I have moved around the country since picking up ultrarunning, three times, in a wide range: from New York to Portland, Oregon, to Austin, Texas. Every new place offers an opportunity to explore places I might have otherwise not seen by picking up local races. I love to travel and a majority of my goal races for each season are destination races. I use local races – within driving distance – as my race myself into shape strategy. It’s not that I recommend everybody do that, but it works for me – and now it allowed me to offer you my views on nearly every 50 mile race in Texas. Of course, I ran a bunch of other distances as well as 50 milers in neighboring states, but this article will focus only on 50M courses in the Lone Star state.
I will start it by the calendar year.
February is a great month to race in Texas, with cool temperatures, some solid base of training laid in November-January, and perfect destinations.
Rocky Raccoon 50M by Tejas Trails used to go in conjunction with a 100M race, and it is so popular (being in the “running” since 1993) that 2014 will be the first year the distances will be split into separate weekends, and the 50 miler will be held on February 8th.
Joe and Joyce Prusaitis, Tejas Trails founders, are sharing the responsibility of managing this event with the one and only Liza Howard, so it is bound to have all the great organization and heart it always had with perks this girl brings to the table. I ran the 100M version in 2010, but the course utilizes the same trails, so let me lay some info for you.
The race is held in Hunstville State Park somewhat North of Houston, and it has mostly soft dirt single track with some dirt road running as well. Lots of it under the cover of trees and crossing plenty of wooden bridges (as the park hosts some swamps, lakes and ditches). Rumor is, there are alligators out there, but in February, I think it is safe to bet none of them will come out.
The single track, while smooth in many parts, does have some nasty roots popping under your feet, and as miles go, they (roots) seem to grow bigger. It’s a fast course with merely a couple thousand feet of elevation gain and folks come out there to run it as a first 50 (or 100), as well as to PR for the distance. The support is incredible, the temperatures are mild during the day, the aid stations are never more than four miles apart, the three-loop allows you to get familiar and accelerate as you go, and the fun is guaranteed.
Another great February race is Cross Timber 50, held in 2014 on February 15th.
I ran it in 2011, and have to agree with the motto of “Toughest race in TX”. It is also the oldest race in Texas (in its 33rd year) and is located up North near the border with Oklahoma on the south edge of Lake Texoma. This gives a runner great views of the lake, technical single track trails, tripping over roots, some sand running, and some hand-over-hand short climbs as water erodes the shoreline. It is a double out-n-back of 12.5 miles (or so), with some tree cover.
The lake washes off the shore line more inland each year, so the distance is kind of getting a little longer as the years pass by and the ruggedness increases. I really enjoyed the tree cover for a big part of the course and the challenge of tripping over roots in many places. The hospitality of RD, Teresa Estrada, is great as well as awards!
March begins with another Tejas Trails event, Nueces 50M, in Camp Eagle, a great family destination spot north-west of San Antonio. It falls on March 1st in 2014. I had run the inaugural event in 2010, then volunteered every year since (2011, 2012 and 2013).
Joe is known to carve the nastiest trails for his race courses and many claim this one is his nastiest. While I personally disagree, it certainly does have an element of hardship: lots of climbing, single track, rocks, ledges, running along the river, crossing water, and some elevation change for a flat lander of Texas. The weather can be hit or miss, as the Spring comes early and full swing to this part of the country, and there are plenty of open spaces to get hot. For the last three years the race served as USATF championship grounds and attracted some really fast runners.
Your family will love the visit for sure, as Camp Eagle offers slack-lining, rock-climbing, water fun and fantastic amenities. You run three loops for the full 50 miles and get to see your friends often – and a couple of aid stations can be walked to as well. Sometimes you run and see the next aid stations yet still have a snaky trail to take around it before coming to food and water. There is a BBQ at the finish and amenities right at the start/finish.
Next in March comes Grasslands 50, on March 22nd. A completely different kind of event! I did this one in 2011 as well, and it was a revelation of “not that kind of difficult”. It was extremely hot, and the LBJ National Grasslands near Decatur are mostly sand lands…with some grass on them. There is cover of trees here and there, but for the most part you will run under the sun, and your feet will get stuck in ankle-deep sand – but that is part of the fun!
The course is laid out as three loops that go out and come back to the start/finish but utilize different trails so you’re on a new ground practically the whole time. Most of the system has single track, so while the footing is difficult as you feel like you’re going backwards a little with each step, the pleasure is still there. If you happen to be the lucky one and get rained on, the shoe-sucking mud will test your soul. However, the people out there are amazing, and it is a challenge you don’t want to miss, along with the festivities. Lots of food and beer here at the finish line!
The next race officially hits us with scorching temperatures year after year and begins the summer racing season on the first Saturday of April. Hells Hills 50 near Smithville is almost perfect center for driving from Houston, Austin, and San Antonio and is held on the private Rocky Hill Ranch – thus the name (there are no hills!). In 2014 it is slated for April 5th.
No matter how you cut it, somehow locals are still unprepared for the temps that greet them at this race. The trails are mostly single track, twisting and turning, and with three loops for a 50M. Most of the hills however are not much, and you get them at the end of each loop.
There is some open dirt roads as well, but not much at all.
The trick on this course is to stay consistent and not go out too fast as the flatness invites it on the first loop. Lots of trees, and in many places the trail almost reminds me some of the Pacific North West trails, with pine needles covering the ground and the dirt being very soft and cushy. The aid stations, as always with Tejas Trail races, are often and bountiful, and I really like the pine trees and whatever other trees provide cover and please the eye. The race served as a Sportiva 25km championship so expect some fast runners passing by. Enjoy the ranch owner’s cook-out at the end.
Next race on April’s calendar is a relatively new addition and one I haven’t done due to various schedule conflicts, but since it is put by the very owner of Endurance Buzz, it must be good (I ran two of his other races). Possum Kingdom 52M is set for April 12th west of the Dallas metroplex, is a heavenly trail with great views.
Matt Crownover and Steve Wray recently discussed the Possum Kingdom 52 miler. Among their fond memories and eagerness to return in 2014, three aspects of the race jumped out: beauty, variety, community.
What follows are their thoughts:
Beauty. The race impresses as more beautiful than most. Add the fact that PK is surprisingly close to DFW, and its features surprise as well. It feels like the Hill Country with the black dirt and white limestone, but the lovely and frequent lake views and shorelines remind you that the prairies and lakes of North Texas are still close by.
Variety. This run has it all. There are some rocks and roots to play around, some flat runnable open areas to pick up the pace, and even a small area of sand to surprise you. While there are no big monster climbs to crush you, there are plenty of ups and downs to challenge and test your pace.
Community. You kind of feel like you are in the middle of nowhere, and the runners band together to bring their tribal culture to this lovely area. The campground is open and free (for that time of the year). Most of the campers are runners, so the vibe is accordingly cool as the tribe of entrants, volunteers, friends, and family join for cookouts and visits. Community is also enhanced by the frequent double track on the course. For runners going the same direction, these lovely double track trails allow for side by side visiting. During out and backs sections, it is far less harrowing to greet a runner coming back at you, and then it is nice to see each other face to face.
Finally, if you have friends or family in one of the shorter events you are all but guaranteed the opportunity to overlap at some point—it is a real blast to wait for that to happen! If they are not running, then all the aid stations are easily accessed by your cheer squad.
October starts with a great race – Palo Duro 50. Slated for the middle of the month (should be the 18th next year), it might bring you any weather from snow to heat. I ran it in 2010 and got hot, hot, hot…People say it’s flat, but if you look at the name, canyon means, well, canyon.
The race is also located at the bottom of it – which sits at 3,000 feet as is. There is a slight chance you may have a bit of difficulty of breathing if you’re from altitude zero. There is also practically no shade whatsoever, and the “dirt” is hard-packed, some granite and slick rock crashed stuff. The trail becomes single-track right from the start, and gets a little bit trench-like so many are trying to line up at the front to not get caught up with the conga-line.
I found it to be unnecessary as getting around wasn’t that difficult, and hurrying up is something one shouldn’t do in the first miles of a 50. Lots of single-track and quite a few stretches of wider open dirt-road type of terrain.
The race is four loops of 12.5M with long shallow inclines and declines and some beautiful scenery at times (and some entertaining) although most of the time I just kept my head down to deal with the heat.
Hopefully there is enough ice at the aid stations – use it, the heat is dry and sucks the life out of you! The start/finish is located almost at the camping area everyone is using to spend the night before – and even after, and that campground has showers and great sites.
The buzz at the race is fun, and the pre-race festivities were absolutely awesome back in town with dinner, talks, slide-show, and lots of chatter.
At the end of October enters an entertaining event of Tejas Trails at the self-supported Cactus Rose 50 (and 100). I am guessing it’ll be October 25th next year. The race in the beautiful Hill Country State Natural Area, one of the awesome places where hills and green are aplenty and views are vast.
It is exactly what it is: self-supported. The aid stations are still five miles apart, the tents are set up, and water and ice are provided – but that is it. You bring your own drinks, food, cups, ice-coolers, etc. Then run your heart out.
For the last three years I supported the Equestrian aid station that runners hit twice on each of 25M loop. I tried to help runners with minimal aid, coke, fruit, boiled potatoes, as well as some hearty yelling and a slap on the butt (and a hug or a kiss as needed).
2013 marks the first time I can’t make it but since this event existed long before I did, I am certain everyone with make do with flying colors. The single track out there is gnarly, the rock ledges are high, the loose rock is rolling, and the sotol and cacti scratch your legs and make you bleed. It is an extremely fun event and my favorite of them all.
November kicks in a pre-Thanksgiving fat burner at Wild Hare 50 on the property of Bluff Creek Ranch, an hour away from Austin.
While Joe had managed to string together every piece of a single track out there, the trails are a true maze as you often see the trail that you will run in a mile (and a runner either ahead or behind you) at an arm’s length. It plays with your mind for sure!
On November 15th of next year it’ll be a hell of a party, as Tejas Trails will wrap up their yearly racing season with some good beer and story-telling along with awards.
This course is extremely runnable and has only a couple good hills up and down and I truly enjoyed those two on each of the 6.5 mile loops (yes, that many). With many stops at the start/finish and seeing so many folks it feels more like a party than a race. The weather can be anything. The year I ran it (2010) was hot and humid, but in November one can always hope for the best, right?
Wrapping up, I suddenly discovered that December does indeed have a FEW 50 milers, and I did NOT travel to any one of them yet!
Texas Trail Runs
First comes Texas Trail runs on December 7th in Huntsville State Park (same place as Rocky Raccoon in February). It is put on by Soler’s Sports and features beautiful soft single track coupled with double track and lots of camping, boating, fishing and playgrounds for kids. I believe it is a resurrection of a once-run most popular and biggest 50 miler in Texas (and the country), Sunmart 50, but don’t quote me on that. I’d like to hear more if it picks up – the venue provides for some seriously fast running.
Houston Running Festival
Another timed event you can go for a distance is Houston Running Festival. It goes as part of a 24 hr run with measured distances for those who do not want to go for a timed event, yet have plenty of time to finish whatever miles one picks. The event is held on December 28th in Houston on a 2.01 mile flat paved jogging trail loop around Bear Creek Park.
And that concludes 50 mile courses in Texas as far as I know them. It is hard to pick which one is best, whether best for first-timers, best to see the views, best to hang out with friends…I was quoted to say, after running each of those, that Texas presents very unique challenges. While it does not have huge climbs and quad-punishing descends, no altitude, not much change in elevation, not very bad footing (all things considered, I’ve seen much worse) – what it does offer is heat and humidity that suck the life out of you, yet also has this great community that likes to party regardless the weather.
Pick your battle as you wish – and make sure to hang out afterwards!
– Olga King