Hogpen Hill Climb 5k/18k – Unicoi State Park, Helen, GA – 1/13/18



I got sucked into the Hogpen last year. Never one to  travel for most races (Columbia has something every weekend practically), El Capitan (Brian Clyburn) of my Palmetto 200 team talked this one up for years as a “must-do”.  Combine this with my internal engine of equal parts narcissism and masochism, a built in double-dip, along with a beer-fueled trip with the Harbison Trail guys, and I was in.  I probably cursed this decision a thousand times in the 11 miles up to Hogpen gap last year, but naturally, I got suckered in again.

The Hogpen is no joke. It bills itself as one of the”toughest races in America”. I don’t know if this is hyperbole or not, but it certainly has to be up there as far as relatively short paved courses go. It has almost 2 miles of downhill  to start, but the rest is insanely hilly, with a stretch after the 7 mile mark that is relentless with some 12-14 percent grade.  Brian told me last year that you should expect your time in the 11ish mile 18k to compare to your typical half marathon times. El Capitan is clearly delusional. My half marathon times are usually 1:28-1:30. My Hogpen 18k was a 1:44. Granted, this was the second race of the day after the 5k, but it was a 100% effort. Lots of walksies. We should also mention the 5k. Nicknamed “the Piglet” , the 5k is a rolling out and back through the mountains that would easily be the toughest 5k course in Columbia. I think it was meant for the friends and family of the 18k racers, but there is actually a double dip option to do both in the registration. The 5k is pretty small, and I’m guessing the actual number of double dippers is even more miniscule. So there’s an undercard 5k, with like maybe 30-40 people. Most runners think “don’t bother”. I think “TROPHY HUNT!!”.   Last year my trophy hunt was quashed by the Yerg, but also some kid who blue shoed him at the end and left us both with only medals. The overall winners, of both the 5k and the 18k, get an awesome mug, custom made by a local potter. This year, I decided the mug must be mine!


The Yerg and I decided to travel up to Helen, GA the night before. Me, to make the early 5k start time, Rob, to participate in the drinking of DAS BOOT.  Since we paid like 25 bucks for the ridiculous beer boot last year at Haufbrau house, it only makes sense we would go back for seven dollar refills.  For the uninitiated, White county Georgia’s cultural attractions include both the Cabbage Patch “Hospital” were your favorite mid-80’s bizarro fad dolls are made, and the faux alpine village of Helen. Helen is kind of like Sound of Music meets Myrtle Beach. The streets are all in German and the whole town looks like a movie set. I think its main purpose is an excuse to drink beer, which, while not the classiest of motives, is an idea I can still get behind. Our wild “night on the town” consisted of a hop from the Hofbrau Haus to “Bigg Daddy’s”, a restaurant noted for its wide selection of bar cuisine, if not for their spelling.  A zombie pizza (steak, sausage and pepperoni) and another beer later and I was pretty much done. We were back at the hotel at like 7:30 and Yerg was comatose by 8.  No one can hang with partiers like us.


The next morning I make the Yerg get up super early, eat breakfast and check out of the hotel to get there at 8:20ish for the 9 am start time. I hurriedly get my bib and warm up, fighting the 28 degree cold. On top of this is a stiff wind and the faintest of snow dusting from last night.  At 9 am there’s barely anyone there, and then the timer tells us the 5k is at 9:30.  It’s on the website. And, I’m an idiot. After more miles thrown in just to keep warm, I stroll up to the start and the trophy senses are in full tingle. At least 80 percent of the field is bundled up like their out for a stroll, and I don’t see anyone that looks super fast. I’m a little worried about one teenager though. With the start, I blast out to the front initially, then very quickly get passed by a Latino guy with a soccer player’s build, a kid, and the teenager. Between these guys and my sasquatch self as the lead pack, the Piglet’s less than elite status was getting cemented further.  But soccer guy was not playing around. He surges out to the front on a long, insanely steep downhill, which I knew would suck at the end of this straight out-and-back course. The little bit of flat at the bottom, and its looking like I’ll be lucky to be 4th in this thing. The ensuing long uphill stretch is killer though, and I blast through the kid and teenager who had been running nearly side-by-side. Soccer dude is still crushing it. The remainder of the outward stretch is non-stop hills and I eventually pull up right behind the leader. Suddenly I see the gate up ahead and no turnaround in sight. I distinctly remember the director telling us the turnaround was a little before the gate, and I remember it from last year. Me and soccer guy basically stop and look at each other after the gate. I have like 1.6 something miles on my Garmin, and there’s no signage in sight down the road. We create our own turnaround just after the gate and take off back towards the start. We’ve built a huge gap on the field, so its going to be mano a mano to the finish. Soccer guy has taken the lead and is trying to pull away . I’m stepping a little out of the 5k pace I want to run because I don’t want him gapping me too much. As we roll back towards the finish, soccer dude is officially kicking my ass. I had hoped to win and not have to try that hard, not locked into a brutal duel on what was definitely going to be a long course. My oxygen deprived brain decides to push in all my chips on that soul-crushing incline waiting for us at the end.

Heading into the bottom of the hill, the leader has maybe 10 feet on me. As soon as I hit the mountain, I unleash the dragon. A quarter of the way up I pull even with the guy and he is not having it, surging ahead. I then enter some deep, dark pain cave and the access the reserve rocket fuel tank. I surge ahead and get overtaken by my favorite drug- the pure adrenaline fix of first place. Yes, its first place in the undercard race of 40 some odd people, most of whom are treating this as a fun run, but in my mind it’s a showdown between Mo Farah and Galen Rupp. As I crest the hill, I have no idea where soccer dude is and Rob and the rest of the Harbison Trail Runner contingent are screaming for me to not get beat by the guy behind me. The remaining stretch is downhill and I’m blasting 1000 percent, legs burning and lungs sucking, scared to death of getting passed at the finish. I crash through the line at Mach 5, only to look back and see the other guy like a 100 meters back.  Damn those guys. Still, a win is a win. A shade under 23 minutes for 3.4ish miles. “Soccer guy” was Jose Flores and his son Joe took third place. Super nice people. Jose said he was doing the 18k too and runs around 19 minutes for a typical 5k, so I guess we were well matched. I will cherish my mug!



Of course, now I had just over an hour before a brutal 18k, after giving an unexpected 10000 percent effort in the Piglet. I was going to be absolute toast. I switched over bibs and discovered the Hogpen has the most bizarre swag bag. I am now the proud owner of  not one, but two Cake Boss “spoonulas” and a snow leopard coin purse. I know, don’t be jealous.


By this time, Rick Stroud, Marion Hinson and Ken Hinely had made their way to the race, opting for a day trip starting at 6 am that morning. Dean reportedly had something he had to do back home, like cowering in anxiety over a possible McDonald beatdown. The HTR guys are pretty laid back, but they definitely get competitive over this thing. Rick has been the beast on this course, clocking a 1:39 last year without walking a step apparently.  I’m so beat I spend half the time between the races heating my ass with my seat warmer and admiring my trophy mug. Suddenly I realize its 10 minutes until the start and I chug  a water and eat 6 month old fig newtons that have been kicking around my bag forever. Best snack ever. I make my way up to the “start” when I realize the 18k starts a third of a mile down the road. My little warm up jog turns into some 7 minute pace, as I hear the timer announcing 3 minute, then 2 minutes warnings. Finally, I come blasting into the start area, pose for one pic with the guys, then 30 seconds later we are off. I’ve already put in 6 miles between all the warmup and the 5.5 k, so my legs are giving me the big eff you when I think about staying with Rob, Rick and Ken. Marion passes me and I hang with him in the first couple of miles. The most important thing about these 2 miles is that they mean jack squat in terms of the whole race. It’s nice to fall downhill for awhile, but basically its a glorified warmup for the hell that awaits. I hit 7:32/7:54 on the opening miles. Felt like death already thanks to the brutal Piglet. This was going to be nasty.  Speaking of nasty, the next few miles have some tough climbs, but they reward you with some downhill so I was able to keep trucking along. Nothing blazing but I was definitely in survival mode. Rick, Ken and Yerg were long gone. Marion and I leap frogged a few times. This was Marion’s virgin Hogpen, though I’m sure Cpl. Stroud had filled him in with all the course data on the drive down. A few high 8/low 9 splits, which I was totally fine with. This is the section from last year wheret I fooled myself into believing I was going to crush this race.  Soon Marion and I hit the mile 5 marker and the course suddenly takes an abrupt turn to the right.

And the misery begins. Mile 5 to mile 6 is like the opening intro to a really bad song that is the rest of this race.  Relentless upward climb. Really steep. I manage to leave Marion and just focus on keeping moving and avoiding the loud walksie voices. Last year I passed Rick and Dean on this mile using my Quarry crusher mountainclimber pace and thought I had them beaten. Yeah… that was a big negative, ghost rider. Thankfully I hit the mile 6 marker still on my feet and somehow managed a sub 10 minute mile, which is positively blazing for that mile. The stretch between mile 6 and 7 is glorious, because its almost all downhill. Easy coasting, feels amazing after that hard slog. How hard could the rest be? Answer: spirit-crushing hard.

Mile 7 in 8:53, and here comes the pain again, falling on my head like a tragedy. I manage to get to the top of the first major incline, only to face another series of hamstring wrenching, heart rate pounding, lung deflating hills. Fighting the walksies becomes a pointless debate, and now its all about how much of this I can actually run. I’m out there swinging my arms like a moms’ mall walking group. I just need a headband and a sweatsuit. I keep leapfrogging this guy who is evidently channeling that ultra running eternally-positive vibe, while I’m trying not to drop F bombs with every stride and every sub 20 degree wind. All this power walking is doubly killer because its making me colder and colder as we approach toward the summit. I take a few glances up and there’s a dark cloud and the mountaintop draped in white. Looks like winter is coming.  Miles 8 and 9 are really pretty comical. All these supposedly fit guys power striding and trying desperately to granny jog any bit they can. Twelve, thirteen minute miles are coming back now. I don’t even want to see my Garmin. Just tell me how many miles are left. Finally, at mile 10, there’s a bit of a reprieve and, hey , with all this walking I’m actually ready to run again. It’s a good thing because I am freezing my ass off. The surrounding woods is now a winter wonderland, and in my near delirium I’m sure a white walker has come to get me around the next turn.  I figure there’s only a little over a mile to go so I start really trying to push it on the next major incline. Nope. Walksies again. My water from the aid station freezes before I can even finish it. Finally I can see what I think is the last incline before the finish. Some guy is up ahead in neon shorts which I instantly recall is my new friend Jose. And yes, I am a total ass, so you can figure out the rest. Red lined the whole last hill, passed Jose about a quarter mile from the finish, which I can now see, and sprinted it home to complete the double blue shoeing. 1:48 and change. 23rd overall. 4th in age group. Wasn’t pretty but I will take it after the effort put forth on the 5k. The finish is pretty cool. Light snow flurries and a couple of inches on the ground. I decided to forgo the chicken soup this year in order to do a quick change into some dry clothes. Thankfully I remembered to bring like four layers of stuff in the drop bag instead of nothing and relying on Dean’s mercy sweatshirt like last year. No picture taking and socializing this year – we all hopped into the shuttle van as quickly as possible. Twenty something degrees with 20 mph winds and snow may have contributed.  Rick crushed the mountain again this year, PR’ing (i believe) on the course with a 1:37. Rob finished just ahead of Ken in 1:44 and 1:45 respectively. Marion claimed his first Hogpen in 1:54.  Not bad all around.  Celebratory beers were had again at Bigg Daddy’s. For some reason Rick had a fascination with knowing my exact birthdate. As my “gift” from the Harbson Trail Runners, I am now apparently signed up for the Vertical Mile Challenge in June. Thanks, Rick…I think.












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