Trailrunning in the Dark

The days are getting colder, the sun rises later, and each run is getting longer by the week. I'm settling deep into a more regimented training cyclce this fall and winter, which means I'm being forced to confront my fear of running in the forest in the dark. Before now, I have only had one experience with running on trails in the dark — a nighttime run on the back trails of Mount Royal in Montreal during my university days. Even in my youth I wasn't comfortable running in the woods in the dark, but back then it was a fear of bumping into a human doing shady business rather than a large animal. And back then, what looked like bravery when confronting my fears was usually just arrogance or naivete.

Now I'm in a different phase of life with a bit more experience. These days I'm increasingly aware of my own mortality. In the city, I'd probably be even more worried about what kinds of shady characters I'd run into on a night run. But here in rural British Columbia, it's not humans I really worry about, but the thought of the large beasts that I might startle, or who might startle me. In the parking lot near my favourite trails there is a big sign with the profile of a cougar on it, warning hikers to pick up small children and pets if they come across the large feline. Further up the trail is a similar sign but with outline of a bear instead of a cougar. Each time I hit the trails, day or night, I am reminded of the large mammals that could give me the fight of my life if they chose to confront me rather than flee.

Like any other fear, I've spent a lot of time thinking and stressing out about the situation that brought on the fear, which in this case is running in the forest in the dark. I've spent some time imagining myself running specific trails in the dark and trying to sort out what specific aspect of that setting made me afrid. Before I ventured out on my first real trail run in the dark, I did a bit of research and came up with a short list of essentials without which I'll never set of an a night time trail run.

  1. Lights Obviously anyone venturing into the darkness needs a light. It turns that because I'm moving pretty quickly on the trails, I need some pretty bright lights to feel safe and avoid rolling my ankles. I wear a heeadlamp set to maximum brightness (350 lumens) with a buff between my head and the lamp so that it doesn't dig into my forehead. I've also stated bringing a hand-held 900-lumen bike light which is much brighter than the headlamp, and gives me peace of mind when I shine it in the direction of scary noises to see that nothing is there.
  2. Bear Mace I now bring bear mace in a small running pack on most early-morning runs. I've often thought about whether I would even be able to dig the mace out in time if I did have to use it, especially when wearing gloves in the winter. Mostly it just helps to put my wild imagination at ease.
  3. Knowledge The BC government has published a thorough description of what to do in the unlikely event of a bear or cougar encounter. I keep this information top of mind when I'm venturing into the woods on a regular basis, especially in the Fall when wildlife encounters are slightly more common.
  4. A Confident Mindset For the most part, bears and cougars are probably much more afraid of us then we are of them. I try to keep this is in mind when I'm heading out the door. I also try to cultivate the thought that, as a human, I am the most dangerous animal in the forst when I choose to venture out there. This is probably arguable (giant sharp fangs and claws are hard to beat) but keeping this thought in mind makes it a lot easier to run down the densely-forested single track in the pre-dawn lightt

Confronting this fear has been a pretty big step for me. I'm learning that getting over fears can take a lot of practice. Some weeks I charge into the forest with confidence. Other weeks, if I haven't run in the dark in a while, it's like I'm right back at square one. Confidence requires maintenance. As I get later into my twenties, I seem to be accumulating more and more fears. So, contronting and surmounting my fear of running trails in the dark has felt extremely liberating and empowering. That being said, I still never leave home without my four essentials.