Trail Running at Night

Running in the dark may sound like a bad idea, but with some precautions, practice, and common sense, it can be really fun. By mid-November in Michigan it's dark by 6:00 p.m. If you want to run trails after work, you have to be equipped to do so in the dark.

A group of us have been meeting on Tuesday nights to run Cannonsburg trails, and what an experience this is after dark! Looking something like a string of aliens (or moths with headlamps), we run up the path into the woods, lights bouncing along with the aid of a full moon. One by one, we disappear into the woods and up the long slope--what I call the most difficult three minutes on the Canonsburg trail. Soon we separate into our respective ability or speed groups and a single long chains breaks into four or five shorter chains of light. Within minutes, you can begin to look across the ravine and see a trippy string of headlights hooking through a switchback down below. The woods is, well, as Frost would say, "lovely, dark and deep" and it becomes more of all three as the run develops.

Ten minutes into the run and the world becomes muted. Add a layer of snow and its hard to imagine a stiller silence. A faster group ahead pulls away and their lights appear sometimes visible, sometimes not, on some distant turn like quiet spirits leading the way into the darkness. The light strings appear and disappear, bob and turn, as the trail tucks in behind the hills and ravines.

The challenge of trail running at night is mostly about visibility. The headlamp I use is LED and adjusts to three settings (low, high, blink). It casts a reasonably wide angle beam that illuminates perhaps 10-20 feet in front of me--not much. When running in a group, you get the advantage of the runners' lights in front or behind. (Tip, don't lead or lag in the string if you are a new to night time trail running). We take for granted our vision as runners, the unconscious adjustments we make in sunlight to avoid a stone, a root, or a trail rut. In the dark, you really have to concentrate on the path, and I find it risky to look around too much. The last time I ran Canonsburg at night, my trailing foot snagged a large rock in the path and I tumbled. Because we tend to run a little slower on trails, particularly at night, there's not a serious risk of injury. (Think of how often we fell down playing outside as children . . . well as trail runners we are children again).

It's true, trail runners fall down more running in the dark. But being alert and careful, concentrating on the trail, this doesn't happen often.

There are many joys to trail running after dark. It takes some courage at first and practice. You have to learn to trust yourself, your ability to concentrate--but the darkness provides some advantage to the running experience: in the dark we become more aware of our experience. We use our whole bodies to sense what's going on around us because our eyes fail us. We hear things we don't normally hear, and if all is silent in the woods, what we don't hear becomes itself a sensation. Seeing headlights silently float like spirits on a path across the ravine, climbing some not so distant hill, is a poetic pleasure.

Last night I was out with my running pals, the full moon beamed bright. Indeed, what a little moonlight can do for the trail runner! It gets us out and sheds a different kind of light on the cold, winter run.


Ingrid A's picture

great article - now I really feel I have to try it out
dan royer's picture

Yes! You should join us on Tuesday night. It's a pretty weird experience really.