Running in the Dark

This article first appeared in the winter 2021 issue of ATRA’s quarterly newsletter Trail Times and was written by Janelle Lincks who was born and raised in Colorado. She presently is based out of Boulder where she works as a gardener. As well, she is a competitive trail runner recently sponsored by ATRA switchback member inov-8.

Watching the sun slowly slide behind Green Mountain, I feel the urge to reach out a hand as if to a falling friend. I glance down at my watch and cringe at the unblinking face reading 3:00. And, I still have an hour and a half of work left before I can head out for a run.

It’s a tough time of year to be a human in the Northern Hemisphere. As our window of light rapidly shortens, the cold sets in mercilessly calm and waiting to embrace any fragile frame of flesh that enters its winter darkness. This description may give you a sense of the existential dread I have personally felt as the fall gives way to winter months. As a runner, short cold days have a tendency to make my preferred pastime exceptionally daunting and I’m sure this is the case for many. A general feeling of malaise can settle over people along with the snow and for some an even stronger sense of depression may set in.

Studies have shown that SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is strongly correlated to vitamin D deficiency and that getting out for a sunny run coupled with eating the right vitamin D-rich foods can help people cope with darker days. I’ve lived in Colorado my whole life and we have plenty of sunny winter days, so while I’m certain these tips can help ease this seasonal discomfort I feel like there’s a little more to it.

I run to feel free. I throw on a pair of shoes and head for the trails. This allows me to leave behind the trials and tribulations of daily life. However, winter has given me a sense of restriction. I have to plan what I’m going to wear, only run certain routes and with an ever-growing preference to run exclusively on trails, I’ve felt running this time of year to be pointless at times if I’m bundling up to trot on slushy terrain. But, trails winding through forests and mountains have a way of luring the soul to them time and again.

It’s now 4:30 and I head out from the little garden shed where I punch my time card daily beneath a few 8,000-foot peaks. Heading up the trail the last breath of twilight exhales purple cooling into the swelling blue of night time. As a habitually ill-prepared runner, I have no headlamp strapped to me, but I want to run on a trail, I want to feel free. So I trot up, a little slower than usual and a lot more grateful than usual to see a few others heading up toward the iconic flatiron faces of this running town.


Janelle (#53) at the 2021 USATF Trail Marathon Championships.

I like watching the rocks fade into shadows gradually disappearing into the trail until an even ribbon of grey stretches before me winding through the dark giants of ponderosa pine. I pick my feet up higher, step lighter and quicker, let my body feel the trail. My pace picks up – any runner can attest to the seeming super speed that dawns on the legs at night. Up here I feel this and the heightened awareness edged with the inner tension that arises from venturing into the unknown. I feel myself as the animal I am, moving through the environment that suits my motion. The clouds obscuring the half full moon drift away, the forest floor is silver, my air is cool and for a moment I am completely free. My world is complete.

Trail running entices one, it challenges and mystifies. It lures the soul deeper and deeper into the ancient spaces of being that our species has traversed for food, survival, and sheer joy. The winter season may dim our window of light, but the window of experience never closes to the ventures of the spirit. Now, by no means do I trail run in the dark daily. Nor do I recommend it as the go-to spiritual adventure for everyone. A headlamp is obviously a useful tool, though it undoubtedly limits the scope of your vision to a tunnel. That said, on a trail system I’m less familiar with I might opt for one.

Headlamps aside, the point I’m making is that the world is teeming with possibility, and at times we mistake the narrow vision of one collapsed set of possibilities – i.e. a singular reality – for the whole. Running trails at night is one way I have found to effectively shatter a reality I formerly mistook as the only possibility for an entire season of the year. Skimo, snowshoeing, snow birding, and winter landscape painting are a few other possibilities I can think of that could open new worlds of experience during a potentially trying time of the year. Bottom line – the human soul is an intrepid traveler if only it’s allowed to run free.

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