Zilker Trail of Lights fun run

A lot has changed in Austin during my 30-plus years here, but the Zilker tree endures as one of the last vestiges of “old Austin.” Spinning under the tree every Christmas Eve remains one of my favorite holiday traditions. I wrote about its history in 2012 when we ran the Trail of Lights 5K back in 2012, and I still think it’s one of the coolest things about this city.

I am less enamored with the Trail of Lights, also called the Trial of Lights or the Trail of Headlights, depending on whom you ask and how long they’ve lived here. Across Barton Springs Road from the tree, it’s got millions of twinkly lights and dozens of cute displays, but it’s crowded and kitschy and loud. This year it has a musical stage, food trucks, beer/wine/liquor booths, and a carousel. Last year the city erected a Ferris wheel next to the tree, clashing with its traditional ambiance. The complaints were loud and many, so this year they relocated it to the Trail site as well, along with ATMs to fund your food truck and bar trips, plus the $6 rides. It’s the polar opposite of the classic, elegant Zilker tree.

And in 2012, when we ran the 5K, it was a disorganized mess of walkers starting at the front, unlighted sections of road, non-race participants wandering in front of runners, and general chaos. Nevertheless, when a friend asked if I wanted to join her for this year’s fun run (no longer an actual 5K) I agreed. The race was under new management via the Trail Foundation, and I’d heard the last couple of years it had improved. I figured it’d be fun to run with her, so I signed up.

We parked some distance away (race organizers wanted $15 for on-site parking) and walked over to the park. People were decked out in elf costumes, Santa hats, and all manner of lights. In the dark, what we initially thought was a lighted stroller that resembled the outline of someone’s backside bending over actually WAS someone’s backside bending over to help a kid tie a shoe.

It was cold, but the large crowd of people bunched together under the tree helped keep us warm. We were handed glow sticks on a string (a random kid asked me how to make it light up–I had to explain how to bend it until it cracked. What are parents teaching their kids these days??) and made our way to the starting area.

Pretty much all along, we said we were just gonna run easy and have fun. It wasn’t a race, per se. No timing mats, no mile markers. But I realized that when you give me a race number, my brain pretty much says “Go!” and I want to run it to the best of my ability.

Unfortunately this was a philosophy that clashed with most of the people lined up near the front of the starting area. We jumped in somewhere in the middle, but we kept seeing people dressed for a walk in the park rather than a race. Which is fine, but we weren’t the only ones planning to run it, and we were trapped behind people wearing jeans, boots, and parkas. We moved as far forward as we could, not because we’re fast and competitive, but because I didn’t want to run over toddlers by accident.



It turned out to be a pretty good strategy. The first hundred yards or so were chaotic, trying to dodge all the walkers and small children, plus faster people coming from behind us. But it thinned out pretty quickly, and we had more room to maneuver.

We ran westbound through the park, then looped back toward Barton Springs pool. I’d brought a flashlight, but it was reasonably well-lighted back here, unlike the 2012 race.

We turned down into the pool parking lot, behind the hillside theater. There was actually a water stop back here, but we skipped it. It was 50-something degrees, and we’d only run maybe a mile. We were good.

As we came up out of the pool area toward the tree and the trail, the crowd picked up. Since maybe 50 people had started in front of us, and we’d passed the walkers and boot-wearers, we could only figure that these folks (some weren’t wearing race numbers at all) skipped the first mile and just jumped in for the second half, the part through the actual Trail of Lights. Banditing a charity event to get their kids in before it opens to the general public? Yikes.

Anyway, we meandered along, not racing but maintaining a decent pace. This stretch followed the same road as our least favorite section of the Zilker Relays, which we’d both run in 2014. It was nicer this night, with colorful lights and tinny holiday music rather than torrential rain and oppressive humidity.

We weren’t all the way through the trail (where was the blue-star tunnel?) when we saw the finish line ahead. G kicked it into high gear and I followed. By my Garmin, we finished 1.88 miles in 21:58. I’d run ten miles that morning and she hadn’t been running consistently, plus we dealt with the crowds at the beginning, so we were pleased with ourselves.

We wandered around, taking some pictures and checking out the booths and the food trucks. One of them was giving away beer! The restrooms were heated trailers rather than basic port-o-potties, and the enormous Yule Log blazed as well. Beyond the carousel, we found the blue-stars tunnel. We realized that because we’d finished before most people, we had much of this area to ourselves. I managed a picture of the completely-empty tunnel!


Now that we were done running, we started to get cold so we checked out the vendors to see if anyone had hot drinks. It looked like more than 100 people waited in the free beer line now! Another line, for Clif bars, was almost as long. I could understand waiting in line for free beer, but Clif bars? They taste like cardboard. As G said, why not skip the line and eat your race bib?

We scored iced coffee and donut holes, but nothing warm. Lots of people clustered around outdoor heaters; others went inside some of the larger tents to warm up. After wandering around a bit more, our hands were freezing and the crowds were building as more people finished the run/walk/bandit, so we headed toward the tunnel of blue stars and the path back to the car.

And to all a good night.


8 thoughts on “Zilker Trail of Lights fun run

  1. This race course sounds beautiful! It’s a shame it was so overcrowded with kids and walkers (this is a pet peeve of mine while racing because I always am afraid I’m going accidentally crush a child). That race shirt is super cute!

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    • I know. We’d just barely started and nearly ran into a woman holding hands with a kid on either side, kind of tippy-toe jogging. The kids looked like they were maybe four? So they were struggling to “run” and took up half the road, right at the start. I was afraid the crowd would shove me into them. I totally don’t mind walkers and kids, but for the love of chocolate, start further back!


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