Night Sweats: A Marathon…IN THE DARK!

My big goal this year…

Wait, what I meant to say is:

My BIG goal this year is to run a one hundred mile race (November 4th, Rio Del Lago) and I’ve been doing a lot of reading on how to have a successful hundred.

One tip I’ve seen written about frequently is: be ready for a long night.

If you run a 100 miles you WILL run through at least one full night. Sunset to sunrise.

Unless you’re Killian Jornet.

(Hint: I’m not)

Toward that end, I thought that running a marathon that starts at 8pm, after the sun has set, would be a good way to get a taste of what an all-nighter on the trails would be like.

So I logged onto to Ultra Signup and registered for the Night Sweats Marathon, put on by Pacific Coast Trail Runs (PCTR). This would get me about 5 hours of night running in a true race setting. A completely new experience for me.

As a bonus, there would be actual hundred mile racers competing on the same course at the same time (doing the same loop, washing machine style). I would get a preview of what I might look like after 15+ hours of running.

Race day dawned and…there wasn’t really anything to do. I slept in until 9am, had a leisurely breakfast, drank my coffee from a regular mug while sitting at the dining room table…

This did not feel right at all.

Where were the butterflies? Where was the rushing out the door at the crack of dawn to make a 7am (or earlier!) race start?

What to do…

Should I go for a shakeout run? Should I crash on the couch and binge watch something on Netflix?

I decided, instead, to treat it like a regular rest day. I just lazed around the house for the most part, took a nap around 4pm, ate my pre-race meal at 5pm…I left the house at 6pm feeling excited, but slightly befuddled.

This still felt really weird.

I got to Rodeo Beach (AKA the start) with plenty of time to collect my race bib & my event shirt. I wandered back to the car and took my time getting ready. At 7:45pm, the race director called us marathoners together for some pre-race announcements.

This is where I realized that PCTR is run by one cool hombre.

The very first thing he did was to say, “I need you guys to really amp up the energy level tonight. We have some badass 100 mile runners out there who are 15 hours into their race and they are tired. You will see some zombies out there and I need you to really bring the energy and encourage them in their amazing effort!”

How cool is that?

Then he said, “Okay, let’s talk about your race. It’s dark, it’s foggy, but the course is marked really well, so just trust your instincts out there. Now raise your hand if you’re one of those people who get lost, like, all the time.”

A few hands shot up.

“Okay, everybody else take note of who raised their hands and DO NOT FOLLOW THESE PEOPLE!”

Hilarious.

It wasn’t long before we were lined up at the start. Because the 100 mile race was a 25 mile loop (25×4=100), we marathoners would be doing a short out and back on the road to make up the extra 1.2 miles. The RD counted down from ten to one and we shot off down the road for speedy first mile.

I felt good. I felt loose.

I knew that as soon as we left pavement and hit the trail we had a 900′ climb. Including some stairs. I hit that first hill and dropped into a power hike.

One very interesting thing I quickly learned about running unfamiliar trails in the dark and fog: you can’t really see whether the trail is going up or down…you have to feel it. From the minute we hit the first hill, the race became very intuitive and I was forced to be in the moment.

My race plan was pretty simple:

  • Power hike the steep inclines
  • Run with control on the steep descents
  • Push the tempo on anything remotely flat
  • Tell EVERY 100 mile runner and pacer “Good job!”

I hit the first aid station at Tennessee Valley (Mile 5.0), feeling strong and having nailed my race plan. Needing nothing in the way of aid, I said a quick “thank you” to the volunteers and hurried on my way. There was a long flat section here and I tried to make the most of it.

Not long after, I caught up to a couple of other marathoners who seemed to be setting a similar pace. They would pull away a little on climbs (they ran them all!), but I would catch them again on flats and descents. We ran together all the way into the next aid station (Muir Beach, Mile 9.0), which was at the bottom of a long descent.

While I grabbed a quick cup of electrolyte, they seemed to be settling in for a longer stop, so I continued on without them. The trail out of Muir Beach was a long (and I mean LONG) climb back up. I hiked the entire way.

I was still feeling good, feeling strong, but starting to have a little stomach distress. Nothing serious, but I was definitely paying attention to it. While I have never vomited during a race, it crossed my mind that maybe, worst-case-scenario, it might happen.

I ran mostly by myself for a long time, other than passing the occasional 100 mile racer. It felt like I must have said “Good job!” to most of the field!

Soon I was cruising back into the Tennessee Valley aid station (Mile 13.3). I stopped long enough to top off my water bottles and thank the wonderful volunteers for hanging out on a Saturday night to keep us fueled. Then it was time for another extended power hiking session, about 700′ of climbing in a mile.

It was here I passed a 100 mile racer wearing a jester hat and a matching running skirt. He was also carrying a train whistle that he blew every time he passed, or was passed by, another runner.

#TrueStory

Once I reached the top of the climb, we hit a long descent. I stayed in control, but tried to push the pace when it made sense. My stomach was hurting a little more, so I tried to keep on top of my fluid intake and hope for the best. I ran up a short climb and found myself in a small stand of Eucalyptus trees that was a little spooky in the dark and fog.

It was not long after this that I took a wrong turn.

I ran past some obvious course markings at a junction of several trails and was confident I had taken the correct turn.

A few yards later, I passed through a gate that didn’t have any course markings on it.

“That’s odd,” I thought, “if it were me, I would’ve put a couple ribbons on that gate.”

A little while later, as I ran uphill through the thickest fog of the night, I started to think “man, sure has been a long time since I’ve seen a course ribbon.”

Then a little while later the trail dead ended at a tall fence with a strong “Keep Out” vibe.

I looked right. No ribbons, no trail. I looked left. No ribbons, no trail.

Hmm…maybe that gate I passed didn’t have a ribbon for a reason…

I was about to turn around when I saw a really cool snake curled up in the middle of the trail.

“Well, Mr. Snake. I’ve clearly gone the wrong way.”

When I returned to the trail junction where I took my wrong turn I was startled to see how incredibly well the turn was marked…maybe I was more tired than I thought?

I was, at this point, quite angry and discouraged. Part of me wanted to quit running and walk for a long, long time. Part of me wanted to quit all together. I was getting tired, I was getting sore, my stomach was still bothering me, and it seemed incredibly unfair that I now had to run extra mileage.

But after a few miles I realized that this was a good thing! In getting lost, I learned some valuable lessons:

  1. Pay attention! Especially when there is a junction in the trail.
  2. It’s not the end of the world! I probably lost 5 minutes total, no biggie.
  3. Something unexpected WILL happen at night. How will I react?

In the end, I added about a half a mile to my night, which I guess makes this an unofficial ultra marathon?

Anyway, I put my head down, kept running, and I was rewarded by a brilliant view of the Golden Gate bridge. And not just any view. The trail was descending directly toward the bridge. Eventually we curled under the bridge itself and ran into the next aid station, aptly named Golden Gate (Mile 19). It was stunning.

From reading about 100 mile races, it seems that every one of them has an aid station that is party central. Well, Golden Gate was clearly party central.

There was a half drunk glass of beer sharing table space with the watermelon slices, the PB&Js, and the M&Ms. The aid station captain seemed to be slurring his words when he asked me if I needed anything. They were cooking up quesadillas and hash browns. There were lights strung up all over the place and somewhere a pair of speakers were thumping some bass heavy tunes.

I got out of there as fast as I could.

As with every other aid station, there was an immediate, steep, and rather lengthy climb waiting for us runners. I power hiked it.

By the time I reached the top of the climb, the last climb of the race, I was tired, sore and feeling very low energy. I just wanted to be finished.

Even though I was over the top and about to head downhill, I was all set to drop into a dejected sort of power hike. Then something remarkable happened.

There appeared before me on the trail a mythical, legendary creature.

I found myself side-by-side, elbow-to-elbow, with the Ultramarathon Man.

Dean Karnazes.

To say this was the exact thing that I needed might sound like a gross exaggeration. But it might be the honest truth.

I hit him with a, “Good job, brother. Looking strong!”

And then I left him in the dust.

Yes, he was running the 100 miler. Yes, he’d been out here for almost 20 hours. Yes, it would have been insane for him to be moving anywhere near my pace…

But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it felt good to pass him.

Suddenly, my legs felt lighter. The pain diminished. My stomach issues seemed to melt away to nothing. My arms went up and out like wings…

Okay, I wasn’t actually flying, but I was moving as fast as I had in several hours.

And I felt amazing!

The rest of the race was an easy downhill on a wide smooth trail. And it wasn’t long before I could hear the ocean crashing against the sands of Rodeo Beach.

I could see the lights of the finish line. I could hear cowbells.

And I was done.

5 hours and 2 minutes had passed while I ran through the dark and fog, racking up 26.65 miles (including my BONUS section!).

And, brother, will I be back!

See you next year, Night Sweats!

The numbers:

  • 10th place overall
  • 2nd place age group
  • 26.65 miles
  • 5hrs 2mins 15secs
  • 5152 feet of climbing
  • 1 amazing experience

 

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