2013 March 13/14 Messier Sketching Marathon

Wednesday evening through dawn on Thursday, I did my first run of the Messier Marathon, only I added the extra challenge of sketching it as well. Deranged? Perhaps. But if I am, then I’m in good company with a fellow sketcher, Jeremy Perez. In fact, if it weren’t for him, it probably wouldn’t have dawned on me to attempt it. He had a very successful run in 2009 by sketching 104 of the Messier objects (2009 All Arizona Messier Marathon). This was something I just had to try for myself. And try I did: 106 objects were observed, and 103 Messiers were sketched plus a handful of NGC/IC objects that were in the same fields of view. While observing M31, M32 and M110, I got sidetracked before sketching them. Much to my dismay, it was only after looking over my sketches the next day that I realized the omissions. Regardless, I was pleased with the run and am going to attempt it again this Saturday for our club’s rescheduled Marathon event.

If you’re interested in running the Messier Marathon or even sketching it, please have a look at last week’s blog on sketching the marathon. You’ll find links to Jeremy’s site plus a few others that are packed full of valuable information to help prepare you.


Now to the nitty gritty. I chose a location in our front field that would give me the lowest 360-degree horizon. As luck would have it, the only section of sky that sports a neighbor’s security light was in the north. We also have Austin’s light dome to the south. Neither affected locating the objects. I set up and had the 16” reflector collimated before 8pm. Comet PanSTARRS was in the western sky but I didn’t want to waste any time locating the Messiers so resisted the urge to sketch it. Having reviewed Jeremy’s run of the marathon, I tried to set up my observing table similar to his for time management during the night.

Observing locaton

Observing locaton

My table included:

  • A bright mag light for emergency lighting (you never know when you will need a LOT of light, like RIGHT now)
  • A couple red lights
  • Cooler with snacks and drinks
  • Travel mug with coffee
  • Walkie talkie to get hold of Paul in the house for more hot drinks or to give him updates on my well being
  • sketch kit containing pencils, eraser, and a blending stump that didn’t get used
  • Planisphere (that didn’t get used)
  • The Year-Round Messier Marathon Field Guide by Harvard Pennington (a God-send!)
  • Printout of Bill Feris’ sequence list and notes on running the marathon
  • Clipboard with marathon sketching templates designed by Jeremy (I chose the custom sequence templates)
  • A timer so that I could budget my time with each object (didn’t take long for me to toss that one to the side as I felt under pressure and nagged when using it)
  • Tylenol

I also brought out my observing chair that got used as the night and my weariness progressed, an observing stool to stand on for objects closer to zenith, eyepiece and accessory case, my solar cloths to keep dew off the table and chair, battery for anti-dew strips for my Telrad and eyepieces. And 3 clothes pins. Don’t laugh, they come in handy at the least expected times.


My plan was to use Bill’s observing sequence and then Pennington’s Messier guide as a back up. My first targets were M42/43 followed by a naked eye observation of M45 – I came back to that one with my telescope later on. Worried about time management, I worked myself into a sweat and had to get rid of my coat, neck warmer and hat. I also got rid of the timer and soon Bill’s list got tossed aside as well (sorry Bill!). The only reason I stopped using Bill’s list is because I found myself referring to the guidebook so much that I was worried I’d omit objects by using both, as was the case with Andromeda, M110 and M32. They were observed, but not sketched and that was around the same time that I switched to solely using the book.IMG_3030[1] This probably wouldn’t have been a problem had I filled in the planned Messier catalog numbers on the custom sketch templates prior to running the marathon. My thoughts were to cross off the objects on Bill’s list as I sketched them. Next time around, I’ll fill in the catalog numbers first to eliminate the possibility of missing any.

Something else that I hadn’t planned for was the need to switch back and forth quickly between the eyepiece view, my sketch, and the guidebook. I found that my normal red light that secures to my clipboard for sketching was just in the way and too dim. I needed more light and quick access to all three areas, so hung my red light headlamp to the eyepiece holder. By placing the book under my clipboard, I could quickly switch the sketch and book under one light. That saved time and effort. It wasn’t necessary for me to have a really dim light for this type of sketching. I was in it for quick dirty sketches, not delicate detailed ones.

I started off with an 8-24mm zoom eyepiece then switched to a 13mm Ethos for decent magnification with a very wide field of view for ease of locating the objects. There were  times that I even swapped out for a 34mm Titan, as in the case of viewing M24. The 13mm Ethos was used for the majority of the marathon.

M74 was a wash. I could barely make out nearby stars above the crescent Moon for star hopping to it and moved on to the next target for fear of wasting too much time. I did try once more after the Moon sank below the horizon but to no avail. From there on, everything seemed to run like clockwork until Virgo. Holy cow. I had to return to “home base” several times and refer back to my phone app, Starmap Pro, several times before I felt secure that the star fields and objects were correct. Breathing a sigh of relief to finally make my way past Virgo, it was smooth sailing again.

I never did get a break during the night for a quick nap; however, I managed to walk back to the house for something. What that something was, I’m not sure. My brain was on autopilot by that point. I remember seeing that the coffee pot was empty and becoming grumpy very quickly before high tailing it back outside. Imaging my relief when about 10 minutes later, Paul came out with a fresh travel mug full of hot mint tea for me. Bless his heart!

Sometime around 3-4 a.m. I became chilled and had to put my coat and hat back on. Dew was setting in and making my paper soggy. I hadn’t thought to use my Rite in the Rain paper for the templates. The result was soft, out of focus stars in my drawings. Well that’s my excuse, anyway. If my sketches lack detail or look soft and rushed, that’s because I spent only about a minute each to sketch them! I concentrated solely on the basic shapes and prominent field stars for identification purposes. I also found myself stumbling over the front wheel of my Scope Buggy. I chalk that up to exhaustion setting in. Next time, I’ll point the front wheel to the north so that it will be out of the way for the majority of the marathon.

At 5 a.m. I was thankful that I took Bill’s advice on his website by adding pain pills to my observing kit. Dehydration, fatigue and dampness set in giving me the start of a headache and achy neck. I was able to catch it in time before it became a whopper. My legs also began to get shaky and as most of the targets were by that time lower in the horizon and to the south, I took advantage of my observing chair or simply lowering myself to my knees as much as I could. Thankfully I didn’t gouge myself from young prickly pear. It would have been wise for me to lay a tarp on the ground in my observing area before setting up.

During the evening hours, the birds kept me company. As the night progressed, the only sounds I heard were those of owls, coyotes, neighboring dogs in the distance, a couple cat fights, donkeys braying, a few horse whinnies, and a rustling at the edge of the field near the tree line where I imagine the deer were watching me since I set up where they normally sleep at night. Music to my ears, though, other than the occasional walkie talkie chirps from Paul, was when I heard the first bird songs of the morning. That meant I was nearing the end of the marathon!

I glanced down to see what sketching template page I was on. It seemed like I still had so many to do! But then I reminded myself on how far I had already come and was determined to work hard to finish. At the end, I missed the last three, two of which were in Aquarius, M72 and M73 and then the final one in Capricornus, M30. It was sheer luck that I had a few stars to judge where M2 was and then only found it by scanning and then checking the Telrad once again after locating it.

What a relief to finally have the marathon completed! I was so revved from finishing the marathon that somehow I had the energy to tear down my gear and visit with Paul before grabbing a few hours of sleep. I’m only now just starting to really recover from the session, although my joints ache and I have a pretty hefty headache as a result of neck pain. I also had a touch of dehydration from not drinking enough during the night.

The Aftermath

Now, to prepare myself for the next marathon – tomorrow night. I may just have to act as part of the support crew for our club’s marathon event instead. As a recap of things I’ll do a little differently:

  • Add a tarp to set up on. This will especially be important at our club’s dark site at Canyon of the Eagles where the sticker plants are treacherous.
  • Point the front wheel of the Scope Buggy to the north.
  • Write the Messier numbers on my sketching templates in the planned order of observing them prior to the event.
  • Forgo using the zoom eyepiece and stick with the 13mm Ethos with the rare swap out of the Titan.
  • Drink more!

Sketching results can be viewed in this pdf, 20130313 MM sketching results, or by accessing individual pages from the gallery below. They are in observed sequence. I also have a pdf of the spreadsheet showing the list with times, both by Messier catalog order and by timed observed order. That list can be viewed by clicking this link: 20130313 results


~ by Erika Rix on March 16, 2013.

5 Responses to “2013 March 13/14 Messier Sketching Marathon”

  1. This is awesome, Erika! What a wonderful report. Congratulations on sketching 103! And the sketches look great too…M65/66 looks better than the non-marathon version I made of them a few years ago, the quick technique you used to lay down M17 is perfect, and I hope you weren’t hurting too bad after the M24 drawing 🙂

    I also enjoyed your thought process on adapting your strategy as some of the challenges came up. Sigh of relief at avoiding prickly-pear-pants I imagine, and good call on the Tylenol too.

    It’s great to see your excellent results and thanks for the great write-up!


    • Thanks, Jeremy! Your Belt of Venus site is packed full of great information and really helped me plan for this event. Thanks for also providing the link to Bill’s great page regarding the marathon. It’s like having my own Arizona support group. 🙂

  2. Amazing work — thanks so much for the writeup. I’m in awe at your sketches, your effort, and your location. I think I’m going to compare your sketches to my own as a learning exercise. (As a relative newbie, I’m slowly plugging away at the Messier list from a suburban location, and it’ll probably be a few years before I’m done…maybe that makes it a mega-marathon. 🙂 )

    • It certainly does and makes a great list to work through regardless of the observer’s location. 🙂 Thank you and best of luck completing your mega-marathon!

  3. […] was to be my 2nd Messier Marathon of the week. The first was on March 13/14th from my property. 2013 March 13/14 Messier Sketching Marathon. I had observed 106 Messiers and sketched 103 during that […]

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