Creatures of the night
Running after dark holds appeal and surprises
Hold up a black piece of construction paper and ask someone what they see. After getting a blank look, tell that person "It's a black cat eating licorice in a coal bin." If you're under the age of ten, that's funny.
But if you hold that same piece of black paper up in front of a motorist, you may be told that's how you look until his headlights find you three seconds before his car passes you. And that's not funny.
If you think wearing white or light-colored clothing makes a difference, it might, but just a little. Donning white for a run alongside tall snowbanks is not helpful. Remember the snowshoe hare whose fur changes from brown to white in the winter so it will be less visible to its predators. Runners should do the opposite.
Night running can be hazardous, yet for those of us who work nine and run daily, night runs are inevitable. When I was a teacher here in lower Michigan, four or five times a week I would leave for a six mile run about 6:30 a.m. This meant that for five months of the year, I did part of or all of my runs in the dark.
I always wear something reflective. Most of the time it's a reflective jacket. Right now I'm wearing In Sport's Illuminator Jacket. The tag on it says it's visible for up to four hundred feet and that seems about right, judging by the distance away that I see cars adjusting their headlights or shifting to the outside of their lane. I also have a wind shell with reflective piping sewn into it and a construction worker's style mesh slip-over jersey.
Thirty years ago, before the marketing of special reflective accessories and clothing, I just slapped some strips of reflective tape on a sweatshirt. The bottom line is that if you run after dark, you must wear reflective clothing. Most running shoes have reflecting bands but these, by themselves, are not enough.
Once you've taken care of the safety aspect, you can begin to enjoy running after dark. It's a quieter time. Sounds are muted. You stride past lighted windows shrouded in the night, all but invisible to any but those sharing your path. Without seeing distant objects you have the illusion that you are running faster. The only things visible are those immediately in front of you, and they seem to be passed almost before you reach them. If you're not timing yourself, you could swear that you are, indeed, running much faster than usual.
Night travel is easiest when the snow-covered ground reflects what little light there is, enabling the runner to see better. Once the leaves have dropped from the trees, the bare tree branches allow more light from the stars and moon to shine down on the road. The first minutes out are the hardest as it takes awhile for our eyes to adjust to the reduced light. In urban areas, streetlights provide enough illumination to avoid potholes and litter. Even along dark backcountry roads, a blanket of snow will help the runner see all but the most subtle break in the pavement.
Though I rarely see other humans when I'm out running the woodland roads near my home, I am not the only night traveler. One autumn evening as I was passing through an area of dense forest, I heard the clicking of clawed paws just ahead of me on the pavement. Instinctively I leaped up and over a skunk that I briefly glimpsed as I passed over it. On another occasion as I approached a creek bridge I saw a silhouette of an animal waddling across the road. Assuming it was a beaver, I planned to pass behind it. As I reached it, the tail went up and I saw the distinctive raised back profile of a skunk ready to discharge. In mid-stride I executed a panicked about face and as I reversed my direction sensed a fine mist pass my cheek. Amazingly enough somehow it missed and I avoided having been "skunked."
I've seen bears while running in the day, but it was morning just as the first gray light of dawn was showing when I saw a bear hurtled itself across the road ahead of me and crash through the woods. My easy morning jog immediately became a sprint then a tempo run as adrenaline surged through me.
Though encounters with animals make runs memorable, for sheer aesthetic appeal, little can compare with a run taken when the air is filled with snowflakes. The snow falling on every side envelopes you in a white world. When running through untracked snow, you feel like an explorer miles and years removed from the pressures of every day life.
Rather than feeling bogged down, my legs often feel surprisingly strong. Perhaps they remember those many youthful hours I previously spent playing in fresh fallen snow. Yes, running through those four long, dark months of winter can be unpleasant and downright depressing at times. But if you make an effort, you can appreciate the beauty and solitude that comes from night running.
Dave Foley enjoys being out on the roads at night but avoids reading Edgar Allen Poe or Stephen King and won't watch any Freddie Krueger movies before he heads out.