February 15, 2014

Cowtown 50K runners choose to push past 26.2 miles

The Cowtown 50K is part of ultramarathon boom.

Duct tape on toes, blister pads and three falls.

Laura Euckert’s first 100-mile race wasn’t easy. But at the Rocky Raccoon Endurance Run on Feb. 1, Euckert pushed through a hot, humid day to finish in less than 28 hours. Four days later, she was at her computer signing up for the Cowtown 50K ultramarathon on Feb. 23.

“Looking for the next fix,” Euckert said.

Euckert, a Fort Worth resident, will be one of more than 500 runners taking on the 31-mile Cowtown ultra, a race that has expanded each year since its debut in 2008.

“That race has the smallest participation of all our events, but it’s the fastest growing,” Cowtown executive director Heidi Swartz said. “People are trying to find a new challenge. There are so many runners who have run the full marathons and the half marathons, and they are looking for what’s next. Since our race is a 50K, it’s just five more miles and they can say that they are ultrarunners.”

Originally, this year’s Cowtown ultra had a 500-person cap. But with the race filling up with several weeks to go, Swartz said she would add 25 to 50 more slots.

“The race has made a name for itself, and people want to come run it,” she said. “Runners get to do most of the course with the rest of the marathoners. They just have a 2 1/2 mile out and back added at the end. And at that turnaround, there is a huge party. The runners can stop and sign a banner. It’s really special.”

Swartz and the Cowtown’s board of directors chose to offer a 30-mile race in 2008 to celebrate Cowtown’s 30th anniversary; 129 runners participated with such a positive response that the race became a permanent part of the Cowtown weekend.

“Cowtown knows what it’s doing,” Euckert said. “I’ve run marathons with the minimum starters and finishers, and I’ve run Chicago and the major ones. Cowtown is spread out enough that you don’t feel crowded. You feel like a face instead of just another runner. Heidi knows almost all of the runners, at least the locals. She makes a point to know everyone. The way it’s growing is phenomenal.”

Cowtown’s 50K distance and urban setting makes it a perfect race for those wanting to run a first ultra.

“It’s another level of running,” said Ray Sgroi, who will take on his first ultra at this year’s Cowtown. “I’ve seen a lot of people training for their first ultra and their first marathon. A lot of friends are taking that plunge.”

While Sgroi finished the New Year’s Double in Allen, a full marathon on New Year’s Eve and a full on New Year’s Day, he’s still anxious about Cowtown.

“Your body starts breaking down at 20 miles, so it’s about learning to keep going,” said Sgroi, who is also signed up for the Austin Marathon on Sunday. “I’m still looking at the ultra and thinking about how it’s a longer distance. I’m still a little intimidated at the extra five miles, but I’m excited.”

Euckert ran her first marathon in Houston in 2008. In 2010, she tackled her first ultra, a 50K in Huntsville. All together, she has run 43 marathons and 18 ultras, including four 50-milers.

“I think running is hitting another boom, another big growth spurt,” Euckert said. “A lot of people find they can have a great social community among runners. I’ve met Marines, engineers, stay-at-home moms and people from all walks of life. The common thread is that we all love running, pushing our bodies. It’s satisfying.”

Euckert recruits ultra runners when she can.

“Give the 50K a shot,” she said. “It’s just five more miles. You can sucker in a couple people, and they’ll try it. And they’ll do well. People see normal working moms finishing ultras, and they think, ‘Why the hell can’t I do it too?’ ”

Sgroi will join that ultra community soon.

“I’ve been taking my training seriously,” said Sgroi, whose wife, Laurin, is already an ultramarathoner. “The running community in Fort Worth is a family, and I know I will have a lot of support on the course.”

During her Rocky Raccoon 100 race in Huntsville, Euckert had to stay strong mentally. With tough weather conditions — hot and humid — 42 percent of the runners dropped out. Euckert, however, decided she wasn’t going to quit. Cowtown’s first-time ultra runners could face similar challenges.

“You never know what to expect going in,” Euckert said. “You just have to go in prepared and with the attitude, ‘I’m finishing.’ There’s comfort in that. But being out there, you hit low spots and have to fight through.”

For Euckert, and many others, the ultra title is worth the sacrifices of training time and toenails.

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