The Dark Night of the Sole

I went, none seeing me/Forth from my house, where all things quiet be

So runs a few lines of St. John of the Cross’s poem, “The Dark Night,” out of which arose the expression on which I now riff: “The dark night of the soul.” Where it comes to the dark night, and especially to running in it, I confess that most of my musings have been less poetic, and more profane. For years I loathed lacing up in the dark, whether that dark preceded dawn or followed dusk. But why? Was it because the night is “dark and full of terrors,” as screen characters who have known their share of murk and horror remind us? Thoreau muses, rightly, I think, that, “men are generally still a little afraid of the dark.” There is in many of us something visceral and primal, an intuition, that dims our view of the unilluminated hours. In fact, my earliest introduction to running was from the darkness that descended on basement rooms whose pull-string fixtures were situated 25 feet and a flight of stairs from the safe zone of the nearest 60-watt bulb. From what my child-self ran, I cannot say. From what I run today, in darkness and in light, I still cannot say (though my ad hoc reasons are constructed with more sophistication now). That there is something connecting the two, I have no reason to doubt.

But fear of the night is not to be counted among my reasons for, “raging against the dying of the light.” (Really, it isn’t.) Simply, it is in winter that I need most to run in the dark (when the hours of civil daylight are anything but). And winter nights are cold: a thing I have disliked more than, well, the dark. Beneath the stars, 35 degrees feels somehow more frigid than 20 degrees in sunlight, though I suspect the difference has more to do with psychology than either physiology or meteorology. As for terrors, I at least feared no nocturnal predators; my neighborhood had been cleared of them a century ago, save for the coyote or fox (eyes ablaze in the hi beams of passing cars) whose skulking presence grows scarcer by the year. Additionally, in this age of high alert, I had no fear of my fellow man’s malevolence, up to nothing more menacing (as far as I could ever tell) than wheeling his recycling bins to the curb. And speaking of curbs, that brings me to the actual crux of the matter: tripping (with no connection to the light fantastic). Think now of sidewalk partitions that put one in mind of plate tectonics, potholes as matte as the lacunae between stars, rogue sprinkler heads locked in the upright position, dismasted rebar and wooden landscaping stakes, stones strewn like caltrops. Talk about running the gauntlet! Ranking just behind these nemeses is the vista-wide blind spot into which we runners fall with respect to the evening or early-morning motorist, famished from his day labors or not yet having mustered her workaday wherewithal.

And in case it be supposed that the author hasn’t the good sense to outfit himself with a light, of which the modern world offers many varieties that are not your father’s flashlight, well, this brings me to all that is good and wholesome about night running, and especially running sans illumination: Man is a visual animal, sometimes to his detriment. It is a stock cliché of film that a blind master of the martial arts is a higher master than any. Such a one has learned to grow her “lesser” senses as a means of compensating for the loss of her uppermost faculty. In doing so, a sightless master comes to experience the world in a unique way. The night runner is a listening runner in a way that his diurnal counterpart is unlikely to be. Not only does his survival sometimes depend upon it (not all night-motorists remember to turn their headlights on, after all) but late evenings and early mornings produce far less noise pollution than is drummed up by the bumptious activities of the day, leaving behind a less jagged soundscape in which it is possible to hear one’s footfalls (a more telling story than one usually imagines). A Robert Frost poem begins with the words, “I am one acquainted with the night.” A week ago, as the snow still melted from pavements warm with the imprint of earlier hours, it occurred to me as I ran that I had learned to recognize which of several storm drains I passed by the noise the runoff made gurgling down its concrete throat. I knew then that I was beginning to get on familiar enough terms with the night, though I claim nothing like Frost’s mastery.

So what of it? Is a night runner to derive nothing more useful from his pains than a quaint ability to identify a few local aqueducts by their sonic signatures? We are thinking too narrowly if we can imagine no more than this. If the experience of night running can alter, even subtly, one’s understanding of external landscapes, why shouldn’t it also alter one’s consciousness in ways that make it possible, with repetition, to explore features of his own mind ordinarily hidden in plain sight? Mercury was the runner par excellence of the Roman pantheon of gods. Seen by us mostly as a “star” at dusk and dawn, the planet bearing that name (speedy in his laps around the sun) no longer hides his light in the sun’s corona, as he has all day long. Of the night runner, we should say that more than just her clothes ought to be reflective. And as for clothes, let her wear just what she wants; none will see whether they match or whose label they bear. And if any are impertinent enough to ask her, she should answer that, yes, she did dress herself in the dark. Furthermore, she ought not laugh too loudly if that same one observes that her headlamp is reminiscent of the third eye of a mystic seer.

Modern life is awash in artificial light; physicians recommend that we reduce light stimuli in the evening hours to ready one’s brain for sleep. Evening running may act as a mild form or sensory deprivation therapy, or, for that matter, as age regression therapy as it ought to have been conceived. Most of us began, after all, as entities who could hear but not see. For the early morning riser, there too is the opportunity for these therapies: it is darkest, as the expression has it, just before the dawn. “Out of the womb of the morning, you have the dew of your youth,” claims Psalm 110:3.

To keep my own youth, my favorite dark running play is what I call, to borrow an expression from philosopher Alan Watts, the game of black and white. This requires a greenbelt trail or road lit at intervals with street lamps. Carefully and slowly, I jog the dark intervals, the lacunae, between lights. As you might have guessed, I take the well-lit portions at race pace. Certain nights I am grateful that the county is remiss in its deployment of maintenance personnel.

And before I am thought irresponsible for talking up the dark side (with its risks), allow me to suggest a compromise that is neither strictly black nor white: carry or wear a source of light, and use it on particularly dark or perilous stretches, but do yourself the favor of sometimes switching it off. Any glance at a light-pollution map reminds one that even the darkest night in these parts is not so very dark. Sometimes add to that a three-quarter or full moon, and we might read a newspaper (does anyone still?) as we run. If your non-running neighbors didn’t think you insane before, they may now rightly dub you a lunatic if they are anything of an etymologist. But who is the unwise one when melanoma and macular degeneration are on the rise? And in the summer heat, advantages accrue to the night runner that are too obvious to state.

Finally, ask yourself this: Has the shine worn off my day running routine? In his book Eat & Run, Ultra legend Scott Jurek offers a short list of change-up suggestions for when one’s running is in a funk. They include: run with a dog, run a new trail, run in jeans (that’s right). I have something to add to this list: Run at night. Heck, run in jeans at night, if that’ll keep you in the game. Nobody ever need know.

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