Sunday, August 19, 2007

Running under the shooting stars at the 12 Hours at Cool Night Run

Last week, I joined about 75 other runners in Cool, CA to run the inaugural 12 Hours at Cool Night Run. I had one of the best runs of my life there. Not because I ran very fast or far, but because after I ran through a low period in the second loop, I got into an effortless rhythm in which I felt like I could go on forever -- a case of prolonged runner's high.

The Cool night run is a timed event on a 9-mile loop course called the Olmstead loop. It starts when it is still light, at 7 p.m., and you have twelve hours to complete as many loops as you can. More importantly, you have until 5 a.m. the next morning to make it to the cutoff at the start to be able to go out for a last loop. The course -- a combination of single-track trail and fire roads -- runs over some rolling hills for the first 5 miles and then has several significant climbs spread out over the next 3 miles. After that, it is a fairly flat last mile back to the start/finish behind the Cool Fire Station.

At mile 3.5

To get an idea of how many miles I might be able to run before the cutoff, I took my two sons, Sean and Rocky, out to the course a week before running the TRT100. Since we were going on vacation for three weeks right after TRT100, arriving back in the US only the night before the 12-hour run, I would not have another chance to run the course.

Sean and Rocky after completing the Cool loop on the bike

The kids and I had a great time and I reduced my expectations quite a bit after I found myself pushing the kids' mountain biked for significant portions of the course. It took the three of us a little bit more than 2 hours, so 72 miles was definitely out of the question. Adding tired legs from TRT into the mix, it would either be 63 or 54 miles. Course knowledge always helps quite a bit and I was certainly happy to have run the course once before I would actually come out for the race.
The end of the 9-mile loop

I was going to run this race with jet lag, which I hoped would actually be in my favor. However, we stayed up very late during the last days of our trip and after a delayed flight, we arrived in SFO on Friday afternoon. By the time we left the airport, it was 3 p.m. -- rush hour. It took us about 7 hours to drive home (instead of the usual 3) and I had to pull over a few times not to fall asleep. I was completely fried when we came home, but with our jet lag, we still woke up early the next day. I had a good pasta lunch, rested a bit more, and then hooked up with my friend/crew Chris around four to head over to Cool.

The little town of Cool, CA

We stopped on the way to get some Gatorade and coffee and got to the race HQ around 6. I got my number and chatted with a few other runners, like Jeremy Reynolds, who had just won the Western States Horse Race in record time (congratulations, Jeremy!).

I was expecting to see Rajeev, Anil, and Chihping at the start, but found out later that they ran a bit late. Chihping literally ran late: he actually ran 10 miles from the Auburn train station to the start at Cool in an effort to reduce global warming. This, of course, after completing yet another 100-miler between TRT100 and Cool!

Chris, preparing the crew truck

Nancy Warren, the race director, gave us a quick rundown of what to expect. The race was very well organized, with a great group of volunteers. Robert and Linda Mathis ( were at the start tracking the runners' laps and updating the race web site real time. Nancy and her family were running the incredibly well-stocked start/finish aid station, and there was an aid station at mile 5.5, run by ultra-veterans Norm and Helen Klein. The course was well-marked with ribbon and glow sticks, so really all we had to do is run!

Nancy Warren explains the course
After the race briefing, we all gathered at the start. My plan for the race was a slightly unorthodox. Go out very fast for the first loop, to avoid the dust on the trail and to take maximum advantage of the daylight. I would run this first loop without a headlamp, so I would have to make it back quickly. After that, my plan was to settle into a slightly slower pace for the rest of the night. My wife had made a thermos of Starbucks coffee for later and I was also counting on jet lag to keep me awake.
With Jeremy at the start at 6:59 p.m.

We started at exactly 7 p.m. and I quickly moved to the front of the pack and maintained 2nd place until Alan Abbs, who was running a great race, passed me at the 5.5 mile aid station. I felt great. Running at sunset is the best! This was the second run in two weeks that started in the evening (Runs in Italy, like the one we had just run a week earlier, tend to be run in the evening) and if it was up to me, we would have more of these evening runs.

I thought I might be pushing a little too hard, but decided to just let go and have fun. I arrived at the start in third place in about 1:15, faster than planned, but a little extra time would come in handy later. I put on my bandana and Black Diamond headlamp, changed water bottles, and I was off for my second loop.

I had barely run a mile of the second loop and all of a sudden I found myself a bit nauseous and out of steam. What happened? Running the uphills felt almost impossible and even the flat sections felt rough. Negative thoughts flashed through my brain -- I had not completely recovered from TRT, so was this going to be similar to walking the last 47 miles of that run? I had hoped to avoid bonking late in the race, but now, only two hours into it, all I could do was walk -- it was going to be a long night. It got dark and I turned on the headlamp. The trail was quite dusty and sometimes it was a bit hard to get good footing in the dark.

Surprisingly, not too many runners passed me on this second loop and I finished it in 1:45. At TRT, I had good luck with eating soup and potatoes, so I had some of that at the aid stations, hoping it would cure my upset stomach. I stopped for a little while at the truck (I really wanted to just sit down, but avoided the temptation), went to the bathroom, and took off again.

Race Headquarters behind the Cool Fire Station

Maybe it was the potatoes, or Norm and Helen's soup, maybe it was the fact that it was now 9 a.m. in Italy, or maybe it was one of the wishes I made upon the numerous shooting stars, but all of a sudden, I felt better. I started running again. Not fast, but not too slow either. I got into a rhythm I had never felt before; effortless, yet unstoppable. I ran for a mile, then another, and another, and just kept motoring along amazed by this sudden change of pace. I walked only a few of the very steep sections, like the half mile section after the creek crossing at mile 5. Surprisingly, I could find my running rhythm again on the runnable section and I just kept cruising along on auto-pilot.

It was a new Moon and the sky was filled with meteor showers, which was quite spectacular if you dared to take your eyes of the trail for a second or two. Most of the sections were still pretty warm, but there were occasional cold pockets where the temperature was chilly. I finished my third loop and told Chris I was back on track. Rajeev was at the aid station and wished me good luck on the final laps. Every time I would pass the aid station, I was offered a number of delicious-sounding menu items: bacon, breakfast burritos, and, my personal favorite, pancakes. The only problem is that I don't eat too much during the race, so every time I would tell the volunteers I would be back at 7 a.m. to take them up on their offer. I had some potatoes, a little bit of coffee and I was off again for loop number 4.

There were quite a few runners ahead of me, but many of them called it a night early on, completing just a few laps, so it was hard to know where I was in the overall standings. I did not care too much about this anyway. I just wanted to make sure I made the 5 a.m. cutoff. Since I felt good and I was still running steady, I started calculating possible cutoff scenarios again and it was obvious that I was heading for an easy 54 miles. I started passing a few people here and there, but since there were now less than 75 people spread out over the 9-mile loop, I was mostly running solo.

At the end of lap 4, I felt confident that I would nail the 6 loops, and while Chris changed the batteries in my headlamp, filled up my bottles, and prepared some coffee, I took a quick 10-minute sit down break. I put on a light jacket, because the 5th lap would definitely be the coldest lap. I wanted to start my final lap at 4:45, so that I would have a little extra time to finish the full loop before 7.
Somehow, it almost felt as if I was going faster on the 5th lap than on the previous laps. I have had runner's high quite a few times before, but never quite as long as this time. I had found my all-night rhythm!

I was back at the start at 4:37, took a quick break and told Chris to have the camera ready at the finish line and then took of on my final lap. On this final lap, we were greeted by a beautiful sunrise. I passed a runner and noticed it was 15-year old Michael Kanning. We were close to the Klein aid station and Michael was going to stop there, running an unbelievable 50.5 miles in 12 hours. It reminded me a bit of myself; my father and I would routinely hike distances of 40K to 60K a day in Holland when I was around Michael's age. One summer vacation (I believe I was 15 then), we racked up over 1000K in the forests of Holland and Germany.
With Michael Kanning at the finish
I turned off the headlamp and chatted with Michael a little bit. He is planning to run Rio del Lago in September -- his first 100 miler. Apart from running the race, which is admirable in itself, Michael is also fundraising for cancer research (See his blog I told Michael that I would give him $0.50 for each mile he ran at Cool and wished him the best at RDL, and then took off running again, because I was still shooting for 54 miles.

Sunrise at the Olmstead Loop

The last half mile of the loop is fairly flat and as you come out of the forest, you can see the fire station and the parking lot in the distance. I started running faster (pancakes were waiting at the finish!) and sprinted into the parking lot, towards the finish line. I felt great and crossed the line faster than Chris could take a picture with about 13 minutes to spare in 11:47:26.

Photo finish minus the finisher

I was officially the last finisher, yet 6th overall and one of 5 people that completed 54 miles. Alan Abbs won the race running 63 miles. Due to the 5 a.m. cutoff, there were not too many people left. That did not stop Nancy and her volunteers from cooking some more food, however. They immediately cooked me a delicious stack of pancakes that really hit the spot.

My favorite: pancakes!
After breakfast, Chris drove me home. I was really tired and very grateful to have someone to take me home, because I don't think I could have stayed awake while driving. When we were almost home, I realized I had lost my sunglasses, but fortunately Nancy had found them and she mailed them to me (Thanks again, Nancy!).
Finished -- 54 miles in a cool 12 hours
Thanks again to Nancy, Norm and Helen Klein, Robert and Linda Mathis, and all the other volunteers for putting on this great event. Depending on my work and running schedule next year, I will definitely put this on my list of races to run again. That course record is ready to be broken :)
With Nancy Warren


Rajeev said...


You are an awesome runner. It must have been a fantastic run. I bet your words do not do justice to it!


anil said...

Congrats Pete, I kept checking your status with Robert, Good to knw you got good number of laps inspite of all travel and initial issues.

Great going! It was a fantastic night out there, my favourite run as well.


Gretchen said...

Great Job Peter and I'm glad to know I wasn't last ;-) It's like magic when that rythm hits and everything feels almost easy, isn't it? Something about running at night seemed to help that state of mind for me, and the meteor shower didn't hurt either. Glad to know you had a great experience too!
You've got quite a race calander there...I'll look for you at Lake of the Sky and HK!

olga said...

Yumm, how come I forgot to ask for pancakes? I figured everybody's gone and din't want to burden volunteers...good run, Pete!

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