Saturday, December 14, 2013

Unicoi Trail (Helen, GA)

This week, we took a family trip to Helen, GA for an early Christmas with my wife's folks and sister's family. Helen is a small, Bavarian themed town along the Chattahoochee river in the north Georgia mountains.
Low and behold, a trail!
Lately, I've found it a bit difficult to cobble together anything resembling a consistent string of training runs, so beyond looking forward to some time with family away from work, I was really looking forward to having a extended window to go for run for 5 days straight. I've been to Helen before, but not in my running life, and as it turns out, I've decided that Helen has exactly one of every kind of run a runner could want.

I started out with what was supposed to be an easy 7 or 8 miles on Saturday, but turned out to be the biggest road climb of the week (hill work, check). It wasn't much compared to what I normally climb (250 ft versus 600 ft), but it was a little cold, and I was pushing it a little more than usual. After I got back down the hill, I ran around town for a bit (4 to 5 mile easy loop around town, check). On this part of the run, I also came across a flat stretch of pavement that was low on automobile traffic and went on for a little over a mile (speed work, check).

It started raining that night, rained all day Sunday, and was still raining on Monday, so by Monday afternoon, we were all feeling a bit angsty. Enter flat, paved mile. Let the mile repeat stress relief commence.
The trail ran along (and sometimes over) the river
I looked at where I supposedly should have been as far as pace goes according to my original training plan, cinched up my Vibram FiveFingers Bikila LSs and decided to give my best shot at 3 5:51s. Happily, I nailed the first two repeats (5:50 and 5:51). It started raining again during the second repeat, and coupled with fatigue/gut issues, I fell off on the third and final repeat (6:05), but on the whole, I was encouraged.

I decided that I had done all the exploring around town that I cared to do, and turned to Garmin Connect to see if anyone else had posted a good route. Low and behold, a trail! Just to round off the "one of everything" rule, the Unicoi trail is there for the fun of it. I had just received a Camelbak Rogue for Christmas, and a trail run seemed like the ideal way to take it for a test run. I'll save more remarks on it for after I've used it on a proper long run, but I will say that my initial impressions were positive. Anyway, I hadn't counted on a trail run, so even though I brought 3 pairs of running shoes (yes, I'm a dude who travels with 4 pairs of shoes for a 5 day trip), my trusty Trail Gloves weren't among them. Having run trails in my Road Gloves and VFFs, I know that both of those are less than ideal, which left only my Merrell Bare Access 2s.
Lake Unicoi
BAs are my goto road distance shoe, and I honestly didn't know how they would do on the dirt.

The trail surface was mostly dirt with a few rocks and roots poking through here and there. It was a bit soggy from all the rain, but it was well kept double track all the way. Bikes aren't allowed on the trail either, and there aren't that many visitors to Helen this time of year, especially during the week, so you really feel like you have the whole forest to yourself. The sun had just started to poke through the clouds, and the air was crisp and cool. I snuck up on a blue heron at one point, and on the way back, a white tail deer and I startled each other. The first couple miles were flat to rolling hills with one good ascent/descent and a good long stretch right along the river as well.

At this point, the BAs were doing well enough.
I bet it's awesome to sleep in one of these when it's raining.
There is enough material underfoot that the roots and rocks don't get through, but there isn't really much in the way of tread so there was a noticeable lack of traction in mud, particularly on the ascents/descents. One advantage that they do have over my Trail Gloves on a non-technical trail like this one is a wider base. I hadn't given this much thought before this run, but since the trail was wide and wasn't changing directions, elevations or surface quickly, I didn't really need to be as nimble through it. The wider base was more stable, of course, and that meant that I didn't have to be as intentional with each footstep.

Just before mile three, the trail dumped out onto a road, where a sign read "Lake Trail" ahead. This sounded like a pretty good idea to me, so I followed it. Dead ahead, there was Lake Unicoi.
Sorry, no bikini girls on the beach today.
The lake itself isn't so big. The trail around is just under two miles, but it's flatter and wider than the trail leading up to it, and while not as secluded, it's plenty peaceful. Oh, and of course, the trail comes with a great view of the lake. Apparently, you can rent cabins which look like giant silos or steel drums turned over on their sides too.

After completing the Lake Trail, I jumped back up on the road to make my way back to the Unicoi Trail. Immediately upon stepping back onto asphalt, it felt like my BAs let out a sigh of relief, and you could almost hear them say, "Now this is more like it!" I've felt this same kind of transition only in reverse going from a trail to the asphalt in my trail shoes. The shoes gripped the pavement evenly, my transitions became suddenly super smooth, and my pace quickened with what felt like the same or even less effort.
A little mud on the tires
As capable a stand in for a trail shoe as the BAs had been, there was no denying at this point that these are road shoes. The road is where they belong, and the road is where they want to be. I crossed over dam, and started back down the Unicoi Trail towards home.

I liked the trail so much that I ran it again the next day. On the whole, I'd say it was a good running week, certainly the best that I've had in a while. I logged hill work on 3 days (counting the trail runs as hill work as Garmin is giving me about 900 ft of total ascent for each one), and had a good speed work session too. If you add the miles I ran after we got back, I'm at 31 for the week with a long run to go. It's not a monster number of miles, and I really could have used a tempo run in there, but it's much better than it has been lately. There are 11 weeks until Albany, so I'm starting to feel the pressure to focus in on my training and bit more.

With all that said, here are a couple more shots from the trail that I wanted to include in this post:

A pretty good panorama of the middle of the lake

...and one of the dam too.

Lake side of the dam

The river along the trail

I'm sucker for good footprint pics

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