How Running To Water Can Jumpstart Your Sense of Adventure

How one trail runner makes swimming pools and alpine lakes the destination, while the whole journey is the reward

Photo: Getty Images

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My friend Sara and I thought we were so clever naming our Strava trail run “Poolgrimage.” I thought of the name in the first mile of our run of the Mesa Trail out of Chautauqua Park in Boulder, Colorado, because I was carrying a bikini in my hydration pack and we were on a one-way pilgrimage to the Eldorado Springs Pool, 6.7 miles from where we started. 

It’s not necessarily an epic run, but running one-way to something, anything, felt more adventurous than our regular runs—loops on Mount Sanitas or even up the 2,500-foot climb to the top of Green Mountain. Plus, when we’d arrive at our destination, we’d get to jump into the icy cold, spring-fed water. Our families were driving there with snacks and towels. I carried my own suit in case we got there first; I didn’t want to wait around for the bag my husband was bringing before cooling off. It was a 90-something-degree summer day.

We did poolgrimage three summers in a row. Once just the two of us, once with a third friend, and once with a third friend and Sara’s husband. We’d still be doing it once a summer, but the dang pool has been closed for refurbishing. 

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The “Eldo Pool,” as locals call it, isn’t the only pool we’ve run to with bathing suits in our packs. One summer, four of us gals ran from a trailhead in Nederland, Colorado, to Winter Park, Colorado, ending up in the awesome outdoor pool at Devil’s Thumb Ranch resort. The route took us up, across the ridgeline, and over the Continental Divide and down the other side. We had to do a bit of route-finding and clamoring over logs and such on the west side of the Divide, as we had pieced together an 18-mile route that would get us there. But we made it. And the journey itself was awesome.

Wildflowers, views for days. Alpine lakes and towering pines. Singletrack and an occasional bushwhack. We reveled in the adventure of running one-way. We may have run out of water and suffered a bit because our filtration device wasn’t working when we tried to tap into a flowing creek to refill our bladders and soft flasks, but laughed at trying to create “drinkable” saliva by sucking on hard candy. And we recovered just fine when we got to that pool, jumped in, and connected with friends who had driven about two hours on the highway to meet us with drinks, snacks, and clothes. Our direct route—up and over the mountains—took us five or six hours. Or maybe it was seven. It didn’t matter to us. I kind of didn’t want it to end, though the pool felt amazing and so did quenching my thirst.

We had a proper dinner in the lodge restaurant, stayed the night in a cabin, and the next morning, we could have driven back with our friends as we’d planned to do…but the hills were calling us back. The four of us got a ride five miles in along a jeep road, and ran 13 miles to return to our car, a day after we’d left it at the trailhead.

When it’s not a pool we’re running to, it’s an alpine lake we make as part of a loop or an out-and-back. I love staring at paper maps of the mountains, their black-dotted trails winding through green forests and across yellow and white terrain above treeline, the color-coding in topography. My eyes zero in on blue lakes, and I plot routes that will take me to them. I often propose these routes to friends. 

For one such lake-centric adventure, my mountain running girlfriends and I headed up to the trailhead, climbed up to a high-mountain pass on an established trail, then hit the summit of a 13,000-foot peak. We then backtracked a bit and made our own route, taking safety precautions like finding stable footing, spacing out horizontally from each other so that a loose rock wouldn’t tumble and hit one of us, should it be dislodged by the other. Our destination was a lake below us, which had a trail on its other side but required an off-trail route to get to. We glissaded down some patches of snow, stayed off sensitive alpine tundra and rock-hopped to not damage foliage, and made it to our lake.

There, three of us decided to shed our clothes and jump in, al fresco, while the other laughed and took incriminating photos that will never see the light of day. (We joked that you could make a medical diagnosis from the photos of us diving in headfirst—our friend with the phone camera was too close.) That water, framed by early summer snow and ice patches, was freezing. Refreshing. Awesome. We redressed, linked up with the proper trail, and looped back to the car.

For me, running to water is key. Whether it’s one-way, looped, or out-and-back, with friends or with dog, to a pool or to a lake, the liquid destination makes for a running adventure that will keep me plotting the next one as soon as I’m home. 

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Tips for Plunging on the Run

  1. Find trail maps of your region. Gear up with either paper maps or online versions of trail maps in your area. (I prefer paper maps.) 
  2. Choose a watery destination. Seek out a pool or lake you can run to on trails. Note that running trails to a pool is only possible in very select areas but might not be as impossible as it sounds.
  3. Plot your route. Trail maps of all sorts have mileages mapped out per trail section. Make sure your planned route is doable within your fitness/experience level. (Also be aware that mileage in the mountains can take much longer than you expect sometimes, due to terrain, vertical gain, weather, and off-trail route-finding.)
  4. Find friends who are game. Running to water is fun, but not everyone is as water-obsessed as me. If your running friends are hesitant, remind them that no one ever regrets jumping into a body of water, even a very cold body of water.
  5. Pack a suit (for a pool) or ditch all of your clothes (for a lake, mid-run). Though it might not be totally necessary to run with a bathing suit in your bag if people are meeting you at your pool destination, I find that it adds a little joy to the outing. If you’re jumping in a mountain lake, ditching all your clothes and jumping in al fresco is the way to go. Putting on your clothes after a frigid lake swim means you’re refreshed, but not soggy, on the rest of your run.

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