Squak in the Dark
Squak in the Dark is a night race that features a 5.7 mile loop with 1500 feet of vertical gain that is repeated for 8 hours. The individual with the most laps in the 8 hour time frame wins the event and there is also a special award for the first to the highest point on the course. The race is hosted by Scott and Elizabeth Sowle of Mountain Running Races. I decided to sign up for the second running of the event on May 27th 2023.
This race was saddled right between Sun Mountain 50 Miler (May 13th) and Super Fast Marathon (June 17th), so I knew I would be tired and stretched thin, but I felt compelled to try out a night race on one of my favorite mountains. The night run would allow me the opportunity to prepare for my inevitable night section at Fat Dog 120 on August 11th. Also I had never run an official race on Squak Mountain (Cougar Mountain 50K does a significant amount of miles in Squak Mountain SP and Chris Gregory’s unofficial Best of Squak takes place on the mountain), so this seemed to be a great opportunity.
The race started from the secluded May Valley entrance of the park on the mountain’s south side. In true Mountain Running Races style, there was an extravagant start/finish area and a well stocked aid station at the trailhead. The race got underway at 9:00PM and the mass of runners barreled across the parking lot en route to the May Valley Loop trail.
I took the early lead in hopes of reaching the highpoint of the course first. The trail trended gradually uphill as we followed the switchbacking trail along the ravine of McDonald Creek. The narrow dirt path passed over a few wooden bridges and the tall trees filtered what little light was remaining. However, I went without a headlamp on the first ascent. Another runner, Josh Fry, passed me briefly but I passed him back before the horse connector trail and distanced him.
The horse connector trail was a rare descending path in the opening climb. In fact I was concerned that I made a wrong turn and actually turned back briefly until I saw Josh’s headlamp coming towards me. The Horse Connector trail emptied onto the gravel Squak Mountain Road SE. At this point the trail really pitched upward and I was very confident in my speed on the steep grade. I briefly turned back and did not see a headlamp. I reached the aid station in about 23 minutes (2.5 miles 1723 feet), topping out in first position.
I grabbed a gel and some snacks, rested briefly and then hit the narrow vegetated Phil’s Connector trail back down to May Valley. I turned on my headlamp and tried to dodge any stinging nettles surrounding me. Josh was closing the gap to me, so I began to question whether it was first to the summit or first to complete the first lap that won the “side competition”, so I pushed back to the start/finish.
At around mile 3.2 the Phil’s Connector trail merged with the Phil’s Creek trail and the course crossed Phil’s Creek via a wooden bridge to the Equestrian Loop trail. The Equestrian Loop trail is a relatively wide groomed trail that features 5 tight switchbacks and a steep trail that parallels Phil’s Creek. As I descended, off in the distance there was an illuminated bridge that reminded me of a miniature No Hands Bridge and I appreciated the decoration.
I reached the bridge at about 4.7 miles into the course and made my way back to the west side of Phil’s Creek. From here the trail crossed the gravel road and rejoined the May Valley Loop trail back to the start/finish area. I completed the first lap (5.7 miles) in 48:04 and refueled at the aid station. From here Josh joined me on the climb back up to the aid station and we decided to run together for a while.
As it turns out, a while ended up being the entire race. Essentially, we paced with one another and chatted the rest of the run and Josh’s friend Mike joined for a few laps as well. Overall we kept a fairly even pace and enjoyed a peaceful Squak Mountain evening and morning. On the sixth lap we decided to call a truce and finish the race together since we paced each other for 34 miles previously.
Generally, I was surprised how well I handled the night running given that in most hundreds my mind feels very cloudy running in the dark. I suppose that is due more to the fact that in a hundred, I typically have already run 16 hours by the time darkness falls. It is interesting to learn that it really has little to do with the dark and much more to do with overall fatigue. However, I still had some disorientation and tunnel vision, which is part of the fun of night running. Sometimes I could not remember which trail I was on or even if I was climbing or descending!
From a nutrition and hydration standpoint, I was pleased, I consumed one or two gels a loop, drank ginger ale or soda at each aid station, and consumed some real foods as well. The cumulative malaise set in on the seventh lap and I was feeling low on calories and tired, but beyond that, I felt strong the entire race. Josh and I locked arms and stopped the clock together at 7:19:09 for 7 laps and a total of 39.9 miles.
Thanks so much to Scott, Elizabeth, and all the excellent volunteers for putting on a great event. Thanks to Josh (and Mike) for sharing so many miles. Thanks to Troy for prerunning the course and trimming back Nettle. Finally, thanks to Apryle for helping me get all my race nutrition together to make the night a success.