a Sky Race

  1. Hillary, it was a pleasure meeting up and sharing the long climb up to the high point. You really helped encourage me along in a race where I probably felt the worse I ever have in an ultra! Great race and super strong performance. Have a great one on Mont-Blanc and I hope to see you at the Flagstaff Sky Race!

    • Thanks Michael! It was so great to meet you too and you really helped me a lot on that last climb! Best of luck in your 100 and I hope to see you soon!

  2. Heather says:

    Wow, impressive! I’m an older lady than you and remember the good ol’ days of being fit and athletic! It’s time I get back in shape. Thanks for the inspiration.

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