Running in the dark

Running and Racing: Christopher Goss
May 29, 2002

I have a confession to make. I don't always practice what I preach.  OK, that is not much of a confession and is probably closer to a statement of fact. The mea culpa that I am confessing today is a passion for running at night.

For years I have been trying to spread the gospel of safe running habits to anyone who will listen: run with partners, don't wear jewelry, leave the headphones at home, and don't run alone at night. Even though I am aware of the potential dangers, the problem is that I am simply addicted to workouts of a nocturnal nature.

Before I go any further, though, let me state what I hope is obvious to all. If you are a woman, going out alone late at night — whether it be running or walking — is a bad idea. As a champion of equity, it pains me to have to recognize this distinction. As a fan of night running, it saddens me that we live in a world where half of my running friends cannot share this running experience.

Like many aspects of our simple sport, the joy of night running is not immediately obvious. In this adrenalin-fueled era of high risk recreation, you might assume that it is the excitement of doing something dangerous and edgy — each run a one-person episode of Fear Factor.

For me, and I suspect most of my vespertine brethren, the appeal is almost the exact opposite. It is certainly not the worry of stepping in a hole or getting clipped by a car mirror that draws me to the night. It is the solitude, the silence, and the stars that make these runs special.

There is a directing cliche used in many sports movies that captures what I feel during my midnight runs. As the pitch comes to the batter, the hole breaks open between tacklers, or the runner rounds the final curve, the movie changes to slow motion and the soundtrack drops away, leaving only the sound of the athlete's breathing.

My own breathing is the music I hear when I run at night, joined only by the percussive beat of my feet on the pavement. And in the same way that time nearly stands still in those movies, I too am alone in a frozen world.

I love running with my running buddies, but there are times when I just need to be alone. Not the kind of alone where you are in one room and someone else in another, but alone in that frozen world where you are the only person and you are master of it all.

But shouldn't running alone in the country on a sunny afternoon elicit these same feelings? In many ways it does, but the heightened state of your other senses because of the darkness is what makes these runs important to me. I never think about my breathing or my foot strike when I am running during the day. When running beneath the stars, though, I can become entranced by my own human rhythm machine.

There is also a practical side to the greater focus on breathing and foot strike that come at night. I am able to use this feedback to improve my running to make it more efficient.

I have a tendency on long scenic afternoon runs — I like those, too — to allow my mind to wander. Before I know it, my feet are slapping the pavement. This is a problem for runners because the only time their feet aren't moving forward is when they are stuck on the pavement. When you watch elite distance runners in person, you never hear their feet touch the ground. With the best, you'll swear that they aren't even touching the ground.

I will never be confused as an elite runner, but in the quiet of a good night run and with a little bit of focus, I can get my feet down and back off the pavement with only a small amount of noise. This not only improves that run, but with repeated practice it can carry over to the rest of my training.

Night running is not for everyone. Unless you live in a safe neighborhood with very little traffic, it can even be a bad idea. If you are like me, though, and your circadian rhythm lines up your best time of the day after the sun has gone down, go ahead and embrace those nocturnal running urges. The night is calling.

Carpe viam.