Going to Run All Night
By Gordon Cherr
“Going To Run All Night,” by Harry Sylvester, was written in 1944. It was a short story about a soldier who was also an ex-marathon runner, therefore chosen by his commanding officer to carry a message, on foot, through dangerous occupied territory, to friendly forces, many miles away. The run had to be made at night without maps or any guidance whatsoever. It was a scary thing to do.
I read this story some years ago, it was published in the Runner’s Literary Companion in 1994. The essence of running all night in pitch blackness, was distilled for me in a few lines and paragraphs:
“So, going downhill now, the enemy all around him, he experienced a sense of power, as though he were
invisible, as though he were fleeter and stronger than anything that could seek to kill or hinder him.
Sweat bathed him, he glistened as though oiled, and
there was a slight froth at his lips. He moved with
machinelike rhythm and his eyes – could they have
been seen – might have seemed mad.”
I have run a lot of miles in the dark, usually before work, because that is my time. Running feels right for me then, finishing with the sunrise. But for years I have also dreamed of running all night, for there is something eerie, frightening, yet awe inspiring about it, all at the same time. Humans evolved as circadian beings, living their lives in the daylight, hiding from the silent and fearsome predators who stalked the night. No one has ever had a “daymare.” Instead, they are called “nightmares”, for a good reason. And reading accounts of all night events from ultra runners, that is when hallucinations are more likely to occur, the mind plays tricks on you, we humans are just not as well suited for such activities.
Of course, this has peaked my interest even more, and while training to be a pacer this past June for Scotty Ludwig at the Western States 100, I did some night running as my 38 mile effort at Western States was likely to start in the late evening and last all night long on dark mountain trails in the Sierra Nevadas. I even took a 15 mile trail run at 11 PM at the Miccosukee Greenways one Friday night. I couldn’t go too fast (not a problem for me during daylight hours either!) at night behind the dim beam of my headlamp, so fatigue was really not my problem. My problem was in getting utterly lost in the pitch black forest around midnight, on one of the many trails on the south side of Miccosukee Road, east of the I-10 overpass. I remember feeling the utter panic beginning to settle into my stomach as one trail after another lead to a dead end or to nowhere at all, nothing looked familiar, and the muffled forest sounds which I had been largely ignoring until a few moments earlier, took on a new, very menacing tone. The Blair Witch Project, laughable when I saw it on TV one night, was suddenly all too fresh in my mind and it took a fair amount of internal coaxing and discussion to settle down and, eventually, find my way out to Miccosukee Road, where all I had to contend with there were the midnight drunks on their way home.
But the all night run thing, trepidations and all, has continued to beckon. A few nights ago was the first really cold night here. I had set my alarm for 6 AM, but woke up around 2:30, absolutely unable to get back to sleep. I tried counting my resting pulse, sometimes the boredom in that is enough to induce sleep, but now it was 42, 43, 42, 42, 41, 43 and I was still wide awake. Time for that run. Maybe not all night but from 3 to 7 AM might be all right.
The backyard thermometer said 29 and it was deathly quiet, winter nights are that way, you know. No other foolhardy creatures are out and about. The roads are dimly lit but well enough at night in Killearn, there is next to no traffic at 3 AM, and to be honest, the greatest dangers are those dopey speed bumps scattered here and there, which are unlit. When you are running in the zone an unexpected speed bump will lay you out as flat as a speeding Ford pickup.
I started out right at 3 AM. The cold night air was crisp and clear and the stars so close you could hit your head if you didn’t duck, or so it seemed. I like the stars and stargazing. I know the constellations and feel a deep affinity for our ancestors who looked up and basically saw the very same night sky as we see today.
I have been running a few miles now and I am gazing at the Big Dipper. It is comforting to see it in its proper place night after night when suddenly an orange and red streak falls directly into the cup of the Dipper! Then another, and another and I am forced to stop in the middle of the road, mouth agape no doubt, at what I have just seen. No, not an hallucination. I forgot but tonight was the Geminid meteor shower and I have ignorantly gone out at the height of this natural wonder. What luck!
It is cold standing there, and I am sweating, and about to begin to shiver when of all things, another runner, clad in baggy sweatclothes, almost runs into me. She lets out a little muffled scream at her surprise in seeing me out there in the middle of the road, in the dark. I apologize for no reason and ask her if she saw “that,” pointing up at the sky, and she affirmatively nods her head, “Yes, that is why I am out here.” We stand there for a moment, side by side, total strangers, looking at the light show in the sky. I feel the need to get going or else my feet are going to put down roots, “Bye” . . .”Bye,” and I will never knowingly see her again.
I have lately been reading a book by an Episcopal priest, Roger Joslin, “Running the Spiritual Path.” It has much to do with running meditation and prayerful communion during running and finding the quiet places within. According to Joslin, these quiet places are voids and if you create these voids, God will rush in and joyously fill up the space. It makes for interesting but certainly not unique reading for Joslin’s approach is really not one iota different from books on Bhuddist mediation practice. At least to my untrained mind. But tonight and the quiet all around me seems like an ideal opportunity to practice searching for the quiet places within.
Of course, the more you look for the quiet places, the less likely they are to occur, and I find my mind racing on and on. Mostly I am thinking about the recent Wakulla Ultramarathon and all of the little wondrous miracles I saw there. Chad Rickleffs, from Colorado, striding in crisp military style for 50 miles, never losing his form or composure. His wife (I didn’t get her name), who ran this little 100 yard wind sprint for each of the 25 laps, asking him if he needed water or Cytomax, seeing to his every need. Pat Judd’s mom, sitting so patiently at her little card table with his drinks and snacks, greeting everyone with a smile, and feeding everyone who came over to say hello. I can see Dana Stetson with that bright blue cap sitting askew on his head, and his Dr. Suess socks, who worked through the nastiest patch imaginable, with plenty of help from his concerned wife and daughter, to finish 50 miles strong. Dana doesn’t know it, but there was almost a fist fight among the race workers over whether to pull him off the course because he looked so bad. Or Judy Alexander or Gary Griffin, the Crapmeister (Fred Johnson), Kelly and Scott from Atlanta and a dozen others. Or Maria, with whom I ran about 12 miles, smiling and laughing about her new boyfriend and new job, a pretty lady with an infectious bright smile. Your faces are filling my head as I run on in the dark. Dammit! I’m trying to find God.
Actually, one of the best parts of the Ultra, I am thinking, was when David Yon, Felton Wright and Tony Guillen showed up to pace and ended up doing a planned interval workout in the middle of the race. Now, at what other ultra could you do that and not get unceremoniously thrown off the course? None, I would guess. Thanks to Fred and Marguerite Deckert for that, the Ultra has become a such community affair.
The miles are still passing easily for me after about 2 hours in the dark when I start laughing, thinking of Nick Mazza at the Ultra. Nick looked good until his next to last lap, when the miles were really getting to him. His daughter was there with two young (in their 20’s) male friends who quite graciously decided they had better pace Nick in for the last half lap, he looked so bad. What they didn’t know is that Nick always keeps a little in reserve and that he has a ferocious kick for the final 300 yards. It is just his thing and we knew it was coming. Sure enough, Nick put on the afterburners in the final 300 yards and after 50 miles, simply ran the legs off those two young fellows, much to the delight and laughter of the race workers, giddy from being there for about 10 hours.
One of the young guys was holding his chest like he was having a mock heart attack and laughing, and now I am thinking about MJ and the fact that she has had a little problem with her ticker recently. It is going to be fixed all right. We had a little discussion in the hospital a week or two ago and MJ spoke of the white light and being allowed to make the conscious decision to stay around a while longer. You may say “bunk” to that sort of stuff, but she and I will always be kindred spirits that way. I have a similar but asymptomatic heart condition (you can see it on an EKG tracing), but once concern (“fear”) about it had me in the hospital ER. To make a long story very, very short, after being induced to take some medication, my heart stopped. I suddenly found myself flying down a tunnel, like a subway tunnel. Red, blue, green and yellow lights were flying by. As I passed each light I could hear an audible “whoosh” sound. I never got to the station I guess, because I was resuscitated and pulled back to the present. Funny thing was, it just wasn’t scary, it was peaceful and serene.
Now MJ understands, as I do, that while death is not to be feared, life is always to be lived everyday with eyes wide open. MJ, I dedicate this column to you. And to Joe Dexter. And to everyone else who has felt the breath on their necks lately. It’s okay to be a little scared when you run in the dark. I was that night on the Greenways and I even was in Killearn. But the sun will always come up and light your way.
I have ambled around Killearn Estates and Killearn Lakes and Dublin Downs and even Arbor Hills in the dark now for about 3 hours, maybe longer. It is getting to be about 6:30 AM. People are stirring, lights are coming on, several hardy souls are walking their dogs out on the roads too. A few more runners are out, we wave and nod the universal greeting of all runners. I can hear the morning newspapers being thrown onto the driveways by the paperboys, thump and slide, in their plastic bags. There are more than a few fat people walking down their driveways in their pj’s and nightgowns, sucking back on that first cigarette of the morning, checking out the Tallahassee Democrat for the bad news of the day. And they look at me like I am crazy when I go by saying “Goodmorning” to each and every one of them. Just a crazy man in tights, running down the street on a cold, dark morning. That’s all, nothing to be afraid of, folks.
I am finally working my way through the deserted back streets towards home. There are just the faintest streaks of the morning light to the east. I am tired, a little cold and I would not mind finding the warm covers of my bed again. I enter the house just as quietly as possible, kick off my shoes, dump the cold, wet clothes, and slide into bed. Ah, perfect.
Sharri rolls over and casts a sleepy eye my way. “Aren’t you going to run this morning?”
“Nah, it’s still dark out, think I’ll sleep in for a change.”