February 15 2018
Longtime runner Ellie Kemper charms our socks (and running shoes!) off.
“It’s not an adventure run unless you get lost,” I used to tell my teammates.
In high school, that was my routine excuse after coming back late from a run. But it was usually met with eye rolls. My friends were clearly annoyed. Incidentally, so was my mom, who by that time had typically been waiting in the parking lot for 20 minutes.
But I craved exploration; I always have. So I held fast to my motto, choosing to let nature suck me in and tune the world out. It was pure fun. There are limits to this theory, though. Getting lost on a run isn’t always a whimsical adventure, especially when it’s unintentional. I found that out the hard way during a hot summer run in Lansing, Mich. when I was 18.
My dad and I were on a college road trip, and I needed somewhere to do my weekly long run. The Lansing River Trail looked perfect, so we drove over and parked at a trailhead. I was planning to run 10 miles—my typical long run. My dad was going to do an easy 6-miler. From the looks of the map, the bike path looked fairly simple, so I surged ahead and waved goodbye.
Before long, I was weaving in and out of the woods, oblivious to all my twists and turns. When my watch beeped 5 miles, I obediently made a U-turn and started my journey back to the car. That’s when I realized there was a problem. Apparently, the trail had more offshoots than I’d thought, and apparently I didn’t remember any of them.
I started darting back and forth on the trails, making slow progress and chiding myself for my blissful ignorance. The midmorning sun was piercing through the trees, but I knew my dad would be waiting for me, so I resisted the urge to rest. Before long, a glance at my wrist told me I was rapidly approaching 10 miles.
That’s when I got really nervous. I’d never run more than 10.5 miles. I wasn’t sure I even could. But I also knew I didn’t have much of an option. I hadn’t seen a person or a map since mile 8, when I was still running along in “adventure mode.”
I once heard a saying: “You never know how strong you are—until strong is the only choice you have.” Well, it’s true. When my watch beeped at 10 miles, my desire to survive—and avoid panicking my dad—overwhelmed my fear. I tore through the woods: 10.5 miles, 11 miles. My legs were burning at that point, but I was finally starting to recognize my surroundings. Twelve miles, 13 miles.
Finally, feeling like a dying castaway, I stumbled onto the bridge I’d crossed almost two hours before. A few minutes later, just shy of 14 miles, I reached the car. I gratefully plopped down on a nearby bench and commended myself for not dying. It was, in my view, a grand achievement.
Ultimately, that run was a great experience. It taught me that I am much more capable and determined than I ever knew—roughly 4 miles more capable, to be precise. It taught me how to navigate crisis situations, to remain level-headed and to be more observant. As a bonus, my dad got even more lost than I did, so I didn’t get in trouble for my prolonged absence.