Learning to Run in the Dark

Learning to Run in the Dark

Learning to Run in the Dark 1440 1920 Kimberly Coyle

I’m not afraid of the dark. Not really. I’m afraid of what reveals itself in the dark, real or imagined. At the age of three, after being storied and back-rubbed and tucked into bed, I would call my mom back into my room. “There are spiders on the wall,” I whispered, pointing a small index finger towards the nearest dim corner. She sat on the edge of my bed and assured me no such spiders existed. But they did exist, if only in my head.

I never outgrew the ability to see the invisible. In my middle school years, I slept in the basement bedroom of our home with its sliding glass door gaping black, an entrance to an unknowable cave. Even though I’d bolted the lock myself, I imagined the door cracked open each night and a dark presence entered. In my mind’s eye, I saw monsters and fierce dogs. I saw demons. I saw witches with gnarled fingers grasp steel blades raised high above my bed. I saw this despite the fact that my parents had forbidden any stories of a fairy tale or magical nature. They didn’t realize that without those stories to occupy the empty spaces, an imaginative child might create stories to fill the spaces herself.

By my teens, I slept so fitfully, I spent much of high school in a state of fear-induced sleep deprivation. The monsters had morphed into robbers and rapists by then. The crack in the door let everything I’d seen on the evening news slip in and make its way into the bedroom of my head. I often crept upstairs in the dark to lie in a shaft of moonlight on the sofa, one floor closer to my sleeping parents.

I married at twenty-one, barely out of my sleepless teens, and a husband snoring beside me was the balm my overactive mind needed. I finally slept soundly after a lifetime of late nights spent wide-eyed, clutching the bedcovers to my chin. Instead, I saved my fears for the long stretches of dark highway I drove home after working my nursing shift until midnight. I imagined the car that I couldn’t seem to shake after multiple lane changes had followed me, or a police impersonator would attempt to pull me over, I would become a statistic on the news the next morning, and on and on. Every night, I placed an ellipsis behind those thoughts after exiting the highway. I turned right onto Sunny Hill Lane and parked beneath the umbrella of our Japanese Maple tree unaware that I couldn’t avoid the dark because I carried the darkness inside of me.

This pattern continued for most of my adult life, ebbing and flowing, but always exerting a constant pull on any sense of peace I may have acquired through acts of sheer will and broken prayers. I read Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, and I realized I had never considered embracing the darkness and trying to see my way through it. I thought I’d outrun it eventually.

Because the things that occupy our minds often manifest in the flesh, I, a lifelong anti-athlete, took up actual, physical, leg-pumping, lung-blowing running. Over time, I worked my way from couch-surfing to running five days a week on the treadmill in my basement. The irony of being back in the basement on repeat is not lost on me–my body was destined to repeat the hamster wheel of my brain. I ran for all of the usual reasons, but I wasn’t running towards anything. I was running away. The physical exertion felt something like freedom, and I eventually began to run with more purpose, edging towards real finish lines, completing a few races. At night, I sank into bed physically exhausted. Some nights, the day’s pounding of bone and muscle and flesh pushed back against the inner fears and kept them contained.

A few years into my running habit, a friend asked if I wanted to join her in running an extended relay race from Maryland to Washington DC. She had gathered twelve fellow runners, explaining we would divide into two teams, running three legs each over the course of two hundred miles. We would compete against hundreds of other twelve-person teams from across the country. This was no dawn to dusk race—some runners would run through the deep night, entirely alone, while teammates drove past in a mini-van headed to the next exchange. In a moment inspired by some form of Barbara Brown Taylor induced madness, I said yes. Yes, to reclaiming a small portion of what the night had stolen from me.

Taylor writes in her book, “Our comfort or discomfort with the outer dark is a good barometer of how we feel about the inner kind.” I wanted to learn how to run in the darkness, not away from it.

When my friend sent me the running schedule for the race, I discovered that my second leg would begin at sunset and last for a few hours into the night. My third leg would begin in the wee hours after midnight, through a stretch of dense wood, ending in a suburb outside of the city. “Bring bear spray!” she told me. This was the first mention of bears or potentially meeting one, and I thought she was joking. However, I bought a small can of pepper spray to hold in my fist, which I promptly dropped at the starting line. I bent and clutched at clumps of damp grass, but after a few moments of blind groping, I couldn’t find it. So, I stood defenseless in the dark, illuminated by the thin beam of light from my headlamp, as I waited for my relay partner to meet me.

Before my night run, I had mapped out my route obsessively. It took me from the busy shoulder of a highway into a maze of cornfields and back out again via deserted country roads. I was terrified of getting lost, of missing the minuscule arrows marking the way, of finding myself alone with whatever looms in the darkness. Before my leg began, a teammate told me to take a moment on the run to switch off my headlamp and look up. In the country, the night would glitter like cut glass, and the stars would fill every inch of ink-black sky. “Don’t forget to look up,” he said before the van door clicked shut and they drove away.

After I navigated the highway and transitioned to the soft swish of cornstalk against my thighs, I slowed my pace. I was alone without another runner, car, or home in sight—the only artificial illumination came from me. I reached up and clicked off my headlamp. I stared up at the silent symphony of the sky, and the fear that clung to me slipped into the grass under my feet. I didn’t reach down to pick it up again. I opened my mouth in utter delight at the endless points of light, and I swallowed stars to fill all of the dark places I carried inside of me.

While waiting to begin my final night run, I overheard a conversation between a few runners waiting to begin the same leg. On the route we were about to travel, a female runner in the previous year’s race had been attacked and nearly raped. This is the kind of story I grew up on, telling myself this is what lay on the other side of the basement door’s yawning cave. I shook the words off of me. Yes, this could be my fate. If not rapists, then bears, or spiders or demons or witches with gnarled fingers grasping steel blades. I could switch my leg with a male runner. I could give up the race. But, I didn’t. I strapped on my headlamp and I ran into deep woods sans bear or man spray. Tree roots sprung up unexpectedly, and the canopy of tree limbs obscured the night sky. It didn’t matter anymore, even if fear still slid in circles around my ankles trying to make its way up to my thighs, my heart, my brain. I was starlight. I was fearless. I would reclaim the darkness that began on the outside and took up space inside.

Our team finished the race at the waterfront in Washington DC, and we ate pizza and drank beer at ten in the morning to celebrate. I returned home exhausted and sore, with something like the shimmer of cut glass now alive in me. I still fill empty spaces with outrageous imaginations, and I’m still afraid sometimes. After two hundred miles, I learned how to run in the dark, and that is the better story.

Header photograph © Chris Nielsen.

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