When you’re in the wilderness at night, either during a race or simply a matter of survival, a good light is crucial in making sure you arrive safely back to civilization. A poor light can cost you the finish line or, in a survival situation, get you lost and decrease your chances of rescue. There are many articles out there about what types of diets, shoes, and clothes are good for hiking, trail running and ultramarathons, but not many that talk about the importance of a good, dependable light. I have ventured out into the wilderness on several occasions and have learned the hard way what it means to get lost in the dark. Now I’ve seen the light and I’m here to share it with you.
“You don’t lose you learn,” is a phrase made famous by the legendary Carlos Gracie Sr., a legend and pioneer of the martial art known as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Ever since I heard that, I try to apply it everywhere. In this case, if I learned anything while competing in 100 mile endurance races in the middle of nowhere, it is that I should have had better lights. I knew to expect the usual problems like pain, blisters, and muscles cramping or locking up, but efficient lighting (probably the easiest thing to fix) never crossed my mind.
Being a city boy most of my life, I had never been in a real dark forest environment where the trees are so thick light isn’t coming through the leaves, or in a desert on a moonless night where all you can see is stars and not the dirt you’re standing on. My first experience came during the Cool Moon 100; a running event by Elemental Running. Although my brother and I had been running at night for weeks in the city neighborhoods around Orange County, my brother Justin and I were about to be in for a big surprise in real darkness. We were lucky enough to run a test lap the day before. The course consisted of ten 10-mile loops. We thought because the town was named Cool, and it was in Northern California, that it was going to be a cold mountain forest environment. Instead, we discovered it was over 101 degrees out. We also noticed there were no city lights either. We went to a nearby sporting good store and bought these Army Strong Headlights to clip onto our hats. The picture on the box showed a couple of soldiers on patrol in the desert. We said, “if they’re using it, it has to be good.” No disrespect to the Armed Forces, but they have got to be kidding me.
When we entered the forest, we were unable to see anything. We didn’t risk running for fear of going over a cliff so we walked. A cook at an aid station let us borrow her headlamp which helped us get moving, but it died out during the second lap of the evening and then it was back to walking. We walked until sunrise. This almost cost us the race. As soon as the sun came up we had to run fast as if we had just started the race. That is whole other story for another day.
It wasn’t until another 100 mile race, the Coyote Springs 100, that we finally said to each other we need better lights for sure. This race, also by Elemental Running, was located in Nevada about an hour or two north of Las Vegas. It was held on a moonless night in a desert canyon environment. The course had arrows on the ground and reflective ribbons tied to bushes. We ran 88 miles before we finally dropped out. Everything was going great until we got a bit off course. This time we had stronger headlamps than the Army Strong ones. Somewhere down the line we had a hard time reflecting light on the course ribbons, and when one ribbon reflected light we followed it. Somehow we got lost until another runner doing the shorter distance race told us we were going the wrong way. We followed him for awhile until we got to the aid station then from there we found our way back. He had a big spotlight type flashlight and it was lighting the course, easily reflecting light off the ribbons. This was a tough race, but if we had better lights that day, we might be walking around today with beautiful Coyote Springs 100 mile belt buckles. Even though officially we dropped out at 88 miles, we covered about 95 miles (3 miles out, 3 miles back in, uphill and downhill) while we were wandering around the desert for two hours, blistered and in pain. After this race, my brother and I started looking into flashlights instead of headlamps.
These are both by Duracell. These excellent flashlights have long battery life and are lightweight. Both have been tested by us in complete darkness on the trails, and several ultramarathons including the 100 Mile Club EC100, and the Born to Run Ultra this year. The little one, the 250, is really bright. It has 2 stages of brightness and can pick up reflectors more than 50 yards away. We spotted signs with it from one hill to another making it an excellent light. The 500 is like the bigger, badder brother. It can do what the 250 can, only this one has the zoom in\ zoom out lens which allows you to either spotlight the road ahead, or light up the area in front and beside you (comes in handy when you want to know what’s rustling in the bushes without taking your eyes off the road). My brother and I usually carry both of these on our runs.
The outdoors are unpredictable and you never know what can happen: batteries can die unexpectedly, you can fall and break the lightbulb, or you can drop the light off a cliff. That is why it is always good to have a spare on you, as opposed to leaving one behind in a dropbag many miles away. We put these lights to the test from sundown to sunrise, up and down hill, using them for numerous activities besides running.
My purpose behind this article is not to sell these flashlights instead of others. However these work excellent for us.
My objective is to inform everyone about the importance of dependable lights. With ultrarunning becoming more popular, many new runners will soon find themselves in the dark because they did not count on how dark the woods are compared to the city neighborhoods. Justin was pacing a friend at the SD100 recently and he noticed another runner was about to run off the course because she couldn’t see the markers. Good thing he was there to light the way.
I hope you have enjoyed, and learned something from this article.
Have a great day.