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Amy Donaldson: Life's adventures are worth embracing — with or without fear or friends

BOUNTIFUL — It had been a long time since I’d been on a path I didn’t know by myself.

As such, I desperately tried to immerse myself in the experience, the beauty around me, and embrace the challenge within me. But with each step up the steep hillside, I felt a longing that I didn’t really have until a few years ago.

I like to think of myself as adventurous, but I admit that I’m much more comfortable with fewer variables in my "adventures." I blame my active imagination for my fears and anxieties, which most days I keep in check with the chaotic joy of my life. Thankfully, my desire to experience new things overpowers my ability to conjure dramatic and dark possibilities.

But if I want to remind myself that those fears are only quieted, not erased, I just have to head out, alone, for a run before dawn or after sunset. Then, every shadow means to hurt me, every noise is an announcement of my impending doom. It would be funny if it hadn’t forced me to change my life to avoid these moments of quiet, irrational fear.

My first successful attempt at triumphing over these fears was adopting a nervous little heeler mix 15 years ago. Lucy seemed to be the four-legged, furry manifestation of my anxieties. After trying nearly everything I could think of — and friends recommended — to get her to stop chewing my shoes, my furniture, my door frame, I talked to our veterinarian.

“These dogs are working dogs,” he said. “She’s bored. And when she’s bored, she’s going to get anxious — about everything.”

So we took up running.

Well, I took up jogging and she took up pulling my arm off of my never-fast-enough body. But even with her penchant for pulling on the leash, she became my magic feather when it came to exploring the outdoors.

We had such grand adventures, it was the thing that broke my life open in the very best way.

About five years ago, Lucy tore her ACL, and since then, hasn’t been able to explore the mountains with me like she once did. Still, I was so smitten, I found other ways (including adopting a new dog) to see all of the beauty that lives around us on the Wasatch Front.

In 2014, I joined Team Red, White and Blue, and somehow was fortunate enough to meet some of the very best friends I’ve ever had. Two of them ran my first 50-miler with me (dragged me to the finish), and four of them became my passport to trails, mountains and all things formerly scary and dangerous to me.

They didn’t just make it possible for this fraidy cat to get into the mountains, they made everything more enjoyable — even the worst hills or the crummiest weather. But life, as it does, changed for all of us about a year ago. As we all dealt with our own separate demands, we stopped meeting up for weekly runs.

I kept running with one of my best girlfriends, but then she suffered a concussion last winter and hasn’t been able to recover. On my own again, I had none of the same enthusiasm I enjoyed when Lucy and I started running.

Every day was a struggle to go, and inconsistency was my constant state of being. I joined up with random friends or a group now and then, but without my tribe, I struggled.

And I thought about that as my lungs burned and my calves tightened on the first significant climb of the Elephant Rock Trail run.

I signed up for the first-year race to keep myself motivated for goals that are so far away, it’s easy to procrastinate. When it comes to waking up at 4 a.m., the only thing more motivating, at least for me, than meeting up with good friends is paying an entry fee.

So there I was, all by myself, making my way up a mountain I didn’t know for reasons I couldn’t really articulate. Sometimes I love being in my own mind. It is a less entertaining version of Alice in Wonderland.

I took a wrong turn — the one time I was staring at the horizon and it failed me — and ended up running almost an extra mile in the 13.8-mile race. As I sped down the steep incline en route to the first aid station, I couldn’t help but miss my friends — their jokes, encouragement and their stories.

The reality is that sharing the suffering had made it more than bearable. It transformed them into some of my favorite experiences. As we conquered one goal after another, I felt myself growing stronger. For an anxiety-ridden middle-aged woman, I felt almost invincible.

Almost half way through the race, I met another woman. Instead of just passing me, she ran with me. We talked and laughed and shared all the ebb and flow of a race, all the commonalities of our separate lives.

The last few miles, she raced away from me, and I was left with myself once again. I thought about all the things I’ve done with those I love, and all the things I’ve managed on my own. I wondered why I beat myself up so much for preferring to explore life in a pack.

And then I wondered why I let myself be stymied by the fact that sometimes solitary moments are every bit as enriching as standing atop a mountain with your best friends. I am strong enough, I thought, to embrace both.

It was exactly the race I needed at just the right time. It was significantly challenging and, at the same time, soul-soothing, especially those final few miles. And, of course, I got to see places I didn’t know I was missing.

I talked my husband into chasing the solar eclipse with me this weekend. He’s overworked and worn down with real-life worries. Still, he’s enough of an adventurer to know that when something this special comes your way, you set aside responsibilities and chase the butterfly.

I have no idea what totality (being in the path of the total eclipse) will offer. But I am glad I didn’t have to scale this slope alone. At the same time, I’m also deeply grateful that if I’ve learned anything from those early morning runs and snowy hikes, it’s that the only way fear really beats you is if you decide no adventure is worth a wrong turn.