Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A Starry Night in Cool

Cruising down I-80 at 5:30 pm, it seemed odd to be on my way to a race. For one thing, I still felt a few aches and pains from my last race, three weeks prior. And for another, the sun was going down.

I squinted into the sun, heading west from Truckee down into the Sierra foothills toward the town of Cool. I had signed up for the Cool 12 hour night run in order to experience some firsts. I had never done a timed run before nor done any night time running. I hope one day to run a 100 miler, and I thought a little experience running at night might be a good idea.

One odd thing about starting a race at 7:00 pm was how to handle what I ate during the day. A typical race morning diet for me includes a bagel, banana and a cup of coffee, but I had the full day stretching out before my race, holding the question of what to eat. By default, I simply ended up snacking on carbs all day.

Runners gather at the start

I arrived at the Cool fire station at 6:30 with plenty of time to check in, get my number and dial out my gear. I planned to carry both a headlamp and a hand held flashlight because I really didn’t know which would work better, and thought I may even want them both. The course followed a nine mile loop which runners would repeat for the 12 hour night, and I had one drop bag at the start/finish area. This allowed for some convenient options for gear, and I stuffed my bag with various methods of water carriage, items of food and clothing, spare batteries, blister cures, socks and the like.

Nancy explains the course

Race director Nancy Warren explained the course markings and the rules. The cut off at the start/finish area would be 5:00 am, so in reality most of us would be running for less than 12 hours. Almost everyone I spoke with before the start had very moderate ambitions for this race. The nice part about the loop course was that you could essentially stop whenever you felt like it. I personally planned to go very easy and do a lot of walking. My biggest goal was to remain uninjured, and my secondary goals were to have fun and get some experience running at night. I ran into Olga, who had flown down that day from Oregon and would be flying back in the morning. I couldn’t believe she was making such a whirlwind trip of it, and I was hoping that the drive back to the SF airport in the morning wouldn’t be too bad for her! She seemed to be carrying some new injuries and didn’t seem too excited about the race. Well, I don’t know Olga well, so maybe this is just pre-race mode for her. (I read her blog this week to learn that she was dealing with a lot of stuff that weekend!)

Soon we were off into the setting sun. Sticking with my plan, I started slow and steady. I started with taking walking breaks every 25 minutes, but soon decided that I would simply walk all the uphills. This made for more frequent walking breaks, but that was fine, and most of the hills were pretty mellow.

The dusty trail

I enjoyed the scenery, and made good use of my camera during the first loop, since it would be the only one with light. I got a little fanatic about the beauty of the sunlight streaming through the giant spreading oak trees(as you can tell from all the photos!) A local runner couldn’t believe I was taking pictures of this run, on a loop that he ran almost weekly and did not consider to be very scenic. I love the oak trees though. I grew up in southern California, and the scenery near my parents’ house is similar to that of the Sierra foothills. Maybe it’s just the sense of nostalgia it brings me, but I think it’s beautiful. It looks like a Steinbeck novel. There’s nothing like running through a novel at dusk.

The one other aid station besides the start/finish area was at mile 5.5 and was being run by Helen and Norm Klein. Food was plentiful, and with the temperature still in the low 80’s I needed a refill on water even though I was carrying my hydration pack.

Once the sun went down I put on my headlamp with a bandanna underneath to pad it, and ran with a water bottle in one hand and a flash light in the other. I quickly discovered the disadvantage of a headlamp when the dust from the trail rose up in clouds through the beam of light. When I turned my headlamp off, I realized that I could actually see better. Not only did it eliminate the dust from being visible in front of my face, but the angle of the beam coming from waist level allowed the contours of the trail to stand out against their own shadows, making them much more visible. The headlamp made everything look like a flat sidewalk, which it definitely was not! After the second loop, I put the headlamp back in my drop bag. It was uncomfortable anyway!

The race had a field limit of 75 runners, which is rather small. After the first loop we were fairly spread out, and I soon found myself running alone through the dark. It occurred to me that many people would not enjoy this. The night air was warm, and while my world consisted primarily of the circle of dirt at my feet illuminated by the beam of my flashlight, I did notice that a lack of vision made the other senses come alive. I could hear the slight rustle of the oak trees as the warm breeze blew through, and the night smelled vibrant and alive. I heard a coyote yipping in the distance, and he was quickly joined by a pack of friends. I stopped running for a moment, as the sound of my own footfalls impeded my hearing. With my light off, I looked up into the starry night sky. There was no moon, and distant oak trees stood out as dark spectral shadows against the starlight. Surrounded by coyote howls, I grinned madly, feeling like just another coyote running wild through the night.

Heading downhill toward the stream crossing, the terrain was heavily treed and thus one of the darkest sections of trail. Nancy hadn’t given us any warnings about wildlife, but I knew we were in mountain lion country, and I had a healthy sense of paranoia on the subject. So when I heard a rustling sound off in the bushes during this dark section of trail I stopped in my tracks and aimed my light at the bushes. It was hard to see, but I thought maybe it was a large bird on the ground. Then it started to move and I realized it was the white underside of a skunk tail! Oh God! I think I was still at a safe distance, but the skunk had its butt pointed at me and its tail raised, so I instinctively took a few steps backwards. Thank God for the mountain lion paranoia because if I had run up on it, I would have had a very bad night! I waved my flashlight at it and told it to shoo, and eventually it waddled off into the bushes. I cautiously waited until the rustling sounds were farther away before running down to the creek with relief. Disaster averted!

The low water creek crossing

One of my favorite parts about the race was the stars. With no moon, and a very open trail most of the time, the sky was huge and filled with stars. There was a meteor shower going on, and this was such a great way to view it. Although I tried not to spend too much time looking up for fear of tripping, I also realized that my running style was naturally more cautious in the dark, and looking at the trail every second wasn’t really necessary. I saw some brilliant shooting stars, and not for the first time wished that I didn’t have to run with a light, the better to see the night around me. We’ll file that one under “careful what you wish for!”

Nearing the end of my fourth lap on the course, it must have been around 3 or 4 in the morning. A few of the faster runners lapped me now and then, and as they came by I was surprised that each of them had such bright lights. Well, these were obviously the experienced runners, and they clearly knew what light to bring on a night run. One woman passed me, and afterwards I thought, gosh maybe my flashlight is dying. My light was so dim compared to hers! Nonsense, I told myself, she just had a very bright light. About 5 minutes later reality set in when my light went out. But of course I had brought spare batteries! Unfortunately they were still in my drop bag, over a mile away. I laughed out loud. Time to run in the dark!

Running with no light was not nearly as difficult as I would have thought. I was very lucky that the section of trail I was on had good footing, and only a few stretches of tree coverage. I slowed to a walk out of caution, but soon came upon a stretch of trees that made discerning the direction of the trail nearly impossible. Out of desperation I tried turning on my light. It worked! It was a miracle! Had I only imagined it going out? A minute later it went out again. Darn! I walked on with a new system: When it was pitch dark I would turn on the light for the few seconds of light it would give me, but I was required to run when the light was on. Through the open sections I walked by the light of the stars. It was great fun!

When I came through the start/finish area, fellow runner Jack Driver lent me his flashlight so I wouldn’t have to deal with changing my batteries. His light was much better too, so I was happy to take it! I swilled some coffee and headed out for one last lap.

I can’t remember the last time I have seen the sun rise from a star-filled sky, to the first beam of light, to full sun. It was absolutely breathtaking! A lot of runners did not run for the whole night, which is one of the beautiful things about a race like this: you have options. I must say however, running 45 miles for that sunrise was worth every step, and I feel sad for those who missed it.

In the last mile of the run I saw one last, strange bit of wildlife. I heard a rustle of an oak branch and stopped to look. The black lower body of what looked like a small bear was protruding from the bottom branch of a large oak tree. Are there bears down here? I realized the legs were too skinny. Maybe it was a dog trying to climb a tree? I was still just standing there with my jaw hanging open when the front legs and head of a billy goat came down from the tree to complete the picture. The goat was stout, all black, and had huge horns. I was baffled. Do they have wild goats in Cool? I figured they must be domesticated, but it was very strange. I wished I still had my camera with me! Anyway, I had a race to finish.

Coming in at about 11:40 I was almost the last person out on the course. It was a bit odd, I felt like I came in last, but it was just that so many people didn’t stick it out for the full 12 hours or missed the 5am cut off for another lap. I saw Olga, and it turned out that she won! Yeah Olga, way to represent for the women! I think I finished 5th, but since there is no gender column on the posted results,I'm not totally sure. Doesn't matter much either way.

I didn’t mess around too much at the finish since most people were gone anyway. I was worried about staying awake on the hour drive back to Truckee, so I high tailed it home. After a shower and a 3 hour nap, I spent the day with my husband and some friends at the Truckee rodeo. What a great weekend!

This event turned out to be a very solitary adventure for me. I loved that aspect of it! Running in the dark puts me in somewhat of an introspective mindset, and I enjoyed a relaxing, meditative night. It was just me, the stars, and the rest of the coyotes.

I accomplished all my goals, modest though they may have been, and didn’t fall asleep on the drive home! I wasn’t very sore the next day either, so I feel pretty good about my decision to run easy. Thanks to Nancy, Norm and Helen, and everyone who was out there all night for the runners.


  1. Isn't amazing: Running under the stars on the trails is like spending time on another planet!

    45 miles in 12 hours? Damned nice job!

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  3. Gretchen, what awesome pictures you shot! I can now come back here for some reminders:) You ran a very great race, smart and consistent and fun. I looked up the sky numerous times, but may be because I never stopped for it, I haven't seen a meteor falling:( This time was my first to "wear" a headlamp on my waist, and I liked it for benefits you described (or rather for negative points from the headlamp alone you described). I also saw 2 deer and 2 coyotee, no skunk though:) Sorry I was so out of social life (that picture at the start has a showing of it, yikes!). An I am so happy for you meeting all the goals! 45 night miles is GRAND!

  4. congrats gretchen! that's an awesome accomplishment, and now you're ready for that 100!
    i just ran a marathon on sunday and boy did it hurt! i am glad i'm doing ultras and not marathons-people run way too fast and don't hike the hills! :)
    have a good week and happy running!

  5. Wow - those are amazing pictures and a great run. Thanks for sharing these - this run is going on my list of "things I gotta do someday!"

  6. You were definitely in for a thrill. I just got Goosebumps reading your re-cap!!! But the pictures could convince me to do it sometime - really breathtaking. You rocked the night;-)

  7. How "Cool"! I think a night run like that would be awesome. Great pics and good job!

  8. "like running through a novel at dusk." what a fine way to describe your twilight images.

    this sounds like an amazing experience–to be running out in the wilderness during a meteor shower.

  9. was it the pictures or the way you described the race? fabulous. and congrats on finishing! you ran as though you were `one' with the elements, nature, and yourself. i'm going to be visiting your blog more often. cool runnings....

  10. Great write up of the race and fabulous pics too! The oak studded foothills in California really are special. Great run - 45 miles is awesome.

  11. Skunk Whisperer - Nice recap of the Cool experience. Like Olga, I recently did a night run with a waist lamp and a head lamp. Since it was raining like a cow peeing on a flat rock, dust was not a problem. Where do I find a waist lamp you ask? Just use a headlamp. The strap will adjust to your waist. I had a middle strap to keep the light from slipping down your head so I just pulled the one end out and Wa-La instant waist lamp!

    Skunks own the trails and they are never in a hurry to move aside so you can continue. I ran into two of them down in CA while trail running at night. I was climbing a hill on single track when I saw two sets of be eyes glowing back at me. I tried to shoo them away and proceed but they just slowly walked away from me side by side with their tails raised high. I felt like I was getting too close so I stopped and the began to wrestle each other and tumble down the hillside toward me. I chose to run back down the hill and find another trail.

    Great job on your run! I'm sure you will be signed up for a 100 in not time.

    Take care!

  12. wow...what a great run! The pictures are beautiful and 45 miles in 12 hours is an awesome accomplishment, especially at night! Somehow I think my reaction if I heard a pack of coyotes would be somewhat different than your peaceful one ;)

    Congrats on the awesome job!

  13. Looks like it was a nice night, running under the stars is such an interesting adventure, great race, report, and pics from the experience! I wish we had a few of these around us...

    Hope you caught up on some zzz's

  14. Absolutely beautiful! Both the writing and the photos were amazing. Reading your posts always makes me wish I liked running. I've had a similar experience to yours with the flashlight thing, but it didn't work out nearly as well for me and I wound up giving myself (what might have been) stress fractures in both feet while trying to be as sure-footed as a mountain goat in the dark. (See current complaints about why I hate running). And speaking of which, goats in trees? Now it's MY turn to accuse you of making stuff up!

    Great post! Keep it up!

  15. Nice job! You had an awesome run. Congrats! And your pictures are so lovely and peaceful. Sounds like a race to put on the wishlist. :)

  16. Hi Gretchen,
    Nice story and pictures. Congrats on the good result.It is funny how spread out we all were, It turns out I was only a few minutes behind you on the last lap; I came in "last" at 11:47.
    Take care,

  17. I just realized that I think we ran the section you have pictures of in the fields with the Oak Trees at WS. Am I right?

    BTW - I plan on having Fun with a capital F at CC100. Why wouldn't I? Hopefully some other runners or my pacer Steve will give me more stuff to tell stories about.

    Thanks for the good wishes. I feel good and I'll give it my best.

  18. Gretchen,

    Congratulations to you on a wonderful run in Cool. I slept after 2 laps. Looks like you had an adventure you will remember for a long time.

    See you at the races.