Into the dark

Mid-run, last night, someone said, “I live around here, and I haven’t got a clue where we are”. Running in the dark will do that to you. Without landmarks, it’s hard to know which direction you’re going in. It’s hard to judge how far you’ve travelled and sometimes, it’s very tough to work out where your feet are – other than, hopefully, still attached to the end of your legs. Knowing what you’re going to be stepping in, on or through needs constant vigilance and a cracking headtorch. But still, your field of vision is limited and beyond that pale pool of light, there could be monsters because the best night for a run through the deepest, darkest woods is Halloween …

You meet in the car-park, next to an A-road, tarmac under your feet and a million watts of pub lighting. You meet the other 20 or so people willing to give this madness a go. Some have bought new head torches. Others have little experience of running off-road. A few are determined to out-spook the undead with skeleton print running gear and ghoulish painted faces. There’s a feeling that the kids have too much fun at Halloween and now it’s your turn. You don’t know what to expect but you’ve been warned to expect the unexpected.

It’s an easy start. Rustling down a leaf-strewn track before passing through a stile into a wide flat field. Except it isn’t flat. The bumps and lumps seem bigger when you can’t quite judge their size, and although the chatter never really dies, it’s clear, away from the street lighting, that this could be a challenging run. It’s fun and friendly. Everyone is helping out and passing warnings down the line. If the path is strewn with fallen branches, you’ll be warned to watch your footing. If a troll is lurking by a footbridge, you’ll know about it. If an overhanging tree is threatening to wrap you in its creaky, creepy limbs, get a move on and run fast.

Not too fast though. You’re going down a lane that’s twisting and turning, with the skulls of a thousand corpses under your feet and it’s narrowing as it nears the gates of hell (oh, all right then, it’s a cobbled lane and it’s by Dean Bridge, but as you go through the gate, the hill that follows is hellish steep. You’ll hear the heavy breathing behind you, alright. And in front. In fact, if your heart rate stays low running up that hill, it’s just possible you’re not quite human. Hmmm. 

Next, you’re into a field of rushes. Your feet are invisible, the path meanders, somebody stumbles,  nerves are beginning to jangle. Visible against the skyline is the brooding darkness of the woods. You wouldn’t dream of wandering in there at night, would you? At Halloween, when the spirits are roaming the earth and all you are is a human, in your lycra and running shoes? What defence is that against foul creatures and hobgoblins? 

But  all the best haunted-house movies where you know the American teenagers are going to do something really dumb and become the victims, you go into the creepy woods where it’s even creepier because you’re asked to be quiet and there are strange creaks and groans and twigs snapping and things moving through the undergrowth, and unearthly sounds and dogs howling and wing beats above your head and eyes glowing in your torchlight and eyeballs staring from a bog of doom and the grim reaper is after you flashing a scythe and … oh, jeepers! 

(I wanted to swear then, but I thought better of it.)

Well as they say, what happens in the woods, stays in the woods, so with luck, you make it out alive. (And if you’re still in there, it can only be because you were like one of the kids in the movies and wandered off into the trees – alone. More fool, you.) 

You escape the clutches of the hounds of hell –  or whatever it is that’s making that noise – and l enjoy a spot of refreshment. You’re told it’s Vimto, but come on, does Vimto really come in blood bags?  Scoff a few marshmallows, chomp on a few fingers … 

Now get yourself off that hill, fly down that field, haul yourself over that stile, and watch you don’t tumble into the boggart’s pit as you round the corner. (If you’re trying to follow this later on Strava, the boggart’s pit is disguised as a cattle grid). 

You’re feeling strong, there’s a couple of beasts on the route, but they’re more spooked by you than you are by them, and when you have to go back into another patch of trees you know how to handle the soft, dusty, darkness. Potter through, as the bats flit through above your head, barely register the rats scurrying away. Out onto a lane with a switchback. Are those your fellow runners heading towards you or are there others roaming the dark lanes and byways of Lancashire?

You're running swiftly now, down the slopes, and along the narrowest tracks from which rocks suddenly seem to appear. Shapes and shadows become spooks and spectres. Is that a stone footbridge or the lid of a sarcophagus? Is that the Calder you can hear or the Styx that borders the underworld? Where, oh, where does the winding, ever-climbing Staircase of Despair lead?

It leads, in time, back to normality, where there are streetlights in the distance and the glow of distant towns and the occasional boom of an exploding firework. And you gather again in the carpark of the pub, where someone’s been nursing a pint of dark mild, while you’ve been out and about running amongst the dark spirits, on a dark night, in deepest darkest, Lancashire. 

Kate Woodward


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