Like many longtime Colorado residents, Lissa Ballinger had always taken advantage of the state's spectacular backcountry with mountaineering, mountain biking and skiing.
Running was never part of the mix, however. Ballinger had many friends who were runners, including accomplished ultra runners, but the sport still intimidated her.
Until, that is, about five years ago, when Ballinger found herself struggling with a painful divorce – and running seemed to offer a kind of respite that nothing else did.
“I was going through such a hard time, and I wanted to do something that I wasn’t dependent on somebody else for,” Ballinger, 39, says. “I wanted to do something on my own, no gear, just disappear for a while. So I started running, and I found so much solace in it.”
Ballinger, who moved to Aspen in 2002 and calls herself “an Aspen girl for life,” still remembers her first time on the local trails. She’d heard her friend, accomplished trail runner Christy Mahon, talking about doing a trail called Sunnyside, so Ballinger decided to attempt the route, which has some serious uphill sections, herself. And as chance would have it, she ran into Mahon along the way.
“It’s the first sign I had that I was doing a real person’s run – this was a real trail run,” Ballinger says. “And it took off from there.”
Ballinger felt so good on the trails, she decided to tackle the 18-mile Imogene Pass Run in Telluride 2009. She ended up finishing eighth in the women’s division, even more impressive because that was the farthest distance she'd run to that point.
“I had a fantastic run,” she says. “That was my main turning point. I thought, ‘wow, I can do this.’ The fear was gone.”
Since then, Ballinger has finished a number of well-known trail races, including the Silver Pass 50 Mile, as part of the Leadville Series , the Sage Burner 50K, the Power of Four in Aspen, the 25-mile Collegiate Peaks Trail Run in Buena Vista and the Aspen Backcountry Marathon .
But she says her most gratifying running experience to this point was completing the Grand Canyon’s Rim to Rim to Rim run, a bucket-list adventure for many elite trail runners. The route starts from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim to the North Rim and back again, with cumulative elevation gain and loss of more than 10,000 feet in both directions.
Ballinger tackled it with Christy Mahon and her husband, Ted, as snow fell on certain sections of the route. Despite the wintery weather, a trail record was set the same day.
As much as Ballinger loved the run’s technical challenges like narrow trails and terrifying drops – “you can’t trip; there are consequences [to mistakes], and I love committing to that,” she says – the experience also emphasized how much she enjoys the feeling of camaraderie from accomplishing a shared goal with fellow runners.
“It was all about, the three of us are going to finish the run together – that feeling of, we’re all invested in this, it’s not about so-and-so’s time, it’s about all finishing together,” Ballinger says. “That’s much more of my motivation now. I am always interested in the journey, the race course, the people I’m running it with.”
Ballinger, who is the art registrar for the Aspen Institute, a Washington-D.C. based think tank with offices in Aspen, Colorado has the Zion Traverse, which covers 48 miles and a whopping 20,400 feet of elevation gain across Zion National Park, in her sights next. But, unlike many trail runners, she doesn’t follow a specific training or dietary regimen. Instead, she prefers to listen to her body and how she feels before or after a run, and adjust accordingly.
“For whatever reason, I’m really structured in the rest of my life, but with running, it brings me so much joy, and I don’t want to rob myself of that joy by structuring it,” she says.