The Dark Place

The dark place: I love it and I hate it. Actually, I’m not sure if that statement is true. I mean, both of those words are pretty strong. Perhaps a more fitting sentiment is that I’m fascinated with the dark place. Yes, that is statement I can stand behind. Wow! Something a guy can commit to before the age of 30; now that’s really something.

The dark place is a byproduct of the extreme, rearing its head when things get out of sorts. As runners, we experience it in racing and sometimes while training. To be clear, I don’t go to the dark place everyday. I don’t even go to the dark place every race. It is not defined merely by the presence of pain, fatigue, or discomfort. If that were the case, I could say that I’ve been to a lot of dark places. The dark place is much more unique.

For those who have seen Jamil Coury’s “All In” video of me finishing the 2016 The North Face 50 Mile Endurance Challenge Championships, you might think I was in the dark place then. Sure, it’s a display of extreme pain and suffering, but that, my friends, is not the dark place. Though these feelings can coincide with it, the true dark place goes beyond them. It digs deeper, rooted in what I can only speculate is something more mental than physical.

One of the first times I went to the dark place was at the 2016 UTMB, about 50 miles into the race and on the climb out of Courmayeur, Italy. Having just hammered my legs on the steep descent into that little mountain town, I was ready for a climb. Not that the climb would be easy, but it would offer reprieve from the brutal quad thrashing. Climbing into the black of the night, what little suffering subsided below my waist came back many times over above my shoulders. All of a sudden, I didn’t want to be there. I tried hard to focus, to find a rhythm, but gosh was it hard. It was as if someone had flipped the switch to my motivation, focus, and clarity off. A thick fog clouded the neurological pathways of my brain. As the race went on that day (and the next), I had more lows, but I’m not sure any were as dark as that nighttime ascent.

Just the other day, I trained late into the night. I started my run around 6:45 p.m. from home at Barr Camp. Leaving the cabin, I hung a right on the Barr Trail, then a second right on the Bottomless Pit Trail, and a third right up the steep scree field that leads to Rumdoodle Ridge. A quick scramble across the ridge and a short jaunt up the final mile or so of the Crags Trail put me at the Pikes Peak summit just in time for sunset. My mind and body were tired from a big week of training and not enough sleep, but the colors painted across the sky made it feel worth it.

Leaving the summit, I picked my way down the east face of Pikes Peak in fading light. At tree line, I stashed away my jacket, clicked on a headlamp, and dropped down into the darkening forest. Arriving to Barr Camp, I could have easily called it a day and retired to bed. Instead, I traded my minimal running vest for a more substantial fastpack and went back into the night. This time, I turned left and headed toward town. My intent was to run to the trailhead parking lot, grab a load of groceries stashed in the car of my co-worker, Jonathan Lantz, and run them back to camp. While the climb back to camp with a full pack was physically demanding, it was the descent into town that I found to be the darkest.

Though not as severe as what I experienced at UTMB nearly two years prior, the descent gave at least a glimpse of the dark place. My mind felt that thick fog creep in. I could run, but it was weird. It felt like something was in my way, though all that lay before me was the dark of night.

As perplexing as these dark places are, I have learned a few things about them. One, they come in moments of extreme exertion, sleep deprivation, and caloric deficit. Two, they are weird. Three, they can be fixed with rest and calories, which is great, except that resting isn’t always a viable option mid-race and calories are only helpful if the body is accepting of them. And last, there seems to be another way out, or at least partway out, but this way is tricky to understand.

I’m not entirely certain I can explain this mysterious way out, so let me use an example. Running through the dark of that night and the fog of my mind, I spotted the light of a night hiker. Just like that, I pepped up. The light brought me nothing in terms of rest, sleep, or calories, and yet it helped. Suddenly, the fog was less thick and I had pep in my step. Physically I was the same, but mentally something changed.

This mental aspect fascinates me, but not just from a running perspective. I am also captivated in a broader sense. Life is full of dark places. One minute life feels like a cruiser bit of singletrack at that perfect downhill grade. Then, before we know it, we take a proverbial digger and superman into a boulder. Other times, the darkness creeps in with no obvious obstacle in sight. In times like this, it would be easy to just let the fog roll in.

I don’t think it has to be that way. Instead, just as in running, we can search for the light. Sometimes the light might come from the support and kindness of a friend, coworker, or family member. Other times, it may come from a complete stranger. Furthermore, it can come in a more supernatural sense.

Two days after my late-night training session, I got up early to run with a friend. As much as I enjoy a good sunrise (and this one did not disappoint), I felt incredibly tired. With heavy legs and a sleepy head, I climbed my way up the trail in a much quieter state than normal. I felt bad for being such silent company, but my running partner assured me that they enjoyed my presence either way. As we headed east down the canyon into a rising sun, I felt the warm rays of light splash across my face. It was a boost similar to what I had felt two nights earlier from the light of the unexpected hiker.

Perhaps this is what we call hope. Maybe the splashes of light are reminders that the dark times aren’t unending tunnels. That if we look ahead and keep on going, we will find a light at the end. Sometimes we may need to take action to find it, like by slamming a gel or calling up a good friend, but the rays of hope always shine. When we press on, we find them on the darkest trail, in the sun-basked canyons, among our kindest friends, and in a passerby in the night.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you visit the dark place in your running? Or in life? What is the dark place for you? What does it look and feel like?
  • How do you get yourself out of that dark place and seek the light?
Zach Miller - Dark Places 1

Photo courtesy of Zach Miller.

Zach Miller

is a mountain runner and full time caretaker at Barr Camp in Colorado. As caretaker, he lives year round in an off-the-grid cabin halfway up Pikes Peak. He competes for The North Face and Team Colorado. Additional sponsors/supporters include Clean-N-Jerky, GU Energy Labs, and Nathan Sports. Follow him on Instagram.

There are 8 comments

  1. AT

    Well spoken words. I can vividly remember the horrendous bonk I encountered during my first Half Marathon. Mile 11 my legs were spazzing from calves up into my inner thigh. I just remember thinking, “my god please let this be over, I’ve never felt such pain..” It was a life changing moment and something I am forever grateful for. Opened my eyes to how much room there is to grow not just as a runner but a person as well.

  2. Stephen

    Thanks for insights in finding that light at the end of a dark tunnel. Next week I will surely encounter dark moments within while running my dream race at Western States. I hope to use that light to propel me forward to Auburn. I will think of this truth when I see that sunrise over Squaw, festive lights at aid stations, and the smiles of other runners and volunteers that brighten my day. Pain and fatigue probably won’t stop pestering me. But I will use that light as an escape route out of negative thoughts, and remind myself it is only temporary.

  3. Fegy

    Nice write-up Zach….it has me thinking quite a bit. I think along with the aforementioned dark place, there also exists a “deep” place…that only becomes salient and tangible at those moments of extreme physical effort and sleep dep, as well as protracted inner reflection. Many know of this “space”. It is a surreal space to exist in, and one that I find myself pining for when doing daily or routine tasks like sitting in my lab at work, or picking up groceries etc. This space, like your dark place, does not come during every effort though, even if under similar conditions. I never had a word for this place, but I can recall Jared Campbell calling it his “distilled place”, and I think that is a adequate description. I don’t know how else to describe it, but it’s in those moments at mile 300 at vol state, or ascending a Sierra pass at night on the pct while sleep deprived, or thrashing down big hell at Barkley that this place comes…and i know for me, it is as close as I think I will ever come to a form of enlightenment. (As cliche as that sounds). In those moments everything all at once becomes so simple, so clear, and yet so profound. I think that’s why I (along with many of us) continue to do these crazy things we all do.

  4. Keith

    Funny, when reading your first couple of paragraphs I was picturing the climb out of Courmayeur in UTMB. Much later than you this was now the full heat of the day, the going was so slow and the task at hand felt so overwhelming that I found myself going down a tunnel of negativity – questioning everything, feeling inadequate and focusing on failures. I don’t remember coming through that spell but I do remember 3 supporters from La Palma cheering me on from the side of the trail because of my Transvulcania shirt – maybe this was enough to stop the rot and start things moving the other way? On the next big climb, Col Ferret, I caught myself once again getting overwhelmed so focused on the mantra “embrace the misery”, one I’ve offered as advice to several people but never before consciously used in a race. Almost immediately my head shifted and I was able to take the climb for what it was, accepting the difficulty and grinding it out.
    Recognising the situation is perhaps the first hurdle. I’ve often found myself uttering the words “peaks and troughs” but maybe without realising why. Rather than just having the experience to know that good will eventually follow bad, maybe this phrase acts a way of acknowledging the negative and thus refocusing to start feeling better.

  5. Josh Wiese

    Running is the best place, for me at least, to visit those dark places in my life. I use running as therapy as it slows things down to a manageable level where I can think clearly, which is funny given how much you have to think about the trail while running. At every personal low point in my life I have used running as the experience to delve into those areas of my life to see what they mean and ultimately how to either deal with them honestly or how to wallow until it gets so low that you find that way “out”. Someone once asked me on a trail run – “are you running away from something or towards something?” – little did I know how that would guide me in those dark places.

  6. Stephen Schieberl

    I’ve been to the dark place several times and I came upon my own, effective remedy: intentionally go to a darker place than I’ll experience in real life and relate everything to that. I once ran on the treadmill at my work’s gym after hours. I left the lights off. No TV or music. The run would make me late for dinner. I ran like this for twelve miles. Never changed the pace on the treadmill. No other stimulus and I was stressed out about getting home. About three miles in, I was giving myself every excuse to quit. But I stuck it out. Since then, any time my mind goes there, I think, “it’s not as bad as that treadmill night.”

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