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Night Running in the Northwest

By Mike McQuaide - April 23rd, 2004

On a moonless winter night, a group of us are running the back trails at Lake Padden when I fall behind. Silence replaces the others' footfalls and laughter, and in a moment, the bobbing beams from their headlamps are swallowed by darkness. Now it's just my mind, the mud and me.

Ahead, a dark huddled mass just off the trail makes a low growling noise. At least I think it does. And at least I think it's a dark, huddled mass. At night, everything out here on this forest trail looks dark and huddled.

My mountaineering headlamp works great but it's hard to get used to chasing a circle of light that's bouncing up and down about 30 feet in front of me. I've got no peripheral vision, so it's exactly like following the light at the end of a tunnel.

I cough loudly and sing the first verse of "Hey Jude" to let the huddled mass?a bear? a mountain lion??know I'm out here but am non-threatening. It works. As I pass by it, a short, thick cedar stump leaves me alone.

(My imagination must have provided the growling.)

The trails behind Padden here in Northwest Washington are rock- and root-studded affairs that slalom through a maze of massive firs and red cedars. I've run them hundreds of times so the fact that the others have dropped me shouldn't be a big deal. But this is my first time running at night and nothing right now looks like it does during the day. In no time at all, I have no idea where I am.

After rounding a bend I start dropping quickly. At least I think I'm dropping. My brain is confused. I can't see my surroundings well enough to make the visual connection with the physical sensation of going up or down. All I know is that it's easier to run, and my feet and legs are moving faster, the exertion is less.

The trail levels out (I think), and when it curves hard to the right, it occurs to me which part of the trail I'm on. Occurs to me because?SPLURCH!?I land shin-deep in a mud- and-standing water ooze that's so cold it shoots an instantaneous chill from toe to head. A "Huh!" emits from my diaphragm as if I'd just dived into chilly Lake Padden. Yup, this is where I was figured I was. Essentially, an open-topped tube of muck and mire, this mud bath stretches on for 200 more yards. At least I'm not lost.

The group of eight runners, now far ahead of me, and well beyond the mud, began these Wednesday night trail runs in October 1999. They formed the group with the goal of getting in quality workouts during the gloomy Northwest winters. But night running isn't just about working up a sweat or hitting a certain heart rate target zone for these guys.

"I do it because it's funny," says night runner Curtis Martin of Bellingham. "It just seems ridiculous to be running through the woods at night. Everyone feels that way, so it makes for a lot of laughs out on the trails."

To light the way, night runners use the same types of small headlamps favored by mountaineers, cyclists and spelunkers. They range in price from $20 to $200 and are manufactured by companies such as Petzl, Princeton Tec and NiteRider.

Tips for Trail Running at Night:

  • Slow down. This will probably occur to some degree naturally but be aware that it's easier to react to root, rocks, mud holes and more when you're running a little slower.
  • Carry a spare flashlight and extra batteries. A bad fall could easily break a headlamp and without backup, you'd really be in the dark.
  • Don't run alone.
  • Don't get separated on unfamiliar trails. Stop every so often to regroup to make sure that everyone is present and accounted for.
  • Let someone know where you're going ahead of time.
  • Have fun. Like the natural tendency to slow down, this will likely just happen on its own.

For nighttime trail running, lightweight headlamps by manufacturers such as Petzl and Princeton Tec light the way. Most provide a 60-yard beam of light, run on AA batteries and range in price from $20 to $70. For improved performance, some offer the option of halogen bulbs and 4.5-volt batteries.

In the event of light failure, it's a good idea to carry a spare. Mini-flashlights by companies such as Pelican and Maglite work great. They're light (under 8 ounces), inexpensive (most are under $20), weather resistant and provide a sense of security.

Back on the trail, my Petzl headlamp is doing a fine job shedding light on the subject before me?mud. After schlepping my way through the muck and the mire without losing a sock or a shoe, I begin a steep climb. At least I think it's a steep climb. Suddenly, I'm in a whiteout and can't see more than a foot in front of me. It's my own fault though. As I huff and puff my way up, the condensation from my labored breathing creates a mini-cumulus in front of me. When my headlamp beam hits it?Flash! I'm blind.

Later, night runner Craig Bartlett tells me, "Breathe down or out of the side of your mouth if you can't see."

In a few minutes, I pop out of the forest and enter an open power line area. "Mike, over here!" I hear from to my right. It's the rest of the group. They've turned off their lights and are standing on a large rock watching car lights race by about 200 feet down below on I-5. When I join them and darken my own lamp, I'm stunned. The effect from up here is magical. It's like we're watching a meteor shower taking place at the bottom of a giant canyon.

After a few silent moments, Curtis shatters the darkness by flicking on his light

"Let's go!" Seven more headlamps light up in unison. The lights head up the power line area ahead of me and in the darkness, it's like a string of white Christmas lights twisting in the wind. In about 100 yards the trail returns to the trees and one by one, the lights go dark again.

I take off after them but if I don't catch them, that's OK. I'm just having fun chasing lights through the forest on a chilly winter night.

Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham (WA) freelance writer and author of Trail Running Guide to Western Washington, to be published in Spring, 2001 by Sasquatch Books.


MOST entertaining and quite magical actually.

Thank you! ;-)

Posted on November 6, 2010 - 8:22pm
by Visitor

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