Back to Fitness: The Solo Run

Photo: John Andersen.

By far the most fun I have while exercising is when I do it with friends. A group run or ride is sure to be a good time and the fellowship makes the miles click by. However, some of the most meaningful experiences I have are when I am running alone. Not to put “fitness experiences” up there with the birth of a child or getting married, but in the day-to-day growth as a person, solo runs/rides/swims/workouts are rich with awareness, meditation, and growth.

Last month we went on our annual family ski trip out west to Park City, Utah. I grew up in a ski family and we now have three generations of kids and grandkids that descend upon a rental house in the Wasatch Mountains and experience all of the wonderful Utah powder. This was our ninth year returning, and we have all come to grow quite familiar with the mountains and the town.  

While we are there, I always take the time to head out on a few morning “runs.” Park City is at about 7200’ elevation so if I’m heading uphill, I’m typically hiking vs. running. This is the story of one such solo run–a richer experience because I was alone.

I had set my alarm for 5 a.m. so I could be back in time to ski early. The first aspect of solo exercise is planning it. Setting out your clothes and gear, setting the coffee pot, and planning your route or your workout. When you’re rolling solo, it’s whatever you want to do and there is a great freedom in that. I had planned on a run/power hike up to a high mountain pass at about 9200’ elevation. The goal of this run was simply to catch a glimpse of the beautiful country on the backside of the ski resorts, then turn around and run home. I set out my gear, planned my route, set the coffee pot, and set the alarm.

The next aspect of the solo run is showing up. When there is nobody meeting you, nobody expecting you, will you show up? Sometimes there is nothing harder than getting out the door when nobody cares if you do or not.  But when you do manage to wake up to that alarm, get dressed, and actually go out that door, you have followed through on a commitment to yourself and you are just a bit more empowered than you were the night before. After hitting the snooze button at least once, I finally managed to get out of bed, get my coffee, get dressed, and head out the door as I planned.

We had a cold spell during our trip, and when I opened the door, I stepped out into 5-degree mountain air. This brings me to another meaningful aspect of getting out there solo—truly experiencing your environment. When I meet up with a friend, we’ll probably chat about how cold it is, or how the rain is miserable, but our conversation and shared presence takes away from truly experiencing it. When I headed out into that biting cold with no one to share it with, it became a much more present experience. I wasn’t going to complain about it or pretend it didn’t bother me, I simply experienced it as it was.

This same point applies to what you see and hear, and you definitely see and hear a lot more when you’re alone and you’re able to experience things at your own pace. (Side note:  to truly experience your solo time, leave the headphones at home and allow yourself some much-needed time to be fully unplugged.)  

The snow-covered mountain road I was heading up cut through a thick forest of fir trees, also covered in snow.  This is one of my favorite parts of the run because it is an epic winter wonderland scene. Adding to this experience is traversing it alone and in the pre-dawn darkness with just a headlamp and the moon to light my way. Thoughts freely come and go, from celebrating how beautiful this scene is, to trying to ignore the fear that I might encounter an ill-tempered moose or mountain lion.  

As I was deep into this patch of Narnia, an owl started hooting. I stopped to hear it better, and the owl stopped hooting. I started back again and he started hooting again. He was clearly watching me.  I stopped again, this time longer, and after a long silence that I might even say was awkward, I let out my own imitating hoot. After a few seconds, the owl responded and I continued on my run, satisfied that we were both okay with each other’s presence.  

If I was with a friend or had my headphones on, I might not have had that commune with the owl.  But since I was alone, I was able to experience it at my pace and on my terms, and then think on it for a while, like wondering if his ancestors and my ancestors used to do this very same thing 10,000 years ago (I’m quite sure they did).  

As the road continued upward and the air became thinner and colder, my journey became more arduous. Fully warmed up and engrossed in the activity, and with the early morning light finally disarming me of my headlamp, the experience was at a climax. I had no idea my pace, I didn’t care and I didn’t have anyone else’s pace to worry about. All I knew is that I was nearing my goal for the morning and after nearly an hour of work, I was finally near the pass. This is the last stage of the solo run, the solo ride, the solo workout—accomplishing what you set out to do. It is empowerment, achievement, and commitment. It is confidence and growth.

I made the final push around yet another mountain road switchback and arrived at the pass. In an instant, a new background of near and distant mountains filled my view.  The moon and the sun were up at the same time and everything was covered in a wonderful coat of snow. It was as surreal as it was rewarding.  

I snapped a picture, freezing my bare hands in the process, and then zipped back up and ran back down the mountain. The way back down was the victory lap. Cruising effortlessly, now in full morning light, and with the energy that only the end of a predawn solo run can bring.  

As I entered the house, I left that solo experience. I could try to talk about it or write about it, but no description can come close to the experience.  

And thus, the last thing about solo runs/rides/etc—knowing what others don’t know.  

I encourage everyone to spend some time exercising alone. It doesn’t have to be some magical mountain pass. Just plan it, do it, and experience it.   


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