When the sun goes down, trail runner Jeri Chua likes to come out and play, the darkness of the mountainside broken only by the light of her headlamp.
“I love running at night. It’s a different world when you’ve just got a beam ahead of you illuminating the next two metres,” says Chua, a top Singaporean ultrarunner who races regularly in Hong Kong and all over the world.
“I love seeing wildlife, especially snakes, and they’re definitely more active at night. Also, the lack of light means that you have to rely more on your other senses. There’s a sense of calm from the stillness all around, yet it feels much more exciting at the same time.”
Running on trails at night can be practical – because days are too hot, or because your workday ends after sundown. A trail race of 100 kilometres or longer may start in the morning and go on into the night.
For the upcoming Barclays Moontrekker on Lantau Island on October 14, experiencing the trails at night – and attempting to “beat the sun” by finishing the 43km or 30km course before sunrise – is the point of the race. Judging by how quickly all 1,500 slots for the seventh edition of this annual event were snapped up, night trail running has great appeal.
“It reduces your world to a single circle of light a couple of metres ahead of you,” says Andy DuBois, an ultrarunner and coach with Australian-based Mile27 (mile27.com.au). “The distractions of life and even the trail are gone and the extra concentration required brings a focus to the mind that makes it easier to find that state of flow that makes running so enjoyable.”
Tackling trails at night, however, presents its own challenges. The main one is related to vision, says top Hong Kong trail runner Anthony Davies, a senior bank executive. “It takes a while to adjust [one’s vision] in the dark. The night time is also quieter and there’s nothing to look at. I’m happy to see the sun come up.”
With only a single headlamp, there is a lack of depth perception and it is harder to gauge the height and depth of obstacles on the trail, DuBois says. Hence night running is usually slower.
The isolation of night running can feel quite strange for some. Staying attentive is vital, says Hong Kong trail running ace John Ellis, winner of the 2014 Moontrekker 43km event. “But staying mentally alert is also more difficult; you are fighting your circadian rhythms between 4am and 6am, and this is not helped by the tunnel vision from your head torch.”
If you’ve signed up for your first night trail race, the best way to prepare for it is – no surprise – to run trails at night. Even familiar trails can look and feel very different in the dark, Chua says.
“Get out for a few night runs before the race and you’ll get used to the different atmosphere and sounds, the torch tunnel vision and the obstacles seeming to come at you faster,” says Ellis. “Even better, do a reconnaissance of the actual course at night so you’ll know exactly what to expect during the race.”
Use these runs to test all your night equipment before the race. Kit preparation is extra critical for a night run, says Janet Ng, a top Hong Kong trail runner and organiser of the Hong Kong 100 ultratrail. “Be aware that the world around you will be sleeping and you need to look after yourself,” she says.
DuBois recommends starting with easier, well-groomed trails and progressing to more technical trails to develop your night running skills. To overcome the sense of isolation at night, practise running with friends but leave enough of a gap between each other so that they are just out of view but in earshot.
“By doing more night runs, your body gets used to being awake and working at a time when you might normally be asleep,” says Chua.
A well-timed caffeine hit during a night race can help one stay awake and alert. Ellis, a co-founder of Wan Chai running store Gone Running, swears by Clarity smart energy, a 60ml all-natural energy shot that contains 120 milligrams of caffeine (or about 1½ coffees).
For safety, Ellis recommends some reflective detailing on your pack or clothes; a lightweight stick for busting spiders’ webs and fending off aggressive village dogs; and a jacket in case the weather turns cold.
“Do not get dehydrated or exhausted during the daytime, [which causes] your body to act slightly differently at night time,” Davies adds.
Remember to always be environmentally aware, Ng sys, especially during the summer breeding season. Keep your voices down and be extra careful not to disturb the animals that live in country parks.
And finally, says DuBois, it’s always a good idea to let a friend know where you’re going and when you expect to return – especially when running at night.
Win a coveted place on the Moontrekker starting line
We have teamed up with title sponsors Barclays for a contest with three slots in the upcoming Moontrekker race as prizes. Simply post a photo to Instagram or Facebook taken on a hiking trail that depicts the event’s theme “beat the sun”, hashtag #barclaysmoontrekker #beatthesun, and make sure your post is public. The best three photos will each win a slot in the sold-out Moontrekker race on October 14 on Lantau Island – in the category of your choice (30km or 43km individual). Closing date for entries is Monday, October 3 at noon.