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March 11, 2008

Dancing in the Dark

Admin note: I wrote this post more than a month ago, but didn’t get around to posting it for a few weeks, by which time the subject matter didn’t quite fit the daylight circumstances. However, with the recent time change and the temporary return of dark mornings (I turned my headlamp off at 7:05 AM on Monday), the post rings true once again.

I know none of this makes sense now, but it will after you read the post.


“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses - behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”
- Muhammad Ali

I spend a lot of time running in the dark – an inconvenience that just goes with the territory.

For the past decade or so (coincidentally, about the same length of time that I’ve been a father), running has always been a “do it early or don’t do it at all” proposition. Most of my weekday runs are completed by 7:15 AM, although on weekends I’ll stay out a little later.

But no matter how high my training volume gets, I've always considered it somewhat irrational to devote an entire weekend day to a workout. Between home projects, birthday parties, sporting events, attending church, or just good-old-fashioned family time, there are simply too many things going on to spend several hours away from the house for the frivolous sake of race preparedness.

Consequently, on most weekends I’m home from my workout by 9:00 AM. Under normal circumstances, this allows plenty of time to get in whatever mileage I need for the day.

Unfortunately, training for an ultra isn’t usually considered normal circumstances.

Over the last several weeks, my long training runs have stretched into multiple-hour jaunts through the hills and canyons of Garland Ranch. And the longer I want to run, the earlier I have to leave the house.

As a result, on most Saturdays or Sundays (or, with increasing frequency, both) I walk out the door into pitch darkness, equipped with lamps to light my path once I hit the trails.

Running in darkness has some practical application to ultras: developing balance and dexterity on unpredictable terrain; gaining confidence and familiarity with various lighting systems that I’ll rely upon to get me through the night of race weekend; or learning to accommodate the uneasy, ambiguous possibility of becoming a mountain lion snack somewhere deep in the forest (honestly, I haven’t fully accommodated that feeling yet). But more than anything, it’s a chance to experience the solitude and isolation that runners constantly grapple with throughout a 30-hour event.

That’s why I don’t mind setting out on my own into the darkness – well, that, plus the fact that it’s hard to convince people to wake up at 4:00 AM to run on dangerous trails in the dark. And I have to do what I have to do.

The main entrance to Garland is a 4-mile drive from my house - but an alternate entrance sits less than one mile from my street, from where I can access trails that eventually connect to the park’s visitor center. The only catch is that you have to go up a couple of ridgelines, and down into a couple of canyons to get there.

After entering the park, my first climb takes me about 1400 feet (since I’m not a GPS guy, guess how I know these numbers … by topo maps! Have I mentioned before that I’m old-school?), and this is the view I’m rewarded with once I reach the ridge:

In other words, there isn’t any view. But if you look closely, you can see a few lights flickering to life in the homes of all the non-crazy residents of Carmel Valley.

Descending into the canyon before sunrise always seems to take about 10 times longer than it would in the light - mainly because I’m terrified of falling and breaking an ankle in the dark wilderness (that whole lion bait thing I mentioned before). But eventually I bottom out, and start climbing over the second ridge that will take me to the park entrance.

This climb levels off in a meadow about 800 feet up, and as I hit the open space, I see the first signs of daybreak:

It doesn’t look like much, but that sliver of daylight on the horizon is one of the most welcome sights I ever see in the middle of a long run. No matter how tired I am, daybreak always energizes me to the point that I feel like I can run forever. Sometimes, I’ll continue climbing another 1000 feet to the ridgeline , where the views get even better:

I love seeing Carmel Valley from an early-morning vantage point like this. (And if you look at this picture closely, you can see my house – it’s the brown one by the little hill down there. Can you see it? Doesn’t it look great with the new deck we’re building? I think it complements the surroundings nicely.)

After the second climb, it’s another long descent towards the main entrance, and a network of wide, flat fire roads trails circumnavigating the visitor center and the Carmel River basin. By the time I get there, the sun has come up, and I finally see other souls who woke up early to enjoy a peaceful journey through the park.

I see the old guy with walking poles heading out for a long hike. The twenty-something couple jogging, each one with headphones. The chatty group of Asian women who always smile and wave. And a lot of people taking their dogs for a leisurely stroll.

As I’m passing, there’s nothing that really distinguishes me from the rest of the crowd. With my flashlight tucked under my jacket, and my headlamp stowed away in a pocket, there’s no indication that I awoke any earlier than the rest of this group. With several miles on my legs, my cruising speed remains very pedestrian – for all practical purposes, I look like some big, slow guy who rolled out of bed to jog off a few beers from the night before.

Which is just the way I like it, really. I don’t need witnesses to understand the kind of tasks I’m undertaking right now. These sunrises at Garland aren’t the lights that I’m meant to dance under. I remind myself that all the hours I spend laboring before dawn are merely preparations for the larger battle that awaits me this June.

So I circle the lower trails anonymously, then turn and climb back into the hills to start the long return trip home. This is where my fight is going to be won - behind the lines, out there on the steep climbs and deep canyon trails of this park, in solitude and under cover of darkness.

And when the time comes for Western States, I’ll be more than ready to dance.


craig 3/10/08, 10:26 PM  

I almost forgot (waiting with anticipation to see which of the seven things you are going to write about) that you have a big race ahead of you. I admire your commitment to get the training in.

stronger 3/11/08, 7:46 AM  

Cool post. I like emerging from the trails on an early morning trail run as though the rest of the world didn't even know you were out there. But I like it mostly from May to Sept. Those in between months with the pitch black trails and the bouncing headlamp makes me dizzy. I'd be dancing to Dizzy Up the Girl.

Deene 3/11/08, 7:55 AM  

dawn is my favorite time of day, that promise of another do-over and witnessing the beginning is very powerful.

Addy 3/11/08, 11:15 AM  

I always love dawns, though its rare that I seem them running since running pre-dawn makes me a bit skittish :P.

With getting a real job, though, I might be trying that out in the near future!

Backofpack 3/11/08, 4:39 PM  

Well, Donald, I'm out early for long runs too. But my reasons aren't as good - I do it to finish in time to go have coffee with the running group! Since I am a slowpoke, getting a long run means starting somewhere between 4 and 6, depending on the mileage required. I don't hit trails either - but the mean streets of Puyallup are my playground! I love the dawn, and pulling off the night gear. I think the same things - that people seeing me have no idea I've been out for hours.

Your training sounds like it's going really well - can't wait till the big day!

mindy 3/11/08, 4:51 PM  

I'm an early morning runner myself. So nice to get it out of the way and have the day in front of you. Really liked your description of the miles you put in at dawn before you become part of the daylight runners - it's a really special time of day. Good luck at WS100!

robtherunner 3/11/08, 6:10 PM  

Great post, Donald! I can certainly relate, but mostly from my training a couple of years ago. Waking up early in the morning and putting the work in long before everyone else got started. I have no doubt you will be ready to dance at Western. I wish I could come down and be a spectator.

Rainmaker 3/11/08, 9:05 PM  

I enjoy running in the dark - it feels fun, different. Especially around 1AM on a Sunday/Monday, it's so still and quiet - even in the city.

I don't think I've ever done a run though that's started out completely dark and gotten light out though. I'll have to try that.

Robyn 3/12/08, 8:16 AM  

I too have been rising early to fit it all in. Here's part of a poem that inspiring this week amid the return of dark, dark mornings:

Here, root yourselves beside me.
I am the Tree planted by the River,Which will not be moved.
I, the Rock, I the River, I the Tree

I am yours--your Passages have been paid.
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need

For this bright morning dawning for you.

* * *

Lift up your eyes upon

The day breaking for you.
Give birth again

To the dream.

- On the Pulse of Morning, Maya Angelou

Darrell 3/12/08, 1:49 PM  

Catching the rising sun might make the early start in darkness worthwhile, but the creepy feeling on the trails alone in the dark keep me going to the park during daylight hours. I sense your efforts will serve you well at WS.

jen 3/12/08, 2:24 PM  

Great post and great pictures. I can imagine how cool it is to be in the park all alone in the dark, but it seems kinda spooky too! I certainly admire your commitment.

I am always a little jealous of the runners who appear to be finishing up a long run when I pull into the parking lot of some trailhead on Saturday mornings. But in reality, I love making my long run the my entire day. I get up around 7:00 pm and by the time I'm showered and ready to do anything else, it's easily 2:00 pm. I have nothing better to do, and no one is waiting on me, and I love it. One day, I'll have to adjust, but for now it's me me me. :)

21stCenturyMom 3/12/08, 8:01 PM  

You are both dedicated and brave. I can imagine that the sunrise is a VERY welcoming sight.

And that shark picture always freaks me out. Can you imagine the heart attack that person in the kayak must have had?

Smithposts 3/13/08, 6:31 AM  

Great pictures! Nothing like watching the sun rise and the world around you wake up. Not sure I would have the nerve to be on the trails alone in the dark. Light or not, I would probably trip.

olga 3/13/08, 10:32 AM  

Aren't most of us, working and parenting souls, living this life? Every morning I am up when it's dark and out with a lamp, and as I was getting happy with lights hitting sooner - they changed the clock! I respect how you finish your long runs before 9am a lot. I was never able to do so, even if start at 5am (and 4am start is also too hard to picture...) - probably due to driving time to the nearest trail, and my slowness. But I am done by noon, what with wake-up for kids at 10am and breakfast time is not that bad either.
And I loved the quote...may be I'll even steal it from your page. WS is coming on like a train...

triguyjt 3/13/08, 2:57 PM  

ali's quote is right on...

cool that you are so committed to get the mileage in and to not jeopardize the time with the kids on the weekend.. good dad.

western states is coming up.. i will be vicariously running it through you...

Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) 3/13/08, 9:40 PM  

Interesting parallel of looking "like some big, slow guy who rolled out of bed to jog off a few beers from the night before" and your swimming underwater 35 but looking like you came up at 10.

Nice to know I'm not the only one who worries about getting mauled to death for the food chain.

I run a lot at night (after evening shifts after midnight), but commuting home so rarely on trails. I'm sure all your trail running in the dark is going to help you at States.

RunBubbaRun 3/14/08, 3:35 AM  

Great post, those 4:00am roll outs is alot to handle sometimes but necceassry to keep everything else in balance.

Still not used to running in the dark, but that is when the battle will be the most fierce in the 100 miler, so thanks for the inpiration to keep trying..

the Dread Pirate Rackham 3/16/08, 9:12 PM  

my husband, also an understated aspiring ultra guy, runs at night - for the same reasons you describe. he runs with the drunks on the urban trails of the city streets at really weird times. I think it would be much harder than the dawn patrol - I take the morning shift, he takes the night shift - because it's hard to come down!

My Life & Running 5/14/08, 11:08 AM  

Wow... what a fun post! You're so inspiring Donald!

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