Modesto, 500 runners gear up for Saturday's 13.1-miler

Want something different? A Saturday night change of pace? Fun on the run?

Can you handle 13.1 miles? Backlit by a full moon?

Modesto, with an assist from Fleet Feet Sports of Stockton, answers those questions and freshens the sports landscape Saturday night. It's called the first Modesto Midnight Half-Marathon, a by-your-legs trip from Tenth Street Plaza to El Vista Avenue and back.

Hardcore runners can't wait. Neither can beer-loving runners. The serious and the looking-for-fun crowd will mingle in prime time, and race organizers envision a sassy new vibe for striders of all levels.

"This is unique," promised Tony Vice, owner of Fleet Feet. "You don't have too many midnight runs outside Alaska."

Fifteen Modesto businesses, from hotels to food vendors, have latched onto the event as sponsors. Even a beer garden, surely a mood lightener, will be erected at Tenth Street Plaza, the site for both the start and the finish.

Even before the beer garden opens, the race has created a buzz. Between 500 and 700 runners are expected for either the two-mile fun run -- a shorter loop back to downtown -- or the long slog. Last-second entries can fork out $62 and step to the line before the 9 p.m. beginning.

Predictably, there is a hint of curiosity about a night-time foot race conducted for the first time.

The course itself required some homework. The Modesto Police Department and Fleet Feet's Vice plotted a route down 10th Street and a left turn onto E and eventually toward the bike path in the parkland running parallel to Dry Creek. Runners will make a U-turn at El Vista followed by a second loop and the home stretch down F and 10th streets to the finish line.

"We (Vice and police officials) drove the course in June at 10 p.m. when the moon was full. The street lights and the moon made for plenty of light," Vice said.

That said, concerns about footing, the marking of the route and weather are legitimate. Last month, a 17-year-old was struck by a car and seriously injured during an after-dark race in Bakersfield. He reportedly wore headphones and had mistakenly trotted off the course.

"Ours is a completely paved course. The streets will be closed," Vice said. "We'll have volunteers and aid stations spread throughout the course."

And what about potential cheaters shortening their route around the quiet corners of Dry Creek?

Said Vice: "In a smaller race like ours, there's nothing we can do about cheaters other than to keep an eye out for them. If we catch 'em, we'll take 'em out to the wood shed."

Experienced runners validate the potential problems but they also like the new idea. The comfort of a race devoid of daytime heat also carries appeal.

"I will run in the half-marathon, but I will not race in it," said Barbara Miller, Modesto's most successful long-distance expert. "It will trot it out with my friends."

Miller, 69, still holds many age-group records. In fact, she already has planned a five-kilometer warmup that morning in Sacramento.

"It takes a special person to run hard at night. Even with a full moon, it's not as bright as daytime," she said. "I think it will be fun, but it won't be as fast as a race during the day. It could catch on and become big. It's certainly something different."

Modesto's ShadowChase Running Club will be well represented. Working out in Knights Ferry over the weekend were members of Team in Training, whose members support the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

"This is exciting," said Mike Mason, a member of both Team in Training and ShadowChase. "You'll see Modesto's good base of runners come out for this."

The idea was hatched by Vice and Modesto's Joe Muratore, a candidate for city council and a Salvation Army board member who enjoyed the "Avenue of the Vines" race in Lodi two years ago. It follows that The Salvation Army will benefit from the inaugural Midnight Half-Marathon.

"Joe's a customer, and he asked if we could do something like that in Modesto," Vice said. "It just seemed to roll off the tongue -- Modesto and midnight run."