Candlelight 12-Hour Ultra (Race Report)

It’s 2:30 am. You’ve been awake since 5:30 the previous morning, and you’ve been moving – mostly a run, but sometimes a walk – since 7 pm the previous evening. There’s nothing to see but the circle of light cast by your headlamp on the ground before you; there’s no moon, no stars. Your mind is starting to play tricks on you. That stick by the pond looks like a snake…is it a snake? What is that weird sound in the horse pasture? How is it possible this hill keeps getting longer and longer? When was the last time you drank or ate or even stopped?

These are the thoughts that go through your mind in the middle of the night when you’re in the middle of a 12-hour endurance race. These, and a million other inconsequential thoughts. It is quite possible that, in the monotony of running a mile loop over and over and over again for 12 hours, I thought every possible thought there is to think. Twice.

In the realm of races, there are two categories. The most common is a distance race, with every distance over a marathon (26.2 miles) being considered an “ultra”. Then there are timed races, where the goal is to achieve as many miles as possible in six, 12, 24, or even more hours. Most of these races are on short loops, so it is easy to restock at aid stations and see the same runners again and again.

Candlelight is an overnight ultra, from 7 pm Saturday to 7 am Sunday, and it features a just-over-one-mile course on a horse farm in Mendon, NY. There’s a little bit of road, but mostly mowed trails through fields, and you have the benefit of passing the barn aid station twice as well as “tent row,” where participants set up their own bases of operations.

The rules for this event were quite relaxed. You can run or walk as long as you want. You can sleep if you want, and you can drop and go home at any point. Some people were out to run the full 12 hours, but others were just getting their Saturday long run in before going home, and a few planned to quit when they hit their goal distance. It’s the perfect opportunity to achieve goals of a marathon distance, maybe 50k (32 miles), maybe even longer.

Last year was the first year of the event, and I spectated my friend James as he tried to run his longest distance ever. I had left many hours before he achieved 32 miles in the middle of the night and packed up and went home. And as cool as it sounded to run such long distances, it seemed like – to truly appreciate the point of the event – leaving before 12 hours is going against the goals of the race.

Last year, when James ran his 50k distance, my longest run was the Sehgahunda marathon. Since, I have run two more marathons and two 50ks, and I went into this event with big plans. My goal – and that of almost everyone else I knew, James included – was to run 50 miles. But my secret goal was to accomplish a 100k (64 miles) run. I made the former of my goals but not the latter; it was still an amazing experience.

Notice that I do not say it was fun. Quite a bit of this race was not “fun” in the usual definition of the word. But running itself is often not fun. Sometimes, it truly sucks. But the accomplishments are tremendous, the experience can be overwhelmingly positive, and the celebrations afterward are exhilarating.

The start of the race at 7 pm was as anti-climactic as any I’ve ever seen. No one surged ahead or took off in an effort to build up a lead. You just started running. I did the first loop with James, so he could point out parts of the course and compare it to last year. From the timing mats, you wander through horse pastures and then up tent row. You run along the road and up a hill past the horses in the fields, then head into the grass down a long hill. There’s a long flat section, and you go back up the hill, wrap around a koi pond, summit a short hill to a road, and work your way back to the start point. It’s sort of a figure 8 course, with just enough variation in terrain to be nicely chunkable and diverse.

It had been an extremely wet year to this point, and the forecast all week predicted 12 hours of rain, so I was pleased to find a mix of clouds and sun and reasonable temperatures. But it was muggy…so muggy that your shirt was soaked by the end of the first mile loop and the ever-present gnats were sticking to your exposed skin. I realized that the monotony of the course wasn’t going to get to me, but the humidity might.

After the first loop, I ran with Jamie, a runner who I knew was fast but had an even bigger goal than my 50-mile plan. I always feel guilty running with someone in a race. I don’t know if they want to run alone or get annoyed by my presence. But I do so much better when I can find someone going my preferred pace and stick with them. Usually, that’s more anonymous on singletrack trails, but this course was wide enough to run two or three abreast, so I ran alongside her and chatted. When she stopped to change, I went on, and she caught up. When I fell back to talk to my parents, who spectated for an hour or so, I was able to catch up. The first 10 miles flew by in an unsustainable 10-minute or so pace.

I brought so many supplies to this race that I feared being made fun of for overpacking, but I was so grateful for the changes in clothes. I promised myself I would change my shirt and hat every three hours; the first shirt change was in less than two. Still, drying off with a towel, wearing a dry shirt, and refilling from my own supply of Tailwind was a well-enjoyed luxury.

The course was quite nice for being mostly road and field. The farm was pretty in the dimming daylight, and the horses were beautiful to watch as they grazed or watched us back. There were a few farm cats that would sit nearby or smack in the middle of the trail, observing poor trail etticat (get it?). The koi pond was a favorite point in the daylight, with beautiful fish an arm’s length long darting back and forth.

It was fun to see people too. You would pass others by the barn in the only stretch of two-way traffic, and you would pass people up tent row. Sometimes you’d catch up to someone and talk with them a while; sometimes you’d get passed and exchange a few words. Everyone was supportive and friendly, even when it got dark. But the “good jobs” got fewer and fewer as we progressed along and got lost in our own worlds.

It got dark, and I had the headlamp on, which meant that every bug in the field was drawn to my face. I pulled the brim of my hat lower, hoping they’d stay on that side of the barrier, but it didn’t help much. As an early riser, I was nervous about running at night, not so much because of running in the dark but mostly because there would be no distractions, and I would be exhausted.

The advice I received for this event was to never sit. Just keep moving, even if it’s at a walk. No one really runs for 12 hours. Most walk the two up-hills from the beginning, and some people walked some or all of each loop. But don’t sit down, I was told, or your muscles will not let you get up and run again. So even when I stopped at the base camp to pour more drink or get a change of clothing, I never sat.

Around this time, many of my friends at the race were struggling. Jamie, Nicole, Mike, and Dave were hurting from one recurring injury or another, and they began to sit at camp. I kept moving, but it was disheartening to see them succumbing or nearing the quitting point. My legs hurt too; my tendinitis was acting up, and the soles of my feet ached. The bruised top of my foot throbbed.

Mainly, though, my stomach was the primary concern. It was off since the start of the race, but I was ignoring it. Evening races are difficult, because you have to eat during the day, but what do you eat and how far before starting? My stomach was sloshing for the first few hours, and then it got ever-increasingly gassy. I took Rolaids at one point and downed the shot-glass-sized cups of ginger ale at the aid station. I knew the blood was not flowing to my gut, and as the run went on it was probably only going to get worse.

At one point, I almost threw up. For some runners, throwing up is common, but as something of a reformed emetophobe (someone who dreads vomiting), this bothered me a lot. I walked the rest of the way to basecamp, saw that Jamie and Nicole were long gone, and I was ready to quit. James encouraged me to eat something, so I managed half of a Clif bar and more Tailwind. A few more Rolaids, and I headed back out, figuring I’d walk for a bit to see if my stomach would settle down.

The course was surprisingly dry, with only three muddy patches. One was avoidable if you made a turn sharp enough, but the other two were on the down and up portions of the hills, and they got muddier with each tread of feet over and over again. I tried to pick my path, stepping on the still-grassy parts and going one way or another to find the least muddy lie. At times, I seemed to get across miraculously unscathed. At others, I followed the same path and nearly lost my shoe in thick gunk.

It was raining in the middle of the night, a light mist that I could see in my head lamps but not really feel on my damp, sticky skin. My shoes were wet, but my feet never got wet, for which I was very grateful. The rain may have helped with the bugs; it was hard to say, since the insects became an ever-present constant to ignore. I inhaled many, swallowed plenty of others. They were small and tasteless.

I knew the middle of the night would be tough, and I brought my headphones to listen to music in the darkest hours. But I had them in before 10 pm, needing the distraction, and I realized that this time, so early in the race, was my darkest moment. I came up to Mike, who had sat for a while to rest his sore knee and figured he’d walk a few loops before dropping out, and I acknowledged how I felt. I was at my low point, planning to quit, and my stomach was a legitimate excuse. But even though Mike was dropping due to injury, he encouraged me to keep going. I was looking strong, he said, and the low points are common. His pep talk encouraged me to start running again, so I put the headphones back in and took off.

There were fireworks, too. You heard the patter-patter-patter of them in the distance for a while, but only at one point, in their grand finale, could you see the brilliant bursts on the horizon. I stopped a moment to appreciate them, imagining the two-short show was all for me.

The music helped a lot as I went on. I sang along (in my head) and was well distracted as the night went on the miles racked up. Unfortunately, by the time I hit that point in the early morning hours when I expected to need music, the Bluetooth headphones’ battery was dead. I was alone with my thoughts in the most quiet time of the night.

This is when I realized that the hardest part of a timed endurance event is not staying awake or keeping your sore body going. It’s how to occupy your mind for so long. I thought I would meditate or plan a story that had been in the back of my mind for a while. But I have never really been able to disconnect while running. Mostly, I think about the running that I’m doing or I get lost in the beauty of my surroundings. There were no surroundings in the darkness, though.

The hours passed in a blur. I had snippets of thoughts I can remember.

The bull frogs were grunting and croaking in the koi pond all night long, and I wondered what they were saying. Were they talking about us? Didn’t they ever sleep? Do frogs croak in their sleep?

The farm cats that sat in the trail or along the fence and watched us seemed to know something…I wondered what they could tell me. I made the universal tsk-tsk noise to get the cat’s attention, and it looked at me with headlamp-reflected laser eyes, and I imagined that I didn’t want to hear what this cat had to say.

I made promises to myself. Walk to that crack, then run the rest of the road. Walk to that flag, then walk the rest of the hill. Every two laps, get a coke at the aid station. (Ah, coke, the most decadent of ultra aid station fare!) Every three laps, stop at basecamp and towel off or get more drink or take another S-cap.

Wait, when did I last drink? I had to consume calories, and these were mostly from Tailwind. I was carrying a handheld bottle, but I hadn’t used it in so long. I would take a too-warm swig of drink. Later, I wondered again when I last drank.

How many laps had I gone? Was it this lap or the next one when I could get coke? This one…I needed the encouragement. When I passed marathon distance, I celebrated with two of the tiny cups of coke. I did again when I passed 50k a few loops later.

At 4:30, my stomach, which had been bothering me the entire race, finally decided it was ready for me to use the bathroom. So I made it to the porta-potties at the starting point and sat for the first time in 10 hours. Not my ideal location to sit and relax, but I felt so much better physically for finally emptying out, and I thought that I could run again, faster and strong!

Until I left the smelly chamber and started to run. Then I realized that sitting was, most assuredly, a problem for my muscles. My already-tired legs complained. My calf was acting up, and my knee began to throb. Walking didn’t hurt much, but running was painful.

I was over 40 miles, and I knew that 50 was attainable even if I walked each loop at slower and slower paces. Still I went on, walking to this point before running again, running each time down the hill and along the flat trail, running through the pastures to tent row. Not a single loop was complete walking, although one or two were close.

I had anticipated daylight for hours, but it came almost reluctantly due to the low, heavy clouds. Still, it was nice to finally shed the headlamp. The trail looked so different after 100 people trod it to dirt and mud for eight hours in the darkness. The koi were still awake, and the horses came out to watch us again. It was encouraging, but I was tired and sore. I wanted to hit 50, and I wanted to be done.

I caught up with Shea, who was hoping to get to 45 miles as her longest trail run in anticipation of next month’s Twisted Branch 100k. She let me run with her, and we chatted about where we hurt and when we would stop. Shea somehow manages to be the most positive person, always smiling even after the hardest race, and she encouraged me to run an entire loop in which I eclipsed 50 miles. I did one more, to hit 51.3 miles total (an average of 12:30 per mile, which included all the downtime spent at bacecamp). And then, at 6:15 in the morning, I told the race director that I was done. I sat in my chair and cracked a beer, and it was over.

James ran one more loop to achieve the same distance as I did, and we helped Shea take down her garage-sized tent. We packed up, saw the last few people finish at 7 am, and I headed home.

I didn’t hit my ultimate goal of 62 miles, though I honestly think I could have if my knee didn’t hurt so much after that 4:30 am pit stop. I didn’t even run the full 12 hours, though I could have. I knew there wasn’t another meaningful mileage goal in sight at 6:15, and I knew I wouldn’t move up the leaderboard (9th overall, 3rd in my age group isn’t bad!), so I was fine with stopping 45 minutes early. I was there the full 12 hours at least, and I achieved an amazing goal of running more than 50 miles.

Think about that: 50 miles. Some race training plans call for mileage runs, and others call for time spent on your feet. This event was nearly 12 hours on my feet (with that one unavoidable sit at 4:30) and 50+ miles. It amazes me to think that three years ago, I ran my first 5k; two years ago, I ran my first half marathon; last year, I ran my first marathon; And this year I was able to run for 12 hours and 50 miles.

To wrap up this long, rambling race report (still not as long as those 12 hours felt, I assure you), I had some worthwhile realizations. I am an ultra runner, capable of great things. The mental aspect of running is my shortcoming, but I was able to overcome that voice encouraging me to quit, keep my head down, and keep moving those feet forward. Even when it got hard and it hurt, I was able to get back into a run. I was able to keep moving forward.

The race director put on a great, well-organized, and beautiful race. The volunteers (and “voluncheers” as they called themselves) were awesome and encouraging. The other runners were tremendous people also capable of amazing things, and I enjoyed running with them all. Even those who quit at their goal distance or time or when injuries got too bad ran long and did great things.

I look forward to learning what I can achieve in 12 hours next year.

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