Helen, Georgia is an interesting place.
It’s a trippy little re-creation of an alpine German village, and it’s plunked right down in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains in White County, Georgia.
The street names and public signs are even in German.
And of course, the village is the home of the long-standing Georgia race favorite, the Hogpen Hill Climb, touted as “one of the toughest races in North America”.
Ok, so, I don’t know if I agree with that since I know many, many tougher races; but the Hogpen Hillclimb is definitely a tough one, and running point-to-point from the bottom, to the top, of any mountain, deserves some challenge props on any given day.
“This isn’t so bad”
After skarfing my pre-race favorite meal of a cheeseburger and strawberry milkshake (thanks ATY), we milled around the starting area talking with runners from all over the map, and amazed at the motley crue of the race field. Grizzled ultrarunners, collegiate athletes, running clubs, triathelete-types (at least, by gear appearance), and every other type of runner imaginable.
photo: Sean and I before the start of the Hogpen Hill Climb.
It was a cool mix of people with some newbies, like me, very nervous having absolutely no idea what to expect in a race that simply climbs ~10.5 miles from the bottom, to the top, of a mountain.
Clock strikes noon, and we were off and running.
The first mile cruises through the unique alpine village of Helen. “nice and easy”, I’d repeat to myself over and over since I knew the most difficult climbs came around mile 7, …and lasted all the way to the finish.
Miles 2,3,4 all clipped off relatively easy. I was chatty with my running partner, cruising the rolling terrain and consistently gauging my fitness because, again, I knew the worst was yet to come.
Around miles 4-6, we got some climbs that weren’t too steep, per se, but they were long, semi-steep climbs that whittled many runners down to walkers, and got the lungs to take notice.
A great example of race foreshadowing.
photo: A portion of the route up the mountain
And then it got hard
After a steep descent, somewhere between mile 6 and 7, things started to get a little crazy.
We turned a corner, grabbed water from the aid station, and looked up…
“Oh sh@!, this must be the beginning of the grind”
And it was.
I’m not sure about other people, but I was a little shocked. The climbs from mile 7, until the end, were just brutal and relentless. Many times I felt like I was going to fall down backwards.
I kept running out of principle, but there were times where I was barely passing power-walkers. I started to get a little blurry-visioned a couple of times and slowed quite a bit.
“Oh my God, this is unbelievable”, I kept saying to myself.
photo: the Garmin elevation data from over the ten miles of climbing
It’s funny, well not funny, but interesting how the miles don’t quite “clip off” when you’re climbing like they do when you’re cruising.
This was punishment.
Hogpen Hill Cramps
I knew I must be getting close to the top because it started getting really cold and we started seeing all these huge, frozen waterfalls, alongside the road as we continued to climb. The sun was out and it was melting some of these monster ice creations and they’d come crashing down around us as we rambled up towards the top mountain..
It was cool – but a little unsettling.
photo: Waterfall ice formations along the way up the mountain
My Garmin was acting funny, so I lost track of my mileage, plus I ran out of water and was now running on pure determination to just get the race over with – my legs were trashed, and for the first time since my very first marathon…
…I started to cramp.
My quads, right above the knees, were giving every indication that too many more steps up this mountain and they were gonna have a plan of their own.
But, “there’s some cars, that must be the top of the mountain, whoo hoo!”
It’s a bluff, false summit, yet another 200 yards to go.
photo: Struggling past the false summit at Hogpen – 200 more yards to go…
I yelled out to friends, “I’m cramping, I’m cramping”, but I don’t think they cared. I think they just wanted me to finish so that we could make our way back down the mountain.
Chicken soup for the soul
1:58 – I barely got the sub-two hour which was my goal – I am still amazed, though, at the difficulty of this race.
That’s some hella’ climbing.
photo: Sean (1:52) and me (1:58) finish Hogpen
The top of the mountain was freezing, so we didn’t play the chatty social game very long – just long enough to grab some fruit, water, and that delicious hot homemade chicken soup.
Damn that soup was good.
photo: Hogpen Hillclimb views
A funny side note: I recently met this ridiculously fast ultrarunning kid name Matt Kahrs, who has waaay too much energy, recently running a local 50K in a shocking 4:09; and when I saw him at the Hillclimb, I knew he was probably going to shred this event too – sure enough, as I was nearing the top of the mountain, this kid comes flyng down, having already finished, and was now running back to the start.
Later, after we completed the race, and started driving to the bottom, we saw Matt.
We rolled down the window to offer some encouragement, but before we could say a word, he looked at us in a sort of panic and bellows out…,
“duuuuude, do y’all have any food?”
We laughed and started throwing various gels and electrolyte jelly beans out the window as he scurried to pick it all up like a homeless man chasing dollar bills.
…guess ya had to be there – but it was funny as hell. Good show, kid. Solid determination.
Things to know about the Hogpen Hillclimb
In retrospect, we probably were too conservative in the beginning of the race. Once you get to the really difficult climbs after mile 6, the pace is so slow anyway, I’m not sure that I really saved anything by starting out at a snail’s pace.
Mentally, by starting in the back, it felt good passing the early sprinters, but again, the steep stuff is where you really find out what you’re made of…
If you decide to run the Hogpen next year:
- Carry water – there are minimal water stations, and apparently this varies from year to year.
- Carry electrolytes – you might think you don’t need ‘em in something as short as a 10-miler, but you’d be mistaken. I was, anyway.
- Make sure you have a ride down – the race is point-to-point, so once you get to the top, you need a ride down. The race neglects to mention this on the application, and we would have hated to be one of those cold, lonely souls trying to mill a ride to the bottom.
- Take a camera – the views are incredible. The ice formations rock!
- Don’t sit in the back seat with cramps – ouch!
See ya next year Hogpen. Now we know what to expect.
Hogpen Hillclimb results
If anyone knows how to find the Hogpen Hillclimb race results, please let me know. Thanks.