Disclaimer: Just because Dean Karnazes makes something sound fun, one should not assume it actually is.
Karno has made a career out of running painfully long distances (like 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days) and making it all seem like a jolly lark. One of his signature tales has him running through the night, working up a big hankering for some calories. Karno dials up a local pizza joint on his cell phone and tells them to meet him at an upcoming intersection in 30 minutes. Then, with the box balanced in one hand and a slice in the other, he keeps plugging on, refueling on ‘za as the miles slip away.
Most of us mortal runners, on the other hand, do well just to sip water at aid stations without sucking it up our noses, gagging or whacking volunteers in the nose as we toss away the half-empty cup. But running through the night…now that’s a taste of the exotic that every weekend warrior should enjoy at least a few times before they retire to water aerobics. I’ve gotten into night runs only recently, as duty required. Multi-day relays inevitably require each runner to do at least one nocturnal leg, and these inevitably are the finest parts of the race.
A recent Friday night found me limbering up for a midnight run in the parking lot of a church somewhere west of Lexington, Kentucky. It was one of those pseudo-Grecian brick Baptist structures graced with a white steeple, a form of Southern architecture outnumbered only by tobacco barns and Waffle Houses. An evening rain left the asphalt parking lot glistening in the light of a sign announcing a revival with “Bro. Tom Reynolds.” Right now, only runners were filling the church lot at a time of night when no good Baptist was out unless there was a youth group lock-in.
I stood on the crowd’s edge, waiting by the highway in a yellow vest, a headlamp and a blinking red light attached to the back of my head. One-by-one, other headlamps bounced their way up the highway toward the church. My job was to spot the light that belonged to my teammate Gayle, whom I’d met about 24 hours earlier. This meant sorting through a lot of pony tails wearing headlamps before I picked Gayle out on her approach to the transition area.
At first she tried to hand our team wristband to another tall guy with a blinking red head, but then she recognized me, handed off the band and sent me off toward the town of Stanford, about 7 miles away.
Out in the night, it seemed like a scene lifted from a Ken Burns documentary. Fog pooled heavily in the valleys. The full moon slipped in and out of the ragged clouds like a face peeking through torn curtains. For most of an hour, I chased an island of LED light a few feet out front, forever fleeing toward Stanford. Motivation came in the form of any red light blinking ahead, marking a runner I could try to overtake. I caught a few, passing them with the universal “Nice job” that runners use to show there’s no one-upmanship intended by running a little faster. A few passed me, offering the same olive branch. I never did get close to the guy with a blue light flashing a half-mile ahead. I labeled him “Blue Light Special” as I ran and finally lost sight of him in the quiet streets of Stanford.
A night like this in a place like this naturally tends to toy with the hairs on the back of your neck. The South is crawling with back story, since every holler, creekbed and ancient tree was probably the scene of some kind of duel, feud or Civil War battle. When the flashing lights all stretched out along the road, each runner was left on an island, and I remembered Faulkner’s observation that in the South, “the past is never dead; it isn’t even past.”
Before long, I came to the mouth of a driveway spilling out into the highway like a culvert meeting the creek. As my pool of light sped past the opening and I followed shortly behind, I barely noticed the drive. Then a voice from the dark said, “Good luck to you now.” I looked left and saw a man in a beard standing in the gravel drive. I nodded and said “Thanks” and kept running.
I suppose it should have given me more of a start, having a man speak out from the foggy night when I expected nothing but mailboxes on my left. But it didn’t even make me jump. It just felt like having a little company out in the middle of a midnight run.