“The World’s Hardest 50K” …. this is what was promised by race director Sean “Run Bum” Blanton. These 4 words intrigued me. They called to me. They made me question if I had what it took to tackle such beast. And, of course, I now had to find out.
I could start on the morning of the race itself, but as everyone who has ever tackled the seemingly impossible knows, the story starts LONG before that. I’ll take it back a good ways to the first of the year. To mark the new year I had run the Pistol 100 miler in Alcoa, TN.
This was a race that was both amazing and yet not so amazing on many levels. It was amazing in that the race was absolutely top notch, with fantastic staff, aid and course. I achieved several PR’s at the race including 50k, 50 mile and my 100 mile. What made it not so amazing is the fact that I pushed myself past my breaking point. After reaching my 50 mile PR, I became slightly injured which led to me taking it easy which then led to my body attempting to shut down on me. But being the absolutely stubborn person that I am, I refused to quit. Despite the fact that I was reduced to walking practically the entire second half of the race through enormously painful muscle cramps, I still managed to pull out a 100 mile PR. All of this came at a cost though. I had taken my body well beyond just hurting. I was injured in ways that I still don’t fully comprehend. I could barely walk for close to a week. It took me much longer before I could even attempt to run. Even when my body COULD physically handle it, I had lost my desire to do so. I was burnt out, both physically and mentally. It took well over a month before I felt like running again. And over 2 months before I felt a love for it again. I was on my way back, but I had a small change in my mindset. I realized that, in the past, running had became too much like work. My runs had always had a “purpose”. Every single time I stepped out the door, I had to run faster or farther than the time before. I had lost the reason for running in the first place. I now began to realize that having fun and enjoying myself was FAR more important than setting a new PR or a new distance goal. I set out to run for fun and to make it enjoyable again.
The Pistol had left its mark on me in more ways than mentally. Even after redeveloping a desire to run, my body was still broken. My legs took forever to fully heal and as a result I developed an IT band issue. I had battled one of these in the past and knew how long it took to heal. I ran a few more races and it was always right on the verge of a full on flare up again. I began to take it easy and rest it so that I didn’t lose any more time as I was supposed to be training for the Georgia Death Race. I thought it could possibly be a shoe issue as my trusty Altra Lone Peaks were well past due for replacing. So I bought a pair of the newer version of Lone Peaks thinking that possibly the increased cushioning over the previous model would help. On the contrary, it seemed to make the problem even worse. My knees were seriously bothering me now. It was well beyond what I knew as IT band issues. The pain was now not localized to the outside of the knee but also under and inside. Time for The Georgia Death Race came and I withdrew my name from the race and worked an aid station instead. This was not a race to attempt when you are already hurting beforehand. It made me sad to withdraw but knew it was the right decision. Besides, I had heard of this other race coming up at the end of May called the Quest For The Crest 50k, and figured I could heal properly and run that race instead. So I signed up.
In terms of healing, I began to think that throwing more and more cushioning at my feet was not the answer. It seemed like the more I did that, the worse off I became. My first IT band issues started when I began running in my Altra Olympus shoes (a fully max cushion shoe with 30+mm of stack height) and the second time after the Pistol where I was wearing my Altra Intuitions and Torins (both over 20mm of cushion) I bought a pair of Lone Peak 2.0’s with over 25mm and the problem only got worse. I thought that possibly if I went the other direction I could be better off. It was worth a try. So I broke out my running sandals that I had bought several months earlier and abandoned after 1 use. These were Xero Shoes Venture sandals and when I say they were the polar opposite of my cushy Altras, that is not an exaggeration. These were basically a thin strip of rubber held onto the feet with a piece of rope. I began running short runs in these. And despite the lack of cushion, I began to find the runs quite enjoyable. I began paying much more attention to form and overall just having a great time. But most importantly, my knees weren’t hurting. I ran in these for a bit but found that they were slightly TOO minimal and that my feet were getting bruised up from all the small rocks and roots I was running on. It was then that I decided to give Luna Sandals a try. From the moment I received my Traditional Mono sandals from Luna, I was in love. It took a while to really dial in how to lace them correctly to achieve a non slip secure fit, but once I did, they were amazing. just enough cushioning to absorb some of the smaller rocks but yet plenty of ground feel for good proprioception. These shoes were AMAZING. And by this point, my knee pain had completely disappeared. I became a Luna convert.
Knowing my race coming up was insanely technical, I ordered a pair of Leadville Pacers so as to get them molded to my feet in time for the race. The new ATS lacing was MUCH improved over the traditional laces and I knew I had found my newest Go-To shoe.
Now that my healing and footwear was somewhat sorted, I began to concentrate on the actual training for the race. Knowing that there was a TON of climbing I tried to make it up into the mountains to run as often as possible.
It started out ok, running a couple Coosa Loops and occasionally some Blood Mountain trips but soon life began to insist on me paying it more attention. My new job at REI was taking up some of my weekends and in order to make ends meet, I was working on the side doing remodeling work on my days off. Training kind of took a backseat. I was still running some of my local trails but they were not nearly enough to prepare me for this beast of a race coming up. And my new philosophy of running for fun did not allow the short local runs to do much in the way of preparation either.
As the race came closer and closer, I began getting nervous. I felt wholly unprepared for what I was about to get myself into. I began trying to get final details sorted out. I tried to finalize the ride situation but it turns out my carpool partner was pulling out of the race which left me stranded without a way to get to the race which was over 4 hours away. I finally found a ride up with my friends Anne and Greg, who were last minute volunteers for the race. And after making last minute arrangements for my dogs to be looked after while I was gone, we made our way up.
We left Saturday evening around 5pm and arrived at Albert’s (the official motel of the race) at around 9:30 pm. Packet pickup was well over, and the motel had sold out months in advance. So we began our search for a place to stay. Being very much last minute, no reservations were made with the thought that surely there would be SOME place nearby to stay. So we drove the 16ish miles to Burnsville to search for a place. No luck. We expanded our search and found a Comfort Inn about an hour away towards Asheville. We finally got settled in around 11:30pm which made the 3:45am alarm clock seem quite early. We were scheduled to be at the start at 5am and with the hour drive there, we didn’t have much time to spare. I threw on my clothes, grabbed some quick items from the breakfast bar which had not truly been set up yet and jumped in the car for the commute. I stayed awake for much of the drive but admit I slept part of the way to the start. We drove up the dirt road to the campground which served as the shuttle pick up point to the starting line. Here is where I needed to be for the shuttle and where Anne and Greg needed to meet up with Susan to get situated on the aid station. It also served as the morning packet pickup. After getting my race number and checking in, it was a matter of waiting on the two large school buses to come rumbling up the dirt road to pick us all up. There were many familiar faces amongst the crowd and I just kind of settled in. The buses had already made one trip and we were the second group to get picked up. As everyone filed onto the buses, it began to get real what we were about to do. As the buses motored their way to the starting line, we could see the mountains just outside the windows in the predawn light. And they were impressive. Tall and dark and stretching as far as you could see in either direction. Our shuttle finally slowed and stopped along a little country road in the middle of nowhere amongst a group of dozens of runners who were already there waiting beside the road. We milled about about for a bit before a car drove up pushed through the pack of runners along a little side street. Out got Sean, the race director, and he began to make pre-race announcements. Before we knew it, the announcements were over and the race had begun.
In a last minute change, the race now had a 1/2 mile uphill road run before we hit the trails. Everyone started with the fastest runners at the front eating this hill like it was for breakfast. Most people started it at a jog. This jog quickly devolved into power hiking as the hill got steeper. I found my friend Nikhil and his friend Amy and we hiked along together for a bit. There was not much running this first section. It was steep. VERY steep. We had a few spots were it leveled out and you had the option to either catch your breath or make up time by running …. I chose breathing more often than not. The climb got steeper. The pack started to spread out as it was beginning to get more and more difficult to climb. My Garmin was consistently reading it at a 24% grade … at a few spots it went as high as 33%. I broke out my trekking poles and they helped out immensely. There were ledges that had to be climbed, roots and boulders and trees that all had to be negotiated. Many sections it was actually easier to put my poles away and use my hands to grab the trees to help pull myself up. There were boulders the size of a house with a small crack between them that had to be squeezed through before going up and having to negotiate a drop off while hugging the rock. This all culminated into an opening in the trees ahead which presented one of the most amazing views of the race.
The morning was still early enough to show the morning fog settled into the coves and valleys below and the sun was still low enough to present dramatic shadows across the entire landscape below. It was enough to take your breath away (well, that and the fact that you were close to 6,000 feet at this point). The trail opened up a bit and became a sea of tall grass with a narrow cut in it where the trail went. At first glance, this appeared to be a welcome runnable section. Attempting to do this however revealed the diabolical truth …. Rocks the size of volleyballs hiding in the grass, clumps of grass unevenly distributed throughout the landscape like running on a floor covered in baseballs. And scariest of all, holes that would swallow your legs up to your thigh before you could even react. Amy was with me at this point and we negotiated our way down and out of the grass onto the more runnable trails.
This downhill section was a very welcome change to the constant slow trudging that the previous 5 miles had presented. We passed a couple volunteers on the way down who were busy purifying water out of a nearby stream to use at the water station for the trip back up the mountain. They mentioned it was 3 1/2 miles down to the aid station. We kept a decent pace running this section. It was a 3000 foot descent to the bottom where the aid station was but it was also a technical descent. Runnable but you could not let your guard down as you were constantly changing footing. I had my poles out as I frequently use them for stability while downrunning. There was one point where we had some speed up and we came to a log that had to be hurdled. I planted both poles and vaulted myself up and over the log in what felt like some sort of superhero move. Amy congratulated me on the badass move from behind (one that I thought. somehow had escaped anyone else’s attention but my own)…. Sometimes it’s the little things that can keep you staying positive. In this case, it was having fun despite the difficulty of the trail. We passed the elites on their way back up. then more and more of the rest of the pack. We finally made it to the bottom where the aid station was waiting just across a little creek. There was an old dilapidated bridge that was roped off forcing the runners through the creek itself before reaching the aid station. This, I did not mind since wearing my Lunas, water crossing actually felt great. I sat there in front of the food table picking an item at a time and shoving it in my mouth.
Sean’s mother recognized me and offered me some blueberries which I gladly took. I filled up my water bottle grabbed a quick picture, a handful of food and took off back up the trail that I had just come down with news that the next full aid station would be 11 miles ahead ….. and with our 20+ minute pace on these mountains, that would be a LONG time. And so began the second major climb of the race.
3 1/2 miles into the 3000 foot climb we came again to the water stop we had passed earlier. Here we refilled water bottles before heading on up the mountain. Here is where I also learned of another Luna wearer on the course from the comment, “You are the second person to come through here wearing flip flops” LOL And so we trudged onward and upward. All of the welcome downhill running from earlier was now an uphill battle. It was soul crushing in its never-endingness. At this point, I was running with a fellow Atlanta area runner, Zac. It was refreshing to connect with someone else on the motivations of signing up for this race. We finally made it to the grassy ridgeline and the amazing views. We negotiated the grassy singletrack as carefully as we could and when it finally leveled out a bit, I made an attempt to run. It was slow going but I felt like I was able to make up a little bit of time from the slow uphill trudge. The weather on the ridge was simply phenomenal.
There was a storm system that was moving through but it hit the mountains which stopped it and resulted in a very impressive wall of black clouds on one side and clear skies and gorgeous views on the other with our path taking us right down the middle of the two.
The Crest Trail was both one of the most gorgeous trails I have been on as well as one of the most treacherous. The views and beauty were second to none but navigating the trail itself proved quite difficult. There were portions were you literally had to do a bit of rock climbing by finding footholds while pulling yourself up over giant rockfaces and others that required a buttslide in order to get down safely.
The 5 miles along the crest were truly unforgettable. The downhill here was tricky. Again, we had 3000 feet of descent and this portion of trail was insanely difficult to maneuver. It was here that I met my fellow Luna wearer, Lisa. I had to make a quick potty break and several of the runners who were in close proximity went on by. A little ways ahead, I came up on a group sitting in a clearing. “Here comes another one wearing flip flops! What, are you like a team? Like a flip-flop team?” “Yep … and that’s exactly what we call ourselves … the flip-flop team” “REALLY?!?!?!” “No not really” and then I disappeared on down the mountain.
I caught up with Lisa further down the trail and mentioned our new team and we shared a laugh. We talked a bit as more people began to join. Some went on ahead, some fell back. Our pace was constant but not super fast. Somewhat close to the bottom, I ran up on what at first looked like a big black stick but as i got closer I realized it was actually a giant black rat snake about 6 1/2 – 7 feet long. It was actually quite beautiful but by the time I got close to it and wanted to get a picture, it scurried out of the trail and into the woods. About 1/2 mile further and we were at the second aid station.
I broke out of the woods to the sound of my name being called out. It was Thompson who was heading up the aid station and his amazing group of volunteers who were all quite eager to help in any way possible.
Fill up my water? Do I want some Coke? Want something to eat? The questions were endless. I, however, just wanted to stand there and look at the food options. It took me a minute to take it all in. I opened my bottle and got some Coke. “Do you want some water in it to cut it some?””Why on earth would I want to do that?””To take the fizziness away””But I like the fizziness … no I don’t want any water in it, thanks” LOL We were given a quick description of the trail ahead and off we went again. 1/4 mile up the road before cutting back into the woods.
Once in the woods, we started off on a wide road like trail with a gentle grade. If I had the energy that I had at the beginning of the race, I probably could have run much of it, but after 2 3000 foot climbs and 2 3000 foot descents, my legs didn’t have it in them to run, so instead I power hiked. Lisa proved to be a faster hiker than I and quickly disappeared ahead on the trail. As the trail got steeper and steeper, the hiking became more and more difficult. I left the group I had been hiking with behind as I forged on ahead. I hit the section that Sean had affectionately referred to as “switchback hell” and it truly lived up to its title. The switchbacks were steep and seemed to go on forever. It was here that I caught back up with Lisa and got out front for a bit. After what seemed like an eternity, the trail finally began to open up a bit and I was now in a what looked like an alpine meadow with tall grass and rhododendrons blooming with long views of the the valley below and views of the mountain above. It truly was a gorgeous sight.
This portion was to be run along the ridgeline with a relatively level and runnable section to the Big Tom aid station where we take a short 4/10 mile spur up the mountain to get a stamp on our bibs and back down to the aid station where we would be directed back down the mountain to the finish line. Excitement was about to overtake me. I could hear the aid station ahead, which meant I only had the 4/10 mile left of climbing before my final descent off the mountain to the finish line. As I rounded the corner to the aid station, I was so relieved. 3000 feet of climbing was over. Just a little more to go but a short rest before I tackled it. It was then that I heard the news. “Sorry, but you are past the cut-off time and I can’t let you go up the mountain” “Excuse me, what?!?!” ” I have strict instruction to not let anyone up the mountain after 4:15 and it is 4:30″ “so now what?” “you have to keep going to the finish 6 miles away, but I can’t let you go up. Your time won’t be official” I was devastated. Minutes later more and more runners trickled into the aid station and received the same news. I sat there in shock. “So this is what this feels like …. I’ve never been cut before” Lisa said.”Neither have I”, I said. I seriously couldn’t believe it. I began to get angry. I was very disappointed. I was ashamed. I was sad. I was any of 30 different emotions all at once.
I decided not to just sit there any longer and began to walk down the mountain. I was trying to process these emotions but it was hard to do so while still having hours ahead of me on the trail. A group went running by. Most of which had just come off the spur on their way to their official finish. One of my fellow cuttees went running past as well, “whether it is official or not I am finishing this mother f***** out”. I couldn’t bring myself to do the same. I was still too upset and my body was already destroyed. I could not justify damaging myself further if I wasn’t even getting an official finish time. So I sulked. Lisa and her friend came up behind me and we made our way down together through the occasional mutterings of “stupid cutoff times” or “I can’t believe this happened” It started to rain a bit “oh perfect!!!” No longer exerting myself, my body starting to feel the chilly temperatures of the upper trail. With clothes drenched in sweat and temperatures lower, it wasn’t long before I began to shiver a bit. I put on my rain jacket for a while. We maneuvered our way down this trail for quite a ways before we began to realize it would take us forever to get off the mountain at the pace we were going. We began searching for runnable areas. But on legs that are already trashed and have essentially taken the past hour on a break, it was hard to coax them to move again. Eventually the trail did open up a bit and we decided to run. Running did wonders for both the body and the mind. First of all, I just wanted off this mountain. But more importantly, I began to reflect on all that had just happened. I thought back to the gorgeous views I had witnessed over the course of the day. I recalled the enormous challenges that were faced and overcome. I thought about all the amazing people I had met throughout the day. I began to realize that three little letters next to my name (DNF) will in no way take away any of those experiences from me. And so I ran. Down the mountain. Towards the distant voices. Across the road and ultimately into the clearing where the finish line was. I immediately went towards the timing tent, intentionally avoiding the finisher chute. Sean walked over to me with a finisher’s pint glass, “Great job! Here you go” “I didn’t officially finish … I was cut” “just take it … besides, you will need something to drink the beer with” So with a time of a little over 13 hours covering 34 1/2 miles (by my watch) and 22,000+ feet of elevation change, the story comes to a conclusion.
It takes a special type of person to read “the world’s hardest ….” and then think, “that is something I should try”. These are people who do not have the word “impossible” in their vocabulary. Then take over a hundred such people and put them all in one place. How can you not be inspired? Take unimaginable beauty, the witnessing of which can only be achieved by insanely hard work and effort. How can you not be moved? And lastly, take the generosity of those who are gladly willing to give of themselves through time, money and emotions in order for you to witness all of this. How can you not be thankful?
Thank you to everyone who gave of themselves to make this race happen. From the countless hours of planning and permitting to the sweat and hard work of reclaiming the trails to the logistical nightmares of coordinating volunteers over such a wide geographic location. Your efforts are not in vain and they are VERY much appreciated. And thanks also to the many runners who offered encouragement along the way and who shared in both the suffering as well as in the beauty of the race.
Kelly Cooper – DNF (and yet still proud of it)