Piney Woods Trail Fest (50k) – January 30th, 2016 – Lake Houston Wilderness Park – Houston, TX
I’m going to open this race review up with a little background. This is not going to be a good review, as the race was not very good. But before I offer my opinion on the race, I want to give you a little background on what a bad review from me actually means and why I take the time to write a bad review.
As most of you reader’s know, I do not write a lot of bad reviews as it doesn’t take much to please me. Do the basics right, and I’m good. That is why I wanted to preface this review with a little intro. When I write a bad review, it is not a personal attack on the race director. I have friends who are race directors, I see how much work it is and understand how hard they work. It is also not an attack on the race. It is simply my opinion of the race. I write the review first in full hope that the race director will read it, and hopefully use the feedback to improve. If this fails, I write the review to try to sway the consumer to spend their dollars at a more deserving race. So with that…here is the story.
This race seems to be in it’s 3rd or 4th year (hard to tell from website). It is put on by a group called Run in Texas that does a number of races across the state, ranging from 5k’s to 50k’s in distance. This particular race offered a 5k, 10 mile, 20 mile and 50k options. The race took place in Lake Houston Wilderness Park which is located outside of New Caney, TX. It is roughly a 45 minute drive from downtown Houston and takes up the northeast portion of Lake Houston and the surrounding forest. While it is advertised as a “Trail Fest”, in reality, a lot of the race takes place on dirt park roads, not so much on trail. The course is extremely fast – mainly due to the fact that is is very flat and has so many straight sections on the roads. The 50k was 3 10M loops (with a 1 mile correction at the start). Out of the 10 miles, I’d say about 3 miles were actual single track trail. The trails were non-technical with a few roots and rollers. Definitely not challenging to run on. So if you are looking for fast and flat – this is for you. If you want something more “real trail,” find another race.
There were four aid stations that I remember seeing on the course, generally one every 2.5 miles. One aid station was on an out and back so you could hit it twice within a mile. The aid stations were very basic, offering water, electrolyte, and some limited food (at times). I never used the start/finish aid station, so not sure what they had there.
The trails were generally well marked, although I did make 1 wrong turn that a fellow runner quickly helped me with on the 1st loop. The trails also had mile markers for most of the miles, which was somewhat helpful for pacing. The course was pretty much dead on a 50k. My GPS showed 30.74 miles, but it tends to run short on single track trails that have dense tree-over (like these did), so my guess is the course was pretty much dead on 50k.
The race ended with a free BBQ lunch which was pretty decent, and you also could get some free Karback beer. So that was all cool.
I’m going to start with the positives here, as there were a few decent things about this race. First off, they offered free pictures. This is pretty sweet for $75 entry for a 50K. I was able to get 5 or 6 decent photos for zilch, so that’s cool. Second, it was a small race, so parking and logistics were easy. I got to the race 45 minutes early, parked with no problems, grabbed my packet and was able to do my pre-race routine. I heard there were some issues with the address the race provided but I didn’t experience that because I never looked at what address they used (not surprising, see organization in the bad). I just used Google to get to the park. Next, the area of the park they chose to start had some shelters and real bathrooms, so that was nice too. Your entry fee also got you a free BBQ lunch and free beer at the finish, so that was good for the value. Lastly, there were no major timing issues, and they were printing results in a timely fashion for runner’s to see.
The Needs Improvement:
This section will end up a little longer than the good – so I’ll split it up into sections.
The Course: I really wasn’t a huge fan of the course – yes it was fast, but I don’t run trail races to run fast and flat courses. I’m not sure what constraints the RD was under, but I would have loved to run on more trails and less road. Another runner and myself were talking after the race and noted that numerous times we would see signs on the wide park road that said “trail crossing.” We were both curious why we didn’t run on those trails. For a race that advertises itself as a Trail Fest – there was too little trail. I would have loved to run more on the single track portions with a shortened course with more loops. Given the pretty sparse race attendance, I don’t think this would have been an issue if the loop was shortened a bit Again, this is my opinion and I don’t know what constraints the RD was under, but the course was lacking true trail.
General Organization: I never got the impression that things were very well put together. There were almost no pre-race communications. The course was a mystery until we ran it. There were no details provided on how many aid stations there would be or what type of aid they would offer until race morning. The website had sparse information. Runners like certainty and like to plan and this race offered little opportunity for that. It doesn’t need to be a lot of information, but cover the basics a week or two before race day so that people can plan. I also heard they were real loose on the 10 miler start time and did two waves…which is odd since that wasn’t advertised or isn’t common practice.
The Medal: While I’m not a huge medal guy, I do appreciate when a race puts effort into a neat design. The medal doesn’t need to be super special or spectacular, but put a little effort into it in show the runners you care. For some runners, this could have been their first race, or their first trail race, or their first ultra. They probably are looking for something a little better than a $2 medal. I’m not saying we are entitled to better, but some people run races just for the medal. A nice design goes a long way in attracting some runners.
Punctuality: The race started 10 minutes late. This just drives me nuts and shows a lack of organization. Good races start on time (unless there is some major outside circumstance).
The finisher numbers were pretty unimpressive for this race. The 50k had 17 finishers and the 20M had somewhere in the 30’s. This race is tucked into a busy (prime) race season in Houston, so unless it makes some improvements to differentiate itself (and put itself out there) it will probably continue to have low numbers. With a ton of competition out there on the trails, it will struggle unless it rises to the level of other races, or will cease to exist.
Usually I write more here, but there is not much to write. I used this primarily as a training run for the Rocky Raccoon 50 miler. I ran the 50k on no taper and as a finish of a 65 mile week (which is 15-20 miles above average for me). This race had become extra important for training as I had been sick the previous week and missed the Horseshoe 50k due to having the flu.
My goal going in was to finish around 4 hours. With decent weather (temps in upper 40’s at start) and a flat course this seemed achievable. I started out around a 7:40 pace for the first few miles, and this felt easy/good so I stuck there. This was right around PR pace for me…boy would a PR be nice. We opened up with a 1 mile correction and then went into the first of the 10M loops. I came through mile 11 right on PR pace (3:58) and felt good so I decided to kick it up a notch on lap 2. At Mile 13 or so I stopped at an aid station for 20 seconds to refill water and kept going. By about the halfway point my legs felt a bit heavy, so I took one of my caffeine gels. Gave me a kick and I was able to maintain pace. I ran Loop 2 faster than Loop 1, so was still on PR pace at mile 21. Only 10 miles left!
Loop 3 was pretty uneventful. I made an aid station stop at mile 24 for water and a banana. I laid down some 7:30s in the 1st half of Loop 3 so was negative splitting. As I got into Mile 28 where we went back to single track, my pace slowed a bit, but not much. I had one split above 8 minutes for the entire race. I picked it up in the last mile and came in with a new PR of 3:57:21 – besting my prior 50k PR by well over a minute! This was a good training run, which gave me a ton of confidence going into the Rocky Raccoon 50! As always, let’s end with the stats…
Career Marathon/Ultra #43 – 6th ultra, 4th 50k
Marathon/Ultra #3 of 2016 – 1st ultra of the year
50k PR – 3:57:21 – 2nd Overall