Quest for the Crest 50k Recap
I'm just a few days removed from finishing Quest for the Crest, also known as the most difficult 50k in the U.S, and I'd say I'm definitely feeling all of the 24,000 feet of elevation change over 33 miles.
First off, just to get it out there, I'm once again in complete amazement at what the human body can do when the mind is in sync. I'm a huge proponent for improving and channeling mental strength, but yesterday was even more so a testament to how powerful our brains are. As runners, we physically train so hard day in and day out, but I don't think we credit the ginormous role our minds play in our performance, both when we do well, and also when we do poorly. How many times have you talked yourself out of or into something?
The race took place in Burnsville, NC and on Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi River. My parents were gracious to keep Emerson for the night, so they picked her up Friday morning, and I spent the day packing and getting prepared (visualizing the race, choosing my verses to focus on, setting my intentions, and finalizing my outfit and fueling). Jon got off work at 5pm, and we loaded the car down with all of our things, our two dogs, and headed east to North Carolina. It was about a 2 hour drive. Not bad at all.
We arrived at the quaint Albert's Inn to pick up my bib around 8pm, the sun was setting just over the mountain, and it was raining, but still such a beautiful late spring night. We then got back into the car to drive down the mountain to the airbnb I had booked. It began to rain harder, and I worried a little bit about the trail conditions since it had been storming all week, but I knew it would be what it would be, and tried to stay positive. We had no phone service and couldn't get google maps to pull up since there was no cell-tower nearby, so we asked the nice folks at Albert's Inn to print off a map so we could get to our airbnb. 25 minutes later, we are driving up a gravel road in the middle of nowhere, and trying to find the airbnb, which was truly just an efficiency cabin in the woods. We only needed a place to lay our heads for the night. We cannot find the dang place! We keep going up, up, up on this gravel road, that turns to mud, and it's completely washed out and pouring down rain. We are driving my Subaru, but even then, we can't make it up. We get stuck, and nearly bottom out. LOL. By this time it's 9:30 pm, and Jon and I are both frustrated because we can't find this place, and can't call the airbnb guy because we have no cell service, so we resolve to drive back up the mountain and car camp near the start of the race. What would you do in this situation? Serious question. We were not prepared in any way to car camp, but thankfully had a couple pillows in the car. We folded down the seats, the dogs were all over us the entire night (including our overly anxious lab who panted the ENTIRE night), so we got maybe 2 hours of sleep, but we just rolled with it. Gotta laugh!
The alarm goes off at 2:45am. We needed to be ready to leave for the bus by 3:30am. I honestly felt pretty delirious from the lack of sleep, but was excited for a day to play in the mountains. This was what I had trained for all spring! I slapped some peanut butter on a piece of day-old bread, changed my clothes, and was ready to drive to the start. It was 3:15 in the morning, and everyone was buzzing as we waited for the bus! The energy was so high! Ha, runners are truly crazy. I tried to take the pre-race pit stop in the porta-potty, but I think because it was so early, my digestion was off, so I couldn't go. I tried 4 times! I found a seat on one of the 5 yellow school buses next to a new friend from Atlanta, and we were off for a 20 min drive to the start. No crew or anyone who was not racing was allowed at the starting line, as it was literally just a trail head off the side of a country road.
Sean, the race director (who really did an amazing job organizing and putting on this race, by the way), announced, "okay, starting in 30 seconds!" as we all piled off the busses, so I hustled to the front of the pack, started my Garmin to find satellites, then he counted down from 10, and we were off!
Before I go into details of the race, here's the elevation profile. It is essentially 3 big climbs and 3 big descents, and I'd be done with this thing. This is how I broke the course up in my brain during the race, too. I couldn't think about the mileage or the hours I would be out there, or I would get overwhelmed and defeated with how much I had left. The plan was just to stay in the moment and in the mile I was in.
First climb: 3 miles Up to the Crest
I studied the course pretty religiously prior to the race, so I knew the first 3 miles were straight up, and arguably the hardest ones in the race. They were definitely the steepest. Mile 3 alone had 1,500 feet of gain. I thought I could probably get to the top in around an hour, which would round out to 20 min pace. The plan was to just sip on my 90g Sports drink, and take it easy getting up, and also to gauge the competition and see where the front girls were.
It was pitch black, and we ran up a paved road for a couple min (If I had to guess, it was about 6% grade), then we hopped on single track trail and started hiking. I was up front with another girl, and there were probably 10 or so guys ahead of us. I felt strong from the get-go. I really worried about my hiking and climbing abilities leading up to the race, because I did the majority of my training on a treadmill, but as we climbed, I could feel how strong my legs were from all the treadmill hiking I've done the last 4 months.
As we got to the top, it was getting lighter out, so I turned off my headlamp, and stuffed it into my Ultimate Direction Jenny pack. We crested the top, and the gal right behind me seemed to bolt ahead like lightening. She looked so strong, but I also felt really great, so I told myself to be patient, as this is such a long race, and anything can happen. We were rewarded with sunrise views below (although not this prominent, as it was a little cloudy out).
First Descent: 4 miles Down to Bowlens Creek Aid Station
From reading other runners' race reports, I knew I could make up a lot of time on this descent. It was steep in parts, and technical, but also smooth in some places, which all play to my strengths. I'm strong at technical descents and downhill running. As I started going downhill, though, I quickly realized, again, it's so early in the race. I need to be careful and not fly down. I still had 3/4 of the race left, and needed to save my quads for 2 more long descents. I hung back and ran conservatively with a group of guys and the third place gal, my soon-to-be new friend, Shannon.
Really glad I ran conservatively on this section even though I was rearing to go. I felt like I was holding back, but by the end of the 4 miles my quads were burning!! We hopped across the creek, into the aid station, and I filled up my front pouch flasks in my pack with water. I decided then and there to stick with Shannon, as she was in and out of the aid-station so fast. "This girl knows what she's doing!" I thought. Come to find out, she finished second last year with a blazing time of 9 hours flat, so I knew she would run the race smart.
Second Climb: 4 miles Back up Bowlens Creek Trail to the Crest
Those 4 miles we just flew down? Now time to climb back up them. It's so funny how you can tell yourself to do one thing during a race, and be confident and hell-bent on it, and then less than 2 min later completely change your mind. I said I would stick with Shannon, and then on the climb, I flew up, left the group, and grinded it out much faster than I anticipated. Looking back, I definitely think I went too hard on this section. It's so tough to know when to push and when to hold back in an ultra. I'm still learning all of that. I think if I wouldn't have pushed so hard on these miles, then I would have felt better on the final climb later in the race, but regardless, I took advantage of feeling great, put my head down, hands on my knees, and power hiked! I put some minutes on Shannon and the group of guys, and also made up a lot of time on the first place female. When I got to the top of the crest trail again, the crew who was scanning bibs told me I was just 2 min behind the leader. Wahoo! I felt fantastic and ready to chase her!
3 "flat" miles on top of the crest trail
I knew going into the race that these miles would be slower than some of the climbs, because the elevation profile is really deceiving. They are somewhat flat as you can see to the right, but so so technical!! I started to feel discouraged because I was moving so slow. I almost wished I was still hiking rather than trying to run on this! A few guys passed me, and then after about a mile, Shannon reached me, too, which I was actually happy about. She was so positive, and I knew if I could just tuck in behind her and follow her lines, I could speed up. We ran together for the rest of the time up top, and then we started our descent. She was such a positive force during a tough spot in the race!
Second Descent: 4 miles Steep Downhill
I stuck with Shannon all the way down, and just tried to hang with her and enjoy the race. She was moving!! We passed probably 5 guys, and just were cruising along, chatting, fueling, and even though I had stomach stitches (I never could go to the bathroom and it really affected me the entire race!), I was feeling much more positive, and thankful for my new friend! Along with the previous climb, this was my favorite section of the race. There were parts that really played to my strengths--smooth trails, some rocks but not crazy crazy technical, and I had a new friend! We came barreling into the Colbert Ridge aid station (~mile 18), I had finished all my 90g Sports fuel, so now it was time to refill my flasks with Coca Cola, and also grab some Pringles chips that I had packed in my drop bag. During my last ultra, I really craved Coke and Pringles, so I thought this would be a winner, but actually, those two things sounded terrible! It's so interesting with ultras, you never know what's going to sound good and what isn't, so it's kind of a guessing game. We were in and out of the aid station like lightening again, even though I wasn't excited about my new fuel, and we jumped onto the road to begin our final climb to Mt. Mitchell.
Third Climb: 6.5 miles up to Mt. Mitchell
It was a steady .5 mile climb on the road, then single track to the summit. I was still reeling from us flying down the mountain, and my spirits were up. The only problem? I STILL hadn't been able to go to the bathroom, and my stomach cramp just wouldn't let up. The jolting from all the downhill running the last 4 miles really left me feeling awful, so I told her to keep moving, that I was going to duck behind a tree and try to go to the bathroom, confident I'd be able to catch up with her since we weren't moving super fast and it was on road. Well, I couldn't go to the bathroom, and didn't want to waste any more time, so I quickly got moving again, except I just couldn't speed up. I saw her turn onto the trail, and I followed, but she seemed like she was speeding up. I tried to stay positive, but I could definitely feel my stomach turning, and my energy levels were also low. I forgot to grab my gels at the aid station, and I just had coke in my flexible flasks in the front of my pack, which just wasn't enough calories for what I was about to undertake. For the next hour, I climbed toward the highest peak east of the Mississippi River, and didn't see a soul. I felt like I was going snails pace as I couldn't run any of the sections, and just told myself to keep moving. I told myself, "This won't last forever, just one foot in front of the other." It wasn't that I was hurting a ton, I just wanted to be moving faster and I couldn't. I definitely needed calories, and was kicking myself for forgetting to grab my gels out of my drop bag. Oh well.
After climbing in the trees for about an hour, I got to an open area, and I was convinced I was at the top of Mt. Mitchell. Hooray! I made it! "That wasn't so bad," I thought to myself. It was pretty flat and grassy for maybe a quarter of a mile, and then I saw a huge mountain in the distance, and wondered if actually THAT was Mt. Mitchell, devastated that I would have to climb MORE. Nearly seconds after wondering where I was and how much more climbing I had, I came across a hiker (didn't realize she was also the race photographer, and she snapped the photo below ha), and asked her what mountain that was in the distance, and whether it was Mt. Mitchell (silently hoping it wasn't). She kindly but frankly responded, "Oh, no, that's actually Big Tom. You'll climb Big Tom, then another mountain, THEN Mt. Mitchell." Oh my gosh, no. I rounded the bend running away from her, and just totally lost it emotionally. "I cannot climb 3 more mountains," I thought. "There is no way. My legs are already screaming. How am I supposed to do this?"
I kept expecting another runner to catch me because I was moving so slow, and then, it happened. An older gentleman named John came from behind, and immediately noticed I was suffering. "What's your name?" He said. "Katie" I winced. "Okay, Katie, how are you doing? Where's your head at?" He asked. "I am not in a good place", tears began to come down. He asked if I had any caffeine, I told him I was drinking coke. He started talking, but all I could hear was "You gotta get your head on straight." By this point, I was crying really hard. And then, he handed me two gels, one chocolate caffeinated Honey Stinger, and one chocolate blackberry Huma gel, and said to take them immediately. I am not a huge fan of gels, but the chocolate blackberry sounded absolutely delightful, and I downed it within a few seconds. "OMG that was so good!!" I said. It's pretty amazing what sugar and caffeine in a concentrated form can do for your fatigued brain and body. I started bouncing off rocks and uphills! I felt like a million bucks! John went on, but he said he would see me on the decent, because I was going to catch him. I didn't actually believe that I would, but I kept trucking a long, and was just so thankful to be feeling better. I am so thankful for Mr. John who helped me when I needed it so much!!
I finally made it to the top of Big Tom, and then it was just 2 miles of steady climbing until Mt. Mitchell. I knew at this point, I would finish. What a sweet relief. My spirits were back up, and I was ready to knock this thing out of the park!!
3rd Descent: 6 miles down from Mt. Mitchell to the finish
I ran into the aid station, and was surprised to see Mr. John, as I thought he would be way in front of me. I grabbed a croissant with butter and a ton of salt (wayyy too much salt lol it was really gross actually), and hurried out of the aid station so I could keep up with John. I told him my goal was to finish with him, and he kept telling me that I was going to finish in front of him lol because I'd pass him on the descent. OMG I FORGOT TO GRAB GELS AGAIN. Seriously?? How did I just do that? I embarrassingly told Mr. John that I forgot to get gels at the last aid station. We still had over an hour left in the race, 6 miles of technical descent, and I had ZERO fuel on me, and only about 10 ounces of water. It was hot out at this point. Truly, my brain was on a different wave length. I was kicking myself for being so silly and forgetting the most important thing: fuel. Again, my guardian angel John came to the rescue, and without batting an eye gave me 2 MORE Huma gels. Seriously, he was so kind. We are flying down the mountain, and John keeps telling me to pass him when I'm ready. I tell him I'm not ready yet, that he's doing great leading the way. Eventually, I tell him I'm ready to go, with about 3 miles left, and he moves to the side for me to pass. A mile later, I am completely out of water. The next part is too funny. I am running toward some male hikers, and I seriously must be going insane, because I yelled at them and asked if they had any water on them. One of them points to his camelback, and no joke, I run up to him, grab his hydration pack, and take a huge gulp from his mouthpiece LOL. I quickly say thanks and speed off. That only satisfies my thirst for a minute, though, and my mouth is parched, again. I need that final gel with water to finish strong, so I make a game-time decision as I'm running through a large creek with a decent waterfall: I opened my flask and filled it up with unfiltered water from the creek. Risky, but I was desperate. When I jump into the creek, John comes flying past me and yells, "What the hell are you doing?!" "I gotta get water!!" I laugh. I quickly hop out of the creek, and sprint to catch John who was MOVING. I can not catch him! With about 1.5 miles to go, I am running as fast as I can without falling, and I can hear the guy behind me gaining ground, and I tell myself to just keep going, don't let him pass you. I did not catch Jon, but I held off the other guy. I finished stronger than I have in any other ultras. I felt so accomplished and just utterly amazed at the human body. 3rd female, 8:52, 15th overall out of 200ish people who started the race. I finished 8 minutes behind Shannon, and 20 minutes behind Amanda, the first place gal.
Click here for my Strava Stats
Gear I used:
Shoes: Salomon Sense Marin (These are my second pair, and I love them. I have never had a blister, and my feet were wet the entire race from the rain.)
Shorts: Oiselle Toolbelt Rogas (No chafing, great fit. I wear a size 6 in this short.)
Bra: Oiselle Brilliance Bra (Amazing, especially if you are a little more on the gifted side. I wear a size 6.)
Top: Older Oiselle top. Can't remember the name, but it's mesh up top. Super comfy and perfect for wearing under a pack.
Hydration Pack: Ultimate Direction Jenny .
The goal was to take in 60-70g of carbs per hour. I tried to make things as simple as possible.
Hours 1-4: I drank 60g per hour of Lemon-Lime Caffeine and Raspberry Lemon Caffeine from 90g Sports mixed with water (in a concentrated form), and I also drank about 16 oz of water per hour from the large bladder in my backpack.
Hours 5-6: The plan was to drink about 16 oz of Coke per hour, which I did, but this was not enough. I ended up also taking in 2 gels (1 huma, 1 honey stinger). I drank 16 oz of water per hour.
Hours 7-8: I had a croissant with butter, and I also took in two more Huma gels and 30 oz of water.
What I would change and keep about my training leading up to this race:
Overall, I felt incredibly prepared, thanks to my coach, Meridith Ussery . She did an amazing job of both encouraging me, but also giving me the tools and resources I needed to be prepared, without overdoing it. It's actually easy to do too much in preparation for an ultra, but we've found I respond best to a "less is more" approach.
I averaged about 45-50 miles per week for the 3 months leading up to the race and did not do any speedwork (aside from strides twice per week). We initially were doing speedwork, but that, combined with the hill training was causing some hip pain, so we backed off the speedwork and just focused on easy miles, hills, and strength work. Since I trained for this race while living in Memphis (a very flat city), I did a lot of my training on the treadmill. The bulk of my training consisted of this:
- Treadmill "hiking" 2-3 days per week for 45 min to 1 hour. This was at 12-15% incline at 15-16 min/mile pace.
- 1 Easy Long Run per week, 3-4 hours long, and I just focused on time on my feet. I would try to incorporate hills, but again, Memphis is really flat, so this was tough at times. I did just 3 hilly long runs prior to the race (~2,000-3,000 feet of gain).
- David Roche's Mountain Routine 2x per week, often in the middle of a long run to simulate hills.
- The last month leading up to the race, I would incorporate any type of hill that I could, in the form of parking garages (hiking up the stairs, running down the embankments), running up stadiums, etc.
- Oiselle's Dirty Dozen strength routine 1x per week.
- One thing I did not do that I wish I had was the stair climber or even rock climbing. I didn't have access to either, but this would have definitely come in handy on the super steep climbs/bouldering sections.
And that's pretty much it! Thanks for following along, cheering me on, and being a part of this journey. XOXO, Katie