It was a cold, dark morning sometime in my track running days. I was a teacher and had to get to work by 7:30 am. I usually ran during the afterschool hours but for some reason I decided to run before work on that day. I probably had big track meet coming up and had something do that evening. Anyway, I put on my cotton running bra (Jogbra), a cotton-poly turtle neck that I got cheap from Models, thick cotton champion sweatshirt, royal blue running tights and cotton tube socks on my fists in the place of gloves. This was before the “cotton kills” mantra and I don’t recall anyone I know dying from cotton.
I left the house before sunrise, and ran. After about 3 or so miles, I returned home to find my mother at the top of the stairs, “where were you?”
“I was running.”
“At this ungodly hour of the morning?”
She proceeded to tell me that my grand Aunt Nell came to her in a dream and told her something to the effect of, “tell Jennifer that I will meet her at the bus stop.” She admonished me, “Aunt Nell came to warn me about you being outside!” And, as Jamaican mothers do, at about 6 am on that winter morning, she gave me a verbal beating for running with the duppies and summoning Aunt Nell’s spirit.
“Aunt Nell was with you that night.” To this day she still recounts this story when she cautions me when I travel, “Be careful. I know you like to take risks. I remember when…dark…running…Aunt Nell…”
Many years later I am in Leiden and decided to go for a morning run. I was visiting for an academic workshop and I wanted to get a few miles (or minutes) in before breakfast and the start of the day. At this time of year the sun rises at around 8:45. It was around 6:30 when I headed out for my run. It was dark.
The neat thing about the Netherlands is that it is a very bike-friendly place. There are all of these “highways” paved specially for bicycles, many of them running alongside major streets and automobile highways. They are paved in this reddish “asphalt,” that reminded me of running tracks, except they are not spongey. Runners seem to use these “bikeways” too as a way of avoiding running in traffic. In the dark I followed one of these bikeways towards Valkenburgse Meer. In my running in the daylight mind I thought running around a lake would be divine, but in the reality of darkness I could not see the lake and therefore abandoned that option and stayed on the bikeway.
Being the New Yorker that I am and always having my mother’s warnings echoing in my head, I ran with caution. Every canal, bush and shadowy figure in the fog became a trigger for my fight or flight response. I felt like the Kung-Fu fighting brothers back-in-the-day; the ones who wore martial arts gees everywhere who were always ready to block a punch or do some flying kick punctuated by a karate kata. I encountered a few other runners and bicycles, including scooters and electric bikes, all rather comfortable in the dark; relaxed as if it were a sun-up morning stroll.
As it was dark, I did not get to fully appreciate the canals, fields, hothouses and residential streets that I passed. I just knew that my run went slightly below sea level at times and that the Dutch are geniuses at keeping the water under control, hence the windmills and carefully constructed canals.
Running below sea level
I went out for about a mile and a half and then turned around to return to the hotel; a nice out and back in the dark. My colleagues (from the Netherlands) were not as incredulous as my mother would have been about my running in the dark. “It is completely safe here,” they mentioned. “There are no jails.”
I went out for dark running a couple more times during my week-long stay. I did not go as long or as fast as usual since I was also fighting a cold. Since I don’t speak or read Dutch, it was an adventure trying to figure out what kind of cough medicine to get. I got the one that read “Alles Hoest” or all cough. It seemed to work but tasted horrible, like the salted licorice that people in this part of the world love.
Obligatory windmill pictures:
The canals that I missed in the dark: