I have thought about it for months now: to run 5 km by myself in the middle of the night. Mundy Park is the place. I had wanted to do it any winter night sometime between 12:00 and 2:00 a.m.
On the 1st of December, I planned everything carefully and selected the day: December 13th. I wouldn’t tell my family but until last minute, because my wife very likely would be opposed to the idea if she knew ahead of time. I had everything ready: thermal clothing, warm gloves and toque, LED armbands, headlamp, and a borrowed and light phone. The moon would be full that day, so there would be some natural night light on the trails.
However, as it happens, Mother Nature was the one opposing my plans, and let the first big snowstorm of the season fall a week before my set date. I had to postpone my midnight run for later.
I let the holidays season go by without thinking much about it, yet at the start of the year I selected a full-moon night once again, January 12th, but snow fell one more time, so I changed it to February 10th, and yes, it happened once more, as if on cue with my plans.
March came, so I chose Monday the 13th, thinking that with Spring so close there would be no more snow on the ground. It was so, and although rain was constant during those days, most of the snow was gone by then. However, that Monday I had had to do a lot of physical work because of sudden situations at work and at home. I was exhausted, and yet again had to postpone a simple run which seemed to have been planned ages ago. The following days the workplace was chaotic… one of those weeks.
Early morning, I read a post mimicking the Nike slogan: “Just do it!”
Right then I decided it would be tonight, no more waiting, no more planning, no more excuses. While everybody was having dinner, I took my running gear and hid it in the garage. At around 10:00 p.m. I was about to tell my wife about it, but decided not to. Shortly after 1:00 a.m. I went to the washroom and left a note on the mirror: “Went for my midnight run. :)” and then to the garage. Made sure the armbands and the headlamp worked and the older, smaller phone had enough charge, and dressed up for my run. It wasn’t that cold: 4C, so I wore shorts instead of tights, and left my house quietly.
I started running 500 meters before getting to the closest park entrance, planning to do the Perimeter Trail, which is 4,014 meters long. There was no traffic, save for a couple of speeding cars. I felt excited and nervous at the same time. As I entered the park, the streetlamps light quickly vanished, and only at that moment it occurred to me that I never checked for moonlight. There was not any. New moon probably. I was not going to turn around though.
The place was pitch black. I quickly realized that my headlamp light was not as powerful as one might think. Yes, it helps when running in poorly lighted streets, but more than anything, both the headlamp and the armbands allow drivers and other people to see you, they don’t really light the way as much as one would like them to.
The path seemed narrower. When we run with daylight we clearly see where we are going, no matter how windy the path is, but with such weak lighting, I could only see a few steps ahead of me. I found myself constantly tripping on the unevenness, and veering from one side of the path to the other.
The only sounds were those of my steps, my laboured breathing, thousands of critters, and the rapid water stream that runs alongside the paths in some sections. I noticed that the armband lights were useless in there, and rather distracting, so turned them off.
I know that trail very well, I mean, I thought I knew it. When I believed I had run for a kilometer or so, I checked my watch, the “indiglo” light button didn’t work, pushing on it all I saw was a blurred blank screen instead of numbers.
I didn’t know where I was, a few fallen and bent-by-snow branches covered with green, almost fluorescent musk, were barely visible when my headlamp pointed up, but other than that I could not see anything but the very immediate area ahead of me. Looking up I could see the stars trough he trees if I turned my headlamp off, but nothing else.
I then got to a crossroads, and slowed down -if that could even be possible- for a couple of seconds, decided to go in a different direction to run only 2 km instead because it was very difficult to continue in such dark conditions. Besides, the temperature inside the park was lower, I could feel it in my numb toes, nose, and even my toque-covered ears.
This trail I didn’t know very well, all I knew was that I would get to another crossroads and that I should turn again, in order to complete roughly 2 km, and get to the street. At one point the only sound I could hear was the water stream and my steps. It had been a while already, and I was supposed to get to that crossroads. Did I miss it? Was I close? Could the GPS in the borrowed phone pinpoint exactly where I was, despite being in the middle of the park? Besides, most of those phones have a flashlight function, right? I continued my shuffled running while fumbling with my thick glove inside my jacket pocket to extract the phone. Got it!… sort of. I had just pressed a key and looked at its time at exactly 1:37 when I felt the brush.
A lowered branch hits my left eyebrow, sending my toque and headlamp flying, I fall to the side and in doing so my right foot slips into the water while my left knee hits a rock and cracks quite at the same time I hear the phone’s “fzzz zap!” in the water, despite my loud yelling due to the knee pain. I turn to see my headlamp also in the water stream, slowly being carried away. I try getting up to go get it, barely a meter from arms reach, but my knee forbids it. I’m certain something is broken, but my kneecap feels whole. It is probably my femur or tibia. I can’t say because the pain is in the general joint.
My headlamp is moving slowly, its light beam pointing downwards, which means the strap is being pulled by the current. I lay on my chest with the intention of crawling to get it, but I can’t. There are many rocks and broken branches where I am, so the best I can do is to try to find a branch long enough to rescue my lamp. I touch a few, some very short, and then finally a long one. Yet too long and thin, according to my hands. I manage to reach the headlamp strap a few times, but I can not pull it closer. Each time I try the light moves but then goes a little bit farther away, as if jumping in slow motion. I finally manage to hook the strap and retrieve it. Too late though. The light is diminishing, barely there now, so I sit down, take my gloves off, start trying to open the battery compartment with the intention of drying everything as best I can, but my fingers are cold, wet, and numb.
I can not see anything and on top of that, my knee is in excruciating pain, my right foot and my sweaty head start to feel really cold. Feeling something sticky in my left eye I touch my eyebrow to realize that the cut is big, and blood is running down my eye. I can not open the battery compartment. Damn! If at least I knew where my toque is.
So, think. Think, think. 1:45? Probably. Which means the first morning runners will come in more than three hours, if they come this way. If not, the dogwalkers will be here around 8:00 a.m. The only other and remote possibility is someone needs the washroom and notices my absence, and probably before 6:00 they call 911.
I stay there for 20 minutes or so, just feeling sorry for myself, listening to the water running, trying to identify if the noisy critters are insects, or amphibians, or anything else. The cold I will survive, the eyebrow will heal in days, but one of my knee bones is cracked. I don’t think I will be able to participate in the Vancouver Sun Run, less than four weeks from today. That really hurts.
Some 30 or 50 meter from me a heavy branch falls, breaking the twigs on the ground. 3 seconds later another does the same coming from that same direction. Then I grasp it’s not branches falling, and focus my hearing over there. Something is slowly moving in my direction. It’s not coyotes, neither racoons. A sudden shiver and cold sweat swell. I reach for the long branch, now my staff, and I manage to stand up, facing the animal.
It is a black bear, yes. I cannot see anything, but the massive and stinky body is in front of me, with noisy breaths that resemble someone blaming a female: “her, her, her…” I try to remember everything they suggest one does when encountering a bear. But I cannot make noises or make myself appear bigger or turn sideways slowly walking away from it; I can barely keep my balance! So, I’m there in front of a bear I cannot see, but I perceive to be two meters close, its eyes faintly reflecting the stars above. I wonder if turning the armbands on will be better or worse. My staff firmly in my hands, as if suddenly I’ll become a Samurai who all he needs is that long stick to defeat the beast.
I’m petrified, my adrenaline at the max, my heartbeat above 90%, my breathing is a series of muted fast sobs, I am ready to get down in a fetal position covering my face and head. The jacket and clothing on my upper body somehow will help there, but my legs will be mauled and destroyed. Do I fight instead with a dysfunctional leg? Do bears attack without provocation? Do they possess good night vision? Do they eat human flesh if hungry? Did it find me by blood smell? Shouldn’t it be hibernation right now? A million questions cross my mind, time stands still, I don’t know how long has it been since he (or she?) arrived, and I don’t know why it doesn’t go away, neither gets closer to me, or attacks me.
I’m so paralyzed with fear that abruptly I realize it’s gone around me, and I didn’t notice it. It’s approaching me from behind now, his heavy steps sweeping the floor. How can this be? I debate trying to turn around and face him. Then it produces a growl as if saying or asking something. The bear in front of me responds.
I black out.