Sunday, January 30, 2011

Hogpen Hill Climb 17K 1/29/11 (Race Report)

On January 29, 2011, I completed the Hogpen Hill Climb 17K with a finish time of 2:03:37.

Photo courtesy of Stefan Eady
The Hogpen Hill Climb 17K takes place in Helen, a small town in the north Georgia mountains that changed into a replica of a German Alps village to attract tourists after its local logging industry went into decline many years ago.  The race starts in downtown Helen and ends at the Appalachian Trail crossing on Hogpen Gap for an elevation gain of roughly 2,500 feet.  Hogpen Hill Climb normally happens in the middle of January, but was postponed this year due to extreme conditions in the wake of a snow storm that swept through Georgia three weeks ago.

I was going into this race at a disadvantage, because, during the past three weeks, I had allowed the same snowy weather that shut the city of Atlanta down to shut my fitness routine down as well.  After completing the Atlanta Fat Ass 50K just hours before the snow blizzard hit the city, I made the mistake of being sedentary for several days and taking too much advantage of the decidedly less-than-healthy food selection at the Target store that is located within walking distance of where I live.  I enjoyed productive long runs over the two subsequent weekends, but had still not fallen into the habit of intensifying my mid-week workouts, and, as a result, I reversed some of the major fitness gains that I had made over the past several months.  I fortunately returned to my weight loss fitness routine during the week before Hogpen Hill Climb, but this was too little, too late, and I correctly anticipated that I would be struggling on the mountain hills of this course.

On the day of this race, runners were treated to abnormally warm 60+ degree temperatures and beautiful clear skies.  I arrived in Helen just before noon to find the temperature pleasantly chilly, but I knew that I would heat up quickly when the race began.  I opted to wear a long-sleeved shirt under a short-sleeved shirt, just in case I needed to ditch the long sleeves at some point on the route, but I was happy to be wearing running shorts in January.  I ran into several friendly faces as I picked up my race number and joined the crowd at the start line in front of the Helen Fest Hall. When I asked a couple of veteran Hogpen runners if most people ran the entire race course, they laughed and replied that very few people actually ran the entire time without walking.  Although the Hogpen Hill Climb is only 10.5 miles, I was told to expect my finish time to match my normal half marathon times.

I started the race next to Sarah, a fellow GUTS runner who assured me that I would not have any trouble deciding when to slow my pace on this race route.  To conserve my energy before the massive climbs later in the race, I decided to run with a leisurely 10-minute/mile pace from the very beginning.  This pace enabled me to converse comfortably with other runners as we wove through the Bavarian-style buildings of downtown Helen before starting a mild ascent that took us out of the main town area and over the Chattahoochee River.

The first mile of the race ended with a 200-foot hill climb as we proceeded beside the rustic houses on Ridge Road.  Many runners slowed to a walk early on for this climb, but I had resolved to maintain a running pace, however slow, for as long as I could.  I encountered another GUTS runner, Wes, along this stretch and he advised me that it was a good idea to power-walk when I got to a point on the course where I felt like I was just jogging in place.  Fortunately, Ridge Road seemed to have as many downhill slopes as uphill, although I knew that we were getting higher and higher.  I kept forcibly slowing my pace, but still managed to pass quite a few runners as we exited Ridge Road and ran through beautiful farms along Georgia 75.

Peer pressure during a race can be good or bad, depending on the circumstances.  As I ran up each hill during the first few miles, I noticed that several runners were walking these hills.  I wanted to see how far I could run before changing over to a power-walk, but I increasingly wondered if I would be serving myself just as well by power-walking with long strides with the same charging power-walk pace with which I tackle steep climbs during ultramarathons.  I passed by a handful of runners who wore triathlon shirts and sported the trademark Ironman Triathlon tattoos on their lower shins.  If I was passing Ironman finishers, then I needed to take caution. Still, I kept running, even when my running pace was just a plodding jog.

The pastoral farmland surroundings of Georgia 75 came to an abrupt end as we turned onto Richard B. Russell Scenic Highway for the steep climb up to the finish.  For the remainder of the race, the scenery consisted of one steep road as far up as I could see with shady trees on either side.  Since the roads were not closed off to traffic, I joined other runners along the right side of the road, as instructed, so that cars could pass by both ways.  I obeyed my hill running instincts and jogged up the steepening road with baby steps to save energy.

The advice that Wes had given me resounded in my head. “If you spot a tree ahead of you while you're running and that tree doesn't seem to be getting any closer, then it's okay to start walking.”  So far, the trees in the distance got a little closer with each step, so I ran.

I passed the Mile 5 marker, drank a cup of water from the aid station and ate a Crank e-Gel while still running.  I noticed that every single person on the road ahead of me was walking as the hill turned up at a sharply steep angle.  At mile 5.3, I started walking.

Fortunately, I could move along at the trademark Jason Power-Walk, with long strides that benefited from months of anaerobic heart rate treadmill workouts at a 10% incline.  I caught up with others one by one and picked them off as I charged up the hill.  My decision to walk was no excuse to take a vacation, so I made sure to quicken my steps and make the most of my stride.  I resumed running when I reached a crest and enjoyed a mostly downhill run during the sixth mile. 

Photo courtesy of Sally Brooking
Halfway through the sixth mile, the road turned up again at a steep angle. I passed a veteran runner who told me, “The party's over now. It's all steep from now on.”

The wheels on the Jason Bus fell off between Mile 7.5 and Mile 8.5.  The hill climb was at its steepest along this stretch and I slowed my power-walk down to a slow baby step walk.  Miraculously, I still managed to pass a handful of runners.  We all gave thumbs-up signs to one another and enjoyed conversations to pass the time.  As I talked with another veteran Hogpen runner, I expressed regret at not being able to run the entire distance, he told me that I was doing just fine and that I was going pretty fast.

I started running again just before Mile 9, when the road crested again to reward me with a fun downhill stretch. I took advantage and ran at a fast pace, even when small hill climbs interjected over the next half mile.  The Garmin was getting closer to the two-hour mark and my pace seemed to skyrocket.  Even when I resumed walking at the Mile 9 marker, my enthusiasm was carrying me along to the finish and I was moving faster than before.

I caught up with two runners just in time to overhear one of them tell the other that the proper technique was to run until fatigue, then start walking.  I took the “run until fatigue” to heart and started to run again up the hill.  This did not last long, though, and I was soon power-walking up the steepest incline yet.  When that incline turned out to be a false summit and I was greeted by more road at a temporary descent instead of the finish, I ran again.  I was beginning to see huge icicles on the cliffs next to the road that indicated colder temperature of the high elevation.

During the last half mile, I walked quickly until one volunteer informed me that the finish was just around the corner.  I started running just in time to have my picture taken by Sally, another GUTS runner who had finished earlier, and I grabbed a cup of Gatorade on the run from a uniquely-located aid station beside the road just 500 years or so away from the finish.  I turned the corner at a slow pace, but then ran faster as I saw the finish line materialize over the horizon of the hill summit.

I crossed the finish line of Hogpen Hill Climb as the overhead clock read 2:03:37.  I was just happy to be finished with this insane race, so I was all smiles when I joined other runners on the shuttle bus that took us back to the start area.

I barely missed the sub-2-hour finish time that I was hoping for, but I am happy that I was able to finish Hogpen Hill Climb 17K with a time not far removed from my half marathon pace, as dictated by conventional wisdom.  I would like to run the entire course without walking in the future, so this gives me incentive to train harder.

As I walked back to my truck, I briefly spoke with another runner who congratulated me and told me that this was his second Hogpen race in a row.  He said, “There are two types of runners at Hogpen Hill Climb. There are the first-timers and then there are the crazy people.” I smiled and promised him that I would be back next year.  It's now time to push my training to the next level.

See you on the trails.


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

GUTS Atlanta Fat Ass 50K 1/9/11 (Race Report)

On January 9, 2011, I completed the GUTS Atlanta Fat Ass 50K with a finish time of 7:38:30.

Photo courtesy of GUTS
The Atlanta Fat Ass 50K, a low-key event for members of GUTS (Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society), takes place every January and is advertised as a fun way for trail runners to burn off Christmas indulgences. This year's unofficial 50K was held on the trails of Sweetwater Creek and consisted of a 5.4-mile loop that would be completed six times in a clockwise direction to total 32.4 miles, giving runners some bonus distance for the free price.

The 2006 film, Casino Royale, is the only one of the 22 James Bond movies to include a scene in the rain. Since I began running four years ago, all of my races have miraculously taken place in dry weather and I have been comforted in the hope that my running life will resemble a James Bond movie by featuring action-packed adventure under clear skies. My good luck weather streak came to an unfortunate end on January 1, 2011, when I ran the Atlanta Track Club Resolution Run 10K in the pouring rain. When early weather forecasts predicted a “wintry mix” of rain, sleet, and snow on the day of the Atlanta Fat Ass 50K, I wondered if the new year had summoned a black cloud to drench me during each of my 2011 races. Fortunately, the last-minute weather forecast improved to show that precipitation would hold off until late in the evening of January 9 and I was reassured that my tradition of dry weather races was restored. Dry weather does not necessarily equal comfortable weather, though, and, when I woke up to 18-degree temperatures on the morning of this ultramarathon, I knew that I was in for a physically and mentally challenging day on the trails.

I was recovering from a severe cold that had knocked me about earlier in the week and forced me to work from home just a few days before this race, so I had to be cautious when planning the proper insulation from the winter chill. I doubled up on my socks, as I have during past ultramarathons for purposes of blister protection, but I used a pair of wool socks as my second layer this time around. I wore a pair of comfortable technical running pants over a pair of compression shorts and compression leg sleeves. For my upper body, I wore two long-sleeved running shirts over a short-sleeved technical shirt and a Saucony Epic Run Vest that I had purchased the day before. Running gloves and a warm running hat completed the outfit. Since I would be able to leave clothing in my drop bag at the end of each 5.4-mile loop, I had no reservations about starting the race with multiple layers.

I decided against running with my Camelbak hydration pack, because I was concerned that the water would freeze inside the non-insulated drinking tube. Instead, I brought one handheld water bottle along for the race.  I love Nathan handheld bottles, with their 22 ounce capacity and their key loops inside the bottle pouches, but the lids of the Ultimate Direction bottles are better, because of the finger loop where I can rest my thumb for a relaxed running form. As I prepared for this race the night before, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Ultimate Direction bottle lids fit perfectly on the Nathan handheld bottles, so the Atlanta Fat Ass 50K would be my first race with my new makeshift hybrid bottle that featured the best of both worlds.

I picked up a friend, Jenn, on the way to the race and we arrived at Sweetwater Creek in the dark just before 7:00 in the morning. As Jenn and I sat in my truck and procrastinated going out into the weather to the start area group shelter, I joked with her that this was the most intimidating moment of a winter ultramarathon, because I knew that I would soon have to leave my heated vehicle and spend an entire day out in the brutal cold. After we saw more runners arrive, we finally went into the group shelter, where I enjoyed saying hello to the familiar faces of several GUTS friends. After congregating around a fireplace and a warm kitchen area for a short while, we were all herded out into the cold for the start of the run. This year's Fat Ass 50K Race Director, Kena, gave a brief summary of the multiple-loop course and wished us well on our way.

I always start in the back of the pack for ultramarathon races and this event was no exception.  I ran with a friend, Amanda, and her dog, Roxie, as we made our way down a short paved road section before entering trails that would take us along the banks of Sweetwater Creek for a couple of miles. We soon found ourselves running with Susan and Rob, two accomplished ultrarunners and great friends who have encouraged me through many a tough race, and I brought them up to date on some recent IT band troubles in my left knee that had led to my withdrawal from the Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile that I had planned as my first 100-mile attempt on February 5. In the weeks following my most recent ultramarathon, the Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run in December, I had experienced IT band pains that reduced me to a hobble after running distances over ten miles or so. After weeks of daily foam roller workouts and a recent deep tissue massage, I had finally enjoyed a pain-free 14-mile run on the first weekend in January, but I still opted to withdraw from Rocky Raccoon 100 and give myself longer than a month to recover completely from the IT band symptoms. When Susan and Rob voiced their support for my decision, I was reassured that I had done the right thing by backing out of the February race and postponing my initial 100-mile for later in the year.

Photo courtesy of Sean Oh
The initial trail section of the loop, marked by blue tree blazes, consisted of several switchbacks that repeatedly took us to the creek banks and then back into the woods away from the creek. For the most part, this was an easy single-track trail, but occasional tricky terrain demanded situational awareness. I had to work my way up several wooden erosion control steps on the hills and then descend carved gully trails by running along one edge or the other. The blue-blaze trail took a sharp downhill on its final return to the creek by way of crooked railroad crossties and I occasionally grabbed a tree to balance myself. When Amanda and I reached the creek, we caught up with Scott, a friend with whom I had run a handful of races at Pine Mountain. Scott's humorous demeanor brought a smile to my face as he immediately began commenting on my lack of a love life and asking every female runner along our way to help me find a girlfriend.

As Scott and I ran along the sandy trails beside Sweetwater Creek, followed by Amanda and Roxie, we encountered Jennifer, a friend from Alabama with whom I had run several previous ultras. Jennifer had made a wrong turn and doubled back on the trail to look for me so that she could run with a familiar person. Scott and I immediately noticed that Jennifer had icicles hanging from her hair and her iPod wire. This interesting visual set the tone for this event in the harsh freezing temperatures that we were all toughing our way through.

The four of us, along with Roxie, followed the trail loop markers to a white-blazed trail section that continued along Sweetwater Creek to a boulder area where we took turns descending a steep near-vertical rock face. This boulder descent would increasingly grate on my nerves with each subsequent lap on this loop trail, as my feet felt greater fatigue under the miles that I had racked up. When I heard after the race that another runner had fallen and bloodied her head on a rock, I correctly suspected that the injury had taken place along this section of the trail.

The white-blazed trail finally took us away from Sweetwater Creek and proceeded down a relatively flat section beside a small stream before climbing up to a jeep road that passed by a lake. The infamous “Jack's Hill”, a long gradual jeep road climb that seemed to get steeper with each lap, greeted us and Scott and I talked about our upcoming race schedules to take our minds off the climb. Since this was just past the mid-point of the loop and I ascertained that we had run for just over a half hour, I ate the first of my Crank e-Gels. I regretted a decision that I had made earlier in the morning to run without my Garmin watch, because my normal ultramarathon strategy of taking in nutrition each half hour on the half hour would be adversely affected and I would have to take in my nutrition on an estimated schedule.

When we reached the top of Jack's Hill, we were rewarded by a series of rolling dirt road hills that took us back to park campsite areas near the race start. Cold wind hit us as we ran out into open meadows along the road, but the freeze was offset by the ease of the terrain. After a mile of near-effortless running, we reached the final section of the loop, an easy twisting single-track cushioned by pine needles that took us back to the short paved section to the start area group shelter.

Everyone in the group went separate ways at the group shelter aid station and restroom.  I said hello to some volunteers at the lap timing aid station tent beside the shelter while I refilled my handheld water bottle and grabbed some food to take with me for my second lap. I almost cracked a tooth when I placed a handful of Skittles into my mouth, only to realize that they were frozen. I then took a couple of wrapped caramel candies with white sugar in the middle and stuffed them into one pocket of my running pants to eat later into my second lap. I am not sure what these candies are called, but these caramels with the white sugar in the middle proved to be a lifesaver throughout the rest of this ultramarathon, because I would take two or three of them for each lap to eat at various intervals for quick energy.

I talked a reluctant Scott into joining me for a second lap. Jennifer told us that she would wait for Amanda, who was inside getting water for Roxie, so Scott and I began our second lap by ourselves. Shortly after we left the paved area and hit the single-track blue-blazed trail, Scott fell behind and told me to keep going without him. I kept my pace and decided to follow Sarah, an veteran ultrarunner and GUTS race director.  I did not keep up as well as I would have liked, but I did finish my second loop significantly faster than I finished my first. During this second lap, I sharpened the strategy that would carry me for the remainder of the six loops by walking the uphills and cautiously descending the tricky sections of the technical blue-blazed trail, then running most of the final two miles of the loop without stopping after I reached the top of Jack's Hill.

The temperatures remained below freezing, but I was soon sweating inside my multiple layers. When I reached the group shelter at the start, I removed one long-sleeved shirt and the short-sleeved shirt to place in my drop bag, leaving one long-sleeved shirt on under my vest. When I took off for the third loop, I immediately realized that my decision to remove the layers had been a wise one. I was running lighter without sacrificing warmth, since I could still move at a decent speed. My enthusiasm was short-lived, though.

Fatigue and mental desolation hit me early during the third loop. I was completely alone at this point and regretful of my decision to leave Scott, Amanda, and Jennifer behind, because the familiar settings of the loop trail were etched into my memory by now and I could have used some company to elevate my spirits. My feet had started to hurt in my Montrail Hardrock trail shoes and I decided that, after several subsequent ultramarathons, that these shoes were worn out. I was also losing energy fast and I blamed the cold that had kept me ill earlier in the week. Since the Atlanta Fat Ass 50K is not an official race, a great many of the runners drop out halfway and leave with the “Atlanta Half Ass” distinction of having completed just over a half marathon distance. The debate whether or not to drop out of the race plagued me throughout this third venture around the trail route.

My resolve was further diminished when I returned to the group shelter after my third lap and saw several runners who were sitting around a warm fireplace after stopping their race at three loops. I decided not to waste time and immediately went to my drop bag to change out of my Montrail Hardrocks into a pair of Montrail Sabino shoes that I had fortunately brought as a back-up. When I went back outside to the aid station tent, Kena and a few other aid station volunteers encouraged me to go along on my fourth lap as I grabbed more caramel candies for the trip.

The fourth loop of this six-loop ultramarathon was the toughest. I was just over the halfway point, but still many miles from the light at the end of the tunnel. I enjoyed negotiating the easy stretches of the trail and saying hello to a handful of runners that passed me, but I was cold and exhausted. I decided that I would walk the vast majority of the trail for the fourth lap to save energy.

This decision to walk most of my fourth lap was thankfully short-lived, as a friend, Ronnie, caught up with me and started a conversation. Ronnie was on his fifth lap and enjoying an easy pace. I encouraged him to pass me whenever he wanted to, but he stayed beside me for a long while as we made our way down the tricky vertical rock face section and along the sandy creekside sections that were marked by sporadic tree roots. When we left the creek along the short section of flat trail that led to the lake, I started running again. I found that I had more energy than I realized and that I was happy to pick up the pace. I lost my footing just before the lake and fell as I tripped on a tree root. After Ronnie helped me up, I realized that I was completely unhurt, save for some battered dignity. We resumed running until we reached Jack's Hill and power-walked to the top. Ronnie asked if I wanted to run the rest of the loop in and I agreed. We ran at a good pace while we talked about nutrition and I listened to Ronnie explain the benefits of his vegan diet.

My mood and my energy had improved noticeably when we got back to the start area tent. I knew that Ronnie wanted to run a fast sixth lap, so I wished him luck as I walked easily for the start of my fifth circle around the 5.4-mile trail. I enjoyed a brief conversation with Jon, the winner of this Fat Ass 50K, as he walked along the paved section for a couple of minutes with me before going back to the shelter to celebrate his finish. Buoyant on the good wishes and company of friends, I negotiated the technical trails of the first half of my fifth loop at my slowest pace yet, but with a smile and a newfound enjoyment of my day.  I found the energy to run for longer stretches when I reached the top of Jack's Hill, but made time for some increased walk breaks to save energy for my final loop. Two friends, Woolery and Matthew, caught up with me along the dirt road stretch as they were finishing their final lap. I enjoyed talking briefly with them and wished them luck on their upcoming Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile race, telling them that my only regret about withdrawing from that race was that I would not be there to see them both finish the distance with flying colors.

I reached the end of my fifth loop and noticed that the number of vehicles in the parking area had noticeably decreased. I asked a volunteer, Kim, if I would be holding anybody up by going out for my final lap and she reassured me that there were still several runners behind me on the course. The clock timer read around 6:20:00 and I knew that I needed to put a fast final lap in to finish before the eight-hour mark. Another friend, Perry, encouraged me and said that I would have no trouble running my last lap in an hour and half.

I started my sixth loop with a run just after three other runners, Brad, Cameron, and Bruce, had started their final loop as well. I caught up with Brad shortly after I started the technical blue trail hills, but I never did see Cameron and Bruce again until they reached the finish area shortly before me. Knowing that I only had five miles left, I ran with increased momentum, stopping only to walk some of the tricky technical areas where I knew that I was too tired to watch my footing as I needed to.

I power-walked quickly up Jack's Hill, popping a couple of the caramel candies during my climb. When I reached the top of the hill, I started running and continued to run nonstop all the way to the finish. Just as I had run the final miles of the Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run without stopping in December, I enjoyed a similar second wind this time around and noted my improvements as a runner that allowed me to dig deep and push myself to a run in the final miles of a long race. I was still one of the finishers in the back of the pack for this ultra, although most participants had dropped out of the race early, but I was given a fresh shot in the arm of motivation by knowing that I was fortunate to be able to run nonstop for a couple of miles at the end of a 32.4-mile trek.

I reached the finish line of the GUTS Atlanta Fat Ass 50K (54K?) in 7:38:30. I had missed beating my personal 50K record of 7:23:23 at last year's Fat Ass 50K by 15 minutes, but this year's course was tougher and at least a mile longer. I was overjoyed to have finished this year's run in less than eight hours.

I went into the warmth of the group shelter and enjoyed hanging out with others around the fireplace.  I congratulated a new friend, Aaron, who had just finished his first ultramarathon with an impressive sub-7-hour time. I talked strategy with a handful of runners who were planning to join me for Pinhoti 100 Mile at the end of 2011 and I told them of my plans for a handful of night runs on the Pinhoti trail, although those hot summer runs seemed a long way away on this afternoon while we sat at a warm fireplace as the below-freezing temperatures dipped outside on the eve of Atlanta's worst snowstorm in years. In the end, I was happy to have escaped rainy wet weather once again on the day of an ultramarathon, even if storms were following on my heels for the drive home.

Thanks to GUTS for putting on yet another challenging and exciting race. Thanks to the volunteers who stood around a cold tent outside a shelter to time runners and provide encouragement. Thanks to several friends who ran with me or had kind words of motivation as they passed by. Thanks to my IT band on my left leg, for not hurting during this entire ultramarathon run. I am grateful that my recovery is well under way.

There may be nothing more daunting than sitting inside a heated vehicle in a parking lot just before a winter ultramarathon and knowing that I am about to step out into unforgiving frost-laced temperatures for an entire day, but that uncertain moment is more than worth it later when I am sitting around a warm fire after the finish and sharing stories with friends. The 2011 GUTS Atlanta Fat Ass 50K one such story and it's another one for the books.

See you on the trails.


Photo courtesy of Sean Oh