Even between ultras, races are very different. Some have a very hyped feel to them with huge banners and inflatable sponsors signs, camera interviews with the "elites" of the sport, and prize money. But the vast majority of them have a down-home feel. There might be a banner, or just a spray-painted start/finish line where at the end there is a barbecue or family cooking for the racers.
Horton's races are closer to the latter but with an incredible feeling of fun professionalism about them. They have killer finishing awards, great volunteers, amazing locations and guaranteed fun courses. They always start with the national anthem and a prayer and finish with a hearty smile and a firm handshake or hug.
Holiday Lake is no different.
Step one, getting to the race: Driving there is not unlike most ultras as it starts at a camp ground where cell service may or may not be present, so don't rely on your phone's GPS. There are several miles of gravel road where it looks like you're driving to the middle of nowhere where you may or may not run into a young boy playing a banjo. Just follow the directions, you'll get there. Don't eat before you go to the pre-race meal unless you hate good food.
Step two, the actual race: The race consists of two loops, one clock-wise, one counter clock-wise. The race starts in the dark, so I'd recommend bringing a small headlamp that will fit in a pocket because you won't need it for very long and probably won't want it squeezing your head for the first 16.ish miles until you get back to the start/halfway point. It is possible to get through without a headlamp but you'll have to rely and latch onto someone else's light and they might be going faster/slower than you want to go. Plus, as I learned last year, if you do rely on someone else's light, depth perception is compromised and tripping is more likely. Aid stations are only about 4-5 miles apart so it is doable without a handbottle, but if you want to get through the aid stations a bit quicker and only stop at every other one, you can use one bottle. Two is over kill. The aid stations are stocked with the usual ultra food. Sandwiches, candy, chips, cookies, potatoes etc.
The following main race description was largely copied from the website. But before you read the course description, know that there may be a lot of turns but Horton's races are marked the best out of any race I've ever done. If you run for more than 3 minutes (less if you're running fast) without seeing a streamer or chalk, or some other blatantly obvious marking, you're going the wrong way. He marks turns for the directionally-impaired. If you get lost, you will get made fun of. Letting you know now.
For only about .6 miles you run up a hill on the road. This little kicker will make you wonder whether the friend who told you that "it is a course for fast times and road running marathoners" was lying through their teeth. They weren't chill out. Then you turn right on the Lakeside Trail ( LT ). This trail is not very technical and is just rolling hills. Not "Horton hills" they really are just hills. Follow the LT to a small bridge at the end of Holiday Lake at 1.78 miles. Turn right and follow the trail next to the edge of the lake and cutting across the park next to the sandy beach and picnic tables picking back up the LT after crossing the road at 2.05 miles. Just before the trail, there is a little bathroom, last year it was open for emergencies. Continue on the LT next to the lake. This is a great rolling hills trail that you can have a lot of fun on. Really scenic. At 2.44 miles you will pass a wooden lookout on the right side of the trail. Last year, this is where it started to get light enough for people to stash their lights. At 3.36 miles the LT cuts right across a stream. The course takes a left turn at this point onto the CTT. The CTT goes uphill at this point on to Aid Station ( AS ) 1 at 4.04 miles. The hill may be steep, but it's not long. This AS is at a wooden gate in a small pull out adjacent to Highway ( HWY ) 692.
Continue on the CTT which runs adjacent to HWY 692 until mile 5.71 where it crosses HWY 640. At 6.03 miles the trail turns right. This part is flat. Remember it for the way back as a part you can really get rolling on it if you're feeling good. At 6.52 miles the course turns right on Rinehart Road. At 7.07 miles the course crosses Holiday Creek, the big creek crossing that we have had in previous years. You will get your feet wet. Fact of life. Continue on this road to the intersection of Rinehart Road and Richmond Road and AS 2 at 8.23 miles. There is no crew access at this aid station.
Turn right on Richmond Road going gradually downhill. At the bottom on the long gradual downhill, you cross a small bridge. After crossing the bridge, you turn right on the CTT at 8.78 miles. At 9.37 miles you cross HWY 636. The course runs parallel to 636 crossing 636 again at 10.53 miles. At 10.72 miles the course takes a right on Walker Road as you continue to follow the CTT. After going down a small hill you reach AS 3 on HWY 614 at 12.14 miles.
Take a left on 614 for about 30 yards and then turn right back onto the CTT. At 12.96 the CTT makes a very sharp right hand turn. At 13.71 miles, the course makes a sharp right hand turn still staying on the CTT (this is in a group of large old oak trees). The course then goes through the woods for a short distance then down a very steep little hill. It really is very steep, and feels steeper going back up on the way back. At 14.14 miles, there is a bridge on your right side that goes across the small stream. At this point you rejoin the LT staying on the LEFT side of the lake. Continue around the lake on the left side. At 15.97 miles you will cross the dam. It can be very slick in spots. At 16.43 miles you cross a small footbridge. Turn right and follow the trail on the right side of the tennis courts back to the start/finish line at 16.63 miles and the end of loop one. For loop two, reverse directions and go back the way you came and run the loop in reverse order ending loop two for a total distance of 33.26 miles.
I will warn you, it's easy to get to the turn around and feel like you can smell the barn but...of course you can! You just left the barn! You still have a whole loop to do, if you feel good, by all means, pick up the pace, but don't turn on the burners. The reverse loop can get a little bit hairy because everyone is doubling back on the rest of the field. But this can also be a good thing because you can see how far or close the people just in front and just behind you they are. The trail along the lake can get narrow so just be polite about passing everyone.
(I'm not in the picture and I stole it from Rachel Corrigan's blog even though I don't know her but it epitomizes Horton and Holiday Lake...Rachel, I'm sorry, I'll buy you an ice cream cone.)