Running Together to Heal Together

How Trail Camp provides community and care one mile at a time.

The race started at 5:00 a.m. in Bandera, Texas. A little over 30 racers lined up to run one of the toughest races Texas has to offer: The Cactus Rose 100 miler—36 hours of unsupported trail running across rocky terrain.

As the day wore on, one runner got turned around, went off-course for a few miles, and missed one of the cutoff times 27 hours into the race. After finishing over 75 miles, he wouldn’t be allowed to finish.

His mentor and coach, Liza Howard, had other plans. She wanted to make sure her runner finished 100 miles, even though it wouldn’t officially count. Liza is an ultramarathoner, coach, outdoor educator, and mom, and she set off, totally unplanned, to run the last 25 miles with her runner as volunteers dismantled the course around them.

Liza’s approach to coaching models the mentorship she inspires in Band of Runners, her non-profit organization focused on connecting veterans and surviving family members through trail running. Band of Runners provides a community for military members who may feel isolated after returning from active duty.

“The reason I started running was to deal with PTSD because of some experiences as a medic in Iraq,” said one Band of Runners member. “Dealing with depression and the … problems eventually changed when I started trail running and I looked as those problems as lessons. I tried to look at them in a more positive way.”

Band of Runners began when Liza recognized the powerful mentorship opportunity that running brought in her own life. She first discovered trail running during one summer while working as an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS).

Running with friends from NOLS staff, they pushed Liza to run distances that kept growing and growing. 5K. 10K. Half-Marathon. Marathon. 50K. 50 miles. 100 miles. Soon enough, she was pretty good at going the distance.

As Liza gained more recognition after winning the Leadville 100 in her division, and after running in more ultramarathons, she started to transform her running endeavor into giving back. “Running is a selfish endeavor,” she said. “It’s something that takes a lot of time. Eventually, you want to make your running useful to other people.”

Through her trail running connections, Liza got connected with Team Red, White, and Blue (RWB), a group that focuses on enriching the lives of America’s veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity. Having grown up in a military family, Liza thought, “I did not serve, so how can I be of service?” That question became a mantra that led her to try to design a different experience for Team RWB.

She ended up creating “Trail Camp,” a yearly camp focused on teaching veterans and surviving family members about trail running techniques and plugging them into the trail running community.

As Trail Camp grew, Liza decided to form a new non-profit called Band of Runners to work alongside groups like Team RWB to host these trail running camps all over the U.S.

When Liza looked for new places to host Trail Camp this past year, she came across the H. E. Butt Foundation Camp, which offered an experience close to home while also providing great and challenging trails for trail running. She also loved the seclusion of the area in the Texas Hill Country.

“It’s important that we they don’t have internet, that we don’t have cell reception,” she said. “It’s lovely, it already makes it feel like an expedition. …so we take away a lot of things that happen in their normal life, change the context, which allows them to look at things a bit differently. It’s liberating in a lot of ways.”

Additionally, Liza is excited to share Texas with people who don’t realize how beautiful and how challenging it can be for trail running. “If you run here, you can run anywhere,” she says. “Our hills are not big, but as far as technical, we are well setup. That, plus a ‘fairly angry plant environment’, make a community that can pretty much hang with anything!”

The tight-knit community shares tips and tricks and offers veterans and surviving family members an opportunity to connect and be mentored within an activity that they love. Every year at Trail Camp, some of the best ultrarunners in the U.S. explain what works for them and how they pushed through tough times during races.

Running is hard. It takes dedication, discipline, and mentorship. But going through your daily life without a core community is tougher, and Band of Runners has sought to provide that community to veterans and surviving family members through trail running.

“What happens with the energy here,” said one Band of Runners member at Trail Camp, “it’s transferred not just with running but with so much of everyday life. I had a lot of emotions [returning from active duty], and I didn’t know how to process that stuff. But when I became such good friends with a lot of you here, and you all email, call, and text me, and my phone was going off and I thought: ‘You all really care.’ ”

More from this issue

Calling Us to Know Our Neighbors

Recapping a lunchtime conversation on hunger and poverty that we hosted in October.

The Climb of Their Lives

Kids from Perez Elementary in Austin encounter themselves in the outdoors.

Binding Together for a Better Community

These six San Antonio organizations are helping bring wholeness to Central Texas.

What We Learned When We Asked About Your Community

Peek at the results of a survey we sent out and what your answers are telling us about the work ahead.