Last year I ran the inaugural Quest for the Crest 10k outside of Burnsville, North Carolina in the Black Mountains, the highest ridgeline east of the Mississippi River. My fellow race director, buddy Sean ‘Run Bum’ Blanton, had created a 10k race that ran from the bottom of the mountain, over the top and then back down again, a climb of 3,100 feet followed by an equal descent, and billed it as the “Hardest 10k in the World.” Of course I had to participate in something this awesome, especially considering the majestic beauty of the Black Mountains. I had a solid race, finishing in 5th place overall, but I longed for more miles after finishing, which can only be attributed to the fact that I’m a crazy ultra runner.
Well, Sean thought the same thing apparently, and a few weeks after the race he contacted me in helping him create a 50k route though the Blacks that would be just as ridiculously hard, but not full of multiple loops and a bunch of out and backs. After many drafts, we settled on the the current point-to-point course, a natural line throughout the range including over 11,500 feet of climbing in 32 miles. We had essentially just created the hardest 50k in the United States based solely off of the numbers. That didn’t include the fact that almost all of the route was on some ungodly technical trail. The route would include three 3,000 plus foot climbs and descents from the South Toe River valley to the crest of the Black Mountains, along with a three mile section on the ever undulating 6,000 foot ridgeline itself.
I couldn’t wait to run it and signed up fully knowing what I was getting myself into. Having run all of the course in sections multiple times before, I knew that a finish time in the eight to nine hour range was possible for me, with my main goal of finishing just under eight hours if I had the legs. I began the race and was on pace for the first 14 miles to complete the course in the low eight hour time. I ran conservatively on the first climb and descent as well as the next climb up to the ridge. The only problem I was having was stomaching my food. An issue that on a run like this is eventually going to catch up to you.
After a short pit stop on the second 3,000 foot climb, I began to feel a bit better, but I still couldn’t stand the taste of the food I had brought along for fuel, which was odd considering I had been using the same source for almost a year with no ill effects. I ended up hitting my high point in the race along the 6,000 foot crest of the Black Mountains. I believe that I was actually more fueled from the amazing views along the ridge. Everything else just became secondary.
I began to pass people who were having a difficult time managing the technical footing of the trail and put a solid gap on some of my competitors. But, I soon realized that I was running low on water and would not be hitting another sure source for five miles. I tried to fill up at a small spring, but the flow was such a trickle that I could barely get anything in my bottle. I decided to just cruise the descent and hope for the best.
Now I was in double trouble. I was having trouble consuming fuel, and now I was quickly becoming dehydrated in the humid air. At the bottom of the descent at Colbert Ridge aid station, I contemplated throwing in the towel. I was still on an eight hour pace, but I knew then that it was a pipe dream. Now it was all about survival and finishing. I tried to get as much water in me as I could and had my buddy Jody, my crew for the day, load me up with a bag full of potatoes, which was the only thing I could stomach at that point. Shortly, I began to walk down the road to the next trail and the last climb of the day, a climb that would be the longest and highest yet along the Buncombe Horse Trail.
The wheels really started to come off on the last climb. Along the climb I would only past by about six people, even though they were all hiking. My legs began to feel extremely heavy and I couldn’t keep my heart rate from busting through my chest without moving at a slow hike. Once I hit the last half mile of the climb, a rocky scramble up what seemed a dry creek bed to the high point of the race at Big Tom Gap, I began to feel dizzy, nauseous, and my quads wanted to cramp with each big step up from boulder to boulder.
I sat down on the rocks twice during this half mile to just try and organize myself. All the while being past by more and more runners. By the time I reached the aid station at the bottom of the half mile final push, I promptly laid down in the grass and proceeded to give in, pass out, and take a nap. Of course, the medics at the aid station wouldn’t let me just give in and told me I needed to get myself more salt and fluids. I laid in the grass, chomping on potato chips, and sipping water out my bottle. I had completely fallen apart.
Eventually, I picked myself up and started walking the final six miles down to the finish. Feeling slightly rejuvenated from the coconut water kindly given to me from one of aid volunteers own stash, I hiked and chatted with another fellow western North Carolina runner until we hit the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Since the last four miles would be downhill, I tried to run again, so I could get done with this crazy stupid adventure of a race as soon as possible. My legs began to come back to me little by little and I soon caught a few of my fellow runners who had passed me earlier as I laid comatose in the grass. I kept on running all the way to finish line and crossed in 9:30, elated to be done with the hardest race of my life. Considering I partially dreamed up this course, I truly got a taste of my own medicine
I’ll be back next year!