On Running in the Dark

For me, back to school (and work) means back to running at 5:30 am. (Boy, was the dog excited when the alarm went off this morning and I reached for my running shoes instead of my coffee cup.)

I’d forgotten a few details about early morning running. Like how quiet the house is as I walk through it gathering my stuff, how loud Sam’s paws sound on the wood floors as he leaps around me in his pre-run hysteria. And it’s silly, but I’d forgotten how dark it is, how I hear rather than see each slap of my Adidas on the pavement, how mailboxes spring into view only at the very last second (this can be a problem), how motion-sensored porch lights activate at random moments, casting you in a little oval pool of light for the length of a driveway, a parked car, a couple dozen yards. Suddenly what you never saw coming is right before you: the abandoned basketball left on the curb, the neighbor’s cat scrambling away, the dew glistening on the freshly cut blades of grass.

And I’d forgotten about the headlights: Sam is…not afraid of them exactly, but he definitely doesn’t know what to do with them. When an oncoming car approaches, he sort of hesitates, then awkwardly tries to duck under the beam of their lights as they pass in a weird form of doggy limbo. His head ducks down, low…lower…his eyes squeezed closed, his back flattening slightly as the light washes over us. As the car recedes, he pops back up as though emerging on the other side of a crested wave.

A wave of light on a sea of darkness.

And then there’s the raccoons. He lives for raccoon sightings, of which there are many. We usually just glimpse the black mass of their body scurrying across the road before their eyes turn and pierce us with their reflective glare, and then it’s on. Sam’s tugging at the leash and I’m getting my upper body workout and the raccoon is going, going, gone down the nearest grate in the gutter or irrigation ditch lining the orchards.

The orchards stretch out on either side of the road once we leave the suburbs behind, and at this time of year, most are already stripped of their fruit (Harry and David pears). In the early springtime, however, the acres of trees glow orange in the light of hundreds of torches lit under big fans which blow warm air to keep the fruit from freezing. You can hear the whirrrrr of the fans from half a mile away at least (even with an iPod in use), and if you don’t know what you’re hearing, it can be disconcerting (like somewhere out there in the dark, a dozen helicopters are lifting into the sky at once). The sight of the flickering torches setting the fields ablaze makes you think you’ve run smack into some sort of medieval battlement or post-apocalyptic movie set or perhaps stumbled accidentally upon an alien space ship landing. Yes, between the torches and the constant whirrrrrring, it definitely feels like an alien landing, right out of E.T.

But yes. I’d forgotten. All of this, while running daily with sun and heat and blue sky for company. I’d forgotten how wide-open you feel when you look up to see stars, when you look out and beyond to see only shadow. You watch the road in front of you, and you watch your breath fog the air, and finally, you watch the sun rise and you know your time is almost up. That at home, little boys are stirring, and rising, and trying to pour cereal into bowls. And that your blissful aloneness with your dog and the scary headlights and the taunting raccoons is coming to a close. Until tomorrow.

(We’re gonna get those raccoons tomorrow.)

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