Saturday, August 13, 2011

Lost in Texas

When I think of Texas, I think of cowboys and guns and George W. Bush, not trail running. So when I registered for a conference in the capital of the Lone Star State, I wasn't too excited about the trail running possibilities, especially as the event drew nearer and the weather forecast called for temperatures in the mid 100's. But after digging around on the internet, I found that Austin is actually something of an urban trail running hot spot, with an impressive selection of trails right in the city. So I decided to get up very early one day to do some exploring.

The hotel where I was staying was located right on Town Lake, which cuts through the middle of Austin and has a very popular jogging path around its entire shoreline. My plan was to follow this path for 3 miles to the Barton Creek Greenbelt, Austin's largest natural area, and then run up the first 3.5 miles of the 8-mile Barton Creek Trail. This seemed like it would make for a nice 13 mile round-trip run that would sample Austin's finest trails.

Map of my planned route (in blue) and unplanned detour (in orange).
At 5:30, I was on the trail and the weather was already uncomfortably if not miserably hot and humid. The sun was still a long way from coming up, but the city lights provided enough light to make out the trail and jog at a steady pace. Soon I passed under the Congress Avenue Bridge, home of over 1 million Mexican free-tailed bats. They emerge as a group each day at dusk to find their dinner, and watching them from the bridge was pretty awesome. It was a little unnerving to run beneath their roost at night, but I hardly even noticed them besides their squeaking.

Austin skyline before dawn.
After crossing the lake on a pedestrian bridge, I took a left-hand turn and started following Barton Creek. This creek is fed by some large springs that pump out 68 degree water year round, and the people of Austin wisely built a huge pool to take advantage of this. There were already quite a few people there swimming laps when I ran by before dawn, and I figured I might want to stop for a swim on the way back. Unfortunately, I would not pass this way again.

Soon I came to a sign marking the start of the Barton Creek Trail, and I made my way up the increasingly rocky path as the first hints of light began to appear in the sky. The trail closely followed the creek, which was bone dry above the springs and flanked on either side by steep slopes littered with bleached white boulders. Though the urban sounds never quite disappeared, it otherwise didn't feel like I was running through the city- quite nice.

The main trail was very wide and had good footing, but in the dim light I kept accidentally veering off onto narrow, rocky side paths. Now I love me some good single track, but I wanted to finish the run before it got hellishly hot, and I didn't want to slow my pace too much. I eventually came to a wide path that crossed the creek, and remembering that I would need to make a crossing at some point, figured this was the main trail. I followed it for a while, but the trail became gradually less distinct and more rocky, eventually leaving me picking my way through a boulder field in the dense, scrubby forest. This was definitely not the main trail.

Cliffs above Barton Creek.
At this point, it seemed my best option was to just run up the dry creek bed, so that's what I did. I actually enjoyed this quite a bit at first. The relatively flat bedrock provided good footing, and the large boulders in the creek and impressive cliffs on the left bank provided interesting scenery. However, the bedrock soon gave way to stretches of loose gravel and jumbled boulders, and the going became really tough. This was more than I had bargained for, and at this point I just wanted to find the real trail, which I thought was to my left, on top of the cliff band.

Eventually I came to a break in the cliffs, and I decided to climb up in search of the trail. This was no monster hill and I'm no stranger to climbing (I had just run Escarpment for Christ's sake), but it was steep and the weather was starting to get sauna-like. The sweat was pouring off me when I emerged at the top to find a lawn and some buildings, but no trail. Damn it. After some wandering and looking around, it became clear that I really was lost, and as disappointing as it was, it seemed my best option would be to abandon the trails and find my way back on roads.

Looking back across the Barton Creek Greenbelt from "The Compound"
First, though, I would have to find a road. I thought this would be easy enough, but soon it became clear that I wasn't in somebody's yard but some kind of weird compound that vaguely reminded me of the Dharma Initiative from Lost- kind of creepy. I eventually found a driveway that led to a busy street, and I hopped a gate and booked out, happy to have escaped the compound without having been shot or abducted.

Luckily, the street I found was a main boulevard heading directly back into the city, and I could see the downtown skyscrapers ahead of me to confirm that I was going in the right direction. The rest of the run was pretty dismal- a long slog past strip malls and gas stations in the blazing heat- and I sweated an absurd amount. I felt a little self conscious but very relieved when I finally dragged my tired, sweat-drenched body through the hotel doors and felt a blast of frigid air. Those Texans know how to crank the AC.

Town Lake
 So in the end I learned something from this run: don't go for a run at night in a strange place without a map, especially when the weather forecast is for 105-degree heat and 80% humidity. I'm sure Texas has some great things going for it, but I think I'm all set after this trip.

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