It isn’t called the Decker Challenge because it’s a little jog around Zilker Park. Hardly. Decker is absolutely one of the toughest road races in Austin and it’s not for the faint of heart. Decker, the third race in the six-race 2012-13 Austin Fit Magazine Distance Challenge, is a true test of legs, lung power—and character.
Decker isn’t just another rugged, hilly race; it’s also one of the best (and oldest) races in Central Texas. This Sunday’s race will mark the 34th year this oldie but goodie has been held. Although the distances (and race dates) have varied over the years, the one constant has been the venue. Staged at the Travis County Expo Center, east of town, the course is a single loop that goes up and over the long, gradual hills on the country roads that surround beautiful Decker Lake.
For the time being, the sponsoring Austin Runners Club seems to have settled on the half-marathon distance for Decker, rather than 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) and even 12 miles which was in vogue for a bit. The difference between 20-K and the half marathon isn’t really a big deal as it’s only .7 miles longer, but that .7 miles is a devilishly difficult final stretch.
Of course, the entire race is one grinding hill after another. Dealing with the Decker hills, is always the key to running well. After a short downhill at the start on the Expo grounds, the course heads out to Decker Lane for about three up-and-down miles. The hills along this stretch aren’t too tough, but if there’s a north wind blowing on Sunday morning, it can be pretty tough sledding. (There’s a clothing drop at the two-mile mark on Decker Lane.) The 5-K mark is right across from the entrance to Bluebonnet Hills Golf Course.
Once the course turns off Decker at about the four-mile mark, you get a reprieve from the wind as you enter the country roads. This is a relatively easy stretch until about the fifth mile where the real fun begins. The steepest hill is just past the fifth mile, but it’s short and sweet. Most of the Decker monsters are between miles six and 10 with the toughest one in the 10th mile. This hill is the longest climb (maybe 4/10s of a mile). Following that, the course is relatively benign on the run back to the finish outside the Expo Center.
The Decker hills certainly present a challenge, but none are off-the-charts, insanely hard. Mostly, they are gradual grinders that won’t disrupt your rhythm too much. They will certainly get your attention though; grunting and complaining is permitted.
Although Decker isn’t that far from downtown, it feels like it is. There isn’t much traffic to deal with on the country roads (other than a truck or two on Decker Lane), but the weather is almost always a factor. Usually, it’s a combination of strong north winds and bitter cold (with an occasional chilly rain). The forecast for Sunday looks like it’ll be cloudy and breezy but there’s no indication of a cold front sweeping down from the north. Temps should be in the low 60s so hats and gloves aren’t needed.
Although several of Austin’s top age-group runners ran last weekend in the California International Marathon in Sacramento, Las Vegas Rock ‘n’ Roll or are running the Dallas or College Station Marathon, there are usually some of the top runners in town who can be expected to duke it out at the front.
Decker is such a traditional race that a hefty field of about 1500 runners are expected to run the Decker Half as well as another 500 runners and walkers who will be competing in the accompanying Brown Santa 5-K so parking will be a premium on Sunday morning.
Best advice is to get there by 7 a.m. to eliminate any parking hassles. There is plenty of room in the Travis County Expo Center to store your extra clothes.
The Decker Half will start at 8 a.m. The Brown Santa starts 15 minutes later.
Packet pickup for Decker is Friday (11-7) and Saturday (10-5) at Rogue Equipment (500 E. San Marcos). On race day at the Travis Country Expo Center, same-day registration and packet pickup goes from 6:30 a.m. to 7:45 for the half marathon.