Trail Runners Take on the Dark Side with Capt'n Karl's Race Series

Night trail series poses new challenge for runners



Many runners in Austin start out on the crushed granite of the Roy and Ann Butler Hike and Bike trail around Lady Bird Lake. It’s a wonderful pathway, well maintained and clearly marked, consisting of a variety of loops from 5K to ten miles in length. It’s easy to train for just about any road race in town on the soft surfaces of the trail.

Some runners, however, find they have a desire for a less maintained trail. These runners migrate toward Austin’s variety of more natural pathways, and many are happy with the twists and turns and water crossings that make up the Barton Creek greenbelt, a seven-mile point-to-point strip of green through the heart of the city. Some elevate their trail experience to the next level with races, which take runners to new locations and (despite some entry-level events, which may be 10K or 30K in length) into the world of ultra running, which is technically anything longer than the 26.2 miles that make up the marathon (“old school” trail runners, however, will say that you’re not an ultra runner until you’ve gotten your first 50-miler under your belt). And when the mileage creeps up, sooner or later trail runners find they must run at night.

Capt’n Karl’s Night-Time Trail Running series is a wonderful way to experience the world of trail running at a variety of distances and locations. This four-race series was named one of the top 32 trail events in the United States in Runner’s World’s special publication on trail running (Spring, ’11), along with such stalwarts as the Western States Endurance Run (100 miles, from Squaw Valley to Auburn, California): “[Capt’n Karl’s is a four-event series] held in the heart of Texas Hill Country, and each of the races is run primarily on scenic single-track [trails] and starts after 7PM on a Saturday night to avoid the wicked summer heat.” Each race has an option of three distances (10K, 30K, and 60K) at a variety of beautiful locations. The first two, Pedernales Falls (June 23) and Mule Shoe Bend (July 21), are returning events, which have been run since 2009. The final two, Colorado Bend (August 11) and Reveille Ranch (September 1), are new locations and runners will be experiencing those parks and trails for the first time.

But anyone who has looked at the race logo and thought about the name has at some point wondered, “Who is Capt’n Karl?” The answer to that question touches the heart and soul of trail running and illustrates the sense of camaraderie and family that permeates the world of ultra running.

Brad Quinn lives in Horsehoe Bay with his wife, Nyla, and four children (two boys and two girls). He’s an accomplished ultra runner who is a member of Team Traverse, a running club whose “goal is to support elite endurance athletes who share similar interests of ultra running, camaraderie, travel, competition, and philanthropic endeavors.” Back when Quinn was new to competitive ultra running (and new to Texas; the Quinns moved here in 2000 from Green Bay, Wisconsin), he ran the Relay for Life in Burnet, a national team endurance event that benefits the American Cancer Society. While Quinn was running around the high school track that night, an idea formed: “If I’m going to do a run at night, wouldn’t it be nice to do it somewhere fun?” Shortly after, he ran the Rocky Trails marathon and loved the location, the rocky granite boulders and wooded trails of Inks Lake State Park. The race director, Sam Voltaggio, though, was stepping down and 2005 was to be its last year. “I didn’t know anything about race director etiquette,” recalled Quinn, laughingly, but he stepped in with the idea that he wanted to take on this event as a way to pay tribute to his father-in-law, Karl Lembke, who had recently been diagnosed with lung cancer. Lembke had worked in construction and cattle ranching, and when he retired, he bought a boat, eventually sailing from Maryland to Galveston when the Lembkes moved to Texas. That’s when he picked up the nickname “Capt’n Karl.” “[My father-in-law] was a great guy, very gregarious. Outdoorsy but not necessarily athletic,” remembered Quinn, “and so doing a trail race, what with the sense of camaraderie that goes with the trail running community, seemed like a perfect way to celebrate his life.” And so Nyla and Brad Quinn founded the Capt’n Karl’s Night-Time Trail Run.

The first year of the event, 2006, Quinn modeled Capt’n Karl’s after Relay for Life. There were two nighttime runs of six- and 12-hours, and the winner was whoever covered the most distance in that time. The race logo came from a 30-year-old caricature the family had, and a subtle nautical theme for awards was chosen to further salute Capt’n Karl. Lembke enjoyed the festivities but, sadly, he died six weeks after that first race, succumbing to cancer at the age of 70. His wife, Eloise, took up painting to keep herself busy and found a talent which translated to the race; she created the artwork for the 2007 race awards and those thereafter, always keeping to a nautical theme in Capt’n Karl’s memory.

Quinn has used the race as a fundraiser for a variety of nonprofits. “We want to spread the money around as much as possible,” he explained. The first year, a donation was made to the American Cancer Society, the group that originally sparked Quinn’s idea. For a few years, Cuisine for Healing, a nonprofit organization based in Fort Worth whose mission is to “make nutritious, delicious food readily available to people combatting disease while providing education about the power of healing food,” was the race beneficiary. The trail running community is small and tight, and choosing Cuisine for Healing was personal. Kyle Wilkie, who manages data collection and event timing, is currently on Cuisine for Healing’s board and his sister founded the organization. Last year’s race donation was made to the Phoenix Center in Marble Falls, which provides free after-school programs as well as therapy for children with behavioral or emotional needs.

Over and over, Quinn talked about the feeling of family he associates with the event. Friends Joe and Joyce Prusaitis came on to help co-direct the race, making the event a joint project between Team Traverse and the Prusaitis’ company, Tejas Trails: “The race has brought the four of us together; we’re very close,” explained Quinn. The Quinn’s four children (ages 4, 6, 7, and 10) help out with everything from registration to working aid stations to course marking and tear down. “This is a great way to promote family and keep their grandfather’s memory alive,” said Quinn.

Capt’n Karl’s has changed from the original format of a timed event to a multi-event format of three races of 10K, 30K, and 60K. There’s no longer an event at Inks Lake, and the series has grown to four races at a variety of beautiful and challenging sites. What hasn’t changed, though, is that trail runners come to enjoy running through the night, sitting afterwards to eat burgers, share a cold one, and swap stories while waiting to cheer in the last runners. Every race starts with a few words about the event’s namesake and ends with a beautiful testament to Capt’n Karl and his family in the form of Eloise’s artwork. And every year, the smiling face of Capt’n Karl on the event logo welcomes new and experienced trail runners to the dark side of trail running.

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