Cactus Rose 100 Mile | Texas | October 25, 2014
Messin’ With Texas
By Gary Dudney
Race Director Joe Prusaitis makes no bones about the nature of the Cactus Rose 100 Mile Run. His website intro page warns, “No Whiners, Wimps, or Wusses : A nasty rugged trail run,” and the first line of the race information page reads, “WELCOME…to the Texas Hill Country: where everything Stings, Scratches, or Bites.” I wondered if this was fair warning or overcooked hyperbole.
The race unfolds on a tract of land called the Hill Country State Natural Area just outside the hard-scrabble town of Bandera (“Cowboy Capital of the World”) about an hour’s drive northwest of San Antonio. The park has a stark, Texas beauty about it. There were fields of high grass backed by rolling hills and mesas, woodland areas full of oak and bushy green junipers. Surprised white-tailed deer occasionally leapt off the trail into the forest. Coyotes howled in the evening. Rabbits were everywhere near dawn, and I saw one animal slink off as I approached. It could have been a lone coyote or a fox, but my best guess, a bobcat.
The course is a 25 mile loop run four times alternately clockwise and counter clockwise. Concomitant 50 mile and 4×25 mile relay races pack the trails with runners and give the hundred milers some much needed distraction. There were four aid stations out on the loop, stocked with water and ice, but a unique feature of this race is that runners are expected to provide all the rest of the support they need. The process of planning out your food requirements, distributing drop bags, coolers and supplies to the aid stations ahead of time, enlisting a crew and just mastering the logistics of the course is all part of the challenge and impacts your chances of success on race day.
With a cool five am start on a cushy jeep road through an oak forest, it seemed like all the “Whiners” and “Wusses” talk might be a lot of hoo-ha, but the Texas hill country soon began to show its teeth. When the route turned hilly, we found that all the slopes were jumbles of loose rock. The exposed limestone surface must be in a constant state of breaking up so loose, trip hazardous rock was everywhere. The climbs weren’t much affected but there was no way to relax and run downhill. Much of the treacherous descents had to be picked down in a slow walk.
Then there was the Texas Sotol, the Dasylirion texanum, of the Agavaceae family, which looked like a yucca with long radiating spiny leaves. It was growing everywhere. An entry in Wikipedia on the Sotol notes that “the leaves have dangerously sharp spines or teeth along their margins, so they must be planted away from pedestrian areas unless they are used for security barriers.” Here in the Hill Country the Sotol was growing right over the trail. In fact, sometimes pushing through the stuff raking your thighs through the spines was the only way to continue. I noticed some locals would hold their hands up before going through the Sotol like they were surrendering to it. I soon found out why. The points of the spines would find your hands if you had them by your side and either cut them like a razor or give you an electric needle poke in the finger.
Between the tripping hazards and the slicing Sotol, seeing blood all over people got to be commonplace, yet on this race day, the hill country had a special treat for us, temperatures that soared ten degrees above normal into the nineties, which just jacked up the stakes on all the other hardships of the dry, largely exposed course.
Loop Two, miles 25 through 50, was solid, brutal heat that burned away a good portion of the original field of 86 runners or saw them go on to heat induced nausea and the inability to eat that eliminated them later on anyway. The finish rate dropped below half to 47%. The night at Cactus Rose, however, was definitely a treat. With nothing but a sliver of a moon to light the sky, the stars hung low and bright. Arriving in the middle of the night in the dead quiet at a deserted aid station was also a unique thrill. Yes, the hubbub of an aid station can be invigorating to a tired runner, but it turns out a peaceful interlude with a few moments alone sitting down and facing only your own thoughts and pains was also a good way to get some perspective. “You’re not dead yet,” I told myself.
Tackling this race solo–no crew, flying into town, buying and putting out all your own stuff–is a tough slog. I misjudged things badly so that I rarely had food when I really needed it, and I had little ability to adjust once I was in the race. But Texas was full of the kindness of strangers so I found people who could time my naps, heat up some water for soup, help me out with directions, keep me on track, offer rides if I were to drop, lend me a chair, and offer some badly needed encouragement. But definitely try to bring a friend to help if you’re coming from out of state.
Another hazard for a newcomer was the final five mile stretch to the finish. In the heat of Day 2, I was reduced to a walk which stretched out the miles interminably. When I started hearing people cheering for the finishers, I was infinitely relieved, but after a while the noise faded and died out. The trail left the forest where I knew the finish stretch was and I convinced myself I’d gotten turned around and was headed back to the last aid station. I sat down. I started yelling in hopes someone was nearby. I cursed every new hill I had to climb. I racked my brain for some clue as to what to do. But I pushed on holding on to the one piece of evidence I had, that I should have met someone coming the other way if I’d really gotten turned around.
What I never thought to do was to check the trail map that I had in my pocket that would have clearly shown me that in that five mile stretch you pass right by the Start/Finish but you were only about halfway to the finish at that point. Of course finding myself at the last unmistakable turn to the finish brought me the kind of joy one only experiences when a very bad ultrarunning situation suddenly gets resolved for the good.
Everyone should get to Texas some time and test themselves against the Cactus Rose 100. Beat the hill country, beat the self support requirement, beat the heat and the Sotol, and you’ve really earned yourself a buckle.