I am usually an early-bird runner. I (very grudgingly and groggily) get up and pound out a run as the sun rises so I don’t have to worry about fitting it for the rest of the day. But there are times when, um, my alarm “malfunctions” or my schedule just doesn’t allow for five miles at 5:30 a.m. When that happens, I used to just take a raincheck for the following day.
But recently, I ran nearly nine miles at 12:30 a.m. in a Ragnar Relay, and was reminded of how simultaneously peaceful and stimulating running at night can be. The motion is familiar, but everything else feels fundamentally different—even if I’m running my most tried-and-true route.
As I head out into the dark, my senses go into overdrive. It’s not just my eyes leading the way anymore. I smell things—hopefully scents like pine needles or a lasagna baking in my neighbor’s oven—more intensely. Even on busy streets, my ears rotate between three sounds: the in-and-out of my breath, the rhythm of my feet, and an overwhelming, lovely slice of quiet. I run through pockets of warm and cold air, which I rarely notice when I’m checking my GPS multiple times a mile. My eyes adjust more easily to the dark blanket than I would anticipate when I’m debating a run in the warmth of my kitchen, and, once I’ve been out there for a few minutes, the blackness turns to shades of gray. (I promise, it always seems darker from the inside than when you’re actually in it.)
Most of all, the darkness allows me to tune in, not out. It releases me of most expectations, and I’m free to just experience the run, step by step. Chasing the spotlight from my headlamp forces me to be exactly present, a perspective that can be so difficult to attain when running in daylight. Calculating remaining mileage or fixating on pace feels almost superficial. Instead, I naturally concentrate on the cool air on my skin, the stars—or if I’m lucky, the full moon—above, and the sensation that I’m supremely, deliciously alive.
When the sun goes down, good things can happen. But bad things can too, unfortunately, so here are a few nighttime running safety tips:
—Light yourself with a headlamp, reflective apparel, blinking lights, and hits of reflectivity on your clothes from a range of angles and positions: front, back, sides, upper body, lower body. Cars won’t be expecting you, so alert them brightly and in multiple ways of your presence.
—It’s a cliché for a reason: there is safety in numbers. Recruit a buddy—either the two- or four-legged type—to run with you.
—Go on the defense: run against traffic, behind cars at intersections, and avoid areas that might not be super safe.
—Tell or text somebody your route, and when you expect to be back.
—Carry your phone, and if you must listen to music, keep the volume low and use only one earbud.
—Pay careful attention to footing. Curbs and cracks can be harder to navigate at night; slow down if need be.
Next time you’re bemoaning the fact that your crazy day didn’t allow you to squeeze in your planned lunchtime session, don’t settle onto the couch and into a bag of chips for the night. Gear up and head out; I promise, a run like no other awaits.