20 May 2017


No, it's not the ocean, it's clouds above the Black Mountains.
While I still consider myself a newbie in ultrarunning, I started looking for challenging races pretty soon after finishing my first trail race. Volcanoes in Nicaragua, mountains in the French alps, rugged North Georgia trails, the more elevation gain, the better. I enjoy a good climb and even better if that climb is rewarded with spectacular views. This has happened to me only a couple of times so far and the Quest For The Crest 50K was one such race that provided both the challenging climbs and the rewarding vistas.

Taking the RD hostage for the inside scoop on the race course.
When I initially read the course description, I was more than skeptic. “More than 11,000ft of elevation gain”, “Hardest 50K in the World”, “Water filter is required” and “Double your 50K PR finish time for a predicted finish time” all sounded like a lot of hype, but when I read “…scenery that will take your breath away”, I was more than intrigued. Not wanting to be left out of the fun this time around, my training buddies and I all signed up as soon as registration opened. We booked a cabin near the race finish and on Friday before the race, we arrived at packet pickup near the small town of Burnsville, NC after a 5 ½ hour road trip. We were welcomed by RD Sean, in typical RunBum fashion, with a shot of Tequila.

Our little cabin in the woods.
By the time we sat down for our pre-race dinner on the patio of a fantastic local joint overlooking Mt. Mitchell and the amazing Black Mountain range, all pre-race jitters had evaporated. We headed straight for our cabin for a final gear check and to catch some Z’s before our 3AM wakeup call to catch the 4:30AM shuttle to the race start.

Pre-race photo with the Huntsville crew.
The QFTC is a point to point 50K race, so runners get shuttled from the finish line to the race start. Nearly 200 runners were loaded up into 6 school buses and arrived at the 5:30AM race start with time to spare. But rather than have runners wait around, the RD had us start a few minutes early and about a ½ mile from the actual race start for a nice warmup before entering the single track trail that would lead us immediately up the first of major climb.

Stunning view of the sunrise at the top of the first climb.
The QFTC course can be broken down into 3 sections consisting of a major climbs of 3,500-4,500 feet of elevation gain, each. While the elite runners opted to charge ahead and run some of the climbs, us mere mortals decided to take a more measured approach, and not necessarily by choice. As we all found out very quickly, the RD was not exaggerating the amount and severity of the climbs. The Woody Ridge Trail takes runners on a 3,000 foot climb over the first 3 miles of the race. The middle section of this trail (about half a mile) actually required three point contact to make your way up the trail.

Stunning views of the Black Mountains.
I witnessed a lot of heavy breathing from runners and lots of runners hanging on to a tree on the side of this gnarly steep trail just to catch their breath for a moment, but when we finally reached the top of this initial climb, we were treated to one of the most amazing views I have ever experienced. The sun was just rising above the Black Mountains and we all had a front row seat to this spectacle. More than just a few runners paused for a quick panoramic picture or selfie in front of this incredible vista.

Running long the Black Mountain Crest Trail.
After we crested the trail, runners turned north onto the Black Mountain Crest Trail dropping down almost immediately to start the descent to our first aid station from nearly 6,000ft elevation down to 3,000 ft over just 4 miles. As promised by the RD, this downhill was technical, but it was runnable and after climbing for over an hour, it felt great to finally get to run some. 2 miles into our descent we saw race leader and eventual race winner Avery Collins blow past in the opposite direction, already making his way back up the mountain, putting him about 2 miles ahead of us a mere 6 miles into the race, just wow.

Sunrise view at its best.

I arrived and Bowlens Creek aid station, cooled off in the creek crossing and turned around to start the second climb of the race, straight back up the way we came. I was now 2 hours into the race and felt like I had completed the first third of the race. We continued to climb and while most of this section of the Black Mountain Crest Trail was very technical, there were some runnable bits even on the uphill. The course started to wear runners down. Trains of runners started forming again as we continued to climb higher. Thankfully, as we started to work harder and body temps started to rise as a result, the temperature got cooler as we gained in elevation. This prevented lots of runners from overheating on an unusually warm day.

Climbing to the top of the Black Mountain Crest Trail.
As tough as these climbs were, I just could not wait to make it up onto the ridge line again to get some more of these spectacular views. Reaching the top also meant that 2 of the 3 climbs would be done and that we would be treated to some sustained ridge line running before descending for the second time. Between miles 11 and 15, we got to do some incredible running along the Black Mountain ridge line offering more spectacular views and some incredible single track trails. 

More stunning views.
More than once runners had to use their hands to climb up a steep section of trail or over a rock or boulder obstacle. I stopped a few times to take in the scenery and to snap a pic of the vistas as well as the gnarly tree canopy covered trails. This approach actually not only allowed me to capture some amazing memories, it also kept me from going too hard too early.

Ridgeline running at its finest.
Before I knew it, I had hit the second aid station at a peak around mile 15 before starting the second descent of the day heading down Colbert Ridge Trail towards the third aid station before starting the final and biggest climb of the day, to the top of Mount Mitchell.

Actual running captured by Greg Gelmis.
While this was probably the most technical descent of the day, running was possible and somewhat necessary to make up some of the time lost during the climbing (and picture taking). Temperatures started to rise and fully exposed sections, of which there were very few, did get a bit hot.

Gnarly rooty trails straight up.
This downhill gave me plenty of time to think of the climb ahead, the biggest of the day and one that would definitely prove to be the most demanding. Once I completed the second descent, we entered the only road section of the day (less than a mile) and a another short flatish section of single track trail before arriving at the most important aid station of the day, Colbert Ridge AS.

Tree-tunnel trail.
It is located at the base of the strenuous 6 mile climb towards the top of Mount Mitchell. Runners were allowed drop bags at this aid station and many made use of this option. Most runners made sure to take on extra fuel and fluids before starting the final climb, including me.

Black Mountain cliff along the ridge line.
The ascent to the top of Mt. Mitchell seemed to take forever. Temps continued to rise and runners were depleting their fluids at a much higher rate than before. Thankfully, we were able to put our water filter to good use to refill our fluids in a small creek about half way up the mountain. The RD had marked multiple creeks along the route as water stops to encourage runners to get additional fluids. Additional aid stations were logistically impossible as the area was too remote to haul in supplies.

Open meadow running approaching Mount Mitchell.

While aid stations were spread fairly evenly between 6-7 miles, these were some of the slowest miles many of us had ever run. About half way up the final climb, runners would get the most vivid view of Mt. Mitchell which stayed in view for the next mile or so as runners kept weaving back and forth on open grassy sections of trail, turning away from the mountain before turning back again with a clear view.

Mount Mitchel parking lot (aid station 4) in the distance.
It seemed we weren’t getting any closer to actually getting to the top, until we started climbing straight up yet again. I think it was described as “3.5 miles of hell” by the RD in a little note near the last creek water source. Nothing to do but bite down and get up there. This was another three point contact climb, in fact I was on all fours for much of it.

One of the times to actually run in this race.
I arrived at the final aid station atop of Mt. Mitchell praying for an ice cold Coke. Ask and you shall receive. This aid station was amazing, ice cold drinks, food on the grill, lots of food choices. It was almost too good to leave, but the urge to cross the finish line was stronger, so I thanked these awesome volunteers and started my jog across the parking lot and the final descent. It was described as mostly technical for the first two miles followed by a couple of runnable miles. While I was able to run all of it, it was pretty technical yet again with lots of steep drop-offs that added an excitement factor to downhill running on battered and exhausted legs.

Drinking a much earned beer, thanks "Nasty".
The descent seemed just as endless as the climb, but the reward would be the finish line, where the RD awaited every finisher with a high five, some local BBQ and an ice cold brew. How hard was this race, you ask? Well, female winner Jackie Merritt finished in 8 hours 32 minutes while male winner Avery Collins took 6 hours and 45 minutes, not your average 50K winning times. Is this the world’s hardest 50K? Maybe, but it is most definitely and without a doubt one of the most scenic.

Celebrating our finishes at a local brew pub in Burnsville, NC.
More photos from this amazing race course below:


  1. Great recap and excellent pics! I was there last year and it was a truly awesome race. Heading back down to hit it again this weekend and expect challenging conditions. I'm packing a GoPro this time around. What kind of camera where you using last year or was it a phone?

    1. I used my iPhone 7, but I do own and use GoPro cameras as well. Their editing software is great.



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