After the sun set, 500 runners sporting headlamps embarked on a journey through a heavily wooded park on their way to an amazing post-race spread.
By Henry Howard
Last August, I had to record my first — and to date only — DNS (did not start) for a race, due to an ITBS injury. The race was a half marathon on a trail in Eagle Creek Park, roughly 15 miles north of Indianapolis. (In 2011, Trail Runner Magazine named it the “Best Urban Based Trail Marathon” in the country.)
After healing, I made plans to avenge that setback by completing two trail races this year at the same park. That brings us to June 6 and the Summer Night Trail Marathon. The event started after sundown in the sprawling park — mostly single-track trail — that is usually closed at that time of day.
Review: Summer Night Half Marathon
On your marks, headlamps on . . go
I was among the 500 or so runners who donned headlamps and ventured out for a quarter marathon, half marathon (two loops) or full marathon (four loops).
Only about 40 runners competed in the full marathon, and they were the first to cross the starting line. Around 300 people signed up for the half marathon so the race director set us off in waves, around 20-30 at a time, so as to not clog up the trails.
I was in the sixth group that went out after the full marathoners. Once we crossed the start line, I picked up the pace to get out in front of the pack. It was a neat and unique feeling — with no runners in sight, it felt as if I was leading the race.
As I left the gravel parking lot and turned toward the woods, meeting the trail, I looked up ahead and saw that the other runners had slowed down.
To a walk.
The single-track trail had created a traffic jam of brightly-colored, Cyclops-headlight-looking runners.
As I slowed down to a meandering walk, I looked down at my watch.
We had not even gone one-tenth of a mile.
It was slow going for a while, mainly because of the challenges of the trail — wooden steps, slight elevation, twists and turns, and tree roots. At the half-mile mark, a tree root tripped me up. I never saw it coming — I felt the top of my foot hit it and knew that I was going down. No bruises, no worries. I scrambled back up without missing a beat.
We were still easing through the darkness around three-quarters of a mile. Trying to find humor amid the frustration, I announced, “At this pace, I can do an ultra,” which nearby runners chuckled at and agreed with.
‘Where did the trail go?’
Once the pace quickened, I set out to pass anyone and everyone I could where possible. And sometimes where not possible. I lost count of how many runners I passed but I moved up to where my pace felt good.
I continued to press on, catching up with individuals and small groups, and passing where I could. We hit all sorts of terrain: packed dirt, loose dirt, more roots, some sand and rocks. At one point, the trail split a body of water — where men and women were still fishing, even though it was around 10 at night. The trail was mostly loose stone and planks.
As we left that path, we headed back into the wooded area, which seemed darker than the earlier tree-lined path. The woods seemed to be more dense, but more importantly, there were fewer other runners around, so the lack of nearby lights let more of the nighttime darkness in.
Somewhere between miles 4 and 5, the trail went right — and I went left. I was only about 10-15 feet off the trail, when I turned back and called out to a group of four runners, “Where did the trail go?”
Luckily, the lead runner had raced on the trail before and knew exactly where to go. I quickly caught up to him and followed him. He did a great job leading the way and setting a nice pace. At one point, he called out and thanked me for trusting him. To which, I replied, “No worries, dude. When you found me, I was off the trail.”
Just after the 6-mile mark, there was a series of large logs that covered the path. They were too close to one another to hurdle, so we slowed down to a walk while we propelled ourselves across the logs, one at a time.
The trail opened up, revealing the finish line, which would be the halfway point for us. I picked up the pace, leaving my sherpa behind, and re-entered the trail for the final lap.
Soon enough I caught up to another runner, who I was thankful for, because the trail was again noticeably darker without a bunch of headlights.
Even though her headlight was a big help to mine, I still managed to bite the dust again — practically in the same spot as the first tumble. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the same root that got me again.
After that, the second loop was not very eventful. I did see runners in a couple of places returning to the trail, after taking a wrong turn.
I do believe that the race director had proper signage, caution tape and other indicators of where to turn throughout the course. But not every possible wrong way could have been recognized and accounted for.
As the race wore on, I kept my pace steady and recognized most of the trail, finding spots to accelerate and others to ensure proper footing.
The series of logs toward the end of the second lap once again slowed me down. But after crossing them, I knew the finish line was beckoning. As my trail shoes left the dirt and grass, and I headed toward the finish line (complete with disco ball), I hit the accelerator once last time.
Finishing time: 2:11:28 with nearly even splits of 1:05:56.9 and 1:05:31.3. That was good enough to finish 37th out of 285 finishers and 10th out of 48 in my age group.
I’ll take it.
At the finish line
Of course, crossing the finish line means it’s time to eat. What does one eat around midnight after finishing a half marathon?
For starters, there was a barbecue full of pork, sausage and chicken choices awaiting finishers, as well as sno cones, doughnuts and the usual staples of bananas, granola bars, chips and water.
I did not go home hungry. The multi-colored sno cone was a nice treat, as was the BBQ chicken.
Run this type of race if you . . .
- Enjoy running on trails.
- Want to experience a new adventure.
- Practice running at night with a headlamp beforehand. (Remember: Nothing new on race day.)
- Are not worried about setting a PR.
- Think you might want to try an ultra. It’s a good test and a nice way to build up toward an ultra.
Would I do this race again?
Yes, absolutely. The challenging race, post-race food spread and free photos (yes, free) all make this particular race worthwhile. In fact, I have signed up for another trail race (though not at night) that is part of this series.
The next race, also a half marathon, will be in August in another part of the park. But I am not committed to racing it just because I liked the night trail run. I am determined to complete the August race to fulfill my quest to finish these two trail races, and specifically because this was the race in which I had my DNS in 2014.