NIGHTRUNNING & THE MOUNTAIN PEAK
When I set out on the back half of the course – a new, 24-mile “lollipop” shaped section on the Southwest end of the mountain – I only had 45 minutes of daylight left. But in the thick forest, the available light dimmed a little quicker than that and I was soon in a whole new world as a runner: the Pitch Black Dark.
I’d done a little night running before, but only on a flat, well-groomed, white gravel, road-width forest preserve trail near one of my freelance jobs in Chicago’s northwest suburbs. Even though I usually take a headlamp out with me on that forest preserve trail, I often find there is enough ambient light from nearby towns – or even just the moon – for me to see the white trail good enough without the lamp at all. Extremely gentle conditions.
So, this was a completely new experience for me.
When I first flipped on my headlamp, I could still see a deep blue sky above me, but I was running through the woods and the shadows cast by their thick, looming trunks were too deep for me to see clearly anymore. What was worse, I was running a rolling, narrow, single-track trail that was buried in leaves and pine needles and flooded with rain wash. Every step I took seemed to sink deep into a marsh. Just keeping my balance was tricky.
At first, I tried just using the red light on my lamp. It’s intended to illuminate without destroying all of your night vision. It worked for a little while, but everything was so wet, that it somehow made the world seem darker by default, and the terrain was so uneven, that I couldn’t see far enough ahead of me to do much good anyway.
I switched over to the full, white beam. Now my problem was that the early evening fog and the rain were, kind of, blinding in the full light and I almost lost as much vision as I gained because of it. (If I’d opted for a hand-held lamp instead of one on my forehead, the lower point of origin for the light would have alleviated some of this problem. But I already carried my water bottle, so I chose to keep my other hand empty and available for unexpected events.)
I settled in to a gentle rhythm, but I gotta say, it was harder than I expected. There were sections of the trail, in those final 20 miles, that were wider and straighter and smoother, and when I was on them, the running was a lot easier. But on the winding, narrow single-track, it was really tricky and difficult to move at any regular pace with just the light of my headlamp to guide me. The race leaders had passed me going the other way just before sunset. They were going to be finishing up just before the light was gone. I was starting to envy them. Even if I’d been feeling 100%, there was just a limit to how fast I could move in the dark.
The world shrinks down to not much more than that pool of light projected in front of you. I was using a powerful lamp, so my pool of light was relatively large, but still…
The biggest trouble was yet to come. We had all been forewarned by the Race Directors of the section of trail between the Long Branch aid station and the High Point aid station. (Indeed, the reason I had Kris Wharton’s number in my cell phone was because when I e-mailed her to say I couldn’t make it to the pre-race meeting, she insisted that I call her instead so she could describe it to me in detail.)
It was a three-mile section that, first, sent us up the steepest mountain climb of the day, and then led us right across the rocky peak of the mountain along a route that sent us up, down, around, and sometimes under the rocks and boulders that littered the crest. Even in the daylight, it wasn’t a runnable section. A misstep or a dodge instead of a duck could quickly turn into a 100 or 200 foot drop straight down the side of the mountain.
Now imagine trying to traverse that section after dark.
There were plenty of reflective markers out on the back half of the course. Far more than there were ribbons in the first half of the day. But once on the peak, the route was so twisty and random, that I still lost track of it several times. I had to back track, and slow down and sometimes just stop completely and look around.
Between doing that dance in the dark, and the steep, arduous climb up to the peak, my pace had dropped slower than walking pace. Most aid stations were roughly six miles apart. It was frequently taking me 90 minutes to get from one to another. The 3-mile section to High Point took me 80 minutes to complete.
Twice, though, I did stop completely, flip off my headlamp completely, and try to take in the vastness of the dark world around me on top of Lookout. If I ever go back, maybe I’ll try to run the thing a little faster so I can be up there to see it before the sun is gone.