More than 1,000 runners from a half-dozen countries and 45 states will take part in the 11th annual Sunmart Texas Trail Endurance Runs.
The event in Huntsville, Texas, 60 miles north of Houston boasts the countrys largest 50K road race and second largest 50-mile race.
Two-time defending champion Vladimir Nunes of Santos, Brazil, will be seeking his third straight title in the 50-mile run, which kicks off at 7 a.m.
Charles Hubbard of Bloomington, Minn., returns to defend his title in the 50K run, which starts at 8 a.m.
The 50-mile run, which has a 12-hour time limit, includes multiple 12.5-mile loops in Huntsville State Park. Each loop includes two out-and-back legs that offer a chance to see the other runners passing in the opposite direction.
The 50K runners, who have a 10-hour time limit, start with a six-mile out-and-back, and then run two of the loops.
The course runs through a forest, but more than half is exposed to sunlight. There are 18 wooden bridges (20 to 150 feet long) on each 12.5-mile loop. The trails often have tree roots and small rocks that can make twisted ankles and/or face plants a possibility for those not paying attention, but the terrain overall is soft and not a major problem.
The event, which began in 1990 with a 50-mile run and marathon race, changed its format in 1993 when the marathon was replaced by the now-popular 50K run. The Sunmart event served as host for the USA Track and Field national trail championships from 1996 though 1998.
A new race director Roger Soler has taken over stewardship of the event.
Soler, a 1984 Olympian from Peru, won the Sunmart 50K event in 1995. He is the current Peruvian national record holder in the 1,500 and 5,000 meters. He won the San Antonio Marathon in 1988, 1990 and 1992.
The call I got from (former co-race director) Terry Matlock was a big surprise for me, said Soler. I was actually very, very excited to be offered a position of race director because I always though the Sunmart event was one of the most fun and best events I participated in my 20-year running career.
Soler last raced in the event in 1996. Since then he has set up his own running store in San Antonio, Texas, and has helped train some other runners, including last years female 50-mile winner Amanda McIntosh.
McIntosh, 34, of San Antonio, was the runner-up the year before in 1998. But with some coaching help from Soler, she won last years race in 7:15:43.
McIntosh will be back to defend her championship in the 50-mile race this year.
The two defending champions in the 50K race are scheduled to compete this year.
Charles Hubbard, a 38-year-old computer consultant from Bloomington, Minn., won the mens division last year in 3:16:11 while Luanne Park, a 39-year-old elementary school teacher from Redding, Calif., won the womens division race in 3:54:14.
Nunes certainly is the headliner of the event. He knocked nearly 20 minutes off his previous time last year in winning the 50-mile race in 5:38:18. Nunes even took a wrong turn at the start of the race following after Brian Teason, the 1997 champion. Both wound up running three extra miles, with Nunes winning the event in 5:59:18.
Nunes has run the fastest 100K on U.S. soil with his 6:22 at the 1995 Helen Klein 100K. He is a former world champion at the 100K with a personal best of 6:18.
With a little more than 1,000 people expected to the event this year, 60 percent will compete in the 50K and 40 percent in the 50-miler.
Soler offered his view on the popularity of marathons and ultramarathons.
I think people in the last few years seem to be looking for new challenges, he said. As a matter of fact if you think you look at the number who compete in marathons has grown because walkers are becoming marathon walkers. It seems that people are getting more and more extreme. People who used to walk a 10-miler are now walking a marathon.
And the people who have been doing marathons for so many years they are looking at the ultramarathons, Soler said. This event is great for first-time ultramarathoners because the terrain is not very difficult. You get out there inside those woods and the footing is excellent. I have told people when I ran in the 50K race in Huntsville State Park it seemed to me it was easier than any marathon I ran.
This really is an event like no other, he said. The runners are treated in a first-class manner. Every participant is treated like a customer. And that slogan is the customer is always right!