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BY ten o'clock the temperature had plummeted, and people were starting to add layers of clothing. The time appeared to be passing uneventfully for most of the competitors, who were steadily bagging and recording objects. But around eleven o'clock, with the rising of the constellation Virgo, the intensity increased. Whereas most major constellations contain perhaps five or so Messier objects, Virgo contains sixteen, along with dozens of other objects that are easy to mistake for Messiers. One marathoner showed me a telescopic view in which there were six distinct galaxies, only two of which were Messier objects.
Still, for the more experienced gazers Virgo is generally no problem. Gerry Rattley wrapped it up in less than five minutes. Don Jones, a mathematics professor whose telescope was thirty inches wide and twelve and a half feet long (he needed a ceiling-painter's ladder to reach the eyepiece, and kept clambering up and down to reconcile his telescopic views with the dense star charts spread on the tailgate of his car), also breezed through it -- and then some. "I'm seeing galaxies that aren't in the book," he said -- a hazard with an oversized scope.
In contrast, A. J. Crayon, the marathon's coordinator, was in something of a frenzy, muttering nonstop as he scurried between his charts and his telescope, stopping only to pound his flashlight, whose batteries were running down. "I got half of them," he explained of his hunt through Virgo, "and then I jumped to the wrong star, and then I was lost." Crayon was soon back on track, but some of the less serious competitors found this a good time to call it quits. I stopped by one RV in which a group of airline employees were holed up against the cold, enjoying hot chocolate and in some cases preparing for bed. I left them reluctantly.
The Virgo activity wound down shortly after midnight, with the arrival of a large patch of sky containing relatively few Messier objects. Many competitors took the opportunity to grab some sleep. This seemed to work for those who had campers, sleeping bags, or propane heaters, but I spent two hours shivering in my car (it's not good form to run one's engine in the middle of an observing site) before finally drifting off.
I was awakened around three by renewed sounds of distress from Crayon. "I'm in trouble," he said in a low voice. He was now sporting a one-piece insulated jumpsuit and a watch cap with a Batman logo; he had the earpieces of his eyeglasses outside the cap. Crayon's truck was blocking his view of two Messiers. There was nowhere else to put the truck, and if he moved his telescope he would have to recalibrate it, losing fifteen minutes or so. He decided to skip the blocked objects for now, hoping that they would pop into view later. A pack of coyotes to the north mocked his decision loudly and at length.
Other observers, too, were hitting snags. A few, out of some combination of overconfidence and fatigue-induced poor judgment, had napped without setting an alarm, and woke to find themselves behind. Though Rattley had remained awake, he had taken a long break from Messier-hunting and now caught up with astonishing speed, working his scope like a fiddle and bagging object after object without so much as glancing at a chart. "M22, a nice globular," he mumbled, squinting through the eyepiece and then immediately yanking the telescope to a new position. "There's M21 ... M20, the Trifid, some color, nice ... M8, the Lagoon Nebula, nice ... M24, part of the Milky Way cloud."
A crescent moon came up just before five. Between the moon, the fluorescent haze of approaching sunrise, and a thin line of low red clouds, spotting Messiers was becoming increasingly difficult. Several people bleated in frustration.
The twelve competitors who had seen M74 at the start had all bagged every object up to this point. But Crayon -- who had ended up moving and realigning his telescope -- now lost three in the glare, and Rattley lost one. With a single object to go, five people still had a chance to join the elite list of perfect marathoners.
The final object, M30, wouldn't rise until well into twilight, only a short time ahead of the sun. It was expected to be even harder to see than M74 had been; some believed it would be outright impossible. Nonetheless, by five-thirty most people were pointing at the spot where M30 was supposed to be. No one shouted out in excitement, though, and by six the last telescope had been abandoned.
This ending felt anticlimactic to me, but everyone else seemed suddenly energized. Most people stood around gabbing, as if they had just awakened from a long, comfortable sleep and were pleasantly surprised to find themselves surrounded by fellow Messier enthusiasts. As Crayon collected the check-off sheets, he identified the winners, five in all, who'd gotten 109 objects. One was Bill Ferris, the half-time astronomer. Three besides him were highly experienced observers. The last was a relative newcomer, but he had teamed up with one of the other winners. Eighteen marathoners got a hundred or more objects -- a group achievement that had been bettered only twice before, anywhere, both times at All Arizona marathons. Some first-timers had done exceptionally well: Glenn Nishimoto had bagged 106, and Robert Martin 105. Even Mike Luciano finished respectably -- "somewhere around eighty," he told me -- while Whiddon and the kids slept.
As I climbed into my car to leave, I was startled by the sun breaking over the horizon. I hadn't realized that it wasn't up yet, and it seemed to me at that moment to provide an absurd and entirely uncalled-for amount of light.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 2000; Extreme Stargazing - 00.03 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 3; page 105-107.