Running Blind

Geoff Roes discusses the benefits of ‘running blind,’ or approaching trail running with a running-by-feel mentality.

By on October 22, 2014 | Comments

With the return of shorter days, I have had a couple times recently in which I miscalculated my run and ended up finishing after it was already quite dark in the evening. Running in the dark has always been something I enjoy. More specifically, I have always enjoyed running in the dark with little to no light to guide me. There is something very relaxing and meditative about running on a trail in which I need to guide myself by feel and instinct more so than by eyesight. If you practice this, it can actually become relatively easy and fun to run on almost any trail in the dark without a headlamp. It requires some ambient light so that you can at least see the general contour of the land below your feet, but as long as you are picking up some assistance from the lingering sun, the moon, or nearby artificial light it’s really a lot easier than you might imagine to trail run in the dark.

Beyond being an enjoyable experience, I also believe that there is some value in occasionally doing this. I think the way in which we run on a trail that we can’t see very well is something that we can apply to all of our trail running, most of which typically occurs in the light of day. When we run in the dark nearly every foot placement is unpredictable. We never really know what position our foot is going to want to push us until it actually lands. We might step down with a rock under our toes, which is of course a very different feeling than stepping with a rock under our heel, or with no rock at all. When we run in the daylight and we see the rock coming with our eyes we already prepare for the effect it’s going to have on our body before we actually land on it. This is, of course, a very logical and effective way to run (our eyes may be our most important body part for mastering the art of technical trail running), but if this is the only way we ever run, then we tend to be very surprised when we do step on a rock that we never saw coming. In this way, it becomes valuable to occasionally practice ‘running without our eyes.’ If we do this enough, we teach ourselves to more effectively deal with the unpredictable steps that we will ultimately take no matter how well we are at using our eyes to predict our footing.

This notion of ‘running blind’ as a potential benefit most certainly goes beyond running in the dark, without a light. There are many other areas within running in which I think we can become better runners if we have less information or fewer tools at our disposal.

Another example is that I think we can improve our technical-running ability on any trail if we regularly run on ice and snow. Nowadays nearly everyone owns a fancy pair of traction devices for running in these conditions, but sometimes I think it’s valuable to leave the Kahtoola Microspikes at home and practice making your way as efficiently as possible down the trail without them. Again, much like running in the dark, you won’t be able to run as smoothly without the spikes as you can with them, but you will teach your body how to respond to the unpredictability of having your foot slip underneath you at seemingly random times. The best snow and ice runners aren’t those who are able to avoid having their feet slip at all, but instead those who are able to stay upright and continue moving forward in an efficient way when their feet do slip. Practicing this will carry over not only into snow/ice running, but into any trail running in which your foot unpredictably slips. In other words, all trail running.

Another area within ultra and trail running in which I think this notion of ‘running blind’ regularly shows up is found when looking at the trends between those who come from a formal running background and those that don’t. You would think that someone who is new to ultra or trail running who ran track, cross country, or road races in the past would have a much quicker learning curve than those who did not. In some instances this appears to be the case, but at least as often or more, I seem to notice people who come from a background of little to no formal running who are able to pick up ultra/trail running very quickly. Conversely, I don’t think it is at all uncommon to see someone with a very pronounced running background who really struggles to find their stride (pun intended) in ultra/trail running. I think the reason for this is that running ultras (especially trail/mountain ultras) is so entirely different from running short-distance road and track races that you are generally doing yourself a disservice if you are trying to apply too much of your experience or knowledge from a background in track or road racing. If you simply have no background in other forms of running you don’t even have the option of doing this disservice. Again, another area in which ‘running blind’ can be a positive thing.

When we run races it is very tempting and generally very logical to gather as much information about the race as possible before we run it. Whether it’s scouting the course, studying the elevation profile, or memorizing every turn in the course description, there are numerous things you can do to try to avoid surprises on race day. The challenge, though, is that no matter how much you prepare ahead of time, there are going to be countless surprises when you race for 30, 50, or 100 miles. For this reason I think it can be beneficial to regularly run races in which you just show up and simply take things as they come, without a whole lot of preparation ahead of time. This is a very low-stress and fun way to run a race, and in the end it will teach you invaluable lessons on how to adjust and adapt on the fly, something that will prove abundantly beneficial, especially in the races in which you think you have every last thing dialed in. Even when you’re most prepared for races, there are always going to be surprises. How you react to these surprises is almost always what makes the difference between ultimately having a good race or a bad race.

Certainly there are all kinds of areas within ultra-trail running in which information, knowledge, and experience can be of a huge benefit, but I think there are also many areas in which we often allow these things to get in the way of growth and development as runners. Oftentimes I think it is valuable to take a step back and approach things from a place of less information. Whether it’s running down a trail in the dark with no headlamp, running in the snow with no traction devices, or showing up to a race having never studied the course description, we will, as a result of these choices, end up with an experience in which we learn how to thrive in instances in which things don’t go as planned. The best trail runners are not those who are able to predict, plan for, and understand every situation they encounter on the trail. This simply isn’t possible in an environment as complex, challenging, and unpredictable as the places our trail runs take us. In this sense, the best trail runners are those that are best able to respond to the situations that come along that they couldn’t predict, didn’t plan for, or don’t understand.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you have an example from when you have benefited from ‘running blind,’ or not knowing or planning for all of the circumstances through which you ran or raced?
  • Do you have an example from which you wish you hadn’t ‘run blind,’ when you think you would have prospered more with some pre-planning of your run or race?
Geoff Roes
Geoff Roes has set numerous ultramarathon course records including the Western States and Wasatch 100 milers. Salomon, Clif, Drymax, Ryders Eyewear, and Atlas Snowshoes all support Geoff's running. You can read more about his running on his blog Fumbling Towards Endurance and join him at his Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camps.