Reflections on a Dark, Muddy Trail Marathon

My headlamp light was a DNF casualty a mile into the race. Fortunately, my Run Lites gloves kept the trail illuminated for the next four hours, allowing me to finish.

By Henry Howard

In the days leading up to the Winter Night Trail Marathon outside Indianapolis, Indiana, the forecast consistently called for freezing rain and/or rain.

But about 24 hours before the race on Jan. 14, the forecast changed. No precipitation and temperatures around 30 for the race. I figured my luck was changing and felt good heading into the race.

When I picked up my bib an hour before the race, I saw that it was number 300 — a perfect score in bowling. Another good omen, I thought. That thought would disappear soon after the 6 p.m. race start.

Reflections on a dark, muddy trail marathon

The Winter Night Trail Marathon was the most eventful race that I have experienced to date. And a mental challenge for sure.

Since this race was held completely in the dark on trails, each runner was required to have a headlamp or other light source. I was using my Black Diamond Revolt headlamp and my backup plan was a pair of Run Lites gloves with lights in them that do a really good job of lighting the trail. And the Run Lites gloves are the warmest running gloves I have tried so far.

It’s worth noting here that soon after I arrived, one of the lights slipped from the Velcro holding it in the gloves. I had no idea where the small black-cased light fell in or near the black-topped parking lot as dusk was settling in. But it was a backup so I wasn’t worried.

That is until about a mile into the race — when my headlamp quit, even though I had charged it the previous day. It never turned back on until I tested it while at a stoplight on my way home. I am guessing that it quit in the cold, even though it really wasn’t that cold outside. (Kudos to Black Diamond for sending me a replacement even though I had purchased it 18 months earlier.)

So I was down to one lighting option — one that I had not bothered to charge because after all it was a backup. My estimated finishing time was around 4:15 so I was really worried that the glove light would not make it. To conserve battery, I turned it off while we ran around a lake since the moon was casting a glow, giving us enough light to see. Still, I was looking at nearly four hours of time left — and I had no idea how much juice I had left. I could move down to the half marathon, but that would eliminate me from an official finish and consideration for an age group award.

Fortunately, this was a four-loop course. Knowing that the odds were good that my one battery would die, I realized I had another light source: the flashlight app on my phone, which was in my car. After the first loop, I fetched the phone and used it for lap two to give my glove light a break.

Did someone say mud?

Speaking of lap two, that’s when the course started to get interesting. The first loop was runnable — the freezing rain was minimal as compared to what was expected and stopped early afternoon. However, the wetness — and tracks of 500 runners and walkers, the vast majority doing either the half or quarter marathon — made the second loop very muddy in spots.

Even though the second lap was slower, I was still feeling pretty good when I paused at the aid station to refuel. I credit a runner named Jonathan from Cincinnati for helping me get through the second loop. We had a great conversation for several miles, which kept me from stressing out about my light (or lack thereof) situation.

The third loop was an exercise in staying mentally tough. The mud was much more severe. My legs had taken a pounding. And my stomach was not happy. There was a lot of walking on this loop on the uphills. 

After finally getting through the third loop, I hit the aid station one last time and started out again. Shortly after starting, I looked back to see another headlamp bobbing up and down probably about 30-60 seconds behind me. I recalled MTA coach Angie Spencer’s advice prior to my Boston Qualifier attempt last fall: don’t let the 3:25 group pass you at the Indianapolis Monumental. So, I decided that there was no way that I was letting this runner in the woods of Indianapolis get ahead of me.

About the time we hit the path around the lake, which was muddy and had oodles of puddles, he had caught up to be about 10 paces behind me. I knew that if I could hold him off around the lake (mile 2-3.5ish), then I would have fairly smooth sailing until miles 5-6, which were a muddy disaster (we sunk on literally every step, making it impossible to propel ourselves forward with any power). The last half-mile was very runnable.

I extended my lead again, pushing him back to the 30-60 seconds deficit, soon after we completed the lake portion. His presence kept me pushing hard throughout the final leg, and I did not do any walking on this loop. I did finish about a minute ahead of him.

My final time was 4:39:30, my slowest marathon but still finished 13th overall out of 27, and third in my age group.

Praise for Run Lites

Upon reflection, not only did I finish fairly strong, but the glove light got me through the final two loops. I still had my phone but wanted to conserve its battery first.

There is no doubt that had I not been wearing my Run Lites, there was no way I would finish the race. But it’s not just the fact that I had them as a backup, they are a truly exceptional lighting option. Even one light can handle a trail effectively enough for a runner to navigate a technical, muddy mess.

I really like that the lights are on my hands, rather than my bobbing up-and-down head. It’s easy to get used to running with just the glove lights. And Run Lites customer service is excellent. Even though it was my fault that I lost the one light, they sent me a replacement one, which I really appreciated.

After all, it turns out, that I really did have good fortune on that cold, wet, muddy night

Editor’s note: Listen to the story of how Coach Angie helped Henry turn into a marathon running machine in this interview.

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