In the past, I have gone out at night to run on a dark and secluded trail. I usually do this for two reasons; training for a race, and because it’s enjoyable. If I know I am going to be racing at night, I think it’s important to train in race like conditions. It gives me a good opportunity to test out gear like a headlamp and make sure everything is fitting and working the way it is supposed to. It also helps me to acclimate to what I may be facing on race day without the pressure of actually having to race in a foreign feeling atmosphere. And I say the word “foreign” intentionally. Running at night, particulary on a trail, has always felt a bit foreign and frankly it can feel weird and like I’m doing something I shouldn’t be doing. I really struggle to overcome some pre run anxiety about running a dark trail during the first one or two miles. Once past that, I settle down and experience reason number two that I do this-the enjoyment factor. There is something that soothes my soul to be out in the woods in the dark under the stars, feeling exceptionally alone (in a good way) and focusing on just the few feet in front of me. It’s a different type of trail challenge and I typically enjoy it.
So this brings me to accidental nighttime trail running. This falls into a category of it’s own. Actually scratch that. It shouldn’t have a category because hopefully it doesn’t happen again. It all started at a local shoe demo group run. I decided to join in on this group run that meets regularly for their special shoe demo event, cleverly titled “Hokas and Weiners”. How could I not attend an event with that catchy name? I was excited to try the shoes because lets face it, it’s free and you get to get someone else shoes dirty instead of my own for once. The shoes in question were great by the way and I definitely left feeling like I demo’ed the heck out of them. You know how at your local running store they let you run up and down a sidewalk out front so you get a feel what it’s like to run in the shoes? Well this was that. Times 10. But on a trail. For 8 miles.
The only picture I got. Me and my pretty and clean demo shoes. They did not look so pretty or clean two hours later.
Ok back to the beginning. I set out towards the front of the pack and settled in at a quick pace with the faster of the mid packers. I was planning to run at a more then leisurely pace and call it my speed work for the week. I figured I would catch up with my friends at some point but for the moment, I was content to push the speed a bit. We descended some gnarly single track and I internally paused as I realized that later I would likely be using my hands to climb back up this hill. I met a women who happens to be a member of the west side contingent of my running group. She spoke of running her first half marathon this upcoming weekend and I began reminiscing about my first half and my long history with that particular race she will be running. Next up I started chatting with the guy in front of me. We spoke of the usual’s: shoes, races, Burning River, winter trail running etc. The miles started to fly by. A little too quickly. Suddenly we were on a road (Vaughn Road for any NE Ohio-ans). Having started in the Brecksville Reservation, I thought it was a bit unusual that we were all the way to this road but pushed that thought aside. What did I know? Crazy trail runners are always running far away, right?? Well no, not quite right. It became apparent within about 2 minutes that we’d taken a wrong turn or missed a turn. The course was marked with eco-friendly pancake batter and I hadn’t seen any pancake batter markings for a while. My new trail running friend Dave and I decided to re trace our steps back. We quickly ran into even more new friends who were also off track. We re traced our steps up through the hills once again and found pancake batter markings. Unfortunately we had gone about 1-2 miles off course and were really far behind the rest of the group.
Generic trail pic because the post needs another picture. Imagine this but with no sun
Ok so no problem, right? Just follow the pancakes and you’ll get back to base camp. And technically this is not really a problem. Just follow the Buckeye Trail up and down and eventually get back. But here is where the problem begins-the sun was going down and it was going down quickly. It sunk in that I was going to be running in the dark with no headlamp. This is where i begin to internally panic. I casually ask my new friend, “hey, do you know where we are?” Followed by, “hey, so does this trail take us back eventually? It does, right??” I am not one to panic in most situations but not going to lie, the panic did set in and proportionally increased as the amount of sunlight decreased.
It was about this time that I texted Amy to let her know that I was lost but not alone and somewhere on the Buckeye. I knew that she was behind me earlier and now it was likely that she was somewhere in front of me. She indeed was in front of me and indicated that she was moving slowly on the Buckeye. I figured that if I kept going, I might be able to catch up with her. Spoiler alert: that did not happen.
Thirty minutes and a few miles later, we are STILL out running and it became dark enough to necessitate the use of our phone flashlights to guide us. Interestingly, I don’t always run with a phone, especially when I know others will have theirs. The fact that I had my phone on me is actually a bit unusual but something I am extremely grateful for.
After multiple climbs and descents- each one I “knew” just had to be the last, we came to what appeared to be an old service road. At this point it was fully dark and we had run way more miles then the rest of the group of runners. In my head I wanted to yell “Dave, we are fucking lost, what are we going to do!!!??” However, I didn’t want to freak him out with some runner girl losing her shit on the trail so I decided it was time to actually call Amy and get some more info and maybe ask for some help. Thankfully she had made it back and expressed a tad bit of concern that we hadn’t yet made it back. We described our whereabouts and she confirmed that we were on the right course but still a mile plus away from our destination. That was like a stab in the heart-all that running and still so far away. I started to become a bit concerned about my phone battery holding up and the likelihood that it would at some point die but didn’t say that to Amy. She then told me she had asked a guy named Mike to come back out and look for us and just at that same moment, I saw a beacon of light in the distance. It was Mike’s headlamp and he found us! We bushwhacked through a dense section of pricker bushes and really tall grass and Mike pointed us in the direction of the rest of the trail. He was going to wait for the two others who were still out behind us. I wisely decided to also wait as I didn’t want to risk getting off course again by following Mike’s vague directions to get back-“don’t worry, just up there, take the trail to the right.” Yeah, no. I parked myself with new runner friend Dave and waited.
Once everyone was accounted for, it became clear in my mind that an experienced runner had been sent out to search (and kind of rescue) us. For the first time all night, I was glad it was dark because I’m pretty sure shades of red embarrassment were flashing across my face as Mike grabbed my hand to help me up a steep creek embankment. So after climbing back up (and indeed using my hands to grab roots) we finally made it back. Amy was waiting for me in the parking lot along with our friend Patty. New runner friend Dave’s wife was waiting for us as well and I have never been so happy to be finished with a run. The poor shoe demo lady waited for us and couldn’t have been cooler about the fact that we’d been on our purported short demo run for two hours. The few runners left even saved food and water for us and offered reassurances that this kind of thing happens all the time. After a few “OHMYGOD I am so happy to see you guys” and “holy shit, you’ll never believe how lost I just was”, it was time to pack it up and call it a night. Thanks for the unplanned mid week long run!
So a few lessons learned here:
- Don’t stand around admiring your new shoes as the course marker is describing the course. And ask questions, other people are wondering whether he said left or right too.
- Do not blindly follow someone. Even if they are way experienced and have cool and interesting stories to tell. This does not make them a course expert.
- For the love of god, follow the goddamned course markings. It really isn’t that hard. The part where we missed the turn was incredibly well marked with both pancake batter and sticks cleverly pointed in the correct direction.
- Bring a phone. This seems like a no brainer in this day and age but for me, I’d always seen is as optional. Like if it fit in my running shorts, I would bring it, but if not, forget about it. Not anymore. I am going to invest in one of those arm band thingy’s everyone else sports.