Sometimes our casual choices smack us in the face. Case in point: it was a beautiful Saturday morning, and I was halfway up a mountain, my legs burning, holding onto what may have been a tree root with one hand, thinking holy sh*% I’ve only gone a mile and a half??
Rewind a little. I registered for the Quest for the Crest 50km because I heard the Crest trail was incredibly beautiful. Truthfully I didn’t give it much thought—I’m a pretty strong mountain runner, and when race after race is described as the HARDEST THING YOU’LL EVER DO you tend to start ignoring the hype. My chief worry was finding good wingpeople to make the drive up with me, and I successfully conned a couple friends into coming, though one required advanced persuasion techniques (she’s running Fat Dog 120 in August, and the only thing that would get her from Atlanta to North Carolina was if we both ran the 10km Saturday and the 50km Sunday. Yes, my friends are special people). Somehow this turned into us being voluntold to safety run the Vertical K/10km, but after showing up with full packs, we were summarily fired due to double booking. We figured that the beer in our packs (safety first!) wasn’t going to be any better at the bottom of the trail, so we headed out onto the course anyway.
This brings me back to “taking it easy” on the Vertical K. I generally question my decisions and my hobbies at some point during a race—it’s just not usually a mile and a half in (a couple thousand feet of vertical notwithstanding). I made it to the top, cracked open my beer, and tried to remember what the rest of the course profile for the 50km looked like.
But it’s hard to be grumpy when you’re drinking beer amidst stunning views and your mildly insane running buddy has just peeled off the trail to join you on what you’ll dub a “drinking rock.” “So… how much do you think tomorrow’s going to suck?” she asked me. “Well, probably a lot.” We drank our beer, hollered encouragement at the people running by, picked up our other friend, then headed down the mountain to what was (today) the finish line and (tomorrow) our first aid station and turnaround point.
I’m happy to say I was wrong. The 50km didn’t suck, not even a little. I started the race feeling less than awesome—tired, a bit stiff, wondering what I’d gotten myself into. But I got up to approximately the same place at which, the day before, I’d had a minor existential crisis. I turned around, saw the sun rising over the mountains, and I wasn’t worried anymore.
I ran the four or so miles down to the turnaround, refilled my bottles, stuffed myself with pickles and Bark Thins and God knows what else, and headed back up. It was a long down and a longer up. But I got to say hi to and high five all the people coming down the mountain—honestly one of the most energizing things in ultrarunning, in my opinion—and chat a bit with my fellow up sufferers. At the top, it was cool and green. There was a front hitting one side of the crest, and it was all clouds on the right and all mountains on the left. It felt impossibly beautiful.
I found a few friends as we slid and scrambled. We talked about goals and races and whether the new savory Clif gels are any good (verdict: severely mixed). I proselytized about Electrobites, which I consider required eating for summer racing. And I realized, as we finally started to descend again towards the mile 18 aid station, what a privilege it was to be there. We were on a (mostly) point-to-point course on a gorgeous, difficult trail. To run that distance and that course without aid or markings would be difficult for most of us.
That’s the thing about a trail race: it can bring you somewhere you might never otherwise visit, and facilitate an adventure you might never otherwise have. This is not something everyone understands, the desire to run all day (or more) in incredible places, with the security and camaraderie provided by an organized race. The question of whether races belong on trails has been asked on the Pacific Crest Trail as well as in our own Blue Ridge Mountains, in particular on the Benton MacKaye Trail.
I wish the people who have trouble answering that question could be there for races like Quest for the Crest, and feel the energy and joy in the runners who look up from the last a 3000-foot climb to mile 25 to see the land spread out in front of them like green velvet. I wish they could have struggled up to the last turnaround at Old Tom Gap, which I deeply resented because I expected we were going up to tag some summit or something, but actually we just had to stamp our numbers at a tiny little sign saying “50km turnaround.” I wish they could have been there with me on the last long 4-mile down, when the little crazy dial in my head revved and I bombed down like there was nothing in the world to lose. (One of my friends whom I’d seen at the Georgia Death Race and then again at Quest for the Crest greeted me by saying, “I remember you. You passed us like a banshee going down Coosa.” I won’t bomb downs until I know I won’t need my quads afterwards, but when the time comes, it’s my favorite way to end a race.) I wish we could have shared some barbecue and Pisgah Pale Ale at the finish.
I run trail races because of experiences like this, that make me swear and laugh and wonder how soon I’ll get to run there again. I’ll be back next year, and I hope you’ll be there too.
Violeta finished 6th female in 9:43.