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.