Have you ever wondered what would happen if you chose to run all night long instead of sleeping? What it would be like to get up, go about your regular day and then instead of tucking in at night, chose to run for 7.5 hours, and then go about the next day as if nothing ever happened? You probably haven’t because that would be a completely ridiculous thing to do. So obviously that is exactly what I, and 13 other completely ridiculous people did last Friday night. For fun. Well, more accurately, for the suffering. We wanted to find out what it would actually be like to run on sleep deprivation. The purpose of the training run was not only to work out the practical aspects of night running (getting used to wearing a headlamp, dressing for the cooler temperatures, navigating technical terrain with limited field of vision etc.) but we also wanted to simulate to some degree, what the body will go through on a very long race when you run all day, through the night and into the next day. So I woke up early Friday morning and went for a bit of a run, did my usual strength workout, worked all day, came home and fed the kids, went out with friends for dinner, then met up with all the other pyscho-paths in the city so we could start running at midnight until morning.
The night held all the promises of an incredible experience; the sky was clear with stars out in full force, Aurora Watch issued a Northern Lights forecast, energy was running high in the chatty group and the good tunes were pumping out of someone’s pack. It was all the makings of a wild trail party as we started out across Two Truck Trail, with the obligatory stop for pictures at the trucks and the usual ducking under branches and sliding down the steep parts. We were all feeling like a bunch of kids who had snuck out after curfew in search of reckless living, but instead of sneaky cigarettes and stolen hard liquor, we were indulging in mud caked shoes and pokey branches whipping at your face.
It was also absolutely, horrifically, brutal. Beautiful and brutal. It was Brutiful.
The next section of trail was a lot more runnable, but still rather technical terrain and one wrong step caused me to roll my ankle over, not bad enough to end my run, but it definitely took a little wind out of my sails. It was also the first of many strikes that would eventually break me down to a teary exhausted mess by daybreak. I could go on forever to discuss the many mistakes I made throughout the night, a list of pathetic excuses and rookie mistakes. I didn’t carry enough food and only had 200 calories in the first 5 hours, I wasn’t carrying enough layers and spent most of the night shivering, my headlamp couldn’t compete with the overly bright lights of the others so my eyes never adjusted to the low light, I didn’t drink enough nor did I eat or rest enough leading up to the night and instead came off a busy and stressful week and went straight into the run with little to no thought into how massive an undertaking it really was. Basically, I started with my tank running on fumes and then tried to run for 7.5 hours.
It. Was. Brutal.
I don’t even know if I can pinpoint when I gave up the mental battle, or even when my body reached the point of no return, but I do know that as the hours dragged on and the sky started to lighten, my already slow pace and my mood both took a serious downtown. Even the sunrise didn’t do much to turn things around for me.
By 5:30 am we made it back to our vehicles and we had only covered just over half of our original goal of 50km. Most of our group has dissipated by this point, and I watched with envy as they dragged themselves to their cars to drive home to get some sleep. I could have done that. I probably should have done that. My body was desperate for food, sleep and warmth and my mind was a foggy mess incapable of little more then whining. The five other runners who stayed were hanging around their cars eating, adjusting layers and re-packing to set out for another 90 mins. I was sitting on the pavement with my legs straight out in front of me, completely unsure of how I was going to get up and move. I wish I had some profound insight into why I let myself be hauled to my feet to head out for those last few kms but I don’t. Maybe it was stubborn determination. Maybe it was the fear of missing out on trail adventures. Or maybe it was just the promise of breakfast when we were done. 90 minutes. I was promised only 90 more minutes.
Except it wasn’t only 90 minutes. It was over two hours, not because we even covered much distance, but because the section of trail we tried out was barely a trail at all, alternating sections of thick mud and too soft sand, punishing thorn bushes that shredded through my tights. By the time we emerged the sun had started to gain some power, and while I was thankful for its warmth, I was not sure how I was going to make it the 4 km of runnable trail back to the parking lot. Only 4 km on familiar trails. But it just felt so unbelievably far for my tired legs to go. I knew I was holding the rest of the group back and was worrying about irritating those closest to me. It certainly wasn’t my finest moment and I was exactly thrilled that my friends and training partners were witnessing it.
We reached the Fort Edmonton footbridge, meaning we had less then 2 km to the parking lot. Everyone waited patiently for me to join them at the start of the bridge, then off they went, chatting happily in the warm morning sun. I dropped to a walk and watched the distance grow between us, too tired to attempt to keep up. I was about to pull out my phone and send a quick text, telling them that I would just meet them back at the car and was fine on my own. As they reached the end of the bridge, I saw Paul, friend and run coach, turn to see where I was. He stopped. Waited.
Then Tania stopped too, doubled back to get me. The rest of them stopped and waited.
And just like that, the night turned from brutal, back to beautiful.
Another lesson I learned from that run? It’s really, really hard to run with a lump in your throat.
Back at the parking lot there were lots of hugs and high fives, pep talks and a few tears (mine!) and then we tried our best to clean up before heading out for breakfast where the answer was always “Yes please, I’ll take another coffee refill”.
And that is what it is like to trade a night of sleep for a night of running. Brutiful.
The next day, I dragged my tired legs out the door for a 15km recovery run in the full afternoon sun of the hottest day yet this spring. I revisited some of the trails from the previous night and marvelled at how different they looked, almost unrecognizable in the bright light. As I passed smiling, fresh-smelling families out for a Sunday afternoon walk, I thought about how even though we were sharing the same trail, they would likely never experience the dark side of them like we did the other night. Nor will most people experience what its like to push your body past the point of exhaustion, far beyond when you thought you have had enough. I would never advocate sleep deprivation as a regular training method, nor would I ever glorify pushing your body without proper fuelling or rest. However, the night run proved valuable for so many other reasons, if none other then to learn that I don’t want to do it again; but if I do?
I know who to surround myself with.