Running Dark

Early mornings, late evenings: running in the dark has permeated my running life. As a neophyte in the late 1970s, I ran before dawn (and work) at the local high school track. My dog was my companion, barking at any strange smell or movement, pulling at his leash. At the track, he was free to roam, to scamper beside me, to run ahead and quickly return, making certain I was still there. Occasionally, someone ran up alongside and then past me, unannounced but for the crunch of his shoes hitting the gravelly ground of the oval track.  We said our hellos and continued alone. I wasn’t scared; I knew the men who also ran solitary in the small town.

Years later, I lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan where I bundled against the cold and snow and ice of winter, a California girl confronted with the harsh northeastern winters. I dared not let temperatures in the low teens impact my daily time alone in the elements. There, though, I ran the sidewalks under the street lamps. I didn’t feel threatened except for the almost daily angry dog on the opposite sidewalk, his owner yelling, “He won’t hurt you,” at the same time as the dog tugged violently against the leash.

Again, back in California, in San Mateo, I ran in the dark before dawn, on sidewalks, through a lit park, needing to run before caring for two children and the daily commute into San Francisco for work. A few times I wondered if a car that slowed alongside me would stop, perhaps yell at me, worse, grab me. At some point I decided to try the high school track where a number of runners circled (safety in numbers, yes?). This was boring but the risk of tripping on a broken sidewalk or worse, being accosted by a stranger, diminished.

In San Diego, I ran in the Torrey Pines State Natural Preserve, a pristine nature preserve surrounded by urban cities of San Diego. Again, because of work and children, I ran at dawn, or in the winter months, before dawn. I carried a flashlight to show me the trails, careful not to trip on a tree root, boulder, or undulation. Signs warned of fox and mountain lions; I hoped a flashlight would protect me against them, too. There were a few morning walkers who might hear a call for help; I wasn’t yet smart about walking or running in the dark.

And then there were a number of years when I worked part-time; able to run at a more hospitable time, I took advantage of daylight and warmer temperatures. When I trained for my first marathon (CIM in December), I opted for evening runs. A long commute and an early start to my workday didn’t give me much choice. By late September/early October, I was running in dusk, then in the dark. I lived in a subdivision in a rural part of the California foothills. On weekends, the miles and miles of country roads were a runner’s haven; in the dark the narrow winding rows were inhospitable; cars were certain not to expect lone runners.

The loop road in the subdivision was exactly a mile, so that became my track in the darkened nights. I began to wear a headlamp, leftover from my Mt. Whitney climb the summer before. I also wore reflective clothing, as the subdivision had no streetlights, only the amber glow of lamps from individual houses. There were fox, skunks, raccoons, and an occasional deer to scare as I ran in the middle of the road around the loop. I felt generally safe until the thick ground tule fog caught me one night. I became disoriented after turning on one of the cul de sac roads off the main loop. I was blinded; I couldn’t discern left from right; I began to cry. Frightened, uncertain which way to go or what to do, I huddled at the side of the road until a few cars passed me, their fog lights briefly illuminating the bushes and trees along the side of the road. I finally decided to turn right, knowing I would eventually find my way to my house—or else continue looping endlessly.

Now, I have more flexibility to run at full sun, yet going out at first light reminds me of all those early years of running, where the critical decision was whether I would be able to run that day or not, regardless of my fears or the conditions. I was likely not very smart about my choices, but that is the essence of running, doing what you need to do to run, sometimes regardless of the risk. A concession, though, while I lived in Boulder, Colorado was to wait until daylight to run so I wouldn’t scare a bear or mountain lion roaming the back alleys!

Lessons learned: running dark can be dangerous and scary but exhilarating. If it’s your only choice, wear a headlamp and reflective clothing. Know your route. Carry a cell phone in case you need to call someone, whether you’re hurt, lost, or scared. Run with a friend. Stay on lit roads or paths, if possible. Tell someone where you’re going and how long you expect to be gone. If you can, after all these safety precautions, savor the peace, solitude, and moon shadow turning to dawn’s early light.”

Patricia Burgess

Patricia has been long-time runner, starting while studying for the California bar exam. She is retired attorney, philanthropist, mother, grandmother, and wife. She loves being out-of-doors whether running, hiking, swimming, biking. Patricia has a blog for her musings and has written two books, “Smart Jocks, Long Talks and Pink Socks,” about her father, and “First Friends: Love, Loss and Life in Humboldt County,” about discovering running and friends during a tough time in her life.

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