When I first started running, I almost always ran at night. In Virginia, in the summer, the heat and humidity were too intense to run in the day. So I would wait until the sun went down, then go out on the still cooling sidewalks where fireflies filled up the trees with migratory lights. The suburbs had scraped the landscape of almost all its forest, but some patches of woods had been left, sad islands, and animals moved between these hiding places at dusk. Sometimes I saw deer lope across a road, silhouettes against the lit-up yards or caught in the circle of a streetlamp, turning their long necks to look at me with eyes the color of oil. More rarely, I saw the mirror-eyes and quick passage of a fox. The trees shivered with the dry clicking of cicadas, the grasses of the tidy, chemical lawns creaked with crickets. I would glimpse these things as I moved past them, staying with them for a second. Then a moment later both of us would be gone.
I liked to be out at night when the streets were empty and to see these things that other people, inside their houses, didn't see. From the windows came the blue of television screens, the bright yellow lights of kitchens, each house its own world unaware of anyone outside it, seeing. I was fifteen years old, my family had just ambivalently immigrated from Britain and I had started running because I wanted to be thin, something which my new school and new country seemed to feel was important for a girl. I had tried to give up eating, first selectively, making an ever longer list of forbidden foods, then completely, which should have been simple, right? I just wouldn't eat at all and that would transform me from an awkward, bookish, serious girl with funny-looking clothes into a sociable and well-liked beauty. Not eating, however, was much more difficult than I'd anticipated and didn't in any case have the desired effect; it just made me hungry, dizzy and cranky. I had seen professional runners on television, and they were all very slender and tall just like I wanted so badly to be, and I thought that perhaps if I did what they did, I would look like them. I ran around the suburban development where my family lived every day with that earnest dedication of which certain teenage girls are capable. I ran for miles. My body, of course, remained more or less the same shape it had been since puberty, round and pear-shaped - the same shape that it is today.
But something I did not expect also happened: I discovered that I liked to run for its own sake. Moving through the blue of early night, I would settle into my body's actual size and shape, its frame of bones and circuits of muscles and blood, its rhythm of breath. I would feel its strength and because of the combination of darkness and motion, some of the terrible self-consciousness that I felt the rest of the time would go away. I would relax. I would feel at home and graceful in the world, comfortable with my place in it, outside looking in, nearly invisible, observing, noting, standing back from things to see them: the position, not coincidentally, of both the runner and the writer.
The discovery of this refuge helped me survive the rest of high-school and helped when I moved again, this time to go to college in Middlebury, Vermont. Running was a companion, as it has been ever since in my highly transient life. It was something stable and dependable, something the old place and the new one could have in common. At school, it was a way for me to get away from the constant presence of other people, roommates and friends, and be by myself. It was a way to explore my surroundings, to learn the shape of the new place, to clear my head. I ranged farther than I could have as a pedestrian, but without the shell that keeps drivers from being exposed to their surroundings. This combination gave me a feeling of freedom because I could go anywhere I wanted. I ran at dusk along the shoulders of the country roads that led away from the campus. The bands of blacktop rose and fell with the landscape, and I could see them stretching away towards the next crest or curve as I followed them. I would see cars approaching from far off, two headlights plowing through gathering gloom, the sound of the engine beginning far away like the sound of an insect, then growing closer. I would imagine who was in the car, where they were going, imagine how they saw me by myself out in the open space. In the spring, the fields smelled of manure, the verges turned green from winter grey. In the fall, the trees were delicate, fiery colors covering the hillsides. As dark descended, lights came up on the buildings of the college and the town beyond it, made halos that made me feel lonely but also comforted, because I knew, or thought I knew, that I would not be outside like this for long.
There are, however, risks involved in being out in the world alone, especially at night …