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May 29, 2008

Dancing in the Dark (Western States Diary)

Not much to say right now, other than I'm going crazy with anticipation over watching the Spelling Bee - so much, in fact, that I had a momentary panic attack when I learned the contest started today (instead of tomorrow, as I thought), and briefly contemplated faking a seizure in order to get out of work early and watch it.

Luckily, it was only the preliminary rounds that were held today (Thursday), and I'm still on track to watch the final rounds tomorrow (Friday), blogging from the edge of my seat the entire time.

As for today's post, it’s the 5th installment of my Western States diary, which is actually a modified version of a blog post I wrote a couple of months ago about running in the dark. If you’re a consistent reader, I can’t honestly suggest a plausible reason for reading on, except perhaps to see how the same content is written differently for the newspaper than it is for a blog.

Otherwise, check back here next week, when I’ll have a full report of the National Spelling Bee, and I'll hope to report victory in my wager against Momo.


Journey of 100 Miles: A Western States Training Diary

Part 5: Dancing in the Dark


"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

In my preparations for Western States over the past several months, I’ve spent a lot of time running in the dark. It’s an inconvenience that just goes with the territory.

Running 100 miles takes most runners 24 to 30 hours to complete; therefore, I’m expecting to spend at least eight hours running through the night of race weekend - which, thankfully, coincides with the summer solstice, making the night as short as possible.

However, those final 30-35 miles of trail are just as rocky and treacherous as the first 70. Most runners use headlamps and flashlights to help light the way, but maintaining your balance during this stage of the race – which is also when your body is the most fatigued – is a significant challenge. Consequently, many ultrarunners practice running in the dark to develop the necessary skills to “keep the rubber side down” and avoid falling during the night.

Truthfully, logging mileage under cover of darkness isn’t that out of the ordinary for me. 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 AM, although on weekends I’ll stay out a little later.

On most Saturdays, I finish my morning 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 few months, my long training runs have stretched into multiple-hour jaunts through the hills and canyons of Garland Ranch Regional Park. And the longer I want to run, the earlier I have to leave the house.

As a result, on any given Saturday or Sunday (or, with increasing frequency, both) I walk out the door into pitch darkness, equipped with lamps to light my path on the trails.

I mentioned that running in darkness has some practical application for me: in developing balance and dexterity on unpredictable terrain; gaining confidence and familiarity with the lighting systems I’ll rely upon on race weekend; and 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). It’s also a good chance to experience the solitude and isolation that runners frequently grapple with throughout such a long 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. Like I’ve said before: other people can surprisingly reasonable sometimes.

The main entrance to Garland Ranch is a 4-mile drive from my house - but less than one mile from my street is an alternate entry 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 up a winding fire road to the first ridgeline. The climb takes me most of an hour, and when I reach the top, the only view I’m rewarded with are a few distant lights flickering to life in the homes of all the non-crazy residents of Carmel Valley. In other words … it’s still dark out.

Descending into the first 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 takes me toward the park entrance.

This climb levels off in a meadow about 800 feet up, and as I hit the open space, I finally see the first signs of daybreak over the valley. That initial 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, and by that point, I enjoy the first light of morning from one of the highest vantage points in the whole valley.

That feeling alone is almost enough to make the early wake-up alarm worth the trouble.

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

I’ll see an older guy with walking poles heading out for a long hike. A twenty-something couple jogging, each one with headphones. A chatty group of 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 vest, 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, and these sunrises at Garland aren’t the lights that I’m meant to dance under. I remind myself that all the hours I’ve spent laboring before dawn are merely preparations for the larger battle that awaits me at the end of 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.


David Ray 5/29/08, 8:38 PM  

I think David Cook won the thing.

craig 5/29/08, 9:48 PM  

It was good the second time around Donald.

Bullet 5/30/08, 6:21 AM  

I absolutely love that you get all geeked out about the spelling bee! That's awesome.

triguyjt 5/30/08, 7:11 AM  

the ali quote really says it all. its what you do away from the lights...the crowds..its those pitch dark runs that will buoy your spirits on that night in a few weeks...

okay now..the spelling shizzle hits the hizzle tonight...live prime time...I am working, but i will steal a peek at the kids once in a while... hey, beats having to watch the sucky tribe

triguyjt 5/30/08, 7:11 AM  

the ali quote really says it all. its what you do away from the lights...the crowds..its those pitch dark runs that will buoy your spirits on that night in a few weeks...

okay now..the spelling shizzle hits the hizzle tonight...live prime time...I am working, but i will steal a peek at the kids once in a while... hey, beats having to watch the sucky tribe

Deene 5/30/08, 7:59 AM  

that's a beautiful quote. before dawn is my favorite time of day, it's the best feeling to witness those few minutes before sunrise.

Ben, aka BadBen 5/30/08, 12:32 PM  

With a little practice, you should be able to run faster at night (on trails). There is less distraction than during daytime, and of course, it's cooler. The WS100 trail is pretty much smooth-sailing for the last 40 miles, with very little "technicality" to it. It's a good time to push for a negative split.

Happy trails,
Bad Ben

Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) 5/30/08, 2:54 PM  

just remember that when you fake a seizure well, the doctor seeing you is required by law to report you to DMV and then you can't drive until cleared by another doctor. although this may ultimately aid your ultra training...

mindy 5/30/08, 8:27 PM  

Awesome Ali quote-really perfect. And Mariah is still married, but I'd be willing to make any wagers about the length of her marriage vs. Simpson Jr's...

Rahn 6/1/08, 5:14 AM  

The best part of the whole bee: "Is the word 'numbnuts?'"
Made the whole thing worth watching for that 30 seconds. (Of course, the rest was good too.)

Sounds like some good running in the wee hours.

Rainmaker 6/2/08, 7:40 PM  

I love that quote, so very applicable. Your night runs sound pleasant - I'm sure they are tough as crap, but I always enjoy quiet midnight runs, something peaceful about them...even long runs.

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