The out and back Yuletide 5K in Manhattan Beach, CA, starts at the MB Pier and heads north along the coastline. The race is held at sunset, low tide, and right around the winter solstice. It was my first ever night race and first time running below sea level.
I joined my son Alex who was running with his high school cross country team. When we arrived, the sun had just set, the temperature was dropping and the wind was picking up. We were ready for a festive and challenging race.
Alex found his team while I set off along the beach for a quick warm up. There was still enough daylight to see the course which was flat and much softer than the roads and trails I usually run. After breaking a sweat, I headed back and kept warm until the start.
The start/finish line was under the pier. It was dark when everybody- about 500 people- lined up. We belted out a verse of Jingle Bells and that was our signal to go. Off we went plunging into darkness.
The uniqueness of night racing soon asserted itself. I could not see my watch or any other runners except for those immediately around me. I was running entirely by feel without any frame of reference. I focused on my breathing and footsteps to set a fast but relaxed pace and by the first mile I felt surprisingly good.
I soon learned there were three kinds of sand. The driest was too soft for any traction while the wet sand was not firm enough to hold my weight causing me to sink a little bit. Both surfaces slowed me down considerably. Meanwhile, there was a sweet spot in between the wet and dry sand that was firmly packed and responsive. The only problem was that it was impossible to see and I needed to pick out the narrow and winding band with guesswork.
As I approached the turnaround the lead runners came from the opposite direction. This was a new challenge since they were invisible until the last moment. I was toward the front of the pack and when I started back I made sure to watch out for the rest of the field. I’m happy to report that there were no collisions but the two-way traffic certainly added to the challenge.
My least favorite moment of an out and back 5K is turning and seeing the finish line in the distance. Since it was night the finish line was all I could see and it seemed impossibly far away. It was time to dig in and hold my pace. I kept going for another mile focused on my breathing and footsteps. I saved enough for a nice little kick at the end and when I could make out the finish line I cut loose.
I finished with a 21:07, about 30 seconds slower than my PR. My splits were encouragingly consistent; I usually start too fast and sabotage my final mile. Oddly, I felt much stronger tonight than on my previous 5Ks so I wonder how much the sand affected my time. I finished 34th overall and 3rd in my age group, while Alex finished 19th and third in his age group. A nice ending to our 2016 season.