There's no question we're entered the heart of the racing season for Central Texas runners.

We crossed through the gateway to the marathon season with the Rock 'n' Roll San Antonio Marathon on Nov. 15, and we have four more marathons in the next 100 days: Dallas White Rock (Dec. 13), Houston (Jan. 17), Austin (Feb. 14) and Fort Worth (Feb. 27). And throughout this stretch, there is a smorgasbord of different race distances and difficulties to test all kinds of runners.

On Thursday, for example, there is the annual Thundercloud Turkey Trot, an Austin favorite. The five-mile race starts at 9:30 a.m. in Waterloo Park, and it finishes there. Five miles is a good distance to run a hard "tempo" run before resting up for your weekend long run.

Expect huge crowds, and fast times for the winners. Last year, Bernard Manirakiza posted a 24:33 to take the men's race. Chris Kimbrough ran 28:43 to top the women's field. Visit www.thundercloud.com for more information.

The Spicewood Vineyards Half-Marathon and 10K on Dec. 5 is a new event that looks interesting. Beginning at 8:30 a.m., runners follow an out-and-back course that rolls along scenic farm roads west of Austin. Both the half-marathon and the 10K start and finish at Spicewood Vineyards in Spicewood, off Highway 71. See www.runintexas.com for information.

The Decker Challenge Half-Marathon is one of the oldest races in Austin, and a classic marathon training event. Scheduled for Dec. 6 at 7:30 a.m., it's the fourth race in the Austin Distance Challenge, and known as one of the toughest races in town.

Based on a training route for University of Texas cross-country runners, there are no flat stretches on the rural course surrounding the Travis County Expo Center: you're either running uphill or downhill. The hills are long, although they are not overly steep. Most runners can maintain a good pace along the course. For the truly durable, a "Double Decker," the full marathon distance, is also being run. See www.austinrunners.org for information.

Esmeralda's 5K & 10K is a low-key event (Dec. 13 at 9:30 a.m.) that offers a scenic, rolling course. Starting and finishing at the Austin Tennis Academy, the courses wind their way through residential neighborhoods. See www.esmeraldasrun.org for information.

Running 20 miles can be a lonely grind, so what better way to get some company than to compete in the RunTex 20-miler on Jan. 10? As race number five in the Challenge, many runners use it as an up-tempo long run as they enter the final training phase for the Austin Marathon.

Starting and finishing at Georgetown High School, the loop course runs along rural roads east of I-35. Although not difficult, the course is unprotected and subject to winds. See www.runtex20miler.com for information.

The last race in the Challenge before the marathon, the 3M Half-Marathon (Jan. 24), is known as one of the fastest half-marathons in the country and attracts an international field. Starting on Stonelake Boulevard in North Austin, the 13.1-mile, mostly downhill course drops to the finish Waterloo Park by 15th Street. While some runners shoot for personal bests in the half at 3M, wise marathon-bound runners like to hold back because the Austin Marathon follows in three weeks.

Upcoming events

Saturday

Lights Spectacular 5K, 3 p.m., Johnson City. Call (512) 577-4833.

Friday, Dec. 4

McDonald's Lights of Love 5K, 5 p.m. at Mueller Hangar. See www.rmhc-austin.org/events.

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