Alone in the dark

I started training regularly again last week, following another home-made programme, with a regular Parkrun thrown in every Saturday. It had been a while since I last went out on regular mid-week runs, and the change in the season was really evident! Autumn has been and gone, and winter is making no secret of its arrival.

On Tuesday I went on my relaxed run from Cosby to Littlethorpe, in the sub-zero temperatures that marked this winter’s first true frost. Most of the way is lit by street lamps, but there is a short section of darkness between the two villages of about a half mile or so. I had left home in a hurry, and when I got to the dark section the only source of light I had was my mobile phone. It worked well enough on the way out, providing just about enough light to allow me to see the way ahead, but it died on me just as I was approaching the next lit section: which meant that on the way back I had to run in perfect darkness…

And it was beautiful!

As soon as my eyes grew accustomed enough to distinguish the very faint line that marked the curb at the edge of the pavement, I was able to run relatively comfortably, although I could hear my cadence had dropped considerably and my footstrike had become much more “flatfooted”, as I instinctively adjusted my stride for stability… The term “proprioception” immediately came to my mind, being aware of your position in space, and that of the different parts of your body… which is fine, and a great help I am sure, but how does it help when you can’t see where the ground is in relation to said body? Or the curb that marks the safe path from a drop on the road and a fall just as a car decides to race past?

But I couldn’t feel tense if I tried. I loved being alone there in the dark, running along by myself under the stars, the only lights those of small villages far beyond the dark fields… I don’t know if it was just the darkness or the forced added concentration, but focus turns inwards from the stars towards you, to your movement, your freezing hands, your breathing and finally yourself as a tiny speck of warmth running along through the dark cold night…

It couldn’t have been more than five minutes before I reached the lit pavements of Cosby again, but the experience stayed with me. And it reminded me of other times I had been alone in the dark, but have since forgotten as my life has moved on: on foot (walking under the moonlight on the island of Eleuthera, unfamiliar wildlife making strange noises in the foreign vegetation; the laps in darkness in a 24h running event), by car (leaving the Italian south in the morning to reach the Alpine passes as darkness fell and then crossing France overnight; or vice versa, racing the sunrise to Bari) or the very brief descents into darkness that was my freediving experience in the UK: just under a minute of sliding down along a line into the darkness in the cold waters of a quarry, before turning back towards the light again.

And it occurred to me how strange it is to love the warmth, light and companionship of long summer days as much as I do, but for a part of me to seek being alone in the dark…

Is the explanation philosophical (light only existing in relation to darkness), psychological (warm days as my comfort zone, dark nights as a challenge), something else altogether?

But the more I dwell on it, the more I think that the clue is in the word “alone”: the night, the darkness, just reinforces the feeling of being alone (I suppose that’s why my free diving experiences qualified for a mention, as short as they were: it’s an extremely solitary practice, despite the presence of buddies and safety divers). And I conclude that (and this is a highly personal view) one can only truly say they love light and companionship if one can feel happy being alone in the dark: otherwise it seems a fake love driven by necessity.

Besides, with less than a third of the day being daylight in Leicester in December, we’d be very unhappy runners if we couldn’t run in the dark…

…but next time I venture out of the light, I’ll make sure I take my head torch with me!

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