Perhaps you’re an early riser by nature. Or maybe you have to be an early riser because of your schedule. Or best of all, you just like running in the dark. In every case, it is a unique experience every time you head out the door for a pre-dawn run.
Just last week I met a runner who spoke enthusiastically about her nighttime and early running. “I love it. You feel so…wrapped up in the darkness.”
That’s how I feel about it. I’ve always like running in the dark. On summer nights between scholastic and college track and cross country seasons, those late night runs were full of dreams about upcoming competitions.
As time goes by, our dreams change and our focus too. Now when I go out before dawn, the mind wanders even as the feet seek out the safest path. It can be tough at times to find that footing. When you’re running against traffic, the car lights blind you. Yet a hand placed in front of the eyes cuts the contrast and the ground below becomes more visible.
One grows practiced at this mode of running over the years. Running in the dark is both a science and an art. One must learn to trust instinct as well as perception. Of course, it helps to have reasonably strong ankles and knees to handle potential uneven patches in the surface. A bit of balance always helps. All those years of playing basketball and running the steeplechase, playing soccer and football and playground sports come in handy the older you get. But it’s still a dicey proposition sometimes.
For the first half mile of the run this morning, the stars were bright and visible in the sky this morning. The constellation Orion was visible low in the Western sky. The Big Dipper was its opposite. Occasionally the lights of an airplane rose from the east out of O’Hare Airport thirty miles away.
Even before dark, the Canada Geese were piping on the ponds as I ran past. Lately, there has been a pair of great horned owls calling from the trees near our new house. In four weeks+ the owls will set up shop with a nest in the nearby woods. They’ll take turns keeping the eggs warm through the cold blasts of late January and February. The rhythms of nature don’t stop. Next time you’re cold on a run, think about those owls hunched down on the nest as the winds blast away at them. Warm feathers or not, those are tough birds.
Running before the sun is up a bit like listening in on the secrets of the day. A junco lets out a twitter as I run past the willows next to a wetland. Then a robin scoots and flutters ahead in the darkness. The rains last night have likely brought worms to the surface of the ground. As the saying goes, the early bird gets the worm. I just saw the early bird.
My run takes me into a nearby forest preserve. At its southern edge, a restored prairie has matured after years of restoration work. The strong south wind whispers through tall grasses. I listen to that sound and wonder what other territories those winds have crossed on their way here. And what years those bits of oxygen and carbon dioxide have seen. Does the air we breather disappear or does it simply get recycled back and forth between CO2 and oxygen? I’m going to look that up. The question seems to matter more than ever. How ancient is our atmosphere, after all? We depend on it to breathe. To keep us safe from radiation. To capture heat and to release it as well. Are we killing the air we breathe, and which we depend on for life?
As I run, it strikes me that the morning air is not that cold even though it is late November in Illinois. I recall other warm years, including one in which I visited this same preserve on December 5. Temperatures hovered above 70 degrees for the entire day.That evening more than 20 species of ducks was parked on the main body of Nelson Lake. I crept out from the main hiking path to crouch on a fallen willow tree next to the water. The air was still, and the voices of all those ducks floated across the water as the sun set. It would soon be dark and the air started to grow chill. Yet even as darkness fell and the water shifted from pink to purple to black, I clung to that log and listened to the peeps and piping calls of the ducks until the lake grew largely silent. I was present for the secret turn of phrase that constitutes wildness.
By the next morning, temps had fallen thanks to a rushing night wind. The lake froze over and the ducks were all pushed southward. I was so thankful I’d stayed late to witness that last window of fall. And felt ready for the winter ahead as a result.
That paradigm, of active waiting for the seasons to change, or for the day to break, is what makes running in darkness so delightful. Because as I circled toward home the sky began to lighten in the east. A mile later the path ahead shone with reflected light. Water gathered in puddles spilled across the running path and it made a pleasant splash that cleaned off the soles that were surely muddy from traipsing through the mucky length of the forest preserve.
I know those paths so well next to the woods that I can run them by instinct. Even the shoulders next to the road home are familiar. I’ve ridden the bike many times down the same stretch of road. One learns by timing where the holes are, and the cracks. And how the shoulder falls away at certain points. Instinct.
Then the welcoming lawn behind our house appears. A flock of geese rises up noisily to head to the fields to feed. Yesterday there were twelve sandhill cranes calling like a complaining band of runners as they made their way through the harsh autumn winds.
We share the wind, the cranes and us. Soon the great flocks from up north will pass through on their way to Jasper-Pulaski park in Indiana. These are rhythms to which one should pay attention. They measure our days, and our lives.
But it’s the stars that give a true sense of shared humanity and humility in the early morning hours. They remind us of the timeless nature of our existence, and how precious every dot of life or light can be. We are moving and temporal beings. But sometimes it pays to stop during a run before the sun is and just behold the night sky. Because in the end, it is all we have, and all we will ever be.