Maybe the sun was setting on all my excuses. On the horizon, a bonfire was being built.
I could make out the faint outline of the firewood across the pond, on the far side of Freestyle Farm. I had arrived at the farm after driving for a few miles down a dirt road. I dodged piles of horse manure as I walked through a field toward the red barn where I registered for the Joe English Twilight Challenge, a trail half marathon. Runners set up camp chairs and laid out picnic blankets on the blue plastic tarps that covered the barn floor. I watched the marathon and ultra runners fasten their hydration vests into place. I checked the batteries in my headlamp, while making small talk with the other athletes. The sun would be setting soon. I could only hope my little beam of light would be enough.
Our beautiful horse friends were so confused when we took over their barn!
At 5:56pm, I lined up with the other runners on the start line, carefully stretched across the dusty barn floor. At 6pm we ran out of the barn and into the wild for our first 2.62 mile loop. On that first loop, another runner, Steve suggested we take it all in while it was still light, making note of where the bridge was, and how that rock jutted out. Indeed I took it all in… My heart absorbing every inch of this experience.
The soft grass of the pasture we cut across to get to the pond. The way the sun seemed to melt into the water as it set. How the trees sparkled in the light of the sunset as we turned a corner and climbed into the woods. How my heart turned a corner out there on those trails. I forgot I didn’t want to race again.
I emerged from the woods about 22 minutes later, ran through the barn, shouting my bib number to the volunteers, and dashed off with the other runners into the twilight. The trees that we weaved around were still glowing faintly, but the branches were fading into the darkness. The runners were spread out now, and for an entire mile, I was completely alone in the woods. At once it was terrifying and tranquil.
I switched on my headlamp, feeling more alive and free than I have in too long! A bonfire roared up ahead. If my memory serves me correctly, there were four bonfires burning on the course, all about a half mile apart. As the trail grew darker, running toward the smoke and orange glow of the next fire, and the next, fueled me. A bonfire roared in my heart!
This time when I headed into the barn, I stopped to refill my water bottle. I was drenched with sweat, as the darkness did nothing to remedy the humidity hanging in the air. I ran off into a now pitch black night, with a full bottle and a full heart!
This, THIS is why I run! This is what I longed for over the past few years, as I forced myself to train for triathlons. I distinctly remember riding my bike past trails and being nearly overcome with the desire to throw it in a ditch and run off into the woods. I didn’t. And my sparkle dulled.
But if the moon and stars that helped me find my way through the woods, and smiled down on me as my feet almost gave way on a gravelly descent, could shine this bright, – and the crickets could sing at the top of their cricket lungs in the middle of the blackness – then surely I could find my song and sparkle again too!
I ran through the barn again (a little bit slower now) and headed off toward the pond, now completely reliant on my headlamp, the moon, and those comforting bonfires encircled by cheering volunteers for light. When you run at night, alone on the trails, you become acutely aware of things typically taken for granted. How the ground that you can barely make out feels under your feet, your breathing, where the moon hangs in the sky… and how you definitely took a wrong turn because you don’t remember it being over your left shoulder before! When you get lost in the woods at night, you realize that you cannot panic, and you discover new confidence as you navigate your way back onto the course.
When you run through the woods in the dark, you are humbled by God’s creation. And your heart is so stuffed with gratitude for all His blessings – the health to run, the gift it is to live in a place where trails and trees abound – that the seams will surely burst! “Hey God… thanks” I whispered.
Sometimes you have to get lost in the dark to find your sparkle again. Sometimes the dark seasons teach us how to burn even brighter! Enable us to see that we CAN in fact glow despite the pain and tragedy, in our lives and in our world. In the midst of the natural disasters, personal heartaches and national tragedies I found what I believed extinct: Encouraging, hopeful, positive, committed, courageous, caring, humble human beings. Little bobbing stars that I could make out around the next turn, offering me a cheerful word as they appeared from behind a tree and shared the trail with me. Runners like me racing the half marathon, and those doing the full marathon. And the real stars… The ultra runners who started at 5pm, and would run this loop as many times as they could before the 11pm cut off! “I’m living the dream” one of them exclaimed as I ran by. Almost two hours later, when I went back onto the course to cheer for the ultra runners, he exclaimed the same thing, with the same sincere enthusiasm… A little bobbing trail star!
These runners were not my competition. They were my fellow bright stars in the black of night. And I don’t imagine that stars compete to see who can shoot across the sky the fastest. They just shine, knowing that together they can light up the darkness. My own dull spark had been fueled, and slowly, stubbornly, the flame is growing.
Sometimes you have to get lost in the quiet of the woods to find your song. Since moving to New Hampshire, my song has been floating back to me, one solitary note at a time. Notes and words strung together into a familiar tune… I could hear it now, catching up to me as I began my fifth and final lap under a canvas of sparkly stars. The night can play tricks on your mind. But this was no illusion.
The source of the music was Rainbow Bright, and she was running alongside me now. When the rest of us were content with our headlamps, she was wrapped in fairy lights, with glow stick bracelets on her wrists, purple braids, and disco music playing on her phone. We chatted for a few minutes before she bounced off into the woods, to the tune of “Dancing Queen”.
Rainbow Bright, whose actual name is Yuki, later told me. “I love unicorns. And I usually run in tutus!” Proof that running is still a fun way to stay healthy. Proof that running remains a powerful means of changing the world. I remembered it all now!
I forgot about the part where I wouldn’t unpack the tutu! I remembered who I was and why I run. I am a runner chick who runs in tutus, and cares more about the journey and encouraging my fellow runners then I do about my pace or PRs. God poured the lighter fluid on, and my heart began to burn as bright as a bonfire in the middle of the night. I would go home and unpack that tutu and burn like a roaring fire and belt out my song at the top of my lungs! It was time!