Trail Running in Texas & beyond

Cactus Rose 50

There are certain courses that fit your eye.  Cactus Rose is one those races with the plentiful single track over rough terrain.  I came out to do the fun run distance while many friends got serious and stepped into the 100 mile distance for the first time.

Race Summary

Leading into this race, I was rested and as healthy as I have been in some time.  A recent job change threw my running schedule into disarray.  The madness of the taper leads one to question everything leading up to race do so being well rested somehow was bad thing.

A cold front blew in the day before leaving us with near perfect temperatures in the mid-40s at 5 am when Joe sent us off on our day’s adventure.  I settled in behind Josue and Derek as we made our way to Lucky Peak.   Lucky is just a little taste of waits you on the back half of the loop but it is early and technical trails are fun in the dark so we hike up and over it without much thought.

Early in races, ultra runners are a chatty bunch.  We spend so much time training alone, races are like reunions where everyone catches up while passing those early miles in the dark.  We are in and out of Equestrian in no time and we are on our way to the field.

Picture by Brian Kuhn.  Me, hanging around before the start and staying warm.  Forgot my contacts so I was running with glasses for the first time for a long time.

Start to Equestrian:  4.5 miles / 44 mins / 9:46 pace.

While the cold front brought rain throughout the region, it seems the park itself was spared the majority of it.  With decent rain, the field becomes mired mud that doesn’t let go of your shoes and follows you around the course making the ledges treacherous.  With the mud, the field is uneventful and a section to get a new groove going.  We chatted along with Josue sharing some details of the insane sounding race he is putting in Nicaragua called the Survival Run ( which is sorta like a Spartan Race but crazier.  One obstacle includes having to run with a live chicken and that may be one of the easier ones.  The field leads to another section which is pretty easy to manage, especially going clockwise as the course slopes gently down hill and before long we hit the Nachos aid station where I quickly add some water to my pack.

Equestrian to Nachos:  5.2 miles / 48 mins / 9:14 pace.

The sotol increases as our little pack works through series of false fronts leading up to Ice Cream Hill.  A few people a head are having trouble picking their way through the trail.  The challenge here is that there are multiple ways up to the peak.  There is really no wrong way but unless you’ve out here before, it can be disconcerting as all you see above you is a warren of washouts and sotol.  The pack spaces out a little bit coming off Ice Cream Hill only to gather back up some as we approach Equestrian for the second time.

Nachos to Equestrian:  4.8 miles / 48 mins / 10:00 pace.

The only thing the race directors promise is water and ice, the rest is up to you.  This is fine by me as I rarely touch anything on the aid station tables and stick with whatever I’ve packed myself.  It removes uncertainty and I can race knowing what works based on training.  Before the race, I mapped out a rough guide to when I was going to be where and my wife was going to meet me at the Equestrian aid station with re-fueling supplies.  Turns out I was off by about 25 minutes and I got there just before she arrived.  Luckily I had plenty of food with me to make it the next ten miles.  This is where my habit of overpacking paid dividends.

More fantastic photos by Brian Kuhn.

The next 10 miles represents the nasty section of the loop.  Rocks, hills, sotol, repeat.  My plan was to proceed at a measured pace.  The best part of this section was sunrise while passing under Ice Cream Hill on my way to the Sisters.  Brian Hopton-Jones passed my after having having a few detours near the peak Ice Cream and we had a nice chat as we cruised into the Boyles aid station.

Equestrian to Boyles:  5.5 miles / 63 mins / 11:28 pace

Brian was quick through the aid station and I was left to climb Boyles alone.  Boyles isn’t a hard climb, it just lingers with a few false tops before a steeper descent.  I was feeling great at this point and energy levels were great.  When planning out my nutrition strategy, I realized that I could use the markers of interest and the peaks along the course as a great reminder of when to eat.  Many of the peaks are about 2 miles part so it works out nicely.

At the top of Cairns I started to get cramps in my calves.  It totally caught me by surprise.  Reflecting about it now, I think I had an electrolyte imbalance with too many in my system to go along with the sustained effort.  I was talking gels every 20 minutes but for some reason I popped an Saltsick cap about 45 minutes before. I need to do the math on the gels I was taking, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I need to find gels or fuel that have less electrolytes in them (I like real food when I train but sometimes it is too hard to eat on the go during a race).  The twitches in the calves were noticeable most if I pushed off on my toes but worrisome, they migrated to my quads as I descended Cairn’s and made for the turn around point.

Boyles to Lodge:  5.0 miles / 58 mins / 11:36 pace. 

End of Loop 1:  25 miles / 4h 21m / 10:26 pace

I spent a few minutes at the turnaround spot gathering myself, getting supplies and muttering a few words of complaint about the cramps.  However, I was thrilled with how the race was progressing.  My pre-race expectations was around a 10 hour finish and the race plan had my at 4:45 for the first loop.  I’ve been out to Bandera enough to know that it cares not for your plans and expectations but you have to have a plan to get you started.  Now, here I was at the half way point and I felt great except these little twitches of the leg, surely those will pass.

Loop 2 is the same as loop 1 but in reverse.  That makes the Cactus course not a loop race for the 50 mile distance but an out and back.  It also means that those 10 miles of hills you stumbled down from have to be revisited right away.   On the bonus side, you get to see all the runners coming in to finish their loop so there was tons of opportunities to say to friends, many of whom were doing 100 mile version the run.

Lodge to Boyles:  5 miles / 63 mins /  12:36 pace.

The climb out of Boyles up Big Nasty and to Sky Island did my legs no favors.  I like the hills and generally consider that an area where I can do well but not today.  Uphill require being on your toes and bit and down hills work the quads.  The 5.5 mile between Boyles and Equestrian stretched on and on and came to a head as I hit the FUJI climb up the Sisters.  On this short but very steep climb, both quads simply locked up.  I would take a step, wait for the muscles to relax, then take another.  Several runners had caught me on as we approached FUJI and they hiked to the top before I was 15 ft into the climb.

Somehow made it up and over the Sisters and as I headed up the 6 trail, some nice words of encouragement from Thomas Orf dragged me into Equestrian.

Boyles to Equestrian:  5.5 miles / 80 mins / 14:32 pace.

I think my wife was a bit worried as she sent me back out for another 10 miles before I’d see her again.  I tried to get in and out in a reasonable amount of time and not wallow.  Leaving Equestrian is a nice flat section.  The problem was that I should shuffle but I tried to run, the legs would immediately cramp up.  This was frustrating since I felt fine otherwise.

Walking out of Equestrian aid station and refilling the pack.  Picture by Brian Kuhn.

From previous runs out here, I have developed a “personal relationship” with the climb up Ice Cream Hill going in the counter clockwise direction.  The approach pitches up and down before you hit a set of ledges.  At this point in the race, they required the use of all my limbs to scramble up.  Perhaps it was the overriding my other senses, but Ice Cream didn’t mentally scar me as much as previous ventures out there.

In my mind, Nachos is just on the either side of the hill but in reality it is closer to 1.75 miles and while the trail smooths out and works its way downhill, I wasn’t making good pace.

Equestrian to Nachos:  4.8 miles / 62 mins / 12:55 pace

By this point, there wasn’t too many people to be seen on the trail.  I kept playing leap frog with the same two guys as we traded off walking and running.  Miguel who was running his first 50 miler and Henry from Ecuador.  Both very nice with Miguel providing the smiles.

This section is an area I’ve only seen in the light once before so it felt foreign to me.   As I slogged my way through this section I pondered how Joe moved hills over here since the morning.  I surely didn’t remember this section being downhill on the way out.   It seemed that worst of the cramping was over but in their place were trashed legs, I still felt fine on energy but still couldn’t push the pace without some seizing up.

Expectations have a funny way of warping your perspective and well-being.  Prior to the start, inform me that I was on pace for sub-10 hours with 10 miles to go, I would have been pleased.  But after the solid first loop, my goals reset and now I was clearly falling way off those.  I started to wonder just long I would be out here.  The mid-race goal was long gone, sub-10 seemed like a long shot, would 11 hours now be in play?  It was the lamest pity party ever. Trashed quads and calves while on a 50 mile fun run, doesn’t even rate with anything serious.

Nachos to Equestrian:  5.2 miles / 64 mins / 12:18 pace

I rolled in to the finial aid station ready to be done.  I offered my half-hearted complaints to Larry which, rightfully, fell on deaf ears.  I knew that this final section was deceiving.  It is a gentle upslope for about 2 miles before a series of rollers take you to Lucky Peak but once you to Lucky it is nasty, but short, climb and then downhill to the finish.  Not too long after leaving the aid station Hilario cruised up behind me.  I was quite surprised to see him since I figured he would have well ahead of me.  We chatted and I mentioned something about my fading goals and he said, “if you follow me in, we’ll break 10”.  That woke me up since I pretty had come to terms with not meeting that goal.  While I was running with a watch, I had it in a mode where it the screen was blank to prevent me from obsessively checking the time and pace while running.  I clicked it over to another mode and saw that I had about 45 minutes to break 10 hours.  My new goal was to get to Lucky by 9:40.  I knew if I could do I could probably make it under 10.

I couldn’t keep up with Hilario but he words of encouragement refocused me.  The rollers were still annoying and seemed to drag on as I played leapfrog with Shaheen Slatter who turned out to be the women’s leader.  She was battling a twisted ankle so the rocks and hills were giving her trouble while the flats were causing me more trouble since I couldn’t open up a stride.  I came off the peak and marshaled the legs for some of my best running since loop one.

Equestrian to Finish:  4.5 miles / 52 mins /  11:33 pace

Final Time:  9:53:42 / 11:52 pace / 12th overall. 

Full results

Finishing.  Picture by my lovely wife.


As the week has worn on, I’ve become more content with the race but still believing that better races are to come.

Research says that cramps are primarily the result of over extension of effort and those with cramps often have high electrolyte levels.  I’ll go with that for this race.  I sure didn’t feel like I was over extending myself during the first loop but the times seemed to indicate that I was moving at good and faster than previous race’s pace.  I definitely looked like I had too much salt / electrolytes in the system as my shirt was crusted with the excess expelled.

My training leading up to this race was fairly good but I am still reasonably new to running and my average weekly mileage isn’t all that high.  In the the couple months leading up to the race I averaged in the mid-40 mile per week range but over the summer it was closer to mid-30s  I really struggled all summer to get runs in longer than the upper teens.  My focus since the spring is to make sure that quality workouts are maximized and easy workouts means easy.  That approach seems to be paying off so the method leading up to Bandera will be to up the mileage a bit while keeping the quality high.

My only regret for the weekend is that I wasn’t able to stay until the next day to see David J, Peter, Chip, Ben, David Z, Nancy, among the many other 100 milers cross the finish line.   The best stories play out in the late hours.  They are all amazing and continue to be an inspiration to my running.

David Jacobson flashing his 100 mile buckle and DFL award (setting the record for the fastest DFL at Cactus Rose). Scott Smith who paced David home those final 50 miles.  Picture by Brian Kuhn.

Upcoming Schedule

  • Bandera 50k
  • Heading up the Nature Center aid station at Rocky Raccoon.
  • Nueces 50 mile.  I’ve been eyeing Nueces the past 2 years before I even ran my first race.  The location looks amazing and the course looks rugged.

After Nueces, I’ll probably run Hells Hills 25k for fun and look for a mountain race early summer.

4 Responses to “Cactus Rose 50”

  1. ben martinez says:

    Great report!!!
    Looking forward to getting in a long run w/ you in the Austin area soon.

    • admin says:

      Also love having you up here so come up anytime. There are still plenty of trails around town I haven’t shown you yet.

  2. Ben,

    Congrats on an incredible 50 miler on that course! And thanks for the kind words. I look forward to running many trails with you for years to come. 🙂


  3. Nick Gault says:

    Great report and race, Ben. I, too, was surprised at the difficulty of loop two vs. loop one. I definitely remember thinking, “That hill wasn’t there this morning!” Congratulations and good luck tackling that mess o’ rocks in January.