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Hell at Night

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I would like to say that I love night running. That moving swiftly through the hushed darkness while the world around me sleeps creates an extended moment of Zen. But that would be a lie.

Running through the night is nothing new for many endurance trail runners. Unless you’re among the uber-fast, 100-mile (and some 100K) runs will send you out in the dark, up, down, over and across whatever the gnarly terrain at hand, all while your pupils dilate in and out, seeking frantically to interpret the headlamp shadows that play such cruel tricks. No matter how bright the torch—some now boast nearly enough lumens to produce vitamin D—the darkness envelopes, instantly filling the abandoned space when the headlamp turns away.

There was a time my buddy Jeff and I ran the 72 miles of the Appalachian Trail that pass through the Smoky Mountains (dubbed “SCAR,” for Smokies Challenge Adventure Run). Fearing slow miles over snow and ice on the high ridges, and not wanting to see more than one night, we took off at 5 p.m. We finished 22 hours later, well in advance of the second night—incidentally, running more night hours than day.

The moon was full that beautiful, cold March night. At one point, we stopped to refill our bottles, digging for the tiny trickle we could hear beneath a snow bank. That briefest exposure pushed the limits of our minimalist, do-not-stop gear, and the cold bit hard and deep. Fortunately, our friend Steven—with a trunk full of Jet-Boils, Ramen and tea—was within reach at the sole road crossing, and soon we had our purple fingers jammed deep into the console of that blessed little crew car.

The night was cold and consuming. But it made us cherish the morning light that much more. As a glowing sunrise drove away the darkness, it warmed our spirits as well as our shivering limbs. John Steinbeck asked, “What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness?” I think the same can be said of the dark of the night.

At least that was in my mind when I lined up this past December for the Hellgate 100K, a Blue Ridge Mountains classic.

Hellgate founder and director David Horton is an ultrarunning legend. Horton claimed the Appalachian Trail speed record in 1991 (52 days) and won the first two Hardrock 100s, in 1992 and 1993. His gravitas rubs off on Hellgate. This is a no-whine zone.

Hellgate doesn’t just run through the night; Hellgate starts at night. Midnight, to be exact. Waking up and starting a run at 3 or 4 a.m.? No problem. It’s morning. Starting at 6 or 7 p.m.? That’s fine, too. It’s an all-night run. Midnight, though, is no man’s land.

As the 150 of us lined up by Big Hellgate Creek at 11:55 p.m., thoughts of “Hellgate Eyes” flickered through my mind. This is a phenomenon in which a runner’s vision blurs after enduring the night. It happens elsewhere, but at Hellgate it happens a lot, forcing some past winners to stumble-crawl the last few downhill miles to the finish nearly blind. Is it the December cold? Frosted corneas? A special incantation from Horton? No one knows, but it seems needlessly cruel. Seeing in the dark is hard enough already.

The race began. Fairly quickly, the lights would spread out, but at the start, the conga line of headlamps was something beautiful. I imagined the view from overhead: a coiled, luminous snake that strikes out at midnight, slithers through switchbacks and slowly lengthens through the night.

My place in such races is usually somewhere in the top third, but on this Hellgate night, I was humbled. For whatever reason, my stomach failed from the start. Within the first 10 miles I lost more than an hour clinging to trees on three different ridgelines, losing weight in all the wrong ways. The abdominal cramping was dull, but enough to make running upright impossible. Headlamps passed me by until I counted twelve from what I believed was the last runner.

Pain at the end of a race is expected, but then it’s coupled with the excitement of the finish line. Pain of body, mind and ego with not five but 55 miles to go has none of that consolation. I passed an inviting fire at an aid station and envisioned curling up to sleep. Stopping makes sense, I thought. With some rest, I could be more cognizant tomorrow for my wife and two boys, who have made the trip with me.

Then I remembered the ultrarunner’s maxim: Never, ever drop at night. Aim for sunlight. Shuffle on. And so I did.

Seven hours later, my slice of the globe spun to face the sun. Another hour after that, having “run” through the night with zero caloric intake, I felt the divine sensation of hunger. My stomach had reset. The night had gone, the pain subsided. My legs were fresh from the slow start, and warmed by the sun’s rays. The breeze stirred. The Blue Ridge Mountains were hazy and splendid. I could run again—and I almost made it back into the top third.

Matt Vest teaches bioethics at The Ohio State University, and yet his best thinking is done out on the trails. He came to trail running out of a background in kayaking and backpacking only after his better half (also an ultrarunner) told him he’d have to learn to run to keep up with her. Together with two muddy boys, they live in Columbus where they often look to the horizon, hoping that mountains might somehow grow out of the flat, Midwestern landscape. A version of this essay originally appeared on his blog, mattvest.com.