Beauty in Darkness

Author's note: this week's Herald column is an excerpt from a longer article on Donald's website, which you can read in its entirety here.


Many runners have a sense of foreboding about venturing into darkness - the vast unseen, unknown, and potentially dangerous realm that awaits us in the early mornings or late evenings. And at this time of year when darkness consumes larger portions of our waking hours, fear of the dark is enough to keep some runners stuck in bed, or retreating to the drudgery of an indoor treadmill.

Ultrarunners, on the other hand, grow to embrace the dark. Many 50-mile or 100K races require some dark miles at the beginning or end of the course, and 100-mile events necessitate running through the entire night. We build up to the challenge of braving the night gradually, typically rising early or staying up late to get our long training mileage in, developing a comfort level with the darkness in small doses from one workout to another - from one rewarding moment stacking upon others - until the inconveniences of the task are nearly forgotten.

To novices, the darkness causes an uneasiness like feeling adrift on uncharted waters – but once you’ve navigated it a number of times, that sensation becomes familiar, and you develop a greater appreciation for the experience of traveling through. Eventually, for many of us, those dark hours are actually some the most memorable and rewarding portions of our running adventures.

Donald was reminded of this recently, as he has a standing date to go jogging with his 9-year-old daughter one night per week after he gets home from work. In December and January, that means running in the dark for part or all of their time together – a prospect that was initially met with some reluctance by his daughter, but one that she’s gradually embraced a little more with each passing week.

Her acceptance started during the Christmas season, running through neighborhood streets lined with holiday lights. It continued as the stars became more prominent in January, and they talked about the constellations and all the stories across the sky. Finally, it was cemented while running on an abandoned airfield, where the ambient lights disappear, and the darkness becomes expansive. With nothing but quiet solitude and a pair of headlamps, his daughter initiated the following conversation one night:

Daughter: This is kind of neat, with everything quiet while we’re staying in this little dome of light.

Donald: I know. This is actually one of my favorite things about doing long ultra races – you spend a lot of time running in the dark like this, just enjoying the darkness and silence.

Daughter: It’s peaceful.

Donald: Yup. And a lot of other things. I really love it.

They’ve developed a familiarity with the night, finding beauty in the darkness, enjoying their time together and the experience they’re sharing. For Donald, it’s been an unexpected pleasure of these dark, cold months.

Don’t let fear of the darkness prevent you from finding similar pleasures. Grab a headlamp, recruit a training partner (this is a huge motivating factor), and venture outside to chart your own journey through the great unknown.

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Who Won?

We often make fun of sports like gymnastics and figure skating where victors are determined by judges. There are no style points in running, and the first person to reach the finish line is the winner … right? Surprisingly, it doesn’t always happen that way.

Age group road racing may be the only sport where you don’t know who your rivals are, or where they might be on the course. Heck - even in competitions where napping is commonplace, such as the Iditarod dogsled race or multi-day boat races, you’re usually aware of your competitors’ relative standing. In running, sometimes you don’t know these things until the race is over – and even then, it still might be a mystery.

We were reminded of this after last fall’s Big Sur Half Marathon, where Mike was engaged in a battle he thought he won, only to realize that wasn’t the case.

After pushing the pace for the first 10 miles, Mike was unexpectedly passed at mile 11 by a runner that looked old enough to be in his age division. He courageously hung with the challenger for 2 more miles before summoning a furious sprint in the homestretch, ultimately passing and beating the other runner by 3 seconds.

It wasn’t until the award ceremony that Mike realized that his heroics were for naught; because the race was chip timed, each racer’s overall time was calculated from the time they crossed the start line. As it turned out, the other runner had crossed the start 5 seconds later than Mike – giving him a victory over Mike by 2 seconds.

It wasn’t the first time Mike was on the wrong side of a chip controversy; one year earlier at the San Francisco Marathon, he entered the day before the event, placing him in the 10th starting corral. In a race of 20,000 runners, the start is controlled by having corrals of 1,000 runners begin at two-minute intervals to ease congestion on the course. The race used microchips so each person received an accurate time from the starting mat to the finish line, and Mike ran 12 minutes faster than anyone else in his age group.

Naturally, he should have won – except that at San Francisco, age group awards were based on gun time, and some of the runners with 20-minute head starts crossed the finish line ahead of him.

In that same race, the woman who crossed the finish line first overall wasn’t declared the winner, and didn’t receive the prize money she had earned. Race organizers ruled that since she didn’t declare herself an elite runner before the race started, the other top runners didn’t recognize her as a competitor. Clearly, it was a strange day all the way around. To their partial credit, race organizers eventually awarded the first female her winnings, but Mike’s age group situation was never remedied.

Such problems would be eliminated if everybody clearly knew who they were competing against. To improve visibility in competition, USA Track and Field now requires runners in championship races to wear bibs on their back indicating their age group. Triathletes have done this for years, as part of the pre-race check-in process is to have your age group stamped on your calf muscle.

Until all road races adopt similar policies, the best you can do to avoid this controversy is to and know the rules of competition for each particular race. And of course, if you’re going for an age group award, it always helps if you can train hard and run extremely fast.

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