June 26, 2014

Race Against the Sun: for when you're hot for torture

Racing the sun can burn you. Kind of like the burn from your Aunt Dottie's fresh-off-the-stovetop soup. You know it's hot, but you also know it tastes like a miracle in your mouth. So you go for it anyway, even though with the creamy most deliciousness comes some pain. Race Against the Sun (RATS) lures you in with the promise of adventure and almost impossibleness to complete (that is appealing to at least 40 people in this area, judging by the limited slots filling up quickly), so you go in hopeful for the adventure portion and cringing when you almost inevitably have to drop before you complete the four required 9ish-mile loops. 

RATS is the brain child of Kyle Stichtenoth. "The inspiration started two years ago during a summer night time training run. It was fueled by my reading of an article about the need for more untraditional races written by Geoff Roes," says Kyle. The race is held on summer solstice, the shortest night of the year. Runners start at 8:01 p.m. and have until 5:38 a.m. to complete four loops that are somewhere between 9 and 10 miles. Those who complete the four loops receive the now-coveted RATS finisher shirt.

The hand-drawn course map was not released until about 30 minutes before the start of the race, and it included nine Xs that marked the location of nine books along the course. For each loop, racers got a number that corresponded to pages in the nine books, and they had to rip out that page at each stop. Skip/miss a book, and you either have to go back or drop out for not completing the loop. With each loop, you receive a fresh number and a fresh chance to fail at collecting all of the pages. 

On the other side of this map are clues to the locations of the nine books.

Kyle explains, "Conceptually I obviously took some inspiration from the Barkley Marathons." Or from hell. Between finding the books hidden in caves or at the top of ropes just around an abandoned mine shaft, climbing hill after hill on all fours, getting lost multiple times per round, and doing all of the above in the dark, this course is like a slow road to purgatory for some.

Cave injury en route to a book.

But at the same time, there was something irresistible about it. First of all, someone telling me that I'm most likely not going to finish something makes me want to push back and try harder. Like me, a lot of you runners are pretty strong willed and determined. It's just characteristic of our breed. So we push back against tough things, or we pay someone to put us through tough things.

Glow-in-the-dark face paint to fight the night.

With the race being held at night, it's also perfect for people like me with young families. Why not fit in your 40-mile run while everyone else is sleeping? Of course, there is the whole you-will-be-completely-exhausted-for-the-next-three-days thing, but that's what caffeine is for.

Plus it was dirt cheap. Twenty bones (that's $20 for those who didn't grow up in the thuggish ruggish 90s) for the chance to torture yourself through the night, and it included a breakfast buffet at the finish/drop-out line. I would have paid $20 just for the after party.

Breakfast buffet that did not mess around.

Maybe because it was at night and we were all scared together that Ruffner Mountain is haunted (BTW, it is, especially by the water tower by yourself at 1 a.m.) or maybe because we were all trying to prove Kyle wrong about the finishing rate, the race was more like a team event, minus actual teammates, than anything I've ever run. We all worked together to find the book locations and navigate the course in the dark. One of my friends forgot his reading glasses, so I helped rip out his pages for him. When I would turn left when I was supposed to turn right, someone four runners back would yell out that we should be going the other way. It just felt like we were clinging to each other for the possibility of finishing and the hope of not getting lost. And since the dark took away our ability to blaze through the course or to even see the sparse flags clearly, we needed all the help we could get.

Finding a book station.

My sad race story is that I just didn't plan well on my second loop. Of course by 12:30 a.m. and two-thirds of the way through loop two, I already knew that my chances of completing the four loops was slim to none, but when I got to the top of Blood Chute, one of the gnarlier climbs of the course, and realized that I was out of water with three more miles to go, I was done, especially knowing that I had already drained my full Camelbak in the previous six miles and had just stupidly left the only water stop out on the course at the bottom of the previously mentioned gnarly hill without filling up. In my defense, that same pack lasted the full first loop. The humidity was brutal even though the temps had cooled from the 90s earlier that day, and I was taking in more fluids than I anticipated. The finish line was a half mile away if I cut the course, so I headed that direction, towards the dream of bacon and omelets. Even then, I questioned my ability to locate the trail at night and backtracked a couple of times before I finally found the right spider-filled trail back to home base.

By the time I got back, I had collected seven of the nine pages I needed, not enough for credit for the loop, but I was resolved to help improve, by not improving, RATS finisher stats. The fewer finishers, the more legendary the race will become. The sting of defeat didn't last long, as I effortlessly blended into the crowd of other drop-outs, with whom I spent the night eating everything in site, laughing, dancing, and general debauchery-ing. I will reveal that I forced someone into a hand stand contest just so I could win something that night and regain a smidgen of the dignity that Ruffner Mtn. and RATS stole from me.

As found at the after (or during) party.

The grossest baby pool that ever existed. At least it started out nice.

By sun rise, only four racers made it through four loops. Two of those runners actually ran 
the course, and the other two got creative and collected all of their pages via some secret awesome route they created but refused to reveal. There was no rule against not following the route, as long as you collected the right number of pages each loop. If I had thought about that before dropping out, I would have tried it, but I was thinking inside the box in a race that clearly demands jumping outside of the box and destroying all evidence that a box ever even existed.

The people who actually ran all night.

The face of a RATS finisher, Prince Whatley.

The happy dance of a RATS finisher, Vanessa Stroud. Also the only female finisher.

When I asked Kyle how it felt to see racer after racer drop, he explained, "As racers kept dropping out, I felt good but not because of their failure, but rather almost all of those runners were quitting despite the fact that they really enjoyed the race. Believe it or not, I was happy to see four runners finish. The race was hard, but possible, and those runners earned their shirts and the respect that comes with it. I'd love to give out more shirts next year, but I'd be surprised if I ever give out more than 10 in a given year."

The first RATS finisher, Dan McBrayer.

Out of 40+ starters, these are the top 13 finishers.

For myself and fellow racers, we can possibly take comfort in the fact that setting up the race wasn't all fun and games for the race director and his crew, aka Greg Wingo. "Logistically there were a lot of challenges in coming up with the course and the books for the course. The day of the race was a long day as well. Marking the course in the heat of the day and then staying up all night, but I doubt it was as hard as running the race," said Kyle.

What do we have to look forward to next year? Kyle shared, "The field will be kept small, 40 people is about the most I want running. Next year we will have a required 50k finish in order to register. I have some really cool ideas for next year, but all I can say is the course won't be longer, but it will be tougher."

Although the promise of an even tougher course guarantees that I won't finish, if I am at my computer in time to register before this one fills up, I am 100% in. Race Against the Sun, you can burn me, but I'll keep coming back for more.


  1. You are crazy (in the best possible way). This race sounds amazing and way outside my realm!

  2. What a neat race! This sounds right up your alley. Good luck next year!


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