Whether or not you’ve been baring your tonsils in a vacuum lately, it’s still a small consolation for us trail runners.
In the forest at night, everyone can hear you scream but they don’t know what’s eating you. So the first lesson of trail running is keep your wits about you – or else the forest beasties will devour you, alive!
A spooky pine plantation somewhere in the middle of nowhere, at least two day’s hike out. The air is thickly shrouded in mist. It’s like a scene from The Day of the Triffids – except no man-eating plants are in sight. Yet.
A Bedford truck grumbles and grinds in from the gloom and shudders to a noisy halt. There’s the sharp hiss of air brakes. Doors open and are slammed closed. Two pairs of heavy boots crunch their way to the rear of the truck on the forest debris. The tailgate is dropped noisily. “Get out!” barks a voice. It doesn’t sound very friendly. Probably not an SPCA inspector then?
From the gloom of the tarpaulin cover appear six haggard and worried- looking people, all dressed in… base layers, trail shoes and hydration packs.
What the heck is going on?!
“Stand over here,” barks The Voice. OK, he’s definitely not from the SPCA.
The five shuffle nervously into a ragged line. It’s starting to look suspiciously like an execution lineup. It’s so quiet, you can hear a pine nut drop.
The Voice shifts to a more agreeable tone, one a Mafia hitman might use before ‘doing’ you: “Tell us what we need to do to become better night runners and we’ll let you go. Maybe. You’ll have to run out though. Count yourselves lucky.”
Then the first runner, Andrew Booth, with thick black hair and matching beard, steps forward, hesitates for a moment and then stands like he’s delivering an Oscar acceptance speech, with a distinctly Natal Midlands voice:
Andrew’s seven tips
“First, get a good LED headlamp.
“Second, do your first night run on a smooth trail. Judging the distance and placement of obstacles on a technical trail can be tricky.
“Sometimes you can get away without any lighting. Just give your eyes time to adjust. This is often better for depth perception than having a light. This next one often leads to wipeouts.
“You’ll often find yourself looking down at the trail too frequently. There’s a way around that. As you become confident that you know what to expect in the next few steps, glance up briefly to spot overhead obstacles like branches.
“Next tip is vital: run in groups, like we were doing when you rounded us up. Having a few lights around you helps to spot potential hazards. But make sure those with more powerful lamps run in front. A bright beam shining from behind casts a shadow ahead of those ahead and makes it difficult for them to see tripping dangers low down.
“Use all your senses. Your hearing and smell can tell you a lot about your surroundings. Trust them.
“Mist like this makes for very difficult night running, especially when it gets thick and reflects your headlamp beam straight back at you. That’s what I can suggest you do.”
“Er, could I go now, you did say we could go?” he asks, not doing a good job of masking his nervousness.
“Ja, get the hell out of here, Bushy!” barks The Voice.
In a flash, a second dude takes his spot, looking relieved, not like when he emerged from the truck.
His wiry athletic frame looks like someone who might win an Impi Challenge or a few trail runs. Maybe his friends call him Caballo Negro (black or dark horse). Or maybe they don’t. Maybe they call him Charl Souma behind his back. Who knows?
“My main word of advice is that if you are going out at night, carry the required safety gear, especially a cellphone, warm gear, a space blanket and a headlamp.
“The speed at which you are running will determine how far ahead of you the beam should cast. Don’t be afraid to adjust the beam for downhill and flat running. Once your path is illuminated, keep your focus on the ground. There’s no view to look at so don’t be tempted to take a peek around you until you are stationary.”
He opens his mouth to continue… but is interrupted:
“Get out of here, that’s enough already!” bellows The Voice.
There’s the rapid pitter-patter of feet on gravel as he gaps it (he’s obviously a Lee Saxby 180bpm student).
Then a strong- looking (but not Amazonian-tall) woman steps forward and says with a hopeful smile:
“Hey guys, night running is always an adventure. You can never tell when you are going to be running uphill or down, or how long you will be doing it for. I love not knowing what lies ahead. Often, you only realise it’s an uphill when you feel the burn in your legs or your speed increases as you hit the downs.
“Lift your feet a little higher than you normally do if you sometimes drag them. This will save you tripping over any branches, roots or rocks that jump out from the dark.
“Trust your memory, it’s amazing. You remember what’s coming and react to it without thinking.
“Relax and enjoy the ride. If you tense up, you will find your lower back will be pretty sore the next day, so just roll with the terrain and keep smiling. I hope that helps.”
“Yes. Enough. Go!” yells the Voice.
(There’s the sound of very fast running, as the runner known as Tracey Almirall makes good her escape.)
Seconds tick by as the footfall of the fleeing runners diminishes. Then there’s just the humming sound of the forest.
The Voice turns to his silent comrade and says: “Jeez, wasn’t that was a major mission getting tips from those trailies? Never again. Maybe it’s time we learn to read on the farm so we can get tips from experts without interrogating trespassers, just like those cool TRAIL mag city slicker readers do. This sucks, let’s get out of here. This place gives me the creeps.”
A second later, they hear the sound of a stone being dropped on another stone in the dark.
They look at each other, pale as sheets.
This (true-ish) story appeared in TRAIL issue 7.