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 in a small town in northern California. 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 running in the elements. I ran on sidewalks lit by 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, ready, I was certain, to bolt across the road and attack me, pulling his owner with him. I didn't know how to protect myself against this danger, other than to try different city streets. I had no options but to run in the dark.

Back in California, I ran in the dark before dawn, on sidewalks, through a lit park, before waking up two little children, getting them ready for the day, then taking a train commute for a long day of work in San Francisco. A few times I wondered if the car that slowed alongside me would stop, the driver would yell at me, or worse, would grab me, perhaps do unimaginable things to me. At some point I decided to try the high school track where a number of runners circled (safety in numbers, yes?) in the early dawn. Running track can be boring, especially if you're not doing intervals or speed work, but the risk of tripping on a broken sidewalk or being accosted by a stranger diminishes.

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; mabye I'd see them first in the light and be able to outrun them. Magical thinking! If needed, maybe the few other morning walkers and runners might hear a call for help. Clearly, 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. Yet, when I trained for a December marathon, evening runs again became my mid-week staple. By late September/early October, I was running in dusk, then in the dark. At the time, I lived in a subdivision in a rural part of the California foothills. On weekends, the miles and miles of country roads surrounding our neighborhood were a runner’s haven; in the dark the narrow winding roads became suspect. Drivers wouldn't expect lone runners at the bumpy edge of the road, often hidden by oak trees. The subdivision loop road became my track. Almost exactly a mile in distance, it gave me protection from the lurking dangers of running dark on country roads. I strapped a headlamp to my cap, leftover from my Mt. Whitney climb the summer before, which started in a very dark forest just after mid-night. I wore reflective clothing as the subdivision had no streetlights, only the amber glow of lamps from individual houses. Although there were fox, skunks, raccoons, and an occasional deer to scare, I felt generally safe until 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.

Lessons learned: running dark is dangerous and scary. If it’s the only choice you have to get in a run, wear a headlamp and reflective clothing. Know your route. Carry a cell phone in case you need to call someone; you may become 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 shadows!