Matthew Finch ditched his usual road run for a trail route into the darkness and found his journey into the unknown to be an enlightening experience
I’m fortunate to live in a semi-rural area just on the northern tip of Worcestershire where fields and farms collide with the outer edge of Birmingham. It means I can lace up my running shoes and practically head straight out onto quiet country lanes and public rights of way, for the most part avoiding busy roads and traffic.
That is, in summer. In winter – for those of us that work full-time and have a young family, limiting runs to early mornings or late evenings – my running routes usually incorporate the same couple of loops around residential and well-lit roads. Busy and dull.
To tackle the monotony and my rapidly declining motivation to don my running shoes, I had tried strapping on a head torch and trotting down country lanes. But I quickly tired of jumping onto grass verges and into ditches every time a would-be rally-driver came hurtling away from Birmingham, seemingly unexpectant of meeting oncoming night-time runners. (Arguably my bad!)
So, one dry clear evening I hatched a plan. I would re-attach my headtorch, slip on some old muddy running trainers and set out into the darkness on a cross-country route linking up some of the public footpaths and bridleways that circle the area. As I crossed a road separating a row of houses and the fields they overlooked, and slipped through the first metal gate, I wondered what any on-lookers might think seeing a lone torch light bobbing off over the fields and into the woods.
The first thing I noticed was how any small undulations at ground level were either exaggerated or blacked out from torch light and shadows. It made running awkward, having to concentrate on foot placement as I bounced down an otherwise gentle and featureless slope towards a stream and bridge crossing and the small patch of woods ahead. The other thing I observed while navigating roots and branches was that my senses seemed heightened. Initially showing themselves in the form of adrenaline, and a tiny amount of fear. Not real fear - like something bad might happen or someone might be lurking in the bushes - but more of an instinctive, subconscious fear leftover by evolution, like something might be lurking in the bushes!!
My adrenaline soon found a rhythm and my senses settled into a useful state of alert, awakened and aware of my surroundings. Fully conscious of my breathing, foot placement on dirt, and the cacophony of sounds that nature produces, I marched on through the 10-metre tunnel of light that my world had been reduced to. For someone who has tried meditation but has struggled to stop my mind darting from one thought to the next, this was surely Zen!
Shortly after emerging from the woods the trail dropped down into a shallow valley. You can often see settled mist here from the nearby road as dawn breaks. As I bounded down the tiny torch-lit bridleway and submerged myself in the ghostly mist that had settled , a noticeable chill ran over me. I’d run into an apparent micro-climate, presumably something to do with the stream and surrounding topography, although my geography knowledge is rusty! The cold was welcome, cooling me down from my over-heated state as I climbed through the now steep and wooded trail.
My route was bringing me closer to a final road section, back to civilisation and street lights, and my senses knew this as I edged closer to reality. Much like the night being darkest before dawn (I’ve no idea if this is true!), this trail was darkest before emerging back onto the street, and I was looking forward to returning to the asphalt triumphant in adventure and exploration. The last few tree stumps and branches seemed to be leaping out at me in their attempt to hold me within their world. But they couldn’t keep me. Not this time. I have work-shirts to iron and sandwiches to make!
Although relieved to be running along the predictable terrain of the pavement, illuminated by car headlamps and sound-tracked by their engines, I was also back into a headspace filled with tasks and to-do lists, and a physical space that seemed stressful in contrast to where I’d been running just minutes before. Full of a sense of adventure, having journeyed into the dark unknown of the trail, I trotted along the tarmac towards home. Part of me was considering turning around and going home the long way.
I almost hadn’t taken this route. The comfortable voice in my head told me it’ll be muddy, it’ll take too long, it might be dangerous; and I nearly turned towards the main road of my normal after-dark loop. I’m glad this time the curious explorer won over. I’m now analysing Google Earth, plotting a few more night-time trail runs to get in before the lighter evenings arrive, having been reminded that so often, perfect mini-adventures are there just waiting for people to say yes!