For those of you who don’t know my buddy Sean, a.k.a Run Bum, you will soon! I met Sean through the Yeti Trail Runners. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of running several of his races, including his most recent race, the Helen Holiday Trail Half in Helen, GA.
I love the quaintness of Helen, although it has become quite touristy over the past seven to eight years. Based on the premise of a Bavarian-styled town, Helen is nestled near the Unicoi State Park and Anna Ruby Falls, both filled with picturesque trails, sure to quicken the heart.
Pack ‘Em Up
Once I heard Sean planned to direct the half at Unicoi State Park, I knew I had to make a weekend of it. Miranda and I left Saturday morning around 7:30. I loved the fact that the start time was 10 a.m.! It allowed for ample driving time without having to get up at the crack of dawn! The drive itself was rather quick, about 1 hr 45 minutes from 285/75. Plus, it always helps to have company in the car with ya. :)
Once at the park, the bitter cold hit us smack in the face! We debated all morning what to wear. Tights? No, because they’d be hard to pull off after the water crossing. Shorts? Nah, we’re taking it easy. Should I wear this jacket? I’d leave it. Back and forth we went. Yes, girls are like that, even when it comes to workout gear. The sad part is I spend more time worrying about my workout gear than I do my work clothing. :P
Over the field and Through the Woods
After a motivational spiel of “Don’t follow the idiot in front of you,” and clarifications on course markings, Sean sent us rambling down and across the field and out onto the road towards the state park. Sending runners through the field was a pretty smart move because it allowed the faster runners to really open up and get into position. By the time, we hit the actual trail, there was a fair amount of space between the various paces, making passing a breeze. Elevation at this point was minimal with barely a climb.
Once past the road, we took the lake trail, a fairly wide trail, circling Unicoi Lake. There were some gentle ups and downs, nothing dramatic. It’s one of those trails, where you can still open up and run. Once out of the lake loop, we started getting into the meat of the race. There were more single-track sections with leaves covering up a good portion of the trail, adding a bit of spice to the ups and downs. Keep in mind that the single-track here is considerably wider than the single-track trails most trail runners are used to seeing. It was still quite easy to pass people throughout the race.
The major hills were around miles 5, 7, and 9-10, with the water crossing being near mile 9 (approximate). In my opinion, the only thing that made this race a bit technical was the amount of fallen leaves that covered the rocks on the trail. The leaves made the lower portions of the trail, that ran along the streams and rivers, a bit slippery, according to some; however, I didn’t have any issues with slippage in my Cascadias 8.
With that being said, I truly struggled throughout this race. By mile 6, I became acutely aware that something wasn’t right. I couldn’t get control of my breathing, in the sense that I couldn’t seem to take a deep breath, no matter how hard I tried. My pace was relaxed, but my lungs felt stuck like someone was pulling a rope around me. Shortly afterwards, the coughing began, and it was all downhill from there. Somewhere around mile 6 to 7, the course takes to the road again towards Helen and heading up the library hill by the playground, where it entered the trail again. Don’t let that school-marmish hill fool ya either. It’s a doosey!
Runners were treated to a series of yummy goodies at the 7.5 mile aid station, including pumpkin pie, bratwurst, and apple strudel. I wish I could have gotten a pic of the spread, but all I could focus on was the invisible corset around my chest. I decided that stopping wasn’t a wise idea. It was best to keep on moving, one foot in front of the other. I tore open an Apple Cinnamon Hammer gel in celebration, as I passed the station. YUM!
From here on out, the next few miles were a series of short, rolling hills until the water crossing near mile 9. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people gingerly trying to cross a river without getting wet. I mean, really? It’s a river, ladies and gents. You’re. Going. To. Get. Wet. This is how we see people who take their shoes off at water crossings. Now, I’m a point A to point B person. I took one look at that river and took off across it. Cold is an understatement; however, within 45 minutes or so, I think my shoes were dry. I honestly couldn’t tell you because I couldn’t feel my feet the rest of the entire race. Past the river, I do not remember much. By this point, I couldn’t stop the coughing. Keeping my eyes on the trail with the tears from coughing was about all I could do, although I received compliments from three young ladies that I was a good pacer. :P We ran together majority of the race. :P
Bring ‘er Home
Once you shoot out of the park and onto the field, you’re on the final .25 homestretch…AROUND-THE-FIELD. Yes. Around the ENTIRE field. The cool thing about that though is that people are cheering you on all the way around it, which is pretty neat. It’s almost impossible to slack off at the end because all eyes are on you. :P I gave what was left, which wasn’t much, slapped Sean a high-five, and immediately buckled forward into coughing fits for the next ten minutes.
Sean’s Mom and Dad were there serving apple strudel and pumpkin pies to runners, along with several other baked goodies! Once I was able to calm down enough to socialize, I spent the next thirty minutes chit-chatting with friends I hadn’t seen in a long time like Jason Rogers, Tes, Kate, Tom, and several others. I do look forward to running Helen again in 2014. Hopefully, this time, without bronchitis (spent Sunday in Urgent Care, where I got the fabulous news that my lungs were full of all sorts of yucky hatred directed point-blank at me). Despite the breathing issues, I really did enjoy the trail, and Sean did a great job directing the race and planning the course. It was well-marked with lots of pink ribbons and flags letting you know not to go onto certain trails. As with any trail race, don’t automatically follow the idiot in front of you, of you’ll be idiot #2.
This race is completely doable to a trail newbie; however, don’t expect to gun it, and you do need to do some preparation on your part. The race takes place in the fall, when the leaves are already on the ground. As for any race, train for the distance. Trail races are, often times, more challenging than road races. Factor that into your finishing time. I put together a few helpful hints that I think are useful for anyone looking to run the Helen Holiday Half in 2014, because this is definitely a race that needs to be on your race calendar!
Helpful Tips for Running the Helen Holiday Half in 2014
1. Stay at the lodge or in town. You’ll be glad you got a chance to enjoy the sights!
2. Cabs cost $13 a pop/one way from the lodge to town. Call Karen’s Cab. It’ll still cost ya, but she’s reliable, friendly, and on time!
3. Invest and train in differing pairs of quick-drying socks, or you’ll end up with frozen piglets like me!
4. Wear trail shoes. I saw at least a dozen pair of road shoes out there, and most of the people that said the trails were slippery were wearing road shoes.
5. Train using short hill repeats.
6. Learn to power hike. Power hiking is all you need for those three hills I mentioned earlier.
I hope to see you all in 2014 for Sean’s 2nd Annual Helen Holiday Trail Half Marathon! Join us for an awesome run with stunning views of the mountain line and lake, followed by a day in Helen filled with Christmas lights, FREE beer, and a post-race party that doesn’t stop!