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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Night Running

With the days getting shorter, and the race plans for 2015 starting to take hold, a cardiac inducing panic can set in to long distance running that is hard to escape. Namely, how do I get my time and mileage in with such little time in the day?

Up here in Vancouver BC, sunrise is around 8am and sunset as early as 4pm in the heart of winter. I am not an early morning guy, except on long run days and races, so the idea of waking up at 7am and getting some trail time before the kids are off to school is out of the question. That leaves the evening, which is inevitably dark and cold. Perfect conditions for night running.

I started my night running expeditions during the summer months, with exploration in the safety of clear night skies and temperatures warm enough to get away with exposure if things didn't go well. In the late fall and winter that option changes and gear and supplies, as well as familiarity with the trails is of utmost importance. I've done a fair amount of night running and enjoy it immensely. Your senses come alive, and the forest doesn't so much as "go to sleep" but rather wakes up in a magical way.

So here's what I've learned . . .

Preparation - Overview

When getting out onto trails, it's always important to be prepared, but let's face it, even the most stalwart safety advocate can cut some corners when going on local trails in the bright sun for a short run. This kind of improvisation is not recommended for night running. Ensure you have all your supplies, from food, first aid kit, map and compass, extra layers, and extra batteries for light (which will be discussed in detail later). Always start with fresh batteries. Rechargeable lights are okay, but I wouldn't recommend them as your primary source. It's hard to find a USB or wall charger in the middle of the forest.

Basic Night Running Gear

Reflective gear is a good idea also. When you're running with others, you become a beacon in the night.

Alley with reflective gear
In the cold, I also carry some hot pockets (the warm pads that fit in your gloves or socks). I carry a knife as well, for both security and utility.
Leave a note and let people know where you are going, on what trails, and when you are expected back. Keep in mind that night running is much slower than in natural light, so a 10k trail that takes an hour, could take two to three times as much time depending on conditions.

I also recommend running with a friend and/or friends. There's safety in numbers and many of your apprehensions will disappear, allowing you to focus on the task at hand.

Light - The Source

There are many different options for lighting on the trail at night and figuring out what works best for you is part of the fun. There are reputable brands of light out there (Black Diamond, Petzl, Princeton Tek, Fenix etc) and in depth reviews of battery life, lumens and range. Generally, the more lumens the better with 100 lumens being the minimum you will want at your disposal. For reference, 10 lumens is about the strength of 1 bright candle.

Leona & Serenity - Red Light vs. White Light
There are two basic types of lights, handheld flashlights and headlamps or head torches (as our European counterparts like to say). I use both, with a headlamp on top and the handheld flashlight in my right hand. Both my light sources are disposable battery powered and shine 100 and 120 lumens at max strength. I have used a precharged battery Princeton Tek light that had a huge 260 lumens also on a 6 hour night run, and it was really good, but a bit of overkill for my needs. Also the battery pack on the back of the head was bit heavy, although it did keep the light from bobbing as a counterbalance.

Colin Aldous with the Petzl Reactive Lighting

The nice part of having a handheld is that you can shine the light in a different direction to which you are looking, granting a better circumspect input of the terrain and surroundings. So if my head is down as I'm climbing some steep terrain, I can shine the light to the sides and get a better sense of where I am at. I also find the trinity of headlamp, handheld and eyeballs gets rid of that tunnel vision and eases any nausea that is known to occur with night running. Ensure the handheld has a strap.

If you're wearing a brimmed hat, turn it backwards otherwise the light will create a shadow over your brim and diminish the range of your light. I do suggest wearing a hat, buff or toque to create a barrier between the strap and your head. It assists with light stability and if you're really bouncing along, keeps the light in place. Nothing like having the headlamp pop off your head or drop onto your neck in the middle of a technical downhill in the dark to make things interesting!

Some people use green, blue or red filters on their light. Honestly, I haven't tried this yet so can't really comment, but I am intrigued.

It's What o'Clock? - When to Run

There are three times when you could go out for a "night run": Dusk, as the night approaches and the light fades; Dawn, as the morning arrives and rising sun rescues you, or; Middle of the Night, the Sun has abandoned you, and the only way you're gonna see it is by spending hours on the trail.

For beginners, I suggest Dusk. You can start in the fading light, allow your eyes to get adjusted to the dark, and be back at the car before it's pitch black. Twilight is hard to run in because of the lack of hard shadows (everything washes out), but the comfort of knowing you aren't spending the whole time in a blanket of pitch black is a good place to start.

A Selfie with the headlamp turned off

If you're an early riser, then just before dusk works also. This allows you to start in the dark, and based on your sunrise, run into the light.The benefit of this is you finish your run without headlamps, and you know you're going into a new day. Lots of Ultra races start in this condition also, so it plays well with pre-race training and mental preparation.

For the brave and adventurous, running through the night or beginning and ending in the dark is a fun option. Ensure you have enough battery life in your light sources as you're living in the darkness for the entire outing.

Technique - Where to Shine

Be prepared to fiddle with your light. A little higher, a little lower, a little to the left or right, a little brighter, a little dimmer. A good rule of thumb is to shine the light about 10 or 15 feet ahead, depending on how quick you're moving and the terrain. Resist the urge to shine it at your feet. By the time you see what's coming, it's too late.

Your light intensity changes depending whether you're leading or following

If you are the lead runner, you don't have much to worry about. Set your light to as high an output as you need. Your responsibility is to light as much of the trail as possible.

If you're running behind someone, there's a couple of options, but do NOT shine your light on full beam as you will cast a shadow of the runner in front of you, in effect negating their own light.
60% of max is good gauge, and then you can go slightly higher or lower based on the proximity to each other. The closer you are, the less power you need, and the further you are, the more power you need.
When following, it's also a good idea to point your light further down, so you're hitting no higher than the lead runner's waist at the highest point. This ensures the aforementioned shadow is minimized while still giving the lead runner the benefit of some at foot illumination.
Another trick when following is to angle your light on your head slightly to the side by about 10 or 15 degrees. You'll still get the benefit of lighting the trail ahead of you, and if you're using a handheld, then that light source can fill the dark spots created by your primary light.

 Where Are We? - Know The Trail

When you're starting out, ensure you know the trails. Begin with reasonably flat, non-technical terrain that you've run before. For night runs, I prefer out and backs; such as a climb and descent on the same trail. The reason this works so well is that you control the time. If you want to go out for a two hour run, then run out for an hour, and then back for an hour. Simple. Make whatever adjustments required if there's elevation or challenging sections. For the most part, the difference whether greater or lesser is manageable to deal with.

Be Trail Aware!
Loops work also, especially ones where you can create shortcuts if needed to get back sooner. For example, if you're planning a specific loop and it's taking longer than expected, you can shortcut along another well known trail and ensure you hit your time goals.
Unless you're racing, then distance is secondary to time. Setting out to do an "18k night run" is a fool's bargain and can end up with concerned family members and Search and Rescue being sent out when you miss your estimated finish time.

Have a map of the trail, and know trail names, junctions (both marked and unmarked), trail markers and landmarks. Keep in mind that the trail will look vastly different at night. Missing turns, taking routes that look like trails but aren't, and getting "turned around" are all likely to happen. be prepared to take your time, and only continue if you are certain of the direction.

Pace - Turtle Power

Don't expect to PR any segments on Strava. Wow, that hurt to write that sentence.

Ain't No Records Being Broken Here!

Sight lines are limited, and  your overall pace will be very slow compared to day running. Take into account the above notes of paying attention to trail markers, and signage, and the number of stops you take will also increase. Pace is irrelevant at night unless it's on a race day. Enjoy the sounds of the night, the silent air, and really get in tune with the experience. Night running had a huge impact on my transition from road (which was shortlived anyway) to trail. My pace addiction went out the window, and getting tuned in to energy output and effort is really easy at night.

Elevation - Climbs Get Easier, Downhills Get Harder

For most of us, downhills are faster than uphills. That stays relatively true with night running, but be prepared to experience fatigue on the downhills and a more relaxed state on the uphills.
As I mentioned in a previous post on climbing, going uphill in the dark is awesome. Why? Because you can't see how high it is. The incline disappears from your field of vision very quickly, leaving you with a 15 foot arc of light which leads you into never never land.  Your breathing and your steps are the only things to keep you company. The top of the climb meets you when it meets you, and the monumental task of going up is nary a worry for the majority of the tunnel in which you travel.

And Bears. And Cougars.

The inverse is true for downhill. I tend to fiddle with my headlamp angle a lot more on the downhill so I can run as fast as possible and still be "in the light."  The ground approaches and disappears quickly, regardless of how fast you're going, and the space behind is swallowed into a black pit of nothingness. It's exhilarating and a serious rush. Depending on how technical the trail is, your primary goal is not to fall flat on your face.
The concentration and mental fatigue can accumulate quickly, much like lactic acid in the brain, as you focus on the quickly manifesting and dissolving reality before you. If you know the trail, and have run it multiple times in both bright and dark conditions, speed can come, but always at a price. Things seem faster in the night, so the payoff is huge regardless.

The Elements - Weather You Know It or Not

Summer time night running is very different than Spring, Fall or Winter running; mainly because of the respect it deserves. It's normally cooler at night, and even more so in the wilderness. A balmy afternoon can turn into a sub-freezing evening very quickly. Be prepared, and check the weather reports. Being on a mountain, in the dark, in a volatile weather season can be disaster. In Vancouver, North Shore Search and Rescue is very active plucking under-prepared or unlucky hikers, runners and adventurers in the colder months.

Caution and Preparedness is your friend
A sudden drop in temperature, a mistaken turn or a downpour can all suddenly change the amount of time you are exposed to the elements. I wear Icebreaker merino base layer gear religiously, and have mountaineering shells for wind protection, a thermal blanket, and merino wool toques and gloves. While moving, it may be overkill, and stores neatly in my pack, but if someone, including myself, was injured, a 30 minute or 3 hour wait for rescue in the dark under changing conditions is a bad place to wish for a blankie and a teddy bear. Add to that the potential for shock, hypothermia, and dehydration and you're asking for trouble. Now, don't get me wrong, night running in the winter is awesome, but follow the old adage of better to have and not need, than to need and not have!

Time on Feet - Training 

As a training tool, night running is perfect to prepare you for the travel race, or ensure you have a strong base for the Spring season. It's a great way to spend time on feet, and minimize the distance and pace goals in training. The discussions at night also tend to take on a different seasoning. Most of my night runs have brought me closer to my running friends. The moments of silence are noticed, not ignored, and the conversations tend to be deeper in meaning, less trivial (although your mileage may vary).

In summary, get out there and give it a shot. Night running is something you can really fall in love with, and its rewards far outweigh the risks. For ultra running, night running is an integral part of the majority of distances in the 50 mile + range if you're a mid to back of the pack runner. Getting comfortable with it's nuances is not only an enjoyable part of the work of trail running, but one that can ensure you success.

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