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A hilly challenge at the Night Owl Trail Marathon

By Henry Howard

I’d wanted an early trail race in 2023 to test my fitness, challenge me and give me a goal before the spring race season kicked in.

The Night Owl Trail Marathon (Waynesville, Ohio) provided all that and more.

It had been awhile since I’d lined up at the start of a night race. This one had a start time of 4 p.m., which gave the marathon runners about 90 minutes of daylight before darkness (my old friend) descended on the trail.

Originally the course was going to be two 13.1-mile loops. However, the previous night, the race director sent out an urgent message. Due to high waters at a creek crossing the marathon, half marathon and 10K courses had been changed. The rest of the message was a mix of hieroglyphics and codes developed by the Navajo Code Talkers in World War II. They may have made sense to someone familiar with the course but meant nothing to me.

Simply put, the new marathon course started with doing the 10K out-and-back, which was actually 6.8 miles. After returning to the start area we did two 10-mile out-and-backs for a total of roughly 26.8 miles. (My watch showed 27.3. It's always an -ish when it comes to measuring trail races.)

My race

The first out-and-back section had the muddiest portion of the course so it was good to get it out of the way early.

Early on, I had a ton of people pass me. I tried not to think about what place I was in. But it was somewhere in the 20s. I tried not to think about getting passed repeatedly and instead focused on running strongly and consistently throughout the race.

Patience and Joy are not actually strippers at a nightclub. They were the mantras I embraced.

As runners were approaching me on their return loops, I greeted each one with a “great job” or other kudos. That was a staple throughout my race. And with three out-and-backs, I offered quite a bit of greetings.

After emerging from the muddiest section on the return loop, I was feeling good, exuding positivity and passed a couple of runners. That gave me the confidence that I would need.

During the first 10-mile out-and-back, I worked my way up the field. I figured I was in around 12th place but it was hard to tell as the half marathoners joined us an after we started.

After turning around at the start/finish area and beginning the final loop, I pressed on, running hard. I was thankful that it was a repeat of the first loop since it would be completely in the dark. Nothing really notable occurred during this loop until the very end.

While I was disappointed that another runner passed me with about a quarter mile to go, he was the first to do so since very early in the race.

As I approached the finish line, I realized how close I was to my race time guess. When my wife asked me about a finishing time, I told her I had no idea since the course had changed — and the new turn-by-turn directions meant nothing to me since I had never run in that area before. I told her maybe around 5 hours but that’s just a guess.

Finishing time: 5:00:52.

Place: 7th male, 8th overall.

Elevation gain: 2,500 feet

Lessons learned

Six lessons learned or relearned from this race:

  1. Focus on the long haul: The race is not won in the first 10K. Focus on consistency and moving forward.

  2. Train for the race: All the hills I did in training paid off. The course didn’t have any steep climbs. It was a long set of rolling hills with a few short but welcome flat sections.

  3. Patience pays off. The only walking I did was up a steep section or through tricky footing. My goal was to keep moving and being patient as I clicked off the miles.

  4. Be kind, spread joy. I know I got a boost by wishing other runners well. I hope they did also.

  5. Protect thyself: The wet conditions in some spots threatened blisters and chafing. Thanks to my Squirrel's Nut Butter and Drymax socks, I emerged unscathed once again.

  6. Lock in nutrition, hydration and caffeine: For a night race, approaching nutrition, hydration and caffeine takes on a different look. I reversed my caffeine intake for the day. Starting with a cup of decaf then switching to caffeinated Long Run Coffee closer to race time. paid off during the race.

What's next

Next races for me pose two big challenges:

• Up first is the Blue Ridge Marathon in Virginia in April, which has more than triple — 7,800 — feet of elevation gain. Thanks, I think, do RunChat. for the race entry when I was selected as the winner of a recent contest.

• In July, I will be running the 100-mile Burning River in Ohio as this year's Western States qualifier. In support of the trail system we will be running on, I am raising money for the trail to ensure generations of runners, hikers, walkers and others can enjoy it. I'd be honored if you would support my journey with a kind donation to the trail, which you can do at this link.

Time to heal from the race, then begin training for my next adventures while continuing to exude patience and find joy.


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