Outdoors: Night strider

Around noon one June day, the urge for a night run hit me, and I dashed off an impromptu e-mail invite to the nearly 900 people on my "WNC adventure" list. Despite the short notice, I hoped a few fellow runners would meet me at the Hard Times Trailhead at Bent Creek. Arriving early, I gradually watched most of the cars clear out of the parking lot, till I stood alone in the looming dark.

By the light of the lamp: Even for a night run, stretching is part of the routine. Photo by Jonathan Poston

I stalled a few minutes, hoping someone would show, but no luck. As I gazed into the woods, however, one small, amorphous thought — at first no bigger than a rabbit's foot — grew into a lumpy, misshapen bear named "fear." Dashing back to my car, I rifled through the glove compartment in search of my brightest headlamp and my giant can of pepper spray.

Suitably equipped, I surveyed the coming night as it crept toward me from the shadows lurking beneath tree and bush. Maybe I could outrun it. I started down the trail fast —nowhere near the mellow pace I'd described in my invitation.

With four-plus miles to go, I mentally rehearsed my planned course while gaining momentum: Left out of the lot onto Wesley Branch Road. Take an almost immediate right up Bent Creek Gap Road, a dirt track. Take another quick right onto Ledford Branch (gravel). When you reach the T intersection, take a right onto Rice Pinnacle Road and head back to Wesley Branch. After hitting pavement, take another right to head back to the trailhead.

For the first 20 minutes or so, it was a normal trail run in a familiar area. I almost forgot why I'd been in a hurry. The soothing sounds of a gushing stream and evening birds singing loop-the-loops up and down the musical scale had me imagining I was in a rain forest. Then, just on the brink of nightfall, a shrill cry pealed out of the woods. My pace quickened, and I didn't even notice the steep grade I always complain about when running this loop.

A curious sort of elation set in. Maybe my fear bear was being boiled in adrenaline or soothed by endorphins. (OK, I do have an active imagination.) But if a bear didn't get me, some other night creature surely would. My mountain-biker buddy told me about a surprise owl attack he endured while on a night ride at Bent Creek. Of course, he said, the creature was probably diving for his headlamp.

And here I was, wearing one of the brightest bulbs on the market.

Instead of confronting lashing claws and feathers, though, an invisible curtain lifted, revealing the bioluminescent firefly dance. Their soft, neon beat didn't take the edge off my runner's high, but my greyhound pace had me breathing hard. Slowing to a jog, I considered adding some unplanned single track to my route. Besides, I was almost back down to Wesley Branch and nothing had eaten me yet. Suddenly, I thought I heard approaching steps behind me, turned to look, and realized it was only my own pounding heart and noisy breathing.

But as I tried to calm down, two yellow eyes peered around the bend, and when I blinked, they were still there and heading my way. I fumbled to get the cap off the pepper spray and point the nozzle. Then I noticed that this was a mighty tiny bear, and he was followed by a jogger who panted, "Sorry about the dog!" before both vanished behind me. Somewhat embarrassed by my overreaction and glad the man hadn't seen my weapon of mass irritation aimed at his pup, I nonetheless kept my big spray can front and center as I ran on, ready to use it if something bigger came along.

I skipped the single-track detour and didn't relax till I got back to open asphalt, that sure sign of civilization that keeps the wild things at bay.

And though I've run this loop dozens of times by day, there was something about the darkness that made it much more of an adventure. Perhaps there's more territory to re-discover: To spice up an old, familiar trail run, just wait until the sun goes down.

[Jonathan Poston runs in Asheville whenever he can.]

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