The difference between pounding pavement and hitting mountain trails? Unpredictable weather, miles of vert, and a whole lot of wilderness.
Like most great ideas, this one started while I was aimlessly surfing the web, killing a Saturday afternoon with delusions of adventure. I stumbled across a picture of Lone Eagle Peak that seemed too beautiful to be real: snowy peaks and pine trees mirrored back in a still lake. I was a creature of habit who'd been running for 13 years, and I was a bit apprehensive about breaking routine and getting off the beaten track. Sure, trail running meant better scenery, but it also sounded like it required another level of effort to an already arduous process. Running is hard—why make it harder?
But when I saw that photo of the impossibly sharp summit of Lone Eagle Peak, the tiny, sometimes obnoxious, voice always nagging me to step out of my comfort zone won. Patting myself on the back for my foresight, I convinced my husband, Garrett, to join me so I'd have someone along to carry me out if I twisted an ankle. The details of the run were a little vague, and I opted for an "ignorance is bliss" approach. Winging it seemed like the way these spontaneous adventures roll, and I was pushing myself to break out of my comfort zone. After logging thousands of miles over the year, I thought, how hard could it be to lace up our shoes and survive one more run?
We brought absolutely nothing. No food, water, extra layers, maps, or survival equipment of any kind.
We arrived at Monarch Lake the next day and checked in at the ranger station. The ranger asked us if we were running the loop around Monarch Lake, a flat four-miler with easy access to the parking lot and cell service the entire way. Confidently, I told her we were actually running to Crater Lake, a seven-mile one-way ticket to the heart of the Indian Peaks Wilderness. She gave us a skeptical look. “Do you know how far that is?” I laughed it off and told her we'd see how far we made it. I wouldn't have been surprised if she made a note to send the Search and Rescue team for us later.
Heading out, we brought absolutely nothing. No food, water, extra layers, maps, or survival equipment of any kind. Garrett, thinking we were going for a short, easy loop in the woods (Sorry, Honey), grabbed his phone to take pictures. Fourteen miles should take us roughly two hours, I estimated—using my road running pace to calculate our time—and anyone could survive a couple hours in the woods in shorts and a T-shirt.
The run was epic from the start. Aspen trees and rock cairns whirled by us, and the trail never got too technical or steep. I basked in endorphins and the scenery. Trail running was my new favorite pastime, and I felt like I could run forever.
Which is basically what we did. Every time Garrett asked how far we were running, I would respond with a vague, "Let’s just see what’s around the next corner." I was set on making it to Lone Eagle Peak.
Garrett had no cell service, and I suddenly felt incredibly thirsty.
Seven rugged miles later, we arrived at the lonely pinnacle of Lone Eagle Peak and its surrounding glacial cirque. The scene sparkled back at us, mirrored in the clear, blue waters of Crater Lake. We sat on the sun-basked shore for half an hour to take it all in: the bright blue sky, the clarity of the frigid lake water, the distant roar of waterfalls cascading down the walls of the cirque, and the sheer walls of Lone Eagle Peak towering over us in the solitude of a moment that we had earned by the efforts of our own two legs.
Then, the realization set in—we still had to run back.
Suddenly, clouds gathered. One of Colorado’s notorious afternoon thunderstorms approached. I thought back to how few people we'd seen on the trail. (The grand total: three, all backpackers who looked at us like we were nuts for running into the woods with nothing more than shoes and the clothes on our backs.) Garrett had no cell service. I suddenly felt incredibly thirsty, and I heard my husband's stomach growl. The sun ducked behind the oncoming clouds, and we were both felt goosebumps. It was time to run.
We almost ran into a pair of moose on the trail and had to bushwhack an extra half-mile out of our way to get around them.
The way back was the yang to our blissed-out yin of a run to the lake. I have never known seven miles to take so long. Time slowed down to a crawl and so did my pace. The return trip was mostly downhill, but my feet moved like they were trudging through molasses. We almost ran into a pair of moose on the trail and had to bushwhack an extra half mile out of our way to get around them. It rained. We bonked. We walked. We walked some more. And, despite our struggles, we had a fabulous time.
Back at the car, lightheaded from hunger, dehydration, and happiness, I resolved to plan my next trail run better. (A dozen PB&Js: Check. Extra layers: Check. A map: Check. A GPS device that enables helicopter pick-up: Well, maybe when I win the lottery.)
Oddly, I was still exhilarated about the entire run. Logging 14 miles in the wilderness, totally unprepared, wasn’t the most intelligent thing to do, but it was a step out of my ordinary routine. And it turned out to be a rush. I've been hitting the trails in search of new adventures ever since.