Thursday, August 16, 2012

Running in the dark

I love running in the dark. The darkness embraces me. The darkness calms and soothes. The darkness is my friend.

With days full of preparation for the coming school year, my runs, as of late, have been as the sun sets in the west. But last night it was a little later than that. In fact, late enough that prime-time TV was in full swing and the stars were in full view.

Country roads are standard fair for runs from my house. Normally, I wear a reflective vest so the rare car that passes sees me rather than hits me. I also carry a tiny flashlight but refrain from turning it on until I see a car approaching from in front or behind me. Last night was no different.

I've found the best approach to night running on roads is to run right down the middle. This, of course, would be very bad advise if your route is a busy city avenue. But out in the country where you are more likely to coax a herd of cows to stampede beside you rather than have cars run you down, the middle of the road is a good place to be. The runner is able to see bright headlights from the cars in plenty of time to move to the side. Cars driving toward you or coming up from behind will see you better in the middle than if hugging the shoulder.

Another reason to run the middle is there is likely to be fewer potholes or debris. Assuming most drivers stay in their lanes, the middle gets little use, making it a perfect spot for the nighttime runner.

Running at night gives me a sense of speed, even if my speed is less than optimal. I can't see very far into the darkness. That means I can't see what's coming up. I can only deal with each individual step one at a time.

In life, I sometimes wish I could see what lies ahead. How long is the road? What's around the next corner? When will I get to the finish? But after being reminded of some important lessons during my run last night, knowing what's coming up probably isn't a good idea.

There is one particularly difficult hill on the route I ran. Depending on the course I take, I normally hit this cliff at 7, 15, or 18 miles. I always dread it, struggling to make it all the way up the hill and around the bend. Sometimes the hill beats me. But an odd thing happened last night. I didn't even notice the hill. In fact, I was on top and running the flat for quite a way before it registered that the hill was behind me. For a minute, it was disorienting to not remember making the climb. But then it occurred to me that when I simply concentrated on efficient, smooth running one step at a time, even the difficult journey became pleasant. The darkness focused my attention on what was important. Distractions faded into the shadows, allowing me to run in freedom.

I was still contemplating the ease of running that hill when a car approached. I flicked on my little light as I moved toward the left side of the road. My light was intended to grab his attention, and it did. I saw that he moved over a little to his left. That was nice of him. But what wasn't so nice was his blinding headlights. I lowered my head and shielded my eyes from the glare. My pupils, dilated to accommodate night running, burned from his beams. I could no longer see where the blacktop merged with the rough shoulder. There were a few uncomfortable moments when I wasn't sure if my next step would be into a hole or onto an unseen rock. I felt like the guy who sees a light at the end of the tunnel, only to realize it's a train barreling at him at top speed.

I turned my own light toward my feet and regained focus. I could see where I was. The car passed by harmlessly and I continued my run, eager for my eyes to readjust to the blackness. Then it hit me. For light to be helpful, it needs to be the right kind of light coming from the right place. The blinding light in front of me was of no help. In fact, it was counterproductive, blinding me in the moment. But I also know from running trails with friends that a light from behind isn't all that helpful either. A beam behind me casts odd shadows and distorts reality. A light directed at my feet is the best.

A light at my feet lets me see obstacles to avoid. It makes clear my path one step at a time. It protects me from distractions off to the side or looming down the road. It keeps me in the moment.

Then I realized the significance of a oft-quoted verse. "Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path" (Psalms 119:105). For as many times as I've heard that verse, I understand it better after my run in the dark. I'm glad I can't always see what's ahead. Thank God, however, that His light, His Word, let's me see every step in the night. That's the only light I need to get to where I'm going.

Keep the light directed at your feet. Run long. Run strong. One step at a time.

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