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Running as the Sun Rises

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BUZZ-BUZZ-BUZZ-BUZZ-BUZZ-BUZZ-BUZZ …

It’s 4:50 a.m. Time to get up! And that means, it’s time to go for a run!

I turn off the incessant and annoying sound coming from my phone, throw on the shorts and T-shirt I set out the night before, start some coffee and think about which trail shoes I’ll wear for my 6 a.m. run. I check the weather app while looking out the window at the pre-dawn darkness and both tell me it seems to be drizzling a bit.

Rain be damned. There’s no bad weather, just wrong gear choices.

Normally I get up early to run with the hope of seeing the sun rise, but not with today’s overcast skies. Still, no matter what happens after my 60-minute run, it’s bound to be another great day! On tap for today is a short warm-up followed by 9 x 2-minute surges on hilly trails, then a short cool-down … all to be completed before a lot of people have stopped hitting the snooze button.

There’s nothing quite like starting the day with a trail run. But let’s be honest, not everyone is eager to get up at the crack of dawn to run, let alone eager to get up at the crack of dawn at all.

And truth be told, I never used to be a morning person. And definitely not a morning runner. But as time goes by in life, you learn what is important to you and what stirs your soul. I often got up early—and if you know me even a little, you know I don’t sleep much at all—but I rarely felt inspired enough to run early. And yet, I’ve always run almost every day.

But through the years, I changed my ways. Both from countless solo runs at dawn and especially from experiences running with friends, I realize early mornings are truly the golden hour for trail running. It’s one of the things I crave the most, the best time to run and the best way to start my day. I run early in the morning on most days of the week, and I recommend it to everyone. 

There’s something energizing and rejuvenating about forcing yourself to get out of bed earlier than you normally might just so you can see the sun rise. … As a runner, it’s especially rewarding because it means you’re using your own power to rise with purpose and be present in the new day.

There’s something energizing and rejuvenating about forcing yourself to get out of bed earlier than you normally might just so you can see the sun rise. But only those who dare skimp a bit on their slumber ever really know that. As a runner, it’s especially rewarding because it means you’re using your own power to rise with purpose and be present in the new day.

The author practicing what he preaches.

My most frequent go-to route is Mount Sanitas ridgeline in Boulder, thanks to friend Leo Lesperance and his Friday morning band of merry pranksters. He’s an engineer so his runs start at a different time every Friday, but each one is timed to precisely to the moment of the sun peaking over the horizon line. Last week, I solo’ed that route for the umpteenth time and saw the sun appear ever-so-briefly on the horizon line before ascending into the clouds. That moment still made my day.

Starting a run before the sun begins to rise can provide extraordinary sensory engagement. When you begin, your eyes and ears are your primary guides amid the low-light conditions—and, yes, for some, maybe a bit of grumpy demeanor, too. Initially your brain tells your eyes to focus on every step so as not to stumble on hidden obstacles in the dark. If you listen closely, you can hear things you might not typically notice amid the hum of a typical mid-day run—a dog barking a few blocks away, deer scurrying out of the brush, the sound of your shoes impacting the ground or even a train whistle in the distance. 

But the moment the day starts to break and you’re not relying on sight and sound as much, your other senses kick in. As you begin the natural process of welcoming the new day—and depending on where you are running—you might notice the earthy smell of wet soil, the sweet scent of the grass or the rich aroma of pine trees. You might even taste the subtle but distinctive flavor of damp morning air. And, without notice, your body starts running by feel and your foot placements—whether on a trail or a road or sidewalk—become automatic and involuntary.

When the sun finally rises, make it a point to pause, soak in the view and salute the sun. (With some basic planning, you can coordinate that moment to be at a specific point on your run—like a local hilltop, your favorite trail or an open field—so you can make the most of it.) The sunrise represents hope, optimism, rejuvenation and the continuation of life, and it can remind you what you believe in and what’s important to you. 

The sunrise represents hope, optimism, rejuvenation and the continuation of life, and it can remind you what you believe in and what’s important to you.

While you don’t need to make it an overtly metaphysical or spiritual moment, there’s great satisfaction in welcoming a new day in such a primal way without the usual distractions of the morning—i.e., the urge to have breakfast, the morning news, doing laundry, checking emails, etc. If nothing else, it’s the sign of a clean slate, a way to leave yesterday behind and make the most of the coming day. 

Just another Boulder sunrise.

And that’s especially true if you’re a runner engaged in your daily affirmation of putting one foot in front of the other. Having that kind of welcome-the-day engagement in the natural world is so vastly different than watching the sun shine through a window while you’re crunching cereal, watching cable TV news out of one eye and checking your social feed out of the other.

Recently, I ran a loop that circled the National Center for Atmospheric Research on a cloudy morning so there was so sunrise, but I did spy a mama red fox with three tiny kittens that appeared to be smaller than squirrels. On another morning run along Mesa Trail, five deer pranced across the trail in front of me. Twice I have seen mountain lions on early morning runs. Those kind of experiences don’t happen very often when trails are more crowded.

Am I soft, sentimental and too sleep-deprived? Perhaps so. I typically sleep about four hours every night and I wake eager to start a new day and am rarely tired. My lack of sleep is tied to my non-stop energy for life. It’s a gift from my late father. Yes, I know there is a lot of restorative good tied to getting sleep, but to me being awake is being alive. 

My lack of sleep is tied to my non-stop energy for life. It’s a gift from my late father. Yes, I know there is a lot of restorative good tied to getting sleep, but to me being awake is being alive. 

Still, I know some people value their sleep as much as anything in their lives and would gladly sleep for 10 hours every night. But there are some of us who take the perspective that waking up an hour early is the chance to live an hour more.

Get up just once this week and run as the sun rises and it might just change your perspective—about that day, about your running, about your life. 

 

Brian Metzler is a contributing editor to Trail Runner.