Cactus Kisses -- The Bandera 100 km

By John Prohira

Whenever I can couple an escape from Western New York's winter with long distance running all is well in my world. I began my New Year by flying into San Antonio where I was greeted with clear, sunny skies and warmth that brought a smile to my face. Temperatures in the mid seventies ain't bad considering that only hours before I had been scrapping ice and snow from off my car. Ah thought I! This is living! Temperate weather, lush surroundings all very comfortable, the perfect reprieve from my cold, white January. But this was the cultivated and nurtured cityscape I felt and saw, not the Texas hills where I would be running in a couple of days. While I did not necessarily travel south hoping to find a kinder, gentler type of ultrarunning I was more than a little surprised at what awaited me - cactus kisses, rocks that moved when kicked or stepped on improperly, hills complete with steep inclines and declines and cold breezes atop them, mud and rain, wide open spaces and a rugged beauty like I've never seen before. Once again preconceived ideas about what lay ahead proved wrong. All of Texas was not flat, dry and warm in January. The people there may be friendly but that doesn’t mean the courses they choose for ultrarunning are.

At 7:30 AM on Saturday the 11th, I joined 49 others planning on running 100K in the Hill Country State Natural Area outside of Bandera, Texas. Another 129 people planned on running either 25K and 50K. Bandera lay 50 miles northwest of San Antonio. The 62.2-mile event would be comprised of two loops containing rocky hills, springs, oak groves, canyons and grasslands. I found myself running along flat, broad creek bottoms and moments later climbing up and out of rocky canyons that offered spectacular views of the 5400-acre park and land beyond. The park is a State Natural Area, which in Texas means that it is unimproved, rugged and beautifully pristine.

The highest point in the Hill Country is only 1950 feet, but it is the up and down then up and down of this course that charms. As our race directors Joe Prusaitis and Jon Hill said, "It ain't flat!" These gentlemen were telling the truth. The course was designed so the Bandera 50K and 100K participants could run 31 miles in one large loop, repeated if so desired. The course does touch the same spot three times but never crosses over itself, never results in out and back sections. Most of the course is single track, some dirt but mostly rock.

Chalk and ribbons were used as markers and glow sticks were placed along the course after dark. I thought the trail well marked and only once feared that I'd wandered off course. That was late in the race near the finish, I back-tracked about 200 yards until I found the ribbon that I'd missed and realized that I hadn't been lost after all. When presented with doubt like this I prefer to stop and turn around making sure the right trail is being used rather than plunging ahead and hoping for the best.

I placed a drop bag containing a range of clothing options, cans of vanilla Ensure, GU, small flashlights and my headlamp at aid station #3 on my way into the park on Saturday morning. This station was visited at 10, 20, 41 and 51 miles. Another bag was placed at the start/finish and was used at the halfway point and after race's end. The pre race feed and post race party/breakfast took place in a tent next to the park’s lodge, a ranch house at the start. Inside Silent Slammin’ Sam Voltaggio cooked and cooked until he could not stand it anymore and headed out onto the course to help guide in those running through the night. Texas style aid stations came about every 5 miles. These were filled with friendly folk who knew how to cater to their guests. I passed on their offers of sandwiches, soup and burgers, instead grazing on oranges, corn chips, and candy and washing those treats down with cola while my bottles were being refilled.

Many working the aid stations were ultrarunners themselves. This is always an added plus. We shucked and jived and teased each other during these short breaks. While filling out my entry form I was puzzled by the liberal time limit of 24 hours given for completion of the 100K. I thought this odd and was convinced that this course could not be all that challenging. I was told that race management wanted anyone wishing to finish to have that opportunity. Soon after the beginning of the race I better understood the reasoning behind the generous cutoff times. This was an honest to goodness course not my preconceived misconception of gentle southern running. And knowing that they wouldn't be pulled from the event kept many of the runners going and slugging it out until the finish line appeared. This was the most difficult set of trails in central Texas, something the race directors were quite proud of. And now after the fact I appreciate how tough they are.

The runner could pick his poison at Bandera, three races were offered on Saturday, the 50K and 100K runners traversed the same course and started together. Those signing on for the 25K option began their adventure 30 minutes later. Sunrise came to the Hill Country just as the race began along with temperatures of 40 degree F. Rain followed a couple of hours later and continued as a slight drizzle all day long, stopping soon after dark. The rocky and hilly ups and down greeted us after leaving the base camp starting line. I was moving along at a forced march soon after race’s start as we moved through Cougar Canyon. I didn't see any cougar and don't know that any still reside in the area. We were told that, although hiding, rattlesnake, scorpions and boar live and thrive here. We were promised glimpses of armadillo, deer and lizards but all I saw were bunny rabbits as darkness fell. There were many creek crossings but I managed to keep my feet dry and out of the water

I found it such an interesting course. Interesting is a word that covers a lot of space. The panorama offered of this part of the country was breathtaking. There were miles and miles of unobstructed view, the land contains only cacti, sparse oak tress and clumps of brush. There wasn't much there to block the vistas of the countryside. The ups and downs were steep and more often than not climbed or descended on without benefit of switchback trail. Often the trail would split or divide around a large outcrop of rock or an oasis of greenery, then come back together 100 yards further on. I found this disconcerting until I developed a feel for the course. Some portions of the climbs and descents required lifting and lowering legs and feet 3-4 feet in order to move from rock to rock. I stumbled a number of times but never fell.

I use ultrarunning as an excuse to travel and see different parts of this diverse country of ours. I so enjoy meeting different people and tasting parts of their world. I get a thrill out of immersing myself in different environments, experiencing a new range of weather conditions and landscapes and appreciating new sensory input found there. Out of the ordinary surroundings often bring with them a different point of view. That helps me to avoid tunnel vision when returning to the real world and sometimes (key word here is sometimes) helps me take pause before prejudging people and situations. Lessons are presented to me during the long run and sometimes I remember them. I always find something along the way that thoroughly charms me. On this trip the sensations of sight and touch brought with them unforgettable memories.

At one point during the early afternoon I came off a low ridge of rock next to a creek that looked to be a fluorescent sea green. Very odd sight in contrast to the gray and brown winter colors of the area. The water seemed to radiate good cheer. The slow moving pool of green water, perhaps 3-4 foot deep, covered rocks swathed with thick jade colored algae that made me think of lime sherbet or Jell-O. Soon after the start I quickly accepted that running the Bandera course was going to be a challenging endeavor but continued to assume that all I would see that day and evening would be drab colored. The unexpected sight of the glowing water lifted my spirits during a low point in my race and I carried that unusual and impressive vision with me for the rest of the day, regretting that I hadn't brought a camera with which to document it.

I and those running with me received some attention from the areas flora. The Texas Sotol (Dasylirion leiophyllum) and Engelmann's Prickly Pear (Opuntia engelmannii) are two types of cacti indigenous in this region of Texas. I found them to be rather exotic looking. I had never seen cactus growing in the wild before. The single-track trail we followed avoided the dangerous looking Prickly Pear with its long sharp needles that looked like they could do deep and serious harm to human flesh. But the Sotol, a bushy or shrubby looking cactus made up of long sword like stalks with serrated edges and sharp points flourished were everywhere. The heads of this cactus have been used as a food by Native Americans and when fermented its juice can be made into a powerful alcoholic beverage named after the cactus. On the section of the trail called Ice Cream Hill I received my first cactus kiss, a brushing of the Sotol upon my bare legs. Seven miles into the Bandera course and again at 23 miles the leaves of the Sotol infringed into the single-track trail space and I found it impossible to avoid contact with the them. I could feel a slight bite as the leaves moved across the skin of my shins, knees and thighs but didn't appreciate the price of those cactus kisses until I noticed what my fellow runner looked like. Everywhere the Sotol had touched our legs the skin was nicked, these were certainly not serious cuts but deep enough to coax little red rivulets of blood down the entire front of my legs. Because it grew cold and damp as the day progressed I wore tights on my second loop. This was enough to protect my legs from further damage, the teeth of the Sotol harmlessly sliding off the thin fabric of my tights without cutting or tearing them.

Some soil can be found in the Hill Country. This is not one solid piece of rock. We traversed wide-open pastures and primitive dirt Jeep roads. The area outside of San Antonio is dry and the rain that fell mixed with the dusty dirt forming a mud that took on the consistency of adobe building materials. This stuff clumped on the bottoms of my shoes and stayed there. This was like trying to run with primitive brick forming on my feet. It was of course very heavy but the challenging part of running through this Texas mud was dealing with the three to four inch uneven platforms forming on the bottoms of my shoes. More times than I cared to remember I almost fell over because I do not know how to run in high heels. This cement like mud could not be kicked off. The only way I found to remove it was to stop and pry it from my shoe’s soles one foot at a time, using one foot as a wedge, peeling layer of the stuff from the other. That worked temporarily but minutes later, an eighth of a mile down the path that peeling procedure had to be repeated. It was a comfort and joy returning to the rocky trail.

It was a chilly day and night. One advantage I brought to Texas was my acclimation to cold weather running. I pretended that the mud was snow and I know how to plod through that. I had enough clothing to never feel uncomfortable during the 14 hours and 43 minutes I was on the course. But the breezes at the top of the hills put a spring in my step and I hurried to get over them and back down into the canyons where it was warmer and the air calm. From early afternoon on I could see my breath with every exhalation and this presented an interesting twist to night running. After dark the clouds of vapor I exhaled interfered with my vision. On low points of the course the air was still and the mist leaving my mouth hung heavy in front of my face. I had trouble seeing what lay ahead. It was like driving in fog. My headlamp’s light reflected off the condensation leaving my lungs and obscured my view of the trail. After a while I learned to blow my exhalations off to the side of my lamplight and I proceeded along unhindered. A continual learning process on how to run, more lessons presented.

This course is one worthy of attention and I am glad I came south for it. Scott Eppelman of Coppell, Texas won the race in a time of 9:59:55. He crossed the 50K mark and began his second loop before the eventual winner of the 50K race finished. Of the 50 runners beginning the 100K only 30 completed the task at hand. I believe the weather was one reason for the high attrition rate. In my humble opinion challenges like this are worthy and important. I left the 50K mark after loading up bottles and changing my hat 6 hours and 29 minutes after my start. It would take me another 8 hours and 14 minutes to repeat that loop. I was pleased with the outcome of my run. Starting and finishing an ultrarun in and on the same calendar day can be a very good thing.

I like to do, not watch. It is just too hard being a spectator, at a race or in life in general. I want to participate in life. I use my ultrarunning as analogy for everyday life and for tests that are presented me there. I have learned that the easier and softer way is not necessarily the better one. How can one judge comfort without knowing of it's opposite? Or understand rejuvenation without knowing fatigue? Or appreciate riches without knowing poverty? And it’s not just money I write of, there can be a poverty in spirit also. During a long run like this I can see both sides of the coin. Feel good and bad, elated and discouraged, confident and unsure of myself. But in the end the effort makes sense. The rewards are relative to that effort. I do not run because it hurts and at times uncomfortable. I run in spite of that. I have a friend who told me once that she was just not cut out to be a runner. She said she tried running once and it hurt. That was enough of a signal to her not to try again. That is too bad. That is an example of prejudice I hope never to understand. My running has helped me not reject what I've never experienced, to instead anticipate and wonder about those things. It seems I learn something new about my world and myself every time I embrace long distance. I don’t recall who said, “Take what you will but pay for it,” I like that philosophy. There is always a price to pay regardless of what is bought or chosen. A little fatigue, doubt and discomfort is I believe fair enough payment for what is being offered at events like the Bandera.

There are challenges and then there are challenges! Those working the mile 28 and 59-mile aid station liked my colorful Clifton tights! I got lots of attention in that regard, I know I'll not get the same attention for my blinding speed and have accepted that. One fellow working there challenged me to wear my fancy pants into any Cowboy bar I found on the way home that night, just to see how I was received. I passed on that dare.

Can you tell I thoroughly enjoyed my weekend? My thanks to all who made the weekend possible. I thought that the inaugural 100K Run was flawlessly staged. I will return again to this part of Texas.

Below are some links to the Bandera event. The first is the homepage where images of the course can be found, next is the elevation profile of the course and finally the results for the race.

I'll sign off as I usually do with appropriate quotations.

Happy Trails,

"There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance, that principle is contempt prior to investigation."
- Herbert Spencer
"Perhaps the genius of ultrarunning is its supreme lack of utility. It makes no sense in a world of space ships and supercomputers to run vast distances on foot. There is no money in it and no fame, frequently not even the approval of peers. But as poets, apostles and philosophers have insisted from the dawn of time, there is more to life than logic and common sense. The ultra runners know this instinctively. And they know something else that is lost on the sedentary. They understand, perhaps better than anyone, that the doors to the spirit will swing open with physical effort. In running such long and taxing distances they answer a call from the deepest realms of their being -- a call that asks who they are ..."
- David Blaikie
"You guys just shuffle from concession stand to concession stand!"
- Helge Zimmet, said to Karen Claire at Way Too Cool

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