Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

2015 Quest for the Crest 50K

Billed as the world's hardest 50K and featuring 11,200' of climb (and 11,700' of descent) with a lot of technical trails, the first edition of the Quest for the Crest 50K took place on May 31st. Though it is the second event in the Skyrunner series, the first being Georgia Death Race, I did not register with any plans for participating in the series, I just had been on parts of the course before and knew there were some awesome views. I had, however, somehow forgot just how hard the trails are in the area around Mount Mitchell.

The first batch of runners awaits the second shuttle.
knew quite a few people taking part in the series and got a chance to talk to them when our shuttle bus dropped us at the start. Since there were two shuttles, we had about a 45 minute wait for the second shuttle. My co-director for TRU, Brandon, was there in his TRU shirt. I thought about wearing mine, but figured I'd better wear a white shirt for being out in the sun so I went with the old one I got from the Avalanche Series several years back. It's the lightest weight one I have. I hesitated but decided to wear my Western States pack for the simple reason that it's the most comfortable one I have. I had my cap covering the logo for most of the race. I carried six gels, a Nutri-Grain Harvest bar, two PB&J PowerBars and a Peanut Butter PowerBar. As required, I had my solar blanket, whistle, and weatherproof jacket that took up way too much space. I carried my usual Nathan handheld and had an additional 10 oz bottle in the vest's water bottle holders. I also brought S-caps and Advil. I put my trust in fairly new Salomon XT Wings trail shoes. I had only used them at the Cone Estate but they felt pretty good and seemed grippy.

The start runs up a paved road for about .6 miles. It's a gradual climb that Sean said rose 300', though that seemed a bit high. I had thought about running with Martin, but worried we had different approaches and didn't want to throw him off of his plan. Once on the trail, the vast majority of us began to hike or power hike. This would be a recurring
Finally reached the top of the first climb.
theme for me this day as I think I had more success while walking than running. This first climb is also used in the 10K on Saturday and gains about 3000' in roughly 3 miles. There was not a lot of passing going on but it did thin out fairly quickly. I don't know what my pace up was but it couldn't have been too good. At the top, I was a bit light headed and it took me a bit to center myself. After taking in a nice view of the mountains from this high mountain meadow, we were then treated to a 4.5 mile downhill to the first aid station. I made pretty good progress down this hill, but about mid-way, nature called pretty loudly and I had to go off-trail behind a Rhododendron thicket. On the plus side, I felt a lot better. This was a steady, runnable section, though I wasn't moving terribly fast. I passed one or two people, I think, the entire downhill.

I reached the first aid station at about 8:15. Here, we had our first creek crossing. I rock hopped across, refilled my water bottles, and got a banana. On the return trip across the creek, I just went through the middle and it actually felt really good on my feet. Now, for the long, long trek back up the hill. I fell in and out with various people during the climb, making small talk along the way. Since this was an out-and-back, I got to see everyone else I knew along the way. I had seen the two Brandons coming up on my way down. When I was going up, I saw Beth (close behind me,) Martin, Rick, Tyler, Doug, and several people who knew me, but whose names I couldn't bring to mind--I really need to work on my face/name pairing skills. I think one of these was Alisha's brother Greg, since he was at the race. There was a water-only stop on the way back up and I was surprised to see Quez there. He had gotten called in to help at the last minute. I refilled and carried on, eager to reach the ridge.

I am headed somewhere over there...
Back on the ridge, it took me some time to gather myself. My breathing was a bit off and I don't think that was all altitude related. So, along this fairly level ridge, I found myself walking more than I might have liked. I had been on this stretch with Brandon last year and knew it wouldn't be smooth sailing. I think I was in better shape the last time I was here, though, and certainly don't remember struggling this much--and I was only about 1/3 of the way through the race! Eventually, you start getting into some technical climbs and descents (mostly large rocks you have to get over or down.) It's definitely made harder by having short legs. In a totally shocking moment, I happened up on Adam Hill, hiking with his son. We spoke briefly and I tried to get him to take my bib and finish for me, but he elected to continue his hike. Somewhere shortly after seeing Adam, maybe about mile 12, Beth caught and passed me. I kept her in sight for a while, but had a "backwards" fall and by the time I regrouped, she was out of site. I came up on where (I think) the trail split and there were two guys in chairs taking bib numbers. They said they were at mile 16, so that meant two miles to the next aid station. If they were correct about their location, that was honestly the longest two miles I have ever experienced. And, it was somewhat runnable and I was moving fairly well. I have to believe they were closer to mile 14.

Heading for Big Tom. The last of the three big climbs.
The third aid station, at mile 18, was the only crew access spot and there was a small crowd of supporters there. I saw Clay working this station and he gave me a bit of a rundown of what lay ahead. He said it would be gradual for about two miles and then the climb gets steeper. I filled up both bottles, had two cups of Mountain Dew and a banana, and set on my way. A couple hundred yards up the road, I realized that Clay's "gradual" is similar to Adam's "runnable." Maybe for their caliber, but I found myself walking pretty soon after the aid station. That was OK, I had expected the next seven miles would be a long, slow climb. There were three guys about 1/4 mile ahead of me who were walk/running to the Buncombe Horse Trail trailhead. Just a few minutes into the Horse Trail, I saw one of them coming back toward me. I first thought maybe he forgot something at the aid station and was going back, but would later learn he had decided to drop. He didn't seem to be struggling, so I don't know what was going on. This climb was on a wide road for a while and it was easy to power-hike. As it continued on, the trail narrowed and got rougher. Not something I'd want to bring a horse on. I caught up to a few guys and we hung together for a while, but I eventually went around them. They caught back up as I purified some creek water with my filter. I offered to get some for them, but they felt they had enough to get them to the next aid station. It was on this stretch that I started soaking my hat in the creeks to help keep my head cool. It really makes a huge difference and since the sun wasn't hitting me, it stayed cool much longer than it had when I first did it at Western States. I repassed those two guys and in the last mile or two of this climb, I caught up to another guy and stuck with him to the mile 25/26 aid station.

At this station, we had a short out and back up to Big Tom Mountain so we'd hit the same station twice in under a mile. I filled up my bottle and drank nearly all of it in that mile. It was a very steep, dry creek bed climb that really had me jelly-legged at times. On my way up, I saw both Brandons and Beth coming down. Fortunately, the turnaround, where we stamp our own bibs with "Really?" wasn't at the top of the mountain so I actually came up on it quicker than I expected. The descent, however, was not any easier and I may have actually moved slower. It got a bit congested in this stretch as the trail was narrow. I saw Martin heading up as I neared the aid station. At the station, Brandon was stretched out on the ground. Apparently a victim of leg cramps. I headed on, fully expecting to see him come up from behind once we hit the downhill.

There was a fairly flat section after this last aid station. I was really worn out but when I saw a guy ahead of me running, that prompted me to do the same. I continued behind him for what must have been at least a mile, until the course turned off this road and went down a trail toward Black Mountain Campground and the finish. This is a fast-dropping, technical trail. I had faint hopes of catching up to Beth on this stretch, not knowing how much of a lead she had and how fast she was on technical trails. I was able to hang pretty close to the guy ahead of me going down this stretch until I caught a root and did a header into the trail. Nothing was injured but by the time I regathered myself, he was long gone. I could tell rain was coming and used it as an incentive to finish quickly. I knew I had a bit of a walk to my car from the finish.

Finally, the trail bottomed out and I headed into Black Mountain Campground. The course followed a nature trail where a number of campers were casually walking along. I continued until it eventually came to the campsite Sean had booked for the finish. He caught me shortly after I finished and asked me how it was. I was honest and said it was tough. Some of my difficulty came from my own lack of preparation and just not having a good day, but even on a good day, it would have been a real challenge. A few minutes after I finished, the rain set in. I decided to not hang around any longer and made the longer-than-I realized walk back to the car.

I'm not sure if this is one I'll repeat or not. Mainly because I can go do the best parts of this course on any given weekend. But, for anyone looking for a serious challenge (and not a 50K PR) this is definitely one to check out.

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