Running Through the Night

Ultrarunning is full of intense and vivid experiences. Think of padding down a trail through a foggy drizzle all alone, deep in a redwood forest. Think of pushing yourself up a steep slope one step at a time, utterly beat up and just this side of quitting. Think of the moment you turn that last corner and see the banner marking the finish line of your first ultra. But no matter what you’ve done in the sport so far, one of the great ultra experiences still awaits if you haven’t run through the night.

Running trails at night is a whole new ballgame. First, of course, you bring the lights. Even on the brightest of moonlit nights, you can pass under trees or get into a narrow canyon and find yourself groping helplessly in the dark. Then there is the little matter of staying up all night, fighting off sleep, which would not be so bad except most times you’re already exhausted and near the breaking point from having already run all day. There is the cold to worry about as well, which attacks just when you’ve run out of energy to generate your own warmth. And finally, the night can get spooky, especially if you’re one of the many who find their eyes playing tricks on them. You glance at a rotting log and think, gee, isn’t that a corpse, or you’re convinced the hanging branch that jumps out of the shadows at you is a mountain lion.

Nonetheless, if you’re well equipped and well prepared, the night can be the best part of your run. Lights used to be such a big concern to runners. The flashlights that were available tended to be clumsy, heavy, and the batteries only lasted for about half the night. Nowadays there are numerous types of lightweight, bright, and longlasting lights that are relatively inexpensive and take much of the worry out of night running. I like to use a headlamp with two settings – bright and low, and combine it with a lightweight handheld flashlight. The headlamp’s bright setting is good for tricky descents, while the low setting, which is more than enough light for uphills and smooth stretches of flat trail, extends the battery life well beyond what is needed for a single night. A headlamp alone creates too little shadow on the trail and thus reduces depth perception. The flashlight held at waist level corrects this. Also the two lights back each other up should one fail. I even toss a small button light that weighs practically nothing into a pocket of my hydration pack just in case all else fails. It’s gotten me out of deep kimchi a couple of times.

Be sure to practice running with your lights before you’re actually in a race. You want to get familiar with all your lights’ features and settings, changing batteries and bulbs, adjusting straps, and the like. You’ll be surprised how different things look at night, even on a familiar trail. Shadows skitter around under your feet. Your depth perception is off. The light jumps around. It’s good to be used to all the visual issues and practice navigating down a trail in the dark before you have to face those things with the added exhaustion of a 100-mile race. Also remember to switch your lights off when you pull into an aid station, otherwise you’ll have volunteers shielding their eyes as they try to help you.

Sleepiness is another big issue with night running. You may be one of the lucky ones who are so excited by the race and the thrill of being out on the trail at night that they can pass right through the night without a problem. It’s more common though to feel very tired and sleepy at some point in the wee hours. Some runners do well taking a few catnaps with a pacer or an aid station person assigned to wake them up. Other runners follow the “beware the chair” rule and avoid stopping at all for fear they will not be able to get back into the race. Try and “bank” some sleep in the week leading up to your race. Caffeine works for some runners, especially if you’ve limited your use of caffeine in the weeks leading up to the event. Stay focused on the need to eat and drink well, which will keep you busy and keep your energy level up. And be aware that no matter how badly your tail is dragging in the early morning hours, dawn and the growing light will almost always perk you up and get you moving again.

Finally, be forewarned that the combination of lack of sleep, lack of energy, sheer exhaustion from running for so long, and the tricky lighting situation, especially in the very early morning, might well have you seeing things that aren’t there. These eyes-playing-tricks-on-you visions can be very vivid.

In fact, I’ve become so used to “seeing” things as the night wears on that I can pretty much relax and just marvel at how creative my visions become. I once had a big fallen log in the forest morph from a person on a motorcycle, to a girl playing a piano, to a big dolphin jumping over a wave. I was pretty sure none of that was real. Some runners do report outright hallucinations, such as runners jogging along beside them, or seeing people lying alongside the trail. I once went by two runners shining their flashlights over the edge of a cliff and talking about seeing a cougar just below them. When I asked my pacer about what exactly the runners had said to each other, he didn’t know what I was talking about. So precede into your first all night run with the understanding that some strangeness is likely to be part of the experience. For all the challenges of running at night, the rewards can be substantial. There always seems to come a moment, when the moonlight and the stars and the quiet bring on a profoundly satisfying feeling. You’ve fought off the fatigue and the pain, and you’re well on your way to a finish. Then the night can seem magical.

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Gary Dudney

Gary Dudney writes the “Beginner’s Corner” column. A native of Kansas, he followed his Polish wife to a job located in Monterey, California in 1982 and signed on as a Technology Project Manager at CTB/McGraw-Hill. Unbeknownst to him at the time, he had landed in the center of prime Northern California ultrarunning territory. Over one hundred ultras later, he still finds every race a fresh and unique experience, evident in the dozens of quirky race reports he’s submitted to UltraRunning over the years. He’s published numerous articles on running in Runner’s World, Running Times, Trail Runner, American Fitness, Walkabout, and Marathon & Beyond. He’s also published a raft of short stories in magazines such as Boys’ Life, Highlights for Children, Boys’ Quest, and several lit magazines.

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