The story of long-time trail race directors and trail runners Joyce and Joe Prusaitis is as much a love story as it is a story about trail running. It was love and running that led them to each other, to co-founding one of the USA’s earliest trail-race companies called Tejas Trails, and to making a lasting impact on the Texas trail community.
The couple’s shared journey began at Lady Bird Lake in Austin, Texas, in 1992. The trails, paths, and green space around it attract thousands to run, walk, and recreate daily in downtown Austin. Joyce, then 35 years old, and Joe, 37, hadn’t yet met when they both independently decided to run their first-ever 26.2-mile race: the Austin Marathon. Soon after, the duo noticed each other running laps on the footpaths around Lady Bird amidst the sea of people using the urban park. Joe’s training buddy vied for Joyce’s attention, but Joe’s approach was more subtle and they started chatting about their training schedules.
“We weren’t looking for romance when we met,” says Joyce. At the time, Joyce was a busy single mom who fit in few miles each day. “Then, for our marathon build-up, we both ran a local 5k,” she continues. “We were goofing off together at the race, and that’s when my crush began. I still have a crush on him today.”
Just two months after they met, Joe told Joyce he would marry her one day. “It was pretty bold of him,” remembers Joyce. They tied the knot two years later. Now, 27-some-odd years after it all began, they’ve collectively crossed the finish lines of hundreds of road and trail races.
“As hard as we’ve always worked, we work very well together. That perfect balance is what made Tejas Trails,” says Joyce about the trail running and ultrarunning events company they founded in 2001. At the outset, the couple never envisioned launching a full-time business from their passion project. But Tejas Trails filled a niche they found was desired in their running community, and which led the business to become a pioneer in the then-nascent industry of trail-race companies.
Even their entrance into trail and ultrarunning was unplanned. Joyce was healing from a stress fracture, which inspired them to train in the woods—on softer ground—rather than on the road. Other runners on the trail asked Joyce and Joe if they were training for an event, which is how they discovered the very existence of a trail-racing world. Back then, in 2000, few to no websites and no online entries existed for the sport’s gatherings. Word of mouth was the best if not only way to discover an event. Joyce started with a 50k while Joe trained for a 50 miler.
As the couple met more trail runners, they formed a friendship network and became a social glue in the community. They decided to organize a multi-day fun run for friends, which was hosted at Hill Country State Natural Area with a cabin rental and just a handful of folks. Runners at the grassroots get-together asked the Prusaitises to coordinate a formal race. To start, they launched an unsanctioned, unpublicized fat ass with 25 runners. Then they created their first formal race, in 2000, and the number of participants more than quadrupled for that run. This was the inaugural 100-kilometer Bandera Endurance Trail Run.
“We call it our hobby gone wild. We had a passion for running, and we stumbled into trail running by accident. Our passion was divided between our personal goals and sharing these experiences with other people,” Joyce says.
Joe was a software engineer by trade. He easily adopted the organizational and technological tasks involved in their passion project that would become Tejas Trails. “Joe is a wizard on the computer, so he created the website and kept everything in order. I was the emotional, mushy side. I gave out hugs and took care of people at the aid stations,” says Joyce, who was a working as a clinic coordinator for an orthopedic surgeon.
Liza Howard, a San Antonio-based ultrarunner, Sharman Ultra coach, NOLS Wilderness Medicine instructor, and iRunFar columnist, has run and volunteered at a number of Tejas Trails events over the years. About these experiences, she says, “It was like being at a large family reunion. You wanted to be part of their family whether that meant marking the course, working an aid station, running the race, or cleaning up after it was all over. Joe’s matter-of-fact, no-nonsense vision of trail running grounded their races. And no one is sweeter or more skilled at smoothing ruffled feathers than Joyce. Helping them at a race was like watching a master class in working with and communicating with your spouse. When I ran one of their races, I always wanted to make Joe and Joyce proud. You knew they would rejoice in your success.”
The pair was raising a family of six kids–Joyce and Joe each had three children from respective previous marriages–and financially their only initial goal with Tejas Trails was to not pay for the races out-of-pocket. Joe would order high-quality t-shirts for participants, and the race fees barely covered all of the expenses. Their kids, friends, family, and volunteers all played roles on-the-ground at the races. They didn’t hire any employees.
“We liked working. We were comfortable with full plates, and we seemed to roll with it all just fine,” says Joe, who was juggling international projects as an engineer at Motorola. Beyond his work and his own running and racing, he was also a co-race director and on the Board of Directors for the Austin Marathon, and he created and organized a local trail running club. Within a few years, the Prusaitises also adopted the then-10-year-old Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile and 100k from the race’s founder and first director Mickey Rollins. Let’s just say that things escalated quickly in terms of the duo’s leadership in both the road and off-road running communities.
When Joe was laid off from his job in 2004, he was surprisingly stoked. “I didn’t want to work in a cubicle again for the rest of my life,” he says, so he decided to become a full-time race director. He fine tuned and rounded out a business model that could earn a profit and support their family.
“I created one race a month for the rest of year, and then kept adding races,” Joe says. He started consulting and race directing for other race brands, and got involved in USA Track & Field (USATF) and trail running clubs. “I needed to learn as much as possible, so I got involved in every part of the community that I could. I jumped in,” Joe says.
Tejas Trails expanded with the Cactus Rose in 2006, followed by Wild Hare in 2009, Nueces in 2010, Pandora’s Box of Rox in 2013, and Mellow Paleface in 2015—to name only a few of Tejas Trails’s events. The company evolved to include 15 trail running races, a handful of which have been or are part of national-level series and championships, such as the Hells Hills 25k as part of the now-defunct La Sportiva Mountain Cup and the Bandera 100k a part of the Montrail Ultra Cup which has now evolved into the Golden Ticket Series. Growing the business into diverse running communities from around the nation and abroad was intentional and helped to change the sport as we know it today.
“I was trying to grow a business and make money. I was traveling all over country, becoming really good friends with other major races and race directors. We got to know each other. I was creating circumstances to get their racers to come to our races: I gave out comped entries in other cities, states, races, and clubs that I was joining all over the country. I was doing grassroots marketing without knowing what I was doing,” says Joe.
Over the course of two decades, Prusaitises’ drive led them to direct more than 100 races. At its peak with the pair at the helm, Tejas Trails served around 5,000 runners a year. “A couple of years after we started the company, our accountant was laughing at us, and said, ‘I have never met anyone that was so shocked to make money when they start a business.’ It just kept growing,” says Joyce.
And so did their love of trail races. For two decades, they did all of their ultrarunning training together. After his first year of ultra races—two 50 milers including the Sunmart 50 Mile—Joe ventured into the 100-mile distance. Joyce paced Joe for second half of his 100-mile races, which he consistently ran, while she preferred the shorter ultras and marathons.
Says Joe, “I always liked camping and the outdoors. Doing trail races didn’t overwhelm me. Back in those days, with less internet and information online, it was hard to find out about races, but I went looking for them. My second year, I did four 100 milers, and then did all the crazy stuff—the Barkley Marathons, Hardrock 100, and Badwater 135. I was running these really long races and running long on weekends and busy with kids all week. We weren’t traditional trainers. We just did what made sense for us.”
A few years ago, Joe, now 64, and Joyce, 62, retired and sold Tejas Trails to Chris and Krissy McWatters. Chris had experience as a race director and had raced at Tejas Trails events for years, including a number of top finishes. For a year-long transition, the Prusaitises race directed side-by-side with the McWatterses.
Today, Joe and Joyce still volunteer at the Tejas Trails races, and Joe consults for Tejas Trails as well as other races out of state. “I’ve learned to let go of directing. I love crewing for Joe and watching other people direct races,” says Joyce.
Though the pair has stepped back from race directing, they’ve also moved forward into other leadership roles and interests. Since 2012, the pair has worked with Liza Howard and others to put on the nonprofit Band of Runners trail running camp. About this, Liza says, “The purpose of Band of Runners is to welcome military veterans into the trail running community and share the physical and psychological benefits running in nature provides with them. What I wanted to share, fundamentally, was what Joe and Joyce had created with Tejas Trails. They inspired the project, and they guide it now.”
Joe is still running everything from half marathons to 100 milers–he ran 21 trail races in 2018–but has retired from high-altitude racing and almost exclusively participates in close-to-home races. Joyce has stepped back from trail races and reacquainted herself with another life love, owning and riding horses.
But Joe and Joyce aren’t ready to retire from their annual tradition of the Austin Marathon, the event that started it all in terms of their shared life path as well as their journey in growing the Texas trail running community. “I’ll run the Austin Marathon with no training, because that’s what we do every year,” says Joyce. “I have a gratitude for the gifts we’ve been given and we learned a lot through Tejas Trails and are trying to take advantage and appreciate the time we have right now.”
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
Now for the fun part of telling Joyce and Joe Prusaitis stories! Did you race a Tejas Trails event while they were its owners? Have you run in the same event as one or both of them? Are you a part of their trail family? Leave a comment to share your story.