Night Running

AJWs TaproomOne aspect of running long-distance ultramarathons that has always fascinated me is running at night. It seems to be a somewhat overlooked skill in the context of racing but one which clearly has an impact on performance and success. Certainly, the equipment issue is significant as there are a wide range of opinions about headlamps, flashlights, and more. But it also seems to me that there are real skill needs that factor into night running that should be part of any runner’s preparation for a night ultra.

This is particularly relevant to me this month as I am preparing for the Grindstone 100 Mile in early October. While it will be my 31st 100-mile race, it will be the first race I have ever started at 6 p.m. While I know atypical starting times have always been a part of the ultra scene, I have, for whatever reason, always run hundreds that start in the early-morning hours. As such, I do not have as much experience running through the night as many others do. As part of my preparation over the past few weeks, I have run several night runs in an attempt to test my gear and acclimate myself to this new world. The four lessons I have learned in this process may be informative to others:

  1. It is probably obvious to everyone but there is clearly no substitute for a highly functioning, comfortable, reliable light source. Whether you are a headlamp person, a handheld person, or both, it seems to me that the first step in becoming a successful night runner is your lamp.
  2. Get used to running while sleepy. While there is certainly an adrenaline rush that comes from starting any 100-mile race, it seems to me that inevitably, in the wee hours of the morning, fatigue will set in. No matter how much I try to adjust my sleep patterns to anticipate the fatigue, I think the most successful night runners just figure out how to keep moving when the sleepiness comes. And, then hopefully enjoy the ‘bump’ that comes with the sunrise.
  3. Embrace the simplicity of it. One thing I have realized on my night runs is that the world around me seems to shrink. I am alone with my thoughts and the beam of my headlamp on these night runs. There are no external distractions to get in the way and therefore I can get into a steady zone of just running that can be at once cathartic and meditative. It may sound odd to some but running in the dark just seems a bit more clear than running during the day.
  4. Take a leap of faith. One of the most fascinating realizations that running at night has opened up for me is the faith that it takes to gain confidence and comfort on the trail. While it can be, on the one hand, disconcerting to not know what is around the next bend, it can also be quite liberating to just leap into the darkness. In fact, the more I run at night, the more I seek to run freely during the day as well.

I am sure I will learn additional lessons on my last night training run this weekend and certainly when I toe the Grindstone line at Camp Shenandoah in October. As I have often said before, even after 20 years of running, there is still much to learn on that next run.

Bottoms up!

 AJW’s Beer of the Week

From Knee Deep Brewing Company in Auburn, California comes Midnight Hoppyness, a great American Black Ale that packs a punch at over 9% ABV. It is less bitter than other black ales and is a true celebratory ale that belies its name.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Night running, how often do you do it? What do you love about it? And what are the challenges for you?
  • What lessons have you learned about night running over the years that have made doing it easier for you?

There are 2 comments

  1. pjarnhus

    One of the best pieces of advice I have ever gotten about running in the dark is bringing two light sources. For me this is a head torch and a handheld one. This gives a greater sense of depth that cannot always be achieved by using a single source.

  2. runstephane

    I ran a few times one full night, fewer two or more (ie Tor des géants) but only on races. My personal view is:
    -do not train for long nights before a race; prefer rest!
    -adrenaline is still there after the first night with start on evening (cafeine/cola intake participate to this) even in the pre-dawn hours. It's less true w/ start in the morning but the real issues come during the 2nd night.

    When two torches are mandatory during a race, I have a few times used two headlamps at the same time (with the mantra "if you must carry two, why not using the two"): one on the head, the other around the waist (just a question of size): two beams at differents heights and hands free.

    I totally agree with your point 3. But maybe I'm a little bit asocial?

    With that, I run very little at night for only one reason: I'm reluctant of using batteries during my runs. It's apply to phone, GPS, camera, etc.

    Enjoy Grindstone … May I bring UTMB to your attention? :) But I think you'll learn most of night running when you get slower to run 2 per race: in 20 years :)

  3. LukeDistel

    Good advice AJW. Starting at 6pm you should be fine making it through the night as your adrenaline will be pumping :)

    Maybe at the pointy end running all night through the fatigue is possible. However, for those early morning starts where the day still will take well over 24hrs, short naps can be awesome, especially when you have 2-3hrs of night left before sunrise. At a race last weekend my friend and I ran the fastest split for a ~20m section that actually included a little trail nap. Go figure!

    Like fog, night does indeed make things more intimate.

  4. Dieter_Mindt

    Picture yourself on a night run. No moon – you're on top of the mountain shrouded in fog – headlight batteries start to die (no back up) – 10 miles back to the trailhead. Your only option? – speed up and hope you make it back before being enveloped in darkness! Talk about a confidence booster! – Thanks AJW – such an important piece!

  5. Eric Ashley NJ

    Lesson #5: Extra batteries! (yes, this fits under the "reliable" part of lesson 1, but still) There aren't many worse things than realizing that your only battery is running out in the woods at 3 am, and I can only imagine Dieter's scenario on the foggy mountain!

    1. @1kzemach

      And tape one of those small weightless microlights to the headband. Ever try to change batteries in the dark? Hard to do so when you realize you're about to turn out your only light source to change its batteries….

  6. Carsonaceae

    AJW-got any recommendations as to your preffered brand and model of headlamp? Can you point me to any helpful reviews specifically for trail running? I am going to try my first 50 miler in April in Minnesota, and the damn race starts at midnight! So night running is mandatory. thanks! and keep up the good work.

    Beer recommendation from me: Leinenkugel's Big Eddy Series Uber-Octoberfest. Not like their standard offerings at all. This'll keep ya warm as the light starts to fade and we turn towards winter again.


  7. fellrunningguide

    I'm another advocate of 2 torches. One on head the second around your waist. This helps overcome the 2 dimensional effect that just a head torch creates. This also helps if you need to change the batteries on either torch.

  8. Grufito

    This training season for TNFEC SF and Dick Collins i've been "bumped" to night running, family at home needs me during weekends. My experience so far after 6 long runs at night:
    Being a newborn dad helps a lot, my sleep patterns are already shredded, i've got a good base to work on.
    It's safer to run from 1AM until 6-7AM than to run from 9PM until 2AM… i live in large dense city with access to great trail network… never run into anyone.
    Once i'm running i don't feel a strong need to sleep. I have a theory… it's all about the lamp. I used to run with weak LED lamps (Black Diamond, Princeton tec) that are heavily leaning towards blue spectrum… They have tight hotspots and create this hypnosis effect, especially problematic when descending tight turns in technical terrain. So i researched and found some companies that make decent headlamps that use warmer cast LEDs. I personally run on a Zebralight headlamp… the main drawback is that on top of the lamp you need exotic Lithium rechargeables and a charger… so if you're not a planner this may be a big issue. You need your battery fresh and ready to go. My lamp has enough output on Hi that it makes running very pleasant, i can see full colors, i'm not surprised by deer or skunks (public enemy #1), and they are bright enough that you really don't need a second lamp to get full texture detail on the trail. Other makers do similar lamps, they tend to be waterproof and shockproof.
    I was also highly tempted by the Petzl reactive lamps but they are expensive and have large battery packs.

    I now currently love running at night, I must have the lone wolf gene too, because if i happen to catch a day run i get annoyed at all the hikers, bikers and dogs on the trail…
    Fear: it takes 2-3 runs to get used to the solitude and the sudden shifty movements of critters. Biggest issue i may encounter (remote chance) would me Mountain Lion… sometimes you just have to chance these things. Running into cobwebs is the most annoying thing… but unavoidable.
    For those of you that train at night, find a good lamp with high CRI (good warm color cast) and plug along, it's really a great experience with the correct equipment.

  9. pabloruns

    I have 2 kids under 2 so about 70% of my running is night running!! So beneficial for 100. When the dark comes, I never give it a second thought! Oh and 31st 100 miler? Ridiculously impressive stuff!!

  10. @mleighp

    See you at the starting line, next week, AJW. One of my most vivid memories from 2 years ago at this race was around 3 or 4 AM, seeing what looked like some sort of vehicle–maybe an ATV?–flying down towards me. I thought it was a bit soon for the hallucinations.

    Turned out to be Karl Meltzer, with what I think were multiple light sources. The way he moved through the night over that technical downhill was a thing of beauty.

  11. @jhooker

    Nice article, AJW.

    I use two lamps; one on my head and another 'head lamp' near my chest (either I widen the strap and wear it or I attach it to my pack). The lamp on the chest provides good consistent near-ground light while the lamp on head provides good distance and movement light.

    Additionally, I try to get solid sleep (8+ hours) the 2-3 nights prior to race. By example, if the race is Sat AM I get my best sleep on Wed and Thu as pre-race night (Fri) will be full of anxiety, getting up early, late planning, etc.

  12. silverrunneruk

    I always run with a little key ring type torch on a lanyard. If I have to change batteries while on a run I kneel down, put this torch on the ground and then start replacing my headtorch batteries. If I drop a battery i's not so far for it to fall and roll away. I always use white or silver colored ones for on the run replacement as they're easier to see than black ones if I drop them. Alternative is to put reflective tape on black ones, this works well too. _Stephen Williams

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