Monday, March 14, 2011

Toughest in Texas 50K

Last Saturday I returned to Waco, home of my alma mater, Baylor University, to run the Toughest in Texas 50K.  I always loved Cameron Park when I lived there, but it is much nicer than I remember.  The facilities have expanded and improved, and the trails are much better maintained and well-marked.  The physical beauty of the park, especially the great views from the bluffs over the river, is unmatched in the area.

Tim Neckar, a running coach based in Houston, started the Toughest in Texas trail runs about 5 years ago.  Runners can choose the 5, 10, or 20 mile course, or the 50K.  Twenty-five or so of us lined up for the 50K start at 7 a.m.  The course, 3 loops of about 10 1/3 miles, runs through the park, up and down the trails, which get lots of traffic from mountain bikers.  As befits the needs of mountain bikers, the trails feature lots of long climbs and descents.  The names of the trails, marked like ski slopes with green circles, blue squares, or black diamonds to rate difficulty, reveal what runners can expect: "Sidewinder," "Vortex," "Rio Perdido" (that's Dangerous River, in case you don't know Spanish). 

Like many races, the highlight of this race was who I ran with.  For the majority of the race, I ran with Stuart Skeeter and Joe Prusaitis.  Stuart, an experienced trail runner and long-time family friend, has been running ultras for years, and has finished numerous 100 milers, so this little run was nothing.  In e-mail exchanges before the race, he went on about not being in shape for this race.  I don't know if it was humility, or if he just had a good day, but he seemed to be in pretty good shape to me!  If you know trail running at all, then you know Joe, the king of trail running in Texas.  As founder of Tejas Trails, he directs some of Texas's best trail runs.  A veteran trail runner, he has completed an amazing number of ultras, including finishing the Hardrock 100, one of the toughest mountain ultras ever (the course includes a summit of a 14K peak), and less than 2 weeks later completing the Badwater Ultramarathon, the "world's toughest footrace," which starts every summer in Death Valley, where temperatures are easily 120-130 degrees.  When I first started getting into trail running, Stuart told me how lucky we are in Texas to have a large number of races.  It's not luck, though.  It's Joe!
My feet deserve a medal for what I put them through.
So I ran much of the race with these two guys; needless to say, I was out of my league.  We stayed together throughout the first loop.  Actually, Stuart breezes through aid stations, so after I stopped for a drink and snack, I would then have to catch up to Stuart.  Joe lingers a bit more than I do, but he never had a problem catching back up.  We finished the first loop in 1:55.  Not bad, but I wondered if I would be able to keep it up.  Joe and Stuart are both stronger, more experienced runners than I am, so I knew it would take a lot to stick with them.  The second loop was slower, but I still felt pretty strong.  We stuck together through the first aid station, but after the second, Stuart took off, and we never caught him.  Joe and I finished the second loop at about 4:20; I knew it would be slower, but I didn't realize it was 30 minutes longer.

I started the third loop alone, feeling pretty sluggish, but Joe quickly caught up with me and I got to draw some energy from him for a couple more hours.  The first part of the loop is consistently tougher than the latter portion, so we suffered through those miles together.  Then at the aid station we were greeted by my brother, Mark!  That was a treat, to have him pace us for a while.  He's run this race every year it's been run, and runs at Cameron Park for fun, so he knows the trails.  Unfortunatly, I was about at the end of my rope, so he didn't get much of a run in, going as slowly as I was.  The three of us ran together to the next aid station, and after about the mile 7 marker, with a little more than 3 miles left, Joe took off, showing his finishing strength.  I was in my late-race 15-20 min/mile struggling to the finish mode. 

Jacob's ladder.  It's steep.
I finally passed the 10 mile marker, delighted that the end was near.  Shortly after this, the course follows the road for a few hundred yards (the rest of the course is all single-track), until it reaches the cruelest course ending ever.  Just ahead, maybe 200 yards away, I could see the finish.  I'm almost there!  But, no, the course veers to the right, up Jacob's Ladder.  This is a stone staircase, 90 steep steps, not regular staircase steps, but big steps, straight up the side of the hill.  Climbing these is tough.  After 10 miles, tough.  After 20 miles, really tough.  After 30 miles, torturous.  So, up the stairs, around the back of the hill, and finally across the finish line at 7: 35.  Not exactly negative splits.  1:55, 2:25, 3:15.  Ouch.

My beautiful wife and 3 terrific kids at the finish couldn't care less about how slow I was.  They weren't very eager to get hugs from stinky, sweaty me, but they were still happy to see me.  Stuart had finished in about 6:15 (undertrained. Haha!), and had stuck around to see me cross.  Joe had finished about 20 minutes before; I got to introduce him to my family and visit with him a bit more.  A burger and two cans of Dr Pepper made for a perfect finish.

This was a fun race, but the race organization, aid stations, goodie bag (nice gloves and technical shirt), and post-race spread were all overshadowed by the great trails.  Which is as it should be.  I loved Cameron Park when I lived in Waco, and it's even more lovable now.  Anyone who lives in or around Waco and doesn't spend some time here every now and then--whether for a hike, a trail run, a mountain bike challenge, or just to sit on a bluff overlooking the river--is really cheating himself.
This crew was a welcome site at the finish line.  No, Zippy, I don't want to climb Jacob's Ladder again!


  1. I'm glad you got to come back to Waco for a bit. Your feet deserve a lot more than a medal. Ouch!

    I agree with your assesment of Cameron Park, but I feel like there needs to be a disclaimer on your endorsement. I love the park too and have enjoyed mountain biking, picnics, touch football games, and so forth there, but it is not a safe place.

    People who live around here have heard all kinds of stories about the bad things that happen there. Just a couple weeks ago a local teenager was shot and killed there. So, while I do hope folks can enjoy the park, I recommend doing it at a time when there is a large presence there such as the race you ran, or at least go with a group.

  2. Ouch. I hate to see Cameron Park with that kind of reputation. I think I've always been naive or oblivious of such things. OK, no running there after dark!

  3. that shooting was drug related. go figure drug dealers would meet up in the privacy of a huge park with lots of secluded areas and lack of police presence. for as long as i can remember secluded parks have been a popular spot for drug deals, not just in waco, but in my hometown. people arent out to kill random people enjoying their day in cameron park. i go bike riding by myself out there every so often and dont know many of the trails well, so i just pick trails that look the best for biking, and remember how to find my way back. i have never felt unsafe, though sometimes it can feel a bit erie being out in the woods in the middle of no where.