In 2012, ultrarunner Dylan Bowman set out on his first full overnight race during the Run Rabbit Run 100-Mile endurance challenge. Although he’d previously run in races that started and ended in the dark (4 a.m. to past sundown), this was the first time he had to navigate the trails in the hours that most of us are sound asleep in our beds.
Bowman placed second with a time of 19 hours and 56 minutes behind Karl Meltzer (19:16:02). But even with that stellar performance, he learned a few things about running through the night that would help him improve his performance during future races.
For ultrarunner Darcy Piceu, her first overnight race was the 2001 Eco-Challenge in New Zealand, where she raced for more than five days. Last year, ultrarunner Gina Lucrezi raced the Leadville 100, a 100-mile ultramarathon through the Rocky Mountains near Leadville, Colo. Like Bowman, both learned from their first and subsequent overnight races and have valuable insight into how runners should prepare for this kind of challenge and what will make the adventure much more enjoyable.
We spoke with Bowman, Lucrezi and Piceu to ask for their tips and advice for those looking to participate in an overnight race next year. Here’s what they had to say:
When it comes to what you should take on the journey, all three stressed having good headlamps, which may be the most obvious suggestion but is also the most important. “Don’t skimp on that piece of technology,” says Bowman. “It can save you so much time to have a good headlamp as opposed to one that may be a little bit more affordable but doesn’t have that much power or as much battery life.” As far as preferred brands, Bowman uses Petzl headlamps, which feature USB rechargeable battery packs (carrying AA and AAA batteries adds weight to your pack).
Lucrezi recommends looking for headlamps with preferably 300+ lumens and advises carrying two. “Wear the brightest torch on your head and place the second around your torso/waist. This provides more light and dimension,” says Lucrezi.
Other than that, Bowman never starts a race without an emergency space blanket—the kind runners wear after finishing a marathon—and a waterproof rain jacket and pants. Piceu also recommends carrying extra batteries or battery packs, gloves and a seamless tubular garment made from a high-performance microfiber that can be worn as a headband, beanie, neck gaiter or dust and wind protector. Piceu recommends Buff, which comes in handy during particularly dusty trails or as an added layer of warmth around your neck.
During the day, many runners don sunglasses to protect their eyes from the harsh sunlight and debris. At night, however, you may not realize that you also need to shield your eyes from the elements and keep them protected. “Depending on the conditions and climate, it’s good to have a pair of clear lenses for night running,” says Lucrezi. “They will help prevent irritation from dust and other elements that can affect your vision. Your vision is especially important at night since you already have limited sight.”
Maximizing Headlamp Battery Life
Most headlamps offer a few different settings to use on your run. Depending on the terrain and how long you want the battery to last, understanding how to best utilize this feature can be helpful during the race.
Before heading out on your run, know how long you need your headlamp battery to last and then put together a strategic plan to ensure it stays lit throughout the night. “If I get to a section of trail where it’s a little bit more technical, or if I get to a trail junction where I may not immediately know which direction to go, I might just flick it on the more powerful setting for a couple of minutes until you navigate through whatever that challenge is before dialing it back down to the default setting where my battery life is going to last the longest,” says Bowman.
Thankfully, headlamp technology is advanced enough now where you’re able to toggle between settings without breaking your stride. This is where it becomes important to practice your lighting system ahead of time. “I don’t think you have to run through the night prior to a 100-mile race, but I do think it’s important to really have your lighting system dialed,” says Piceu. “Practice running in the dark with the lights and food you will be wanting to use in your race beforehand.”
Since our bodies aren’t used to eating in those night hours, it’s a good idea to practice your eating plan before a race and know what your body will need to stay alert and energized. “The most important thing is to have a strategy that you’re going to utilize nutritionally in an ultramarathon,” says Bowman. “Ideally, that strategy is something that you mimic in training so that you know it provides you with good energy. And you know how your body reacts when you eat at certain intervals.”
In Bowman’s case, he mainly relies on a liquid diet during races and sips on calorie-rich drinks and GU Roctane. If you need more solids, Piceu suggests eating similar foods to what you would eat during the day. “I try to stick to more whole foods, like avocado tortilla wraps, PB&J sandwiches and fruit. I also like salty snacks and chips. I tend to drink a lot of Coca Cola during the night as well.”
Also be aware that oftentimes you lose your appetite in these races, either because you’re not normally eating at 2 a.m. or because you’ve possibly overeaten earlier in the day. Bowman urges runners to keep fueling, even when you’d rather not. Calorie-packed liquids, gels, energy snacks and protein-packed treats are good ways to fill up your tank quickly without having to reach for a sandwich.
Utilizing Aid Stations
Because the final aid station before your overnight run is the last time you’ll see your crew until morning, it’s important to have a game plan in place so you don’t miss anything.
“When racing at night, you are generally running a pretty long race. By this time, you are feeling fatigued and sleepy,” says Lucrezi. “You need to take care of yourself at all aid stations, but spend an extra few minutes at the night aid stations to make sure you are fueling well and have the right gear from your drop bag. Nights are often cooler, so you’ll want to make sure you grab a warm layer and drink something hot (soup, coffee, tea, etc.). Also, be sure to grab extra batteries for your headlamp.”
Bowman also mentions the aid station soups as being a smart choice because they double as a comforting meal before the lonely trek and keep your temperature up in the chilly weather.
When it’s 3:30 a.m. and the world around you is quiet, it’s easy to start getting drowsy and feel a need to give up and sleep. Looking back at her first overnight race, Piceu recalls sleep deprivation being a big challenge and thankfully planned ahead for those exact moments.
“It was my first experience with ‘dirt naps,’ and I also had to take NoDoz [alertness pills] at one point because I literally was falling asleep while paddling a boat.” As a Red Bull sponsored athlete, Bowman reaches for four to five cans of the energy drink during a 100-mile race to keep alert. “I sort of disproportionately consume those in the last third of the race, which is usually at night. If you’re battling sleep, come up with some kind of a caffeine strategy,” says Bowman.
If you’re really struggling, allow yourself to take a quick dirt nap (which means exactly what it sounds like), and let your body rest for no longer than 30 minutes. Studies have shown that subjects who napped did better physiologically and psychologically while also showing large improvements in mood and physical performance.
Fears & Hallucinations
Hallucinations are completely normal and will most likely happen if you’re running in the dark for multiple nights in a row. Piceu recalls running the John Muir Trail, her longest trek at that point. “I definitely experienced hallucinations and struggled with wanting to sleep on the trail a lot,” says Piceu. “I saw a lot of gnomes that were actually rocks or tree stumps. I was sure that I was seeing something through the night, but as I would get closer, I realized it was a tree or rock. Three days of running straight will do that, I guess.”
If you do start to see things you know shouldn’t be on the trail (gnomes), just remember to take a breath and tell yourself it’s not only in your mind but it happens to the most experienced of runners.
Another thing to be mindful of while running alone in the dark is a feeling of fearfulness that you may begin to feel the longer the evening hours go on. “New runners to night running can often be intimidated. Being solo in the dark can be a scary experience,” says Bowman. “I find that the best thing you can do to overcome the intimidation is to simply practice night runs with friends. This is the time to test gear and get comfortable with limited visibility.”