3 Reasons Not to Run the Cactus Classic Half Marathon Trail Run in Central Illinois

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The Illinois state conservation area called Sand Ridge State Forest contains over 7000 acres of open fields, sand prairie, and pine woodlands. Its trails are beautiful and exotic for Illinois, lined at points with hardy Prickly Pear cactus and populated by wildlife more associated with the southwest than the midwest. The Cactus Classic Trail Run in mid-March is tempting for those training for a spring marathon, but there are several reasons NOT to try this challenging half marathon yourself. Here are the top three reasons.


Perhaps my husband and I were too complacent. We had never before gotten lost on the way to a race. Despite a lifelong familiarity with central Illinois, we managed to get lost three times in Mason County and arrived at the Cactus Classic Trail Race start line with only five minutes to spare. We thought we had departed early enough to make the start time with ease.

On this particularly lovely spring morning, our map reading skills were called into play as never before, because we used scenic back roads to drive from McLean County to Mason County. At first, we thought our confusion was just the result of misreading a few turns of the map. But as we jumped out of our car at the Oak Campground with only moments to spare before the starting gun, we started hearing stories about how others had also become lost while driving to the race site. Perhaps this race should have been renamed The Brigadoon Cactus Classic!


Before we even signed up for the Cactus Classic, we heard that runners had gotten lost in previous years on the serpentine trails of the Cactus Classic. However, the race director said that he was always careful to mark the trail with lots of flags, markers, and bright orange caution tape.

We were eager to start the race despite our last-minute arrival. Our running buddy Jeff was waiting for us in the small crowd of marathoners and half marathoners at the starting line. There were 23 full marathoners and 41 half marathoners lined up for the chilly 9:00 a.m. start. The race director repeated his directions about following the bright orange plastic caution tape marking every turn of the course. After a few final words of caution, the starting gun went off.

The race course had two distinct personalities: 1) sections of dense pine woods which shaded dirt paths thickly covered by layers of pine needles, oak and hickory leaves, and 2) open, hilly sections of rolling sand prairie of such depth it made running treacherous.

At frequent intervals, the course would divide and dart into the woods, making it difficult to know which path to follow. But as promised by the race director, bright orange plastic tape was draped like Christmas bunting on the trees at every turning point.

After the first couple of miles, the crowd of runners thinned out, I lost sight of my husband and our friend Jeff, and I was running on my own for the most part. With no one ahead of me to follow, I had to keep my eyes open to spot the orange plastic markers to stay on course, but I had no real concerns. I never felt lost.

Such was not the case for my unfortunate husband. Unknown to me, he missed a marker and took a wrong turn about halfway through the course. Several other runners behind him did the same. They all wound up running an extra mile or so before they figured out they'd lost the trail, and they then retraced their steps as a group and got back on course. Later we learned that two female half marathoners who finished ahead of me had taken a wrong turn at some point, crossed the finish line without going the whole distance, and were disqualified.

While my husband was running down the wrong side trail, I passed him without realizing it and kept on running. It was a beautiful, sunny day for a run in the woods. When I got to the finish line, I was startled to see no sign of my husband! Only our friend Jeff was there in the crowd of 10K runners and faster half marathoners, waiting patiently for the two of us to finish.

Jeff and I grew a little concerned as we watched five other runners cross the finish line in the next 15 minutes, with no sign of my husband. Jeff mentioned that he himself had fallen down while running through the deep sand, and I wondered if Ken had done the same and twisted an ankle. Or perhaps he had become entangled in one of the fallen trees that had blocked the course. Manoeuvering my own tired legs over the dead trees had been a little more treacherous than I expected.

Finally, after almost 15 more minutes had passed, I saw Ken's familiar figure approaching us at a good pace. He was clearly uninjured. After crossing the finish line, he told us his tale of misadventure on the wrong trail. Without realizing it, he had become the "poster child" for what NOT to do during a trail run!


How could a forest in Illinois boast so much sand, cactus, and pine trees? The area is the result of a prehistoric dry period when more desert-like conditions existed in Illinois. The forest has many flat, extremely enjoyable stretches of trail (44 miles in all) that make it wonderful for hikers as well as runners.

After the race, however, all I could remember was the sections of rolling sand dunes. Even though I wore "trail gaiters" over my shoes to keep the sand out, the sand still crept into my socks through the mesh of my shoes' toeboxes. Worse still, the sand was so deep it was difficult to get traction while running up the steep hills, causing numerous runners to slip to their hands and knees while trotting along. These sandy sections were covered with straggling, creeping dead vines in late winter that tripped your feet, and scratchy dead plants that cut your lower legs as you passed.

Almost as bad were the downhill sides of the woodland hills, covered with dry, dead leaves that were very slippery and gave no traction. Unlike many other runners that day, I didn't once trip and fall. But most treacherous of all was the lower leg muscle pain that we both experienced the next day. All of our "stabilizer" ankle and leg muscles that helped keep our balance in the deep sand were stretched, sore, and screaming in fatigue for the next three days.

And yet, despite these three reasons, I finished first in my age group and was the second female half marathoner to finish the official race course. Will I run this half marathon again next year? You betcha! Who knows, maybe next year I'll get to the start line sooner, my husband won't get lost, and we'll both be better prepared to run faster and smarter in 2013.

Ramona Swanberg runs marathons, ultra-marathons, and half-marathons for fun and fitness. Twenty years of running on the solitary prairie trails of Illinois has given her lots of time to think about running. Find a wealth of running tips and sports watches at http://www.therunningpath.com.

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