Copy of article originally published in Trail Runner Magazine, Winter 2011.
Caught in a narrow arc of light, the small rise ahead had taken on Himalayan proportions. The normally unnoticeable crunch of gravel and dull thud of rubber beneath my feet was resonating all around me. Darkness can captivate your mind like the most addictive drug; constantly playing games with you, terrifying but equally irresistible. As long ghostly shadows draped across one desolate fell top after another, the long evenings of summer became a distant memory. I had returned to running the fells by torchlight.
Only a few years ago, running on an off-road trail or mountain path during the hours of darkness was all but impossible, torches were simply not powerful enough or long-lasting enough to reliably light your way. But thanks to what has been nothing short of a revolution in lighting during the past ten years, with the introduction and evolution of super-bright LED head torches, it is no longer necessary to resign yourself to months of road running or the occasional weekend trail run.
But running at night presents different challenges. Visibility is greatly reduced and your ability to locate objects both near and far is impaired, your ability to judge scale and distance are seriously compromised, huge summits can suddenly rear up in front, only to dissolve back to minor tops in a matter of paces and your sense of balance can be thrown wildly astray as a lack of peripheral vision causes your body’s natural stability mechanisms to falter. If that were not enough you’ll be out running when most other people are far away, sat by a warm fire or in a cozy pub, so it pays to follow some basic precautions.
- Let someone know where you’re going.
- Run with at least one other person or in a group
- Start out on a well known route
- Wait for a night when the weather is fair and conditions dry.
- Slow your pace down, stay relaxed and don’t be afraid to walk if the terrain or visibility dictates
- Remember that in low light, most things look larger and further away than they often are
- Ensure your head-torch is fully charged or has fresh batteries and carry clothing appropriate to the conditions
We had left the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel shortly after 7pm. Ahead of me, better used to night riding than night running was Steph, illuminating the valley path ahead with her Led Lenser H14. Dancing across the rocky trail, Steph loved its classic German design quality, everything about it spoke of reliability right down to the quiet thud of its pivotable head. It wasn’t anywhere near the most powerful torch on test but encircled by steeply rising slopes on all sides, it cast a wide and even light. Looking upwards, its zoom function could easily pick out the solitary silhouettes of the many sheep dotted across the fell-side at over 100 metres distant.
I followed behind, trying not to steal the show as the Petzl Ultra I was wearing cut through the darkness with impressive ease. As we climbed higher the narrow ghyll opened up, showcasing the Ultra’s wide and powerful beam. But its real plus was just how intuitive it was to use. Only a few nights earlier, John McGrath, a keen fell runner and winner of the Lakeland Trail race series had taken an immediate liking to its thought out, ergonomic design “It’s just so easy to use and switch between the different power settings. For me I think its added comfort gives it the edge. Ok, it’s not the most powerful torch but it’s bright enough for everything I would need ”
The wind was blowing as we reached Stickle Tarn and the mottled moonlight danced shadows across its leaden waters. The terrain from here on in was all together more serious. I switched to the Hope Vision R4. “Don’t point that thing at me!” cried Steph, her voice being carried away in the wind. The intensity and sheer depth of the light it emitted was obvious. It felt as if all the ground in front was floodlit.
Scrambling amongst the rocky steps and scree towards Pavey Ark, Steph too switched to another ‘Super Bright’, the Silva Sprint. Surely the Swedes must know a thing or two about running night running I thought. And they do. Admittedly it wasn’t the lightest torch on test but Steph thought its separate battery unit was a definite plus, provided you had a spare pocket or were carrying a pack. And as our hands were forced to work as well as our feet, grappling up the rock steps and damp slabs, its stability and comfortable head unit came into its own.
Thigh and calf muscles starved of oxygen, we reached the top of Pavey Ark. But fatigue had little time to well up, banished by an enveloping wave of darkness as we traced a line along the ill-defined sheep trods towards Thunacar Knott. In this unnerving nocturnal world, both the Hope and Silva displayed their serious night running credentials lighting our way ahead.
Turning for home we faced into the wind, dropping through grassy tussocks behind Harrison Stickle. Switching torches for the final time, we paused for breath as we looked down upon the isolated pockets of light radiating from the farmsteads below. I popped the Primus’ removable battery unit into my pack and took flight downhill.
On an earlier run it had proved adequate on valley trails but here high above the floor of Langdale, its narrow beam of light was rapidly swallowed by the open fell-side. ‘Finally something has slowed you down’ joked Steph, a tone of smug satisfaction discernible in her voice.
I didn’t share her amusement as I picked my way carefully down the dew-glazed flagstones, my torch focused intently at my feet but as the gradient eased I looked up briefly, the shadowy outline of a boundary wall flickered up ahead; the valley floor had been reached, another winter run snatched from the hours of darkness.