A light rain fell over Southern Texas’ Hill Country State Nature Area as chilly temperatures in the low-40s greeted runners on the morning of Saturday, January 7 for the HOKA Bandera Endurance Trail Run 100K. It was not the most extreme weather the race has ever witnessed, as past races have included sleet, snow, intense heat and even one start with temperatures in the single digits. However, it was enough to make the gnarly, rocky trails slick underfoot and the more runnable sections extremely frustrating with sticky mud accumulating on the bottoms of runners’ shoes.
In true Texas fashion, this is a race that prides itself on participants enduring tough conditions. The race motto is, “No whiners, wimps, or wusses. A trail of rugged and brutal beauty where everything cuts, stings or bites.” So, the show must go on, according to race director, Chris McWatters, who stated, “This race goes off rain or shine, sleet or snow.”
More widely known simply as “Bandera,” the race distances included a 25K, 50K, and 100K, and a one mile youth race for children held over two days. Of the 1,152 registered athletes, there were a handful among the 851 starters who were searching for precious gold out on the course. That treasure was not in the form of nuggets but, rather, in the form of a coveted Golden Tickets to Western States Endurance Run.
Bandera was the first Golden Ticket race of the new year and is one of seven races to offer an automatic entry to the 2022 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run (WSER). The top two finishers in both the women’s and men’s race automatically qualified for an entry to the “Big Dance,” which will take place on June 25-26, 2022. Additionally, any 100K finisher who completed the course in 17 hours or under, qualified to enter the lottery for the 2023 WSER. Traditionally, there is a very competitive field of runners at Bandera in large part due to the WSER Golden Ticket. This year was no exception.
A small field of elite athletes started promptly at the 6:30 a.m. window in order to be competitive for one of the Golden Tickets. Due to Covid precautions from the previous year, the starting format has evolved into what McWatters referred to as, “start windows.” Early in the pandemic, permits in Southern Texas were not issued for groups larger than ten, so McWatters adapted his first Covid-era race when he hosted a 50K event with 400 participants. Groups of ten runners were set off every hour until everyone was on the course. Although the race was a long and tiring three day ordeal for the organizers, it was the only way to hold an event in the time of Covid. It was worth the effort to get back to racing.
After the initial elite start window, participants were able to choose their own 30-minute start window until 9:00 a.m. “It takes the stress out of something [running] that should be enjoyable,” McWatters tells me about the benefit of start windows. “We have a lot of stress in our lives, so if race participants are late to the race or stuck in traffic, they don’t have to stress about being at the start line at an exact time.” He went on to say, “It was a way to keep people spread out due to Covid, I never would have thought of it if it wasn’t for the pandemic.”
Most expected the challenging weather to make for a slower race, however, the elite field proved that theory wrong. The men’s leader, Tyler Fox of Lander, WY, passed through the 50K split in 3:55:35, not far off Jim Walmsley’s 2016 course record pace. The rest of the men’s field were in hot pursuit and all closely spaced at the halfway point, with Adam Merry of Golden, CO (3:58:37), Jonathan Rea of Boulder, CO (4:00:24), Tracen Knopp of Anchorage, AK (4:02:34), Joseph McConaughy of Seattle, WA (4:03:25), David Hedges of Ithaca, NY (4:03:29), and Ryan Miller of San Antonio, TX (4:04:49), all vying for the precious Golden Ticket. Par for the course in these longer, competitive races, the second half shook up the field and took a few casualties, with Merry and Miller both posting DNFs.
The more evenly paced Rea crept into the lead and held on for the win in a time of 8:10:00, capturing his first Golden Ticket to WSER. Fox may have relinquished the lead, but held on to claim the one remaining men’s Golden Ticket in a time of 8:14:53, but had to earn it from McConaughy, aka Stringbean, an accomplished thru hiker and FKT record holder, who was in striking distance the second half. McConaughy crossed the line in 8:17:34. Rod Farvard (Mammoth Lakes, CA) finished fourth overall and had the most impressive comeback second half, considering he had been as far back as 13th place in the first half of the race. Jimmy Elam (Salt Lake City, UT) rounded out the top five in 8:33:07.
In the women’s 100K, there was no doubt who was in control of the race from beginning to end. Marianne Hogan of Montreal, Quebec, Canada took an early lead, passed through the 50K mark in an impressive 4:30:39 and continued to extend her lead as the race progressed. When she crossed the finish line in a time of 9:17:06, she was handed both a Hazy IPA and a Golden Ticket, sporting a smile on her face the entire time. More impressive than her win was her long and injury-riddled road to earn that Golden Ticket.
“Being injured and out of the game for so long has certainly given me a whole new level of appreciation for the sport.” said Hogan. “Just being able to show up to the start line of a race makes me so unbelievably happy, which makes racing easier for me somehow.”
A bad fall on a trail resulted in a spiral fracture of her tibia, which led to multiple surgeries, 14 screws and two plates placed in her leg causing extreme pain while attempting to come back to running. As she slowly came back to running, lack of strength and mobility kept causing her to turn her ankles, resulting in torn ligaments. It was an ongoing struggle for over three years, but her mindset evolved throughout this struggle. “The pressure to perform is less present, because the ability to just be able to have my body cover the distance is satisfactory enough.” said Hogan. When asked what her goal was going into Bandera, she answered, “My first goal was to qualify for Western States (check!). And now my next goal is to race Western states and give it my very best shot!”
As the crowd patiently waited for the next woman finisher, Hogan insisted, “They will be in anytime now, they weren’t too far behind.” That “anytime now” was actually over 32 minutes, when Ellie Pell of Ithaca, NY crossed the line in 9:49:12 to punch the final Golden Ticket of the day. When she was informed that she had earned an entry into WSER, Pell replied, “I don’t think I can run another 40 miles on top of that!” In the end, Pell (begrudgingly) accepted the Golden Ticket. Leah Yingling of Salt Lake City, UT, who was a few seconds ahead of Pell at the halfway point (4:41:23 vs. 4:41:33) struggled in the second half and crossed the finish line in third (10:05:20), followed by Meghan Morgan of Boulder, CO (10:12:52). Brianna Grigsby of Tucson, AZ (10:15:42) rounded out the top five women.
Visible on a lot of runners’ legs, in particular the taller ones, were tiny, blood-producing scratches, as if they had gotten into fights with angry cats. Those dozens of slashes were the “cuts” part of the race motto, “where everything cuts, stings or bites,” and thanks to the beautiful but dangerous sotol, a low-lying, yucca-looking plant with hundreds of tiny spines on their narrow, spikey leaves. Fortunately, the colder temperatures kept away those creatures that sting or bite.
Sunday brought sunshine and warmer temperatures for the 25K and 50K races. A relief to runners who didn’t want to carry around 5 pounds of mud caked to the bottom of their shoes. The warmer temperatures made for a much more festive finish line area. The larger crowd and cowbells greeted mens’ 25K winner, Gate Davis (Boerne, TX) 2:11:32, womens’ 25K winner, Leann Rominger Scott (Leander, TX) 2:24:12, mens’ 50K winner, Kris Brown (Missoula, MT) 3:47:02, and womens’ 50K winner, Klaire Rhodes (Anchorage, AK) 4:28:18.
McWatters was very pleased with the weekend of racing at Bandera. When asked how he thought it all went during another Covid surge, McWatters said, “Really smooth, it was a fun weekend, especially since this race draws people from all over the country and world.”
In an effort to give back to the trails and parks they use for races, McWatters organized what he calls a “Course Preview and Trail work Weekend.” These are weekend events when registered runners come together to preview sections of the race course with local elites, participate in mini clinics, have meals together, and also participate in group trail work at Hill Country State State Nature Area. “It’s our way of giving back to the trails we use and love,” said McWatters. It has become a fun reunion for us here in Southern Texas.”
To all who won the coveted Golden Ticket, we shall “See you at States,” where the weather should be a little warmer.
The remaining Golden Ticket races are:
- Tarawera 102K (New Zealand) February 12, 2022
- Black Canyon 100K (Arizona) February 12, 2022
- The Canyons 100K (California) April 23, 2022
Check out edsresults.com for complete results.
- Jonathan Rea (Boulder, CO) 8:10:00
- Tyler Fox (Lander, WY) 8:14:53
- Joseph McConaghy (Seattle, WA) 8:17:34
- Marianne Hogan (Montreal, Quebec, Canada) 9:17:06
- Ellie Pell (Ithaca, NY) 9:49:12
- Leah Yingling (Salt Lake City, UT) 10:05:20
- Kris Brown (Missoula, MT) 3:47:02
- Erik Stanley (Austin, TX) 4:00:29
- Nate Meiners (Silver Spring, MD) 4:14:10
- Klaire Rhodes (Anchorage, AK) 4:28:18
- Careth Arnold (Sarasota, FL) 4:34:12
- Mireya Vargas (Pasadena, CA) 4:49:36
- Gate Davis (Boerne, TX) 2:11:32
- Drew Rasco (San Antonio, TX) 2:12:31
- Gary Guerrero (San Antonio, TX) 2:19:52
- Leann Rominger Scott (Leander, TX) 2:24:12
- Jen Ohlson (Austin, TX) 2:28:14
- Lauren Howell (Austin, TX) 2:39:37
Even more images by Peter Maksimow can be found on Google Photos.