At nighttime on Tamalpais, runner feels on top of the world

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There are night crawlers, night owls, night stalkers and then there's Vince Engel, night runner.

When he can't sleep, when work is pressing, when he needs to clear his mind, Mr. Engel, partner and creative director at BuderEngel & Friends, San Francisco, steps out his back door and takes off to run parts of more than 50 miles of trails on Mount Tamalpais, a 2,571-foot peak just north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Every night, "it's a new challenge, a new trail," he said. "It can start out misty and foggy, but by the time you get to the top, it is perfectly clear." The vista gives a runner the feeling of being on the top of the world and puts the worries of the day into perspective, he said. "At the risk of sounding corny, it makes you feel insignificant."

Because he sits at a desk all day, Mr. Engel, 54, has adapted to running in the dark. He doesn't mind it because there are "not as many distractions at night as during the day."

Or as much light. Though he takes a flashlight on moonless or foggy nights, he sometimes trips on a rock or tree stump. And there are those creepy noises. "I've heard noises and [gotten] that feeling, and it definitely helps you pick up the pace a little bit," he said. "It's part of the adventure."

Maybe it's a frightened animal or, if he's lucky, a fellow night runner. "You're glad to hear somebody else is up there. You hope if it's a mountain lion, it takes them first," he said. There are things Mr. Engel fears on the hikes: snakes. "I freaked out when I stepped on one," he said. But one of his phobias is far removed from the mountain: "Riding a bike in the city scares" me, he said.

Although they acknowledge each other, night runners rarely speak, in part because they are breathing heavily. "Conversation is broken so much it's not worth the effort," he said.

Mr. Engel's runs tend to be productive times for inspiration and ideas. "I write them down or leave a voice-mail for myself," he said. As for the light: "When you get up high enough, the reflection of the city's lights" is all he needs.

"At night, you can see San Francisco's lights and San Quentin. But the exciting part is rising above the fog to get an especially unearthly view of the heavens. "You can see the stars so beautifully," he said. "It's unbelievably clear."

Not everyone understands his nocturnal recreation, Mr. Engel said. "My wife thinks I'm crazy, but it's such a release."

Mr. Engel was eased into running by a high-school coach in Ventura, Calif., who cut him from the basketball team but complimented him on his running ability after a PE class race. "He was being kind," said Mr. Engel, who went on to run the half-mile and mile at Humboldt State University, where he was All-American in track.

He continued his training and was a member of the 1977 U.S. team at the Cross Country World Championships in D