Mom Gone Wild!

How a solo trail running adventure can feed the soul and keep life in perspective

It’s a typical Saturday morning, sometime in September, and I’m giddy and a little nervous driving the 40 minutes up to a trailhead in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area from my cozy, comfy little house in Boulder, Colo.

In that house, I left my two young boys, ages 5 and 8, in the care of my husband, Mark. He’s likely making them pancakes with maple syrup and letting them play on the iPad before taking them out to do something.

I kind of care what they’ll get out and do, but I kind of don’t. I’m free of regular life as I know it, for now, and I’m headed to the hills.

In my car, I have music playing loudly, windows down. It’s how I roll whenever I drive alone. I mostly don’t care if it’s cold out; I like the wind in my face and my music loud. Maybe it makes me feel like a teenager, even though I’m pretty far from that.

Also in my car, on the seat next to me, is my trail running pack. It’s loaded with what I estimated to be enough water for a two- to three-hour run, energy snacks to last me the same amount of time, my little makeshift, minimalist emergency kit, and the best thing ever printed on a piece of paper (aside from great literature): a topographic map.

There was a decade or so of my life where traipsing around the world doing adventure races—three-hour to 10-day endurance races where I’d travel by foot, mountain bike, kayak, etc. with map and compass in hand over hill and dale and back with a team of like-minded individuals—was totally normal. In retrospect, it was nuts. But it was an adventurous life with no shortage of thrills, suffering and raw connection to nature. Talk about the wind in my face. I’d get that regularly in the form of trail running through remote canyons and jungles with a fatigued mind and body or overhead swells smashing on top of me while kayaking in the dark looking for a checkpoint.

But here I am, years away from that life, and a working mom of two. Happy with my current day-to-day, I’m relieved that the suffering of those races is in my past, but I’ve been missing the taste of adventure.

In my canned amount of time on this particular Saturday morning—I told Mark I’d be home by 2 p.m.—I’m going on a trail run. I’m starting at a trailhead I know well and picking an alpine lake on the map. It’s a lake I’ve never been to, a route I’ve never taken.

But the little outline of Woodland Lake looks good on my map, and the topography of the trail route shows undulated hills and a twisty trail, plus a couple river crossings via bridges. (I wouldn’t have to forge my way across with teammates, hoping one of us doesn’t get tripped downstream, like in those long-ago adventure races.)

I start running, pass a few hikers, and take note of the bright yellow fall leaves. It’s a beautiful day. I take a turn toward the lake, I think, but wonder: Am I going the right way? I reference my map and do a bit of navigating. “I should be on the north side of that ridgeline.” Check.

I keep running. I don’t see anyone for a while, but I start sensing movement in the woods. It’s mostly chipmunks, but my often-paranoid mind considers that the moving objects in my peripheral vision could be bears. Or mountain lions. I think of the irony. I just wrote a trail running book called Trailhead: The Dirt on All Things Trail Running with a chapter on safety; specifically, what to do when encountering predators on the trail. I think of a newspaper headline for tomorrow: “Local ‘Trailhead’ author dies of bear attack on trail run.” (I always worry I’ll die of irony.)

Getting to the lake is taking longer than I thought, and I’m heeding my book’s advice: Sing to yourself to let animals know you’re there. In my head? For obvious reasons, Debbie Gibson’s “I Think We’re Alone Now,” a ridiculous song to sing in any other situation but this one. I sing some Cat Stevens, “Miles From Nowhere” (my go-to tune from my adventure racing days). I sing some of my 8-year-old’s current favorite song, “Rude.” But it’s mostly Debbie Gibson, and I’m glad I’m alone because I’m embarrassed I’m singing it.

Running to a remote lake on a trail through the woods can offer a vital spark of energy that can put everyday life in perspective. Photo: Mark Eller

One more small hill and there it is: Woodland Lake. Success! I do what I always do when I reach an alpine lake—either jump in or splash it on my face. I choose the latter, and scoop the water in my hands and cover my face and the back of my neck. Ah, cold mountain liquid! I take a moment to revel in the beauty.

When I turn around to retrace my steps to the trailhead, I have a little skip in my step. And when I get to my car, after 10 slow, gorgeous, solitary miles on foot, I’m supremely satisfied with my dose of adventure, however small compared to my old life. I got what I needed on this day. Soul fed.

Lisa Jhung
Boulder, Colorado-based freelance writer Lisa Jhung is the author of "Trailhead: The Dirt on All Things Trail Running" (Velo Press, 2015). She has written for Runner's World, Men's Journal and Women's Running and was the co-founding editor of Adventure Sports magazine.