Sunday, November 16, 2008

Night Trail Running: Discovering New Abilities, Ways of Knowing, and Experiences

It has been a really dry, warm fall along the Front Range of Colorado. The mountains are hurting for snow, and I'm already beginning to worry about our spring snowpack and water conditions for next summer. Until Ull pays us a visit and the snow falls, I've been busy getting my telemark legs in shape and maintaining my trail running legs. Although I run peaks and mountains mostly during the summer, I usually cut way back during the winter - my legs need the rest and I switch to my winter love - telemarking. But I don't drop trail running all together, still managing to get in some decent mileage.

Last night I went out to run my current winter trail running route - a nice training run that has some good vertical and mileage combined. Since we just had a full moon and the sky was cloudless as is typical during an Indian Summer night, I though I could run without my headlamp. Often during the summer I use a Petzl E47 PS Tikka Plus Four-LED Headlamp, Soft(thanks Wolfgang!) for the early morning mountain approaches or late evening descents. However, thinking that I could run the trail with only using the moonlight, I left it at home.
Petzl Tikka Headlamp
Long story short, the moon doesn't rise above the horizon for about two hours AFTER the sun goes down. That is, there is/was no moonlight to run by. Needless to say, I had to get back.

Trail running is a very special activity, one that I love to do. As any avid mountain or trail runner will tell you, there are times your state of reality changes. Sometimes it takes place in the form of time changing - an hour and a half slip by in a matter of seconds. Other times it is in terms of energy - all of a sudden your feet are light and your steps come effortlessly. On this night, this change in consciousness came in the form of vision.

Without my headlamp I had to shift my awareness to one based not on vision per se, but on a more subtle form of seeing that involved feeling the ground and imaging the terrain I was running over. Don't get me wrong, I'm not talking any New Age mumbo-jumbo. Science has started to back the alternate experiences trail and mountain runners have reported having (In fact, I presented a scientific paper on this back in 2004, which was subsequently published in the back of my guide book Front Range Colorado Alpine Trail Running Guide: Just The Basics for Only Those Who Are Hardcore).
Night Sky Trail Running
I've had this experience at other times, often after a long day in the mountains when I'm slogging back to the car in the dark. The ability is the same - a knowing that whatever the trail conditions are, I'll be just fine if I keep up my pace and let my body (not my mind) do the running.

I'm going to have the chance to see if I can't replicate this experience on a regular basis this winter, as my new winter training run (thanks for the memories Settlers-Sanitas loop) has no artificial light on it at all. It is 100% in the open space. As the only time I do my training run in the winter is after work, I'll be doing it numerous times in the dark. As the science seems to indicate, this experience is/was not a fluke, but rather an accessing of sorts to abilities and cognitions already within me. So really running has opened up a part of me that thus far I have been unable to access. Now I just have to be able to access this cognition at will.

Are there other stories of running opening up knew ways of knowing? New understandings? An awareness or ability that you never knew you had before? If so, why not share it in a comment.


  1. You are not alone in your experiences with running... it is not merely a physical pursuit.

    I find it impossible to explain to my friends and co-workers, so I don't bother. The human body was designed for endurance activity, only in recent generations have we forgotten this.

    Even though we have an epidemic of obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, it is now us, the physically-active, who are considered an anomaly.

  2. Your right Ultrathoner, physical anthropological evidence points to our endurance and up-right morphology as one of the reasons we are so good at running long distances over varied terrain.

  3. I'm passionate about trailrunning and started night running this winter. I love it!!! I understand the experience of letting your body sense the trail, and not your ming. I can think of a time when we were caught in the early night without our lights and filled with fear, we seemed to move effortlessly through the woods, over the rocks and roots, without even a slip! All of your other senses are heightened as well, you hear everything, smell everything, and move swiftly like any other animal. It's an incredible feeling!

  4. Hey Anonymous,

    That is very cool that you have found some new experiences through running. Trail or mountain running has taught me a lot over the years - not only about my self but also about the possibilities of our body. There are many senses that we do not tap into on a regular basis, and running at night forces us to allow some of those other senses come into play.

    Keep running!