12/13 2012

A Midnight Mountain Adventure to Welcome My Birthday

On 12/12/12, I turned 49. Shouldn’t this be reason to celebrate in an unusual and special way? I think so.

Enter the Running Monkey, a 12-mile, 12-hour ultra event beginning at 12:12 a.m. on 12/12/12 (in the mountains). This seemed like the perfect way to fulfill my need for spontaneous adventure and welcome my 49th year, if I could actually stay awake that late and, more importantly, find a partner in crime. Lo and behold, in the 11th hour of the 11th day (of December), my friend Terri agreed to join me.

I picked up Terri at 11:30 p.m. (looking quite happy, below) and we headed out to the trail head.

Naturally, neither of us knew exactly where the trail head was located (directions on the race’s website were very vague and I didn’t go out of my way to research further). Thirty minutes and 60 deer running along the winding country roads later, we found a small parking lot with about 20 cars. Even after finding the lot, however, it was difficult to know where the actual trail was, given the complete darkness. (Note: Never do something like this alone).

Finally, after taking our chances, we twisted around a dirt trail to find a warm, lighted tent in the middle of nowhere.

Even though it was well past my usual bedtime, the 60+ participants were exuberant. I had a flashback to last year’s yurt adventure when I noticed that these individuals were decked out in proper mountaineering gear. Everyone had on reflective clothing and running shoe gators and most had hiking poles (I had discovered earlier in the day that the first two miles of each lap is a 1800’ vertical climb).

I was proud to have remembered a headlamp, but I hadn’t remotely thought of bringing hiking poles (not surprising since I don’t own a pair anyway) and wore my light, not-very-water-repellent running jacket that’s perfect for the 50 degree weather I witnessed at my home 45 minutes earlier.

Then we were off. And it was love at first sight! Even the front-runners had to hike at a brisk pace; the elevation gain was simply too steep to run. It was eerily invigorating to be hiking into an abyss of darkness – which might have actually played to our advantage because it was impossible to know exactly how steep the terrain actually was (unless, of course, you happened to be one of the organized participants who checked out the path beforehand). There was, however, a line of headlamps glowing in the distance, outlining the path that awaited us.

Everyone was jolly and chatting on the course. There were some steep, icy pitches going downhill, even some twisty turns with drop-offs I’m very glad I couldn’t see. And about 30 minutes into the race, it started snowing. Hard. I was beside myself in excitement to see beautiful flakes of snow adorning my view, while my jacked quite literally soaked up the wet experience, too.

After about an hour or so, a group of men passed me going the opposite direction downhill, running like gazelles, poles in hand to brace a possible fall. I asked a fellow gentleman, “Where are these people coming from?” And he politely answered, probably wondering if I had an ounce of sense in my head, “The course is an out and back.” (Hum…maybe I should read more about these things next time around).

Shortly thereafter, we reached the summit and collected a monkey (if you actually kept hiking/jogging for a full 12 hours, the winner is the person who collects the most monkeys).

Though the downhill isn’t as challenging as the uphill from a conditioning standpoint, the terrain very demanding on the quads and knees. Klutzes like me also need to watch out for icy patches, not an easy task when you’re running in the wilderness in the middle of the night. Everyone we passed along the way, going either direction, could not have been more supportive. All offered words of encouragement like I’ve never witnessed in any event.

So I must confess that neither Terri nor I had planned on continuing with the race for the full 12-miles or 12-hours. In fact, our intention was do one 4-mile lap and call it a night. When we got to the back to the tent almost two hours later, a large group of participants were inside warming up, conversing and eating snacks, ready to tackle another lap of the course. Drenched by the now downpour and ready to crawl into a warm bed, we signed out and settled in for a rainy drive home. Nonetheless, the spirit of the race had not left me.

I was completely exhausted on my actual birthday (in large part due also to the singles tennis I played first thing that same morning), but I don’t think I’ve ever started off a birthday with so much exhilaration. I truly felt liberated to have brought in a year of life by doing something that I love. In fact, I highly recommend exercise over alcohol for such occasions, especially if you dread birthdays as much as I do.

I also think I have found a new sport (just in case I needed another)! Though I’ve heard wonderful things about ultra-events in the past, I have now witnessed it first-hand. The mutual support of one other on the course is unsurpassed. Though these events are physically challenging in much the same way as any other endurance race, the atmosphere is more relaxed and celebratory. You have to be strategic to conserve energy for the long haul. You get to enjoy the sights and sounds of the wilderness, (or in my case the darkness and elements), and you can stop and eat whenever you want (a big bonus!). My only word of advice is to plan ahead a bit more than I did if you actually want to complete it.

If you have a sense adventure and love for the outdoors, give an ultra-event a try. And find friends and/or family who will be partners in crime – I am deeply appreciative to Terri for making my 49th a birthday I’ll never forget.

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