Racing the Rock
Up for a challenge? This event takes racers around and through and up Enchanted Rock.
By Kathryn Hunter
I wake up before light to coyotes yipping.
My head’s buried in my sleeping bag, and it’s a struggle to navigate my way out, much less find the alarm on the floor of the tent. I shut it off, but the noise continues, to my bewilderment — oh right, I set two. To the relief of the campers who aren’t signed up for the race (and at this point wouldn’t mind seeing my head on a stake), I locate the second alarm, pack up camp and wheel my bike down to the start.
This is not a typical race morning.
Glow sticks light my way as I shoulder my bike down the last quarter-mile of dirt path to the group pavilion. I’ve got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. The Rock closes in on my left, looming large and dark. The worst part, the absolute worst part, of race day is this calm before the storm.
Oh buddy, I think, this is going to hurt.
Enchanted Rock, rising 425 feet above the surrounding landscape like the smooth, partly submerged shell of a giant turtle, is a place that inspires the imagination. For roughly 11,000 years, people have been drawn to its granite slopes, leaving behind legends of spirits, visions, battles and gold.
Designated a state natural area in 1984, Enchanted Rock remains a magical, wild setting, though today visitors are more likely to arrive in search of a good picnic spot than mystical guidance or mineral wealth. And yet, even in the modern, civilized soul, the Rock awakens a spirit of adventure.
Since 2009, the Enchanted Rock Extreme Duathlon, hosted by San Antonio-based company Redemption Race Productions, has been held in Enchanted Rock State Natural Area the last weekend of March. A run-bike-run event, it consists of a 5-mile run on the Loop Trail, 16-mile bike on FM 965 and 1.2-mile scramble straight up the Summit Trail to the top of the Big Rock.
According to popular lore, Capt. John C. Hays of the Texas Rangers traveled part of this route in 1841. Separated from his scouting party, he ran to the summit to escape a band of Comanches, and from that position was able to defend himself against their attack until rejoined by his men. But try it for yourself — that is, running to the top of the Big Rock — and you’ll be more inclined to call the story a tall tale. Sure, the fabled Capt. Jack could single-handedly fight off a group of hostile Indians, but sprinting up a near-vertical incline? No doubt he would have figured it’d be a better idea to stop and try to reason with them.
Nevertheless, the Erock Du’s 175-participant limit always fills well in advance, and many of the same competitors return, year after year, to do it again.
What Is Multisport?
Although there’s no “typical” distance or course for a duathlon, if you were to describe the average race venue, Enchanted Rock State Natural Area wouldn’t be it. The setting presents a number of challenges — park entry is limited, parts of the course are remote and inaccessible by car, the weather and streams are unpredictable, race-day parking is located half a mile from the race start, and the finish is essentially on top of a mountain, which requires a creative timing solution or hauling up 50 pounds of equipment by hand.
But where multisport events are concerned, a quest for the ideal often takes precedence over logic and reason. Multisport is still growing by leaps and bounds, though even at the highest level there’s little profit in winning. In triathlon, a combination of swimming, biking and running, the most publicized and prestigious event is the Ironman world championship in Kona. The winner receives a payout of $110,000. By comparison, the winner of the U.S. Open takes home $1.44 million, and the top 50 golfers in 2010 each made at least $1 million in prize money. The majority of professional triathletes and “age groupers,” though perhaps some of the best all-around athletes in the world, compete more for the sake of meeting personal goals than for fame or money.
Currently, duathlon, a term used to describe any run-bike-run event (a swim-bike-swim is called an “aquabike”), receives even less recognition than triathlon. Unlike triathlon, there’s no Olympic competition or televised duathlon event. The competitors you’ll see lined up at the Erock Du’s start are there because, believe it or not, this is what they like to do for fun.
The 2011 Race
Capt. Hays would have been 24 when he ran up Enchanted Rock. In 2009, I had just turned 25 when my husband, Jack, and I first raced the Enchanted Rock Extreme Duathlon in its inaugural year. It was my second-ever multisport event, and in hindsight, the place where I really fell in love with duathlon and cycling. Jack and I have been back every year since.
In 2011, race day was the same as it had always been. The transition area and race start are located at the park’s pavilion, down a trail from the main parking lot.
For the competitors, part of race-morning prep is getting body-marked — volunteers write each competitor’s race number on his or her thigh and age on the calf. Since awards are given for male and female age-group winners in addition to the overall winners, this allows participants to determine whether another person is their direct competition during the race.
Robert Harder, the most “mature” participant at 70 years old, doesn’t have a single person in his age group at the 2011 race, but for many competitors, knowing they’re being passed by someone born in 1940 is enough motivation in itself to pick up the pace.
“I love beating the 50- and 60-year-old guys,” Harder says with a grin. Though he began competing in multisport four years ago, he explains that he’s been running half-marathons and marathons for nearly 30 years. “When my kids got older and I was no longer involved in all of their sports, I was able to contribute more time to myself and became more active.”
Harder says he’s beyond trying to set a personal best these days. Like most of the other participants lined up at the start, he’s here for the challenge and the camaraderie. But there’s also a contingent of athletes vying for the first-place finish. Members of the Tri-Sition Area team, ATC Racing, Texas Iron and the Aggie Triathlon Team are in attendance, as well as coach and former professional triathlete Jamie Cleveland, who won first overall at the race in 2009. While Harder is guaranteed to win his age-group trophy, a plaque set into a polished piece of local granite, the rest of us are surveying the competition and wondering how we’ll stack up.
But when the gun goes off at the start of the first run, there’s no more time to think. Within minutes, the race becomes a long, single-file line, the gaps between competitors widening. The 5-mile Loop Trail circles the base of the Little Rock, skirts the Moss Lake primitive campground behind the main dome and then returns just to the east of Freshman Mountain, crossing a series of rolling hills and several dry, rocky streambeds. The scenery is rugged and beautiful throughout, and it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine the sound of soft moccasins and unshod horses in pursuit just behind.
But when the run is finished, the scene goes straight from Western movie to Star Trek. In the transition area, the fastest competitors take off their running shoes, don their aero helmets and mount aerodynamically engineered carbon bikes with race wheels. The 16-mile bike course, which follows the highway just outside of the park for 8 miles east and then returns along the same route, will take most riders 45 to 65 minutes to complete.
Drafting is not allowed, so rather than a Tour de France-style pack, competitors are spread out along the length of the course, each settling into his or her individual pace.
Completing the bike portion is both a blessing and a curse. When competitors reach the transition area and put their bikes back on the racks, there are only 1.2 miles remaining to the finish, but this includes a 425-foot rise in elevation in the last half-mile. Also, where this steep section begins, there’s a timing mat marking the start of the “King of the Hill” competition, a race within the race to see who can make it the fastest up the final slope.
Race director Brian Schmidt’s motto for the Enchanted Rock Extreme Duathlon is “No Whining,” and the climb up the Summit Trail certainly puts this edict to the test. Even walking to the top of Enchanted Rock can be a challenge at the end of the race. Cleveland, who at the 2011 race finished first overall as well as King of the Hill, is one of the few who can run the whole way.
But the challenge of the setting, along with its beauty, is what makes this race so appealing. Given the length and remoteness of the course, Schmidt does not recommend the event for those with no previous race experience, but otherwise, all ages, abilities and genders are welcome, and all seem to enjoy the course equally. Whether you have one multisport event under your belt or a hundred, after 22.2 miles of racing through and around and up this famous Texas landmark, taking in the view from the top is an experience that’s sure to make the legend of Enchanted Rock part of your own story.
Enchanted Rock’s Allure
Enchanted Rock SNA is one of the most visited parks in Texas.
“It seems like everyone who doesn’t go to the beach ends up here at the Rock,” park Superintendent Ray Sierra says. “The name Enchanted Rock has an allure to it. It brings folks out here to see what makes the place so special. And it’s a special place for folks who’ve been out here before, too, people who’ve been here as kids and are back today with their kids.”
Sierra says he welcomed the idea of holding a duathlon at Enchanted Rock because it would introduce the park to a new type of visitor. And he’s not alone in his support of the idea. Multisport, cycling and adventure racing have found homes at other state parks, including Huntsville State Park, Bastrop State Park, Palo Duro Canyon State Park and Tyler State Park.
So, while a lot has changed in the 170 years since Hays’ famous ascent of Enchanted Rock, it can also be said that the sense of exploration lives on. Our state and national parks are our last piece of the Texas frontier, so it’s only fitting that in a place like Enchanted Rock, you should find both endurance athletes and day trippers testing themselves against the granite slopes for a glimpse of not only what lies in the distance, but also what lies within the deepest part of themselves.
I slowly inch my way up the Big Rock, wheezing like an asthmatic moose. A woman along the trail takes pity and urges me on. “Only a quarter-mile to go!”
“Only?!” I think. “Are you kidding?!”
The mountain is so steep that I can’t see the finish line. After each rise I think it’s the end, but no, there’s another, and another and another.
By the time I see the flags, I wonder if my vision is failing, but they’re no mirage. The final 50 yards to the finish are, ironically, flat. I can’t muster a spectacular sprint to the line — I’m officially cooked — but I’ve made it. Happily belly-up on the granite, I feel as if I’ve just bested Kilimanjaro.