by Jenna Drennen
When I took up running a few years back, many people assumed I did it to maintain a certain weight or physique. I was often met with dubious stares when I conveyed the love I felt for the activity and the myriad of benefits I’ve enjoyed since becoming an avid runner. While maintaining a healthy weight and increasing muscle tone are certainly welcome side effects of being a distance runner, these aspects rank low on my list of motivations driving me to run. What began as a logical first step towards “getting in shape” unexpectedly launched my odyssey towards physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being, and a newfound devotion to the pastime. It may feel daunting to begin a running routine, but the rewards can be vast and unexpected, and our beautiful hometown an ideal setting to begin the journey.
Whether I’m jogging around the neighborhood, or embarking on a marathon, the mental toughness I’ve acquired through training grounds the process. Acknowledging that the majority of this training targets my mind, rather than my body, lets me redefine my runs as exercises in gaining and maintaining confidence. My inevitably dynamic state of mind influences my progress, precariously shifting from cheerleader to my greatest obstacle. Achieving personal goals such as increased speed, distance, or crossing the finish line of a difficult race, necessitates building new levels of mental toughness. The strength and resilience grounding my training ultimately transcend all aspects of life, gifting me with a sense of competence and control confronting adversity.
Establishing a running mantra aids my ability to disconnect and maintain determination and focus while training. Repeating a phrase that resonates and inspires me roots it in my consciousness, and each time I repeat it, my brain and body respond. Phrases such as “stronger and stronger by the mile,” “breath,” or “just keep running” focus my attention while essentially reprogramming my thoughts. The repetitive nature of this process, coupled with a reconnection to my physical body and senses, guides my transition towards a meditative state, and I begin to remain more grounded and present. I’ve often acknowledged the irony associated with speeding up my body as a means to slow down my mind. The much referred to “runner’s high” is often a consequence of this focus and repetition, coupled with the endorphins released through aerobic exertion. When I experience a “runner’s high,” I tend to be euphoric and notice a significant reduction in anxiety. I’ve even noted a lessened ability to register pain (both physical and emotional) extending hours after I’ve finished running. The focused grounding and unrivaled clarity of solitary runs often lead to my most effective problem-solving sessions. As my body speeds up and my mind slows down, my ability to process stress and gain perspective grows. I’ve made many difficult decisions and stumbled upon profound realizations as I pounded the pavement. Each emphatic breath releases tension, each assertive step channels my stress, letting it trail behind me. I arrive home lighter, the stress weighing me down identified, processed, and ultimately discarded on the running trail.
I have experienced firsthand the profound positive impact of exercise, and in particular, running, on my well-being and mental health. Research indicates that a modest amount of daily exercise decreases symptoms of depression and anxiety, improves cognitive function, and even sharpens memory. As someone with a history of depression and anxiety, physical activity serves as a much more powerful and effective alternative to costly prescription medications and a worthy substitute to traditional therapeutic settings. While not all mental health issues can be resolved on the running trail, my daily run serves as a powerful tool in regulating and grounding my emotions and a crucial component of my well-being.
The physical benefits of regularly running are equally substantial. Research suggests running may be the single most effective exercise to increase life expectancy, and an individual who regularly runs can expect to add an average of 3.2 years to their lifespan, compared to non-runners with similar genetic and sociocultural backgrounds. Moderate jogging strengthens bones and muscles, aids weight maintenance, lowers blood pressure, and even improves glucose regulation. Regular running lowers the risk of developing pre-diabetes, diabetes, and many types of cancer. Running (and cardiovascular exercise in general) improves the body’s ability to fall asleep quickly and improves the quality of sleep. Establishing a consistent exercise routine improves immunity, both by heightening the body’s surveillance against disease and reducing inflammation. In improving antibody response, running may also reduce the risk of upper respiratory infections.
Despite the numerous ways running has enriched my life on a personal level, I’ve found it equally effective at transcending isolation and establishing deep connections within my community. As I explore new routes around the tri-town area, greeting my fellow runners along the way, I gain a greater appreciation for its residents and idyllic backdrop. I take in our mountain views and revel in the small-town atmosphere that grounds our community while acknowledging my privilege to be a part of it. Whether I’m competing in the family-friendly Firecracker 5K hosted on the 4th of July each year in Firestone, or relishing the celebratory rush of completing the Carbon Valley half marathon, these experiences simultaneously bolster my sense of self while creating a lasting connection with this wonderful community.
Discovering trails that are accessible year-round and conducive to beginners can prove challenging, but the tri-town area is rich in options for runners of every skill level and ability. The moderately trafficked Firestone Trail boasts a scenic backdrop with a paved point-to-point trail spanning 5.3 miles. Bridging Firestone, Frederick, and Dacono, the Firestone Trail is dog-friendly and relatively level, yielding only 164 feet of elevation gain. As a runner who loves chilly winter runs, I appreciate how quickly the Firestone Trail is plowed following a snowstorm.
For those looking for a trail run, or seeking a shorter distance, the Milavec Lake Loop is an ideal choice for beginners. This lightly trafficked 1.4-mile loop with negligible elevation gain surrounds Milavec Lake in Frederick and maintains accessibility year-round. Teaming with wildlife, this trail offers mountain and lake views and easily connects to the Firestone Trail for those looking to integrate some trail running into their standard paved runs.
The St. Vrain Greenway Trail offers Carbon Valley residents a chance to connect with our neighboring communities while allowing for greater distance. At 17.5 miles, this paved out-and-back route begins just west of Firestone at Sandstone Ranch and extends through Longmont. Rich in wildlife, this trail is ideal for those seeking greater distances while still maintaining reasonably little elevation gain.
Whether challenging yourself to take that first step or committing to take on greater distances, the overwhelming rewards of running are vast and often unexpected. The more I run, the more I foster a greater sense of worth and prove that I am capable of more than I ever thought possible. As I take one mile at a time, I remind myself that it is my race, my pace, and there are no limits to where I can go geographically, physically, and spiritually.
Jenna lives in Firestone with her husband, two kids, and a house full of animals. She enjoys, running, gardening, and climbing mountains in her spare time.