Evening races grow in popularity as runners embrace the night

Correction: The MisFits column in the June 9 edition of Local Living misidentified the captain of the Georgetown Running Company Race Team. His name is Jake Klim, not Jonathan Klim. The version below has been corrected.


Participants run during the Potomac River Running Twilight Festival four-miler in Ashburn. (Potomac River Running Club)
Vicky Hallett
Fit editor, Express June 7, 2011

Bet you didn’t know that I could predict the future. But I guarantee that if you see me at the National Press Club Beat the Deadline 5K on Saturday, I’m going to be groggy. It won’t matter that trainer Tony Horton of P90X fame will have led a peppy warm-up. To make it to that 7:30 a.m. start, I’ll have to get up way earlier than any human being should have to.

And, in fact, I don’t have to. If I truly have a hankering to run in a race Saturday, I could instead choose to participate in the Potomac River Running Twilight Festival, which starts nearly 12 hours later. Also, there’s beer, Potomac River Running co-owner Ray Pugsley reminds me. “But I recommend hydrating with clear fluids before amber ones,” says Pugsley, who promises runners a real celebration featuring live music, burritos and a moon bounce.

Vicky Hallett is a MisFits columnist and the Fit editor for Express. View Archive

If you’re wondering why night races are growing in popularity, just think about the advantages. You don’t need to set your alarm clock. You can often get there via Metro rather than car. You’re not in the blazing sun. You can persuade a group of buddies to come along more easily. But the biggest benefit seems to be that people actually like to linger at night and enjoy themselves.

“Usually, it’s run and done. You’ve got to go to the grocery store,” says Kathy Dalby, who manages events for Pacers Running Stores, including July 23’s Crystal City Twilighter. Or you have to mow the lawn, or take the kids to practice or check other errands off your to-do list.

At night, however, you can just party, which is exactly what these races turn into.

There used to be just one Washington area night race: the Rockville Rotary Twilight Runfest. About to enter its 26th year, the 8K was dreamed up by Burt Hall, Rockville’s director of recreation and parks, and the last person you’d expect to start a running trend. “I only run when somebody’s chasing me with a knife,” he says.

But the concept of pairing a sprint and a street party was an immediate hit — and an enduring one. Nearly 2,500 folks finished last year’s race, which, as always, wound through residential streets, where neighbors offered up cheers and sprinklers for passing runners. That number includes John Britton, 58, who credits the event for introducing him to the city 16 years ago. “It opened my eyes to Rockville,” says Britton, who soon moved his family there and now serves as a council member.

Event organizers who’ve participated in the Rockville race have been just as smitten, which is what accounts for the boom in copycats, particularly over the past five years. At all of them, you’ll see similar elements. It’s critical to have not only free beer (Rockville runners who are of age can imbibe four before they’re cut off) but also plenty of kid-friendly activities, since it turns out these events are a huge draw for families.

You might think the late start time, typically around dusk, would discourage children from coming along, but in the summer, there’s no school or homework, so the whole clan is free, explains Pugsley. And unlike many other social options available at night, this is one where running around is encouraged. There’s a reason that the RunStock 5K, the only evening race in the Marine Corps Marathon event series, is also the only race that allows runners on the course with strollers.

Kid appeal was the driving force behind the creation of the first Glow for Hope 5K/10K, slated for July 30 in Gainesville. Mike Spiller, the race director for Rev3 Adventure, was looking to launch a new concept this summer that would be popular with a younger crowd. “What would they have fun doing? We thought, ‘Running with glow sticks,’ ” says Spiller, who plans to have four such races around the region by next year.

Don’t let the presence of brews and babies fool you, however. Serious runners still show up after dark, and some even say they perform better than they would in the morning. “Competition-wise, I’m more awake and racing more effectively,” says Frank DeVar, a 23-year-old member of the Pacers running team, who vows he’d always pick an evening run over a morning one.

That said, there are extra challenges inherent in night racing. It’s not hard to wake up, eat a small breakfast and get to the start line. But having another 12 hours to fill complicates race day planning. “You have to decide whether you’ll do a run in the morning or stay fresh,” DeVar says. There’s the question of what to eat — just enough to have energy but not so much that you feel weighed down.

And then there’s the issue of heat. Just because the sun is about to set doesn’t mean it’s actually cool outside. Jake Klim, the 31-year-old captain of the Georgetown Running Company Race Team, is organizing the Father’s Day 8K on the C&O Canal Towpath, which kicks off at 6:30 p.m. His advice for anyone participating is to keep cool and hydrated before heading to the race. “Being inside and watching TV is a good warm-up,” he says.

Make sure you’re healthy enough to handle the sweltering conditions, Hall urges. Over the years, two runners in the Rockville Twilighter have died on the course, which is why organizers now have what Hall calls a “virtual hospital” of doctors and EMTs at the ready.

The pros still seem to outweigh the cons for night owls, who love dashing along a course illuminated by streetlights and heading to a finish line under the stars. But I wonder whether the growth of evening events will make them lose some of their luster. “Having them few and far between makes them special. You don’t want to have too many members in the club,” Klim says.

Or maybe it’s just the dawn of a new era in racing.

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