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Running in the Dark & Self-Directed
Advice on nighttime running and self-coaching, plus a race preview
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Sunday morning, I woke up at 3:30 a.m. to be out the door and running by 5. It’s what I’ll need to do for a race with a 5 a.m. start this coming Saturday, so I might as well practice the early start. Plus, I needed at least an hour in pre-dawn darkness to test out a new headlamp.
But this early start wasn’t easy or comfortable, because I don’t like running in the dark. My vision strains, my pace slows. I’m jumpy, on heightened alert to sounds and shadows that might be creatures, creating stress and tension. When I think about running overnight at the September 15 Run Rabbit Run 100, I mildly dread it and feel grateful I’ll have a friend at my side as a pacer.
I also recognize the need for an attitude shift. The nighttime isn’t a threat or disadvantage—it just is. When I profiled Becky Bates for a Trail Runner article last month, she told me she loves the night in ultras—“the night is my drug … I get so jacked up at night,” she said. She feels revitalized, not drained, after sunset.
I thought, if only! What if I could carpe noctem too?
So I drove to the intersection of Highway 145 and Ophir Road, where I could run three easy, smooth dirt road miles in the dark before starting the climb up the rocky Ophir Pass, which tops out at 11,700 feet. I’d rather run alone in the dark on a wide road instead of narrow, technical singletrack.
Leaving my car and stepping into the moonless darkness, I felt a tingly thrill mixed with pride that I had gotten out of the house as early as planned. I intended to run at least five hours, with significant vertical gain, and I loved the idea I’d be done before noon and have all afternoon to do other stuff.
My new headlamp, the Petzl NAO RL, illuminated the road plenty, even on the second-highest setting. (To preserve battery life, I won’t use the highest setting.) It also fit my head much more comfortably and securely compared to my old Black Diamond Spot. The first two miles in the dark passed easily, and soon I was running past the cluster of quiet dark homes in Ophir and starting up the high-clearance mining road carved out of a mountainside made of chunky talus.
As the dawn silhouetted the mountains to the east above Silverton, I felt “jacked up” like Becky had described. I had this whole natural alpine amphitheater to myself, and I felt mildly intoxicated from awe at the beauty. It was so worth it to wake up early to witness the pink alpenglow painting the mountains to the west.
I spent the next five hours hiking and running over the pass to Highway 550 on the Silverton side, and then on the way back, I detoured to take the Columbine Lake Trail’s switchbacks up to a trail that leads past the magical little Opus Hut. Occasionally I paused my watch at a stream to filter water and linger while taking in the views—no need to rush. Then I finished the route back on Ophir Road, 22 miles total.
My weekend long-run plan took shape only the day prior, last Saturday, when I altered running plans after a neighbor texted that he needed help rounding up a cow, so could my husband and I ride with him? When one has horses that benefit from riding cross-country and working cows, one does not pass up that kind of invitation. So I bagged my Saturday run plan, spent the morning in the saddle—delightfully, but unsuccessfully, chasing a cow who refused to cooperate—and then started my Saturday run at 4 p.m. I managed a 13-mile loop before dinner.
Why I don’t use a coach
It hit me this past weekend, as I altered my plans, how much I appreciate and value the flexibility of making my own training schedule and changing it based on how my body feels or how my schedule changes, rather than following a coach’s training plan. At the start of the year, I hired a coach for the first time in nearly a decade because I wanted the motivation and accountability, along with enhanced knowledge, that a coach typically provides. I liked and respected her, but it became clear after only six or so weeks that I didn’t really need a coach, and I prefer self-coaching.
Using TrainingPeaks, I create my own training plans and set goals at the start of each week—for example, a target of volume in terms of duration and mileage; two or three key run workouts; at least one strength session—based on where I am in a training block (building, peaking, tapering, or recovering). I also use the TrainingPeaks platform to outline long-range plans leading up to a big goal. But then, as life happens, I inevitably tweak the plan or move around workouts based on how I’m feeling, or on the weather, travel, or other variables.
Interestingly, the Western States Endurance Run recently released their 2023 survey results, showing over a third of the runners hired a coach (closer to half for those runners who finished sub-24 hours)—so coaching definitely is popular. But having a coach did not guarantee a finish; 46% of the runners who DNFed had a coach.
Having coached runners for over eight years, I witnessed my clients’ progress and developed satisfying relationships with them, so I know runners certainly can benefit from a coach who offers highly individualized and thoughtful plans. However, I also believe many runners hire a coach unnecessarily—they could train just fine on their own—and often have less-than-satisfying results. Too many coaches, seeking a high volume of clients for profit, take shortcuts and don’t pay enough attention to customizing each client’s plans.
If you want to hire a worthwhile, effective coach and get your money’s worth, I hope you’ll check out this earlier post with advice on what to look for in a coach:
You’re a good candidate for self-coaching if you’re self-motivated and driven by a genuine desire to train. You’re a planner who takes the long view, you generally finish what you start, and you’re a lifelong learner who digs into researching topics that interest you.
By contrast, you may be better off hiring a coach if you’re someone who struggles with organizing your days or who’s susceptible to exercise or nutrition fads. If you lack impulse control or take an all-or-nothing approach to exercise or to projects in general, then hiring a coach for a more gradual, moderate, long-term training plan may be the best move for you.
If you decide to coach yourself, here are some suggestions to help you make the most of your training:
Become a student of the sport: Read a few of the better how-to books available on ultramarathon training (such as this one and this one) and adapt their advice to build a training block as well as to develop the mental skills necessary for success at long-distance running. Beware of some books’ generic training plans with grids that show week-by-week mileage totals and day-by-day workouts. These one-size-fits-none plans almost certainly don’t fit what’s right for you in terms of your individual level of fitness, your life circumstances, or the specifics of the race for which you’re training. You can study it as one example of how to develop a training plan, but be sure to adapt it to your individual circumstances and goals.
Use a training log that’s also a planner. Apps like Strava or Garmin Connect are great for generating data about the runs and workouts you complete, but they’re less helpful for building and calendaring future workouts. In my mind, TrainingPeaks is the best program for creating short- and long-range training plans. Of course, you can be old-school and use a paper calendar or a spreadsheet to map out the progression of daily workouts and the training load leading up to your goal. But I recommend trying the TrainingPeaks tool, which can double as a diary to track your thoughts and feelings around your workouts.
Work backward from an “A” race goal. Once you have your top goal on calendar, then work backward from that date. Schedule and plan tapering, peak training runs, perhaps a DIY training camp, and any races leading up to the main event. Also factor in periods of travel, vacation, or extra-high work stress and consider making those training weeks easier. Then, use the know-how you’ve gleaned from being a student of the sport to outline your week-by-week training.
Fine-tune the plan for each week. Get in a habit on the weekend of looking ahead to the upcoming two weeks’ schedules to make your training fit in with your real life. Prioritize two or three high-quality runs per week (e.g. higher intensity intervals, a medium-length midweek hill run, the weekend long run), and layer in shorter, easier runs around those. Also schedule an effective amount of strength and mobility work. If life intervenes and you must miss a run because you’re too busy or tired, then skip an easy run and try to maintain a commitment to the week’s two or three key workouts.
Create a support network. Make dates with runner friends to share the easy runs and long runs at a relaxed conversational pace. (In my case, I use a group run as one of my harder weekly runs, since they’re faster than I!) Hire a personal trainer or physical therapist for a few sessions to customize a beneficial strength and mobility routine for you. Find others training for your goal race and consider organizing a group training run on the race route, or on a route with a similar profile and terrain.
The paradox of ultrarunning
On Saturday, I’m tackling the Telluride Mountain Run 40-mile race—a giant circumnavigation of the town, over four mountain passes—for the fourth time (I ran it in 2016, ’18, ’21, and last year did the 24-mile version). This will be my final big run before Run Rabbit Run 100 three weeks later. Ideally, I would not have such a depleting long run so close to the 100-miler, but I should be OK if I don’t injure myself Saturday, and if I rest and taper well for the three weeks.
It's difficult to adequately describe the level of Telluride Mountain Run’s challenge. It’s “only” 40ish miles (in 2021, on the new route, my watch counted 43) but most runners’ times are comparable to the time they’d take for a 100K. Some segments are incredibly slow with hiking due to the slope, terrain, and high altitude. On one 1.5-mile ridge line section above 13,000 feet, my pace likely will slow to about 45 minutes/mile because the section requires using one’s hands to carefully crawl and scramble along the rocky line, being extra cautious due to exposure on both sides.
I looked back at my last TMR race report, and this paragraph reminded me why I do these kinds of runs. I wonder if I’ll feel the same way this Saturday?
Part of my drive felt almost territorial. I’m a local, I thought, and I belong here. I love these mountains, I want to traverse them and feel as if I’m a part of them. The drive also comes from the paradox of ultrarunning: the more I wear myself out, the more powerful I feel during and after. Each upward step on each switchback felt arduous but satisfying, knowing I would complete this course in a not-too-shabby time. Race day gives us the opportunity to test ourselves in ways we’re not likely replicate on a training day, and I didn’t want to miss that opportunity.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you get through nighttime running; on hiring a coach vs. self-coaching; and if you ever experience the paradox of ultrarunning described in the paragraph above. Please comment below!
Also—I’m one month away from the second anniversary of this newsletter. I have just over 1700 subscribers and would love to hit the 2000 milestone by the time this publication turns 2. Can you please share or recommend the newsletter to others? Thank you so much for your support.
Lastly, for newer subscribers who are less familiar with this newsletter, I’m spotlighting an archived post that you might enjoy but probably missed when I initially published it. What might you add to the “What Went Wrong On My Run” list?