Everyone always says that running is a simple activity. All you need is a pair of shoes, and you can head out the door. But that’s only in theory. In reality, running, especially ultramarathon running, has become a complicated, gear-intensive sport. Running a 100 mile race? Don’t forget to bring two pairs of shoes, at least one change of socks, calf sleeves, arm sleeves, a waterproof jacket, a GPS watch, a heart rate monitor, water bottles, gels, an iPod or two, Vaseline, blister bandages, and caffeine pills. And of course a change of clothes for the finish.

Don’t get me wrong, all of those things are great tools for doing your best at a race. And at any given race, I’ll be using some or all of that list. But sometimes, the amount of gear can feel overwhelming. I get weary of filling up the entire back of my car just to go away running for the weekend.

In contrast, the Quest for the Crest 10k near Burnsville, North Carolina this past weekend offered an enticing dose of simplicity. The race starts at the bottom of a very large mountain, goes up about 3,000 feet to the top of a ridge, and descends down the other side. This was running distilled to its purest, simplest form: up and down a hill as fast as you can. I brought a water bottle and nothing else.

on the ridge at quest for crest

On race morning, we runners were all bussed to the start line, and we stood around in the early morning sunshine contemplating the mountain looming in front of us. When it was time to start, Sean Blanton, the race director, herded us all into a vague pack and then, with a total lack of fanfare, told us to hurry up and get going. We were off, most of us running far too fast for what was ahead, like always.

I settled into second place among the women, trying to keep first place in sight but struggling with the shock of suddenly running up a steep hill. It’s a little under 2.5 miles to the top of the hill, and as I climbed and climbed and climbed, I felt exhausted, barely able to breathe, and…peaceful. There was nothing to think about other than pushing my legs and bursting lungs up the steep trail. A little over 50 minutes later I was at the top, taking in the amazing view from the ridgeline. Four and a half miles of downhill later, I crossed the finish line, still in second place, physically battered but mentally relaxed, refreshed, and ready for a summer of racing.