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Rock/Creek Race Team member Sheridan Ames on the Hog Pen Hill Climb

Hog Pen Hill Climb
Helen, GA
January 11, 2014

The internet is full of lists of races claiming to be the “toughest”, “steepest”, “hardest”, “muddiest” and other adjectives to entice the uninitiated entrant to open their wallet and sign up. For 34 years the Hog Pen Hill Climb has been claiming to be the “One of the toughest races in America”. Having completed the race several times over a decade (plus) ago I never really gave that claim much thought.

A week or so before the 35th running of the race; local (former) runner and celebrity John Hunt inquired if I was going to go to Helen, GA this year to do battle with Hogpen Gap. Until that moment it didn’t even appear on my radar. For some unexplained reason it suddenly had some appeal. Better still, when I checked on the weather for race day there was a good potential for ugly conditions.

Against my better judgment I signed up for the race and planned accordingly. On race day, Mother Nature did not disappoint. The heavy rainfall started shortly after we [Lori (wife) & I] left the garage and remained steady during the 2+ hour trip. The temperature dropped the closer we got to Helen, lightening cracked all around us and the news reported high damaging winds throughout a wide swath of the southeast.

I learned first hand of local damage as I stood in the cold rain on the side of the road waiting for the start of the race. Due to a fallen tree blocking the road, we were delayed from starting for over 20 minutes. Moments before hypothermia began to set in they signaled the all clear and we all tore off down the road on the way to start the 7 (roughly) mile climb to the top of Hog Pen Gap.

The rain stopped within the first mile as the field of runners settled into their respective paces and took stock of the others. Lori was able to crew for me and without fail she was ready at mile two to collect the hat I no longer needed and provide encouragement. She continued to leap frog ahead as the miles clicked by and each and every time it was a welcome distraction. It was not long however before I made the turn to go up, and to the top of the gap.

The only (local to Chattanooga) comparison I can think of is stringing the road up the front of Signal Mountain, The “W” Road and Roberts Mill Road and making them steeper in the process. Sure there are a couple of descents along the way but that just means you have more vertical feet to gain to get to the top. For mortals, saying you “ran” the entire climb is an admirable feat.

Just over a mile from the finish you round a corner in the road and can “see” the finish area. Unless you have done the race before, what you don’t realize is that it will in likelihood be the longest mile of your racing career. With two very steep hills between you and the finish it takes an eternity to get there.

Once there you can expect (and this year was no different) the wind to be howling and the temperature to be a minimum of 20 degrees colder than you think it ought to be. They do however offer cups of hot chicken soup to cajole you into thinking you just had fun. They also had a heated warming tent for a few minutes until the wind blew it and the heater over.

Gone are days of getting a custom colored Henley 3-button T-Shirt and awards with a bust or whole pig. Both of which I sorely miss (getting and seeing respectively). What you still get is one very difficult day of climbing18K from Helen, GA up to the top of Hog Pen Gap. The climb is still the same one I did years ago; and it’s certainly not gotten any easier.

“Watch the traffic; the light will not hit you”
~Sheridan Ames
Rock Creek Race Team 2013