The story of Hogpen started at last year’s Palmetto 200. Our fearless leader, Brian Clyburn, kept talking about some ridiculously hard race he did in Georgia that ran 11 miles up a mountain. I think I may have promised to go the next year – I’ve been known to make less than wise decisions in the half delirium of a 200 mile relay. I think this promise eventually got its way to Rick Stroud, leader of the Harbison Trail runners, who I believe got Brian to drink the Hogpen Kool-aid. He was organizing a trip to the 2017 edition and asked if I wanted to come along. I was wary, knowing how much the HTR’s love to suffer. I mean these are the guys that love to do the Mount Mitchell challenge (40 miles) and the Lookout Mountain 50 miler, not to mention the ridiculously brutal Harbison 50k last week. However, I also know they like to drink plenty of beer before/after running, so I eventually agreed. Also, I’ve been racing the same events in Columbia for 8 years, so I wanted to try some new things this year.
The Hogpen Hill Climb is a roughly 18k course that covers over 2000 feet of elevation change and bills itself as “One of the toughest races in America” http://www.runthehogpen.org/. Starts in Unicoi State Park in Georgia and climbs to the top of Hogpen Gap. Rick also made sure to mention there is a 5k , called the “Piglet” that starts an hour and a half before the main event. What? A trophy hunting undercard and a built in double dip opportunity? Anyone that knows me even remotely knows I chose to do both. Hell, I was driving 3.5 hours so I was going to get my 55 dollars worth. There may have also been beer involved when I registered. #RUI (registering under the influence) as Amy “the Tiny Terror” would say.
Most of the HTR’s were “just” doing the 18k so they could actually make it a day trip, since the race doesn’t start until 11 am. Rob Yerger was the only other one insane enough to do both races, so we headed up to Helen, GA the night before. Helen is one bizarre place. You travel through miles of rural Northern Georgia, where the cultural highlight is Babyland General Hospital, “birthplace” of Cabbage Patch Kids. A bunch of little non-descript towns and remote two lane highway, when all of a sudden…you’re in the middle of a faux German alpine village. The Heidi motel, windmills, Oktoberfest , Weiner Schitzel – all done up in a kitschy Myrtle Beach style.
I had heard it’s a big tourist place, but apparently mostly for daytrippers. It was pretty dead when we got there at 7:30 pm on a Friday night. My dream of large chested beer wenches serving me overflowing beer steins amidst a live traditional German band was not quite met. We had dinner at the Hofbrau with 2 other tables occupied in the whole place. To compensate, Rob and I felt obligated to go with the 25 dollar 1 liter beer boot glass to wash down our meal. I’m sure my wife will be thrilled to add this beautiful giant piece of glassware to our already packed cupboard.
When we got back to the hotel , the Yerg was dead asleep by 8:30. I was out pretty soon after. Yeah, we party hard.
With the 5k starting at 9:30 am, it made for a leisurely morning, which I spent aggressively rehydrating from the havoc wreaked by chugging the boot. Pretty sparse crowd for the 5k. I could find no description of the Piglet course anywhere, so this could range anywhere from totally flat to a mini version of the 18k. We did a mile warmup and realized it was probably more like the latter. Oh dear God, what have I gotten myself into.
Lining up for the 5k start, we quickly realized this was most certainly a trophy hunt. Maybe 40ish people, most of whom looked like they were just out to support a family member in the main event. But you never know with an unfamiliar crowd. Sometimes those slightly thick beer guzzling old dudes can run pretty fast. So I hear. It was a surprise to see “barefoot” John Richards there. He hadn’t planned on coming, but he and his wife Char were vacationing in nearby Hiawassee, and he couldn’t pass it up. We are definitely kindred spirits.
The start to the 5k is, of course, up a hill. After initially dodging a kid aggressively cutting me off in the first turn (10 year olds are so cutthroat these days), it was pretty clear sailing. A quarter mile in Yerg surges ahead and a teenager follows suit right on his shoulder. Pretty soon after, we hit a prolonged stretch of screaming downhill. This is great, except the race director informed us this is an out-and-back course. Yeah, we were going to be crawling up this thing at 2.5 miles in. Awesome. Of course, my whole sense of time, pace and distance was completely off. My Garmin was working fine, and it usually gets a signal OK in the mountains, but it generally works better on my wrist and not ON MY KITCHEN TABLE 205 MILES AWAY. I can’t tell you how devastated I was to find this little fact out in my hotel room. Literally woke me up as I started to drift off. Yerg was probably wondering what the random late night F bomb was all about. Anyway, I was using Map my Run on my iPhone as a backup. This is great for about 15 seconds, when the phone goes to the lock screen. It turns out trying to sweatily put in your passcode in at 5k pace is a touch difficult, not to mention carrying the damn thing. I just bailed on the phone and tried to keep Yerg and the teen in shouting distance. The course seemed to go on forever, rolling up big hills and down. I kept begging to see the turnaround. Finally we hit a long downhill and I see the cone. Rob and the teenager have a pretty good lead on me, and I’m afraid that maybe one of the randoms might be tracking me down, maybe that aggro-kid from the first corner. I make the turn and you can see a quarter mile behind you. No one.
I never completely bail out on a race, but I have to admit I did phone in a bit of the way back. It was highly unlikely I could catch either of the top 2, and I’d have to stop and walk for 3 minutes for 4th place to catch me. Plus, there was that whole “one of the toughest races in America” thing coming up in an hour. The last hill was definitely no fun but after you crest it you are home free down to the finish. I was surprised to see Rick and Dean at the finish line already as I threw down a mini-kick to sail in under 22 minutes. 21:56, 3rd overall. The kid outkicked the Yerg at the finish, so he took 2nd. Barefoot John took 10th and did me proud by “Blue Shoeing (footing?)” a kid to ensure the top ten finish.
The hour wait in between races was pretty rough. Just long enough to get good and tight. They stage the race later in the morning to allow people to travel up from Atlanta and elsewhere, and presumably to help with the cold. Strangely, it was almost 60 degrees and perfectly comfortable in shorts up in the mountains in January. Rick, Dean Schuster, his wife Angie, Laura Stepp, and Bill Siebers had made the trip down from Columbia that morning. There were plenty of excuses going around to use for those of us ho would be beaten. Rick and Dean were definitely using the Harbison 50k from last week, though Stroud was also including the brutally cramped middle seat in the back of the Murano. Yerg probably took the cake though, having done the Lookout Mountain 50 miler in December, the snowy Harbison 50k, long hours on his feet in the graveyard shift as a Kroger grocery manager, a boot of beer and almost winning the 5k. Plus he had to work at Kroger at midnight that night. #hardcore indeed.
Making our way to the 18k start, I was definitely not feeling it. Running a mountainous 5k with little warmup was wreaking havoc on my gimp hamstring. Uh oh, excuses already. This race is definitely old school – no chips, just index cards and bibs. We basically just strolled up to an approximate start line, waited for a break in the traffic, and we were sent on our way. The first 2 miles of this course, as Rick had said, were a total freefall. Basically following the road out of Unicoi state park, everyone was flying. Yerg, Rick and Dean jumped out way ahead from the get go, as Bill and I held back. I’m terrible on steep downhills anyway, and I was just trying not to get my quads too beat up before all the climbing. As soon as we hit a flat section, I surged ahead, trying to close in on the huge gap between me and the other three blue shirted HTRs. Pretty close to 2 miles in , there’s a turn off the highway and you know the pain is about to commence. A mountain towers above you and forboding signs appear like SCORPION HOLLOW (unincorporated) appear. First two miles 6:45, 7:02.
Miles 3 and 4 start to get a little rough, some tough hills but a few flats and downhills to recover from the climbs. I manage to catch up to Rob, who has fallen off the back of the HTR peloton. I can tell he is already hurting, though we run together for about a half mile. Pace starts bleeding upward, 7:50, 7:58. The hill climbing is still broken up quite a bit, so there’s that sense of pushing through the struggle to get a relief at the top. As it turns out, that was about to change in a hurry. Mile 5 hits at a respectable 8 minutes, but the grade is getting steadily steeper. Despite my Sasquatchian physique, I am actually pretty good at hills. Carrying almost 200 pounds all the time makes my legs freakishly strong, so I start powering up/attacking the inclines like I usually do. After chasing them for miles, I finally catch Dean and Rick. I would say “pass” but we are all chugging up mile 6 in slow motion. Either way, my oversized ego thinks once I overtake someone I will never see them again. I’m OK, I’m powering up this hill, and hey, it looks like it flattens out up there just ahead. Lets surge up to the top! WRONG ANSWER. It just keeps going, and going. Several more false hilltops ensue, slowly draining my will to live. I still have a lead on the HTR’s but Dean’s running commentary tells me they are not far behind. Mile 6 in 9:06.
Finally, we crest a ridge and I’ve never been so glad to see a downhill in all my life. My joy is short-lived though, as Dean and Rick blow by me. WTF guys?? I make sure to keep them in range, but damned if they aren’t flying down this stretch at sub 7 pace. Maybe the next stretch isn’t as bad as Rick said. Maybe he was just playing tricks on the noob road racer. WRONG ANSWER. Just as the freefall ends, we turn a corner and dear sweet baby Jesus. A killer stretch of quarry crusher-esque grade. I start my hill attack mode but the quads and hammies immediately veto that decision. Everything starts burning in a lactic acid inferno. And then here come the voices. Those voices. THE WALKSIE VOICES. No, no, just make it to the crest of this hill, it will level out some…NOPE. Didn’t even get to the top before I’m power striding like the senior women’s group from Wildewood.
Walksies set off an inner panic in my oversized cranium that is hard to describe. My whole being is based on plowing through pain and sprinting as hard as I can go. Here I am strolling on a mountain side with a LONG way to go. My only solace is that Dean is riding that same struggle bus up ahead. Rick is leaving all for dead though, keeping that same steady pace, the one where I so confidently passed him 3 miles ago.
When I started running, I read about 70’s Olympian and coach Jeff Galloway, who advocates a walk/run method even with high level racing. Well, all of a sudden I was a hardcore Galloway disciple. As soon as I reached the top of that first killer incline, there was just another equally as bad stretch. I used signs on the road – ran hard to the sign, then walked, picked another sign and did the same thing. Dean was walking too but he was still gapping me. Legs were beyond toast. Mile 8 blew up to a 10:43, and the grade got even steeper in mile 9. Some older guy passed me at some point, and I knew there was a woman behind me that spectators were saying was the 3rd place female. I could pick up whole conversations since I was barely moving even if I was <air quotes>running</air quotes>.
Mile 9 of this race is the most unholy stretch of all the races I’ve done. There is zero negative elevation change. Over 300 feet straight up. I went from using signs to using the reflectors in the road, which are maybe 10 feet apart. I started alternating run/walking each reflector interval then running one and walking two. Just completely beat down. I can only imagine how sad I must have looked. The girl wasn’t too far behind me, but she wasn’t making any progress either. Mile 9 was a blistering 13:28. A 13:28 at absolute maximum effort.
It’s difficult to remember in my haze of panic and delirium, but around 10 miles (split 10:45) there was a slight break in the incline and then a stretch of downhill. I got a jolt of adrenaline thinking maybe the finish would be all flat or downhill. I start pushing the pace hard. Surely we were at the top of this damn mountain. THINK AGAIN, HERO. Another corner and bam, Mr. Power Strider was back. I could faintly make out a guy way ahead, but at least I had lost the girl with my “speed” interval. By this time I was really ready for this thing to be over. I had thought the 18k distance to be a little over 11 miles (11.18), but when I finally reached the 11 mile mark (10:04) there was no finish line in sight. I rounded the corner and was met with another brutal incline. My spirit was about broken, but then I saw a person up ahead. PLEASE BE THE FINISH. I powered up a bit, but then walksies attacked yet again. Finally, I could hear voices, which I hoped were real and not some kind of Hogpen-induced psychosis. Sure enough I rounded the corner and saw the red numbers. I started charging up ahead, with Rick and Dean screaming at me to outpace a car , which had decided to tail me at the last second. With one final burst of adrenaline, I outkicked the car and crossed in 1:44, 9:11 total pace.
Rarely have I ever been so glad to finish a race. Shockingly, even with all the power walking, I managed 2nd in age group. I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one ready to join the senior women’s group on mile 9. I still got destroyed by Rick, who managed zero walking en route to a 1:39, and Dean, who was also several minutes ahead of me. Rick got 2nd in AG, Dean 3rd. Bill Seibers finished a couple of minutes later, followed by Laura, who took 1st masters. The Yerg struggled mightily but still came in at 1:54. John had predicted 2:30 for him but he was well under that. I have new respect for Clyburn’s 1:34 from last year. The conventional wisdom is that you’d run the 11+ miles in your flat half marathon time, but I think most of us were way worse than that. This race had amazing hot chicken soup at the top, a bag drop service (it’s a lot colder when you stop running) and transport back down the mountain. Super nice volunteers. Definitely one to mark on the calendar for next year.