When I first got interested in running trails in 2011, I found a trail running 101 class hosted by a guy named Joe Prusaitis, the founder of Tejas Trails. I signed up and met with Joe once a week for a few weeks in July in Austin. I learned a lot from him in a short time, including names of the trail running groups in the area. I continued to do most of my running on roads until early 2015 when I was training for the 50k at Brazos. As much as I enjoyed Brazos, I went back to the roads because they were more convenient. After a bad breakup the following winter, I started spending more time on trails where I was less likely to see others and somehow more able to process what had happened. Somewhere along Restoration Way (actual trail name, not kidding), I started thinking more about the future and less about the past. My plan to run the states became a goal to run a marathon on trail in each state.
That spring and summer, I ran trail marathons in Delaware, Indiana, South Dakota, and New Hampshire. I trained at home mostly on trail and met some of the runners in the local group that Joe had told me about. By then, Joe had sold Tejas Trails. When the new owner sent out a request to area runners for help with trail maintenance at Hill Country State Natural Area where Bandera takes place (almost) every January, I volunteered. One of the perks of volunteering was the use of the group lodge over the weekend. At one point on Saturday, there were easily over two dozen runners trading stories and arguing about things like whether it was fair to past runners to trim the sotol for future runners (agreement was not reached but it wasn’t trimmed). Joe was there and kindly helped me plot out a route for my scheduled 14 miles. Having never run at Bandera, I had no idea what he was talking about when he asked whether I wanted ice cream. Although it was August, I declined and he offered “Boyle’s bump” and “cairns climb.” (If I’d only read this first, I would have known what I was in for.) Those trails kicked my ass. I got lost, was miserably hot, and hungry. But I was also intrigued.
I went home and continued training towards a PR in October and 50 miler in December with several states along the way (and a chance meeting on a plane in September). In late December, the Rockhoppers sent out the request for volunteers at Bandera. This was after I’d finished 50 miles at Brazos and was taking a break. Brazos went really well, so of course I was contemplating something longer and/or more difficult. What better way to see what that would look like than to volunteer for the entire shift at Bandera?
I arrived at the park at 9am to start working at YaYa. This was the first year for the new aid station and it’s now in a different spot, across from Equestrian. That year, we were just inside the park entrance before the creek crossing. It was very cold, even by Texas standards. Many people had missed the start of the race because the low bridge over the creek was covered in ice. We were at miles 21/52 for the 100k and 27 for the 50k, so we hoped runners would have warmed up and recovered from any frustration by the time they got to us.
With just under 300 running the 100k (2 loops) and almost 200 running the 50k, we were kept busy from the time the eventual winners came through (Stephanie Violett was the overall 100k winner) until early evening. All day, the aid station was full of energy and excitement as we did our best to help runners stay on course to finish. We were excited when the temperatures briefly moved above freezing mid afternoon and we could offer Oreos dipped in peanut butter that was finally creamy. As the sun set, it got slower and colder. We had to keep water ready to boil so we could thaw out frozen bladder tubes. We enclosed the tent with tarps and ran the patio heater anyway then had to cajole runners from the camp chairs parked next to the heater. Gordy came through late and sent his drink back twice because it was not at an acceptably warm temperature, then asked if we had any cute girls available to pace him through the remaining 10 miles. As our 4am cutoff approached, we were excited because we could finally get in our cars and out of the cold, but anxious because there were still several runners who hadn’t come through. One runner’s wife came looking for him with 15 minutes to spare. She wasn’t sure if she’d missed him at the road crossing a few miles before us, or if he was so far back that he was about to miss the cutoff. 4am came and went with no sign of him, so I volunteered to sweep backwards up the trail, mostly so I could move and warm up. He was about 10 minutes away and disappointed to be pulled, but glad to be done. As I ran down the trail back to YaYa, I could see the frost glittering in the light from my headlamp and I was hooked – I wanted to run this race. We finished tearing down the aid station and I headed home to sleep for a few hours before getting ready for the new semester about to start. A week later, the Rockhoppers held a drawing for free Tejas Trails race entries. I won one and started thinking about Bandera.
My real goal for 2018 was the 100 at Rocky. I wasn’t sure how Bandera, 3 weeks before Rocky, would fit into that plan. I talked to several others who had done both races and talked to my coach. In February, I got into Canyon de Chelly and my training in some ways was set around that race. Meanwhile, that friendly stranger I’d met on my way to Woodstock moved to Texas and in with me. We were running together and he eventually decided to run his first half marathon. I knew I should train for Bandera on the actual course, but I was intimidated. It was a long drive from home, it was remote, I would be alone, etc, etc. He suggested we do a few training runs together at Bandera. I eagerly took him up on the offer and we spent the Saturday before Canyon de Chelly navigating the recently renamed trails at Bandera. I consulted the course map, the park map, and strava to plot out a short section of the 50k loop for our first excursion.
It was a warm day and went slow because I kept having to pull out the little map I’d highlighted with our route. The devil’s intersection, so named because trails 6a, 6b, and 6c (?) all came together, had some signs updated to match the new trail map, but others were not. Ultimately, we found our way back to the equestrian camp, wished we’d brought more water, and made our way home with a stop for margaritas.
We headed back out two weeks later, a week after Canyon de Chelly, and a few weeks before his half marathon debut in Alabama. I mapped out a 12 mile route for his peak week but avoided the hills. This section took us through the powerline hill, to the overlook before the horse camp (Chapas aid), along the park perimeter on a flat but rocky section, through the turn where YaYa was when I’d volunteered, through to the race track, and back to Equestrian and the new location of YaYa. It was a much cooler day and good for confidence building, except he twisted his ankle about 4.5 miles in.
After these two trips, I felt more confident about heading out alone, so I plotted out a 17 mile section that would take me through the rest of the 50k loop used in the race. I started at equestrian, crossed the road to pick the course back up at YaYa, and headed for Lucky’s peak. I got turned around several times before hitting the hill because the trail signs in this sections were all the old trail numbers and not the new names on my park map. Then I made the rookie mistake of turning left after Lucky and had to do it all over again. After that it was over Cairns, then Boyles, then to the Lodge, over to the start area, then up to sky island before coming back around to Equestrian.
Despite getting turned around, doing this section alone really helped me feel better about navigating the trails. By the end, I’d covered the entire 50k loop and had seen some cool things out there.
Three weeks later, we had run Alabama, and my parents came to town for Thanksgiving. I explained I had to go for a training run at Bandera the next day and they decided to go check out the park on their own. (They’ve been camping and hiking all over the US since retiring, so they will happily go for a hike in a new place.) I plotted out 20 miles that combined the 8 mile loop and 12 mile loop from our first two trips. My parents and I went our separate ways and exchanged pictures and updates when we had cell signal. The next day, I went back out and did the remaining 10 miles for a back to back that took me on the entire 50k loop.
Next on the schedule was a 50k in Tennessee 3 weeks out from Bandera. Unfortunately, a family emergency meant that we were unexpectedly out of town for a week. I decided to just do the entire 50k loop on a Tuesday for my longest run and follow it with 20 miles at a local park. The 50k was great. The 20 miles were awful, probably because I picked a park with only 3 real miles of trails (5 if you hop the fence and get creative). I was still worried about running at night, so my last long run was from late afternoon to night at Government Canyon. My fastest mile maybe ever was there when a wild hog ran across the trail behind me. I was still not looking forward to night running, but I was ready otherwise.