UltraSignup’s founding editor shares the powerful journey that took her from Hardrock to motherhood – and back again.
Eight years ago, Jenn Hughes stood on a wooden bridge and stared down the next 42 hours of her life. As a trace scent of weed filtered through the air at the start of Canada’s Fat Dog 120, Hughes pondered the ridiculousness of what she endured in order to feel alive: Always move forward. She accepted that fact with clarity as she hugged her mom and aunt before moving on to her seven-year-old son, Colin. With his skinny arms wrapped around her neck, Hughes could feel his sadness leeching into her body. She pulled away and looked into his sorrowful brown eyes before asking.
“What’s the matter, kiddo?”
His answer came like a dagger.
“It’s just that you’re always leaving me. And now you’re leaving again,” Colin responded.
Just like that, Hughes knew her life needed to change.
In her early days as a mom, Hughes’ world revolved around trails. Fresh off a divorce and learning how to cope with her new normal as a mother, she used running to heal and prove to herself that she could do hard things. She ran race after race, bouncing from 50ks to 100 milers to stage races and back again. She ran in Nepal and Australia and Canada and Jordan; she stayed close to home on trails in Washington and Utah and Idaho. She even founded the running apparel brand Run Pretty Far in 2011, coining the expression, “I eat mountains for breakfast.”
“The whole world just comes alive to me when I run,” Hughes explains. “It brings me self-discovery and growth and joy and freedom.”
But it wasn’t until Colin was a few years old that she ventured to the hardscrabble town of Silverton, Colorado with her baby boy in tow. There, the Hardrock 100 captivated her with all its gritty glory. Hughes spent her nights in ‘Wilbur,’ her 1975 vintage motor home, and her days exploring the no-frills, hard-knock life that comes with one of the toughest 100-mile footraces on the planet. She climbed scree fields with new friends and paced runners to the brightly-painted rock designed for smooching. Hughes arrived in Silverton as a nervous newbie timidly knocking on the door of the infamous Avon Hotel runner’s hangout, but she left with a Hardrock heart (and the Avon owner’s email in hand). Before rolling out of town, she bought Colin a ‘Future Hardrocker’ shirt, knowing she’d be back one day.
“I went home and told my trail running friends, ‘You guys don’t understand. There is this place and it is the mecca and we need to go there,” Hughes laughs.
Hughes did return to Silverton for quite a few years, but always as a pacer. She was still working on making it to the starting line when Colin uttered those fateful words at the Fat Dog 120. Like so many mothers before her, there wasn’t enough room for both her younger dreams and her child’s future. Hughes shelved Hardrock for then, knowing she may never return.
“I made a pretty big life shift after realizing I needed to focus on my little guy,” she says. “He told me clear as day and I needed to listen.”
She did. Hughes sold Run Pretty Far and took a job in the tech sphere, knowing she needed to provide more stability for her son. She continued to run, but instead of frequent exotic adventures, she mostly stayed closer to home and her ultra-life became a dwindling, only occasional escape.
“It was a chapter of different priorities, and it was the right thing to do,” Hughes says. “But man, it was tough on the identity. Like, what happened to the wild woman running around Colorado so joyful and free? Now she’s hunched over a laptop working for Microsoft, but at least she’s home at night.”
Eventually, Hughes married again. When she quit Microsoft, the trio uprooted and moved to Alaska where they welcomed the birth of their second son, Ansel, in 2020. As she had experienced more than a decade before, she found herself returning to the trails to help battle the postpartum slump. Her runs grew longer and her husband supported her need for the trail, even when she flew to Arizona for a solo rim-to-rim-to-rim run of the Grand Canyon.
But it wasn’t until last spring that Colin reminded his mother of her long-ago dream to run Hardrock. The now-15-year-old teenager came out of his bedroom, holding the beloved ‘Future Hardrocker’ shirt that Hughes had purchased nearly a decade prior.
“Mom, I finally outgrew this,” Colin said while holding the shirt up from the doorway of his room. “Does it go to Goodwill?”
“You’re not throwing that shirt away!” Hughes exclaimed. “That’s my dream!”
And just as he had as a young boy, Colin uttered a string of words that once again changed the direction of Hughes’ life.
“If that’s your dream, what are you doing for it?” Colin asked. “Why don’t you run just one more qualifier, mom?”
Come July, Hughes will toe the line at Hardrock alongside 139 other runners ready to climb over 33,000 vertical feet. She’ll ascend to the race’s high point at 14,048 feet, wade through knee-deep, icy streams, and post-hole over snowfields as she begins and ends her journey in Silverton. Physically, she is as prepared as she can be, having left the snowy Alaskan trails behind in April when she headed to Flagstaff, Arizona to sleep in her truck, train, and once again run in the Grand Canyon. On June 1, her entire family joined her in Colorado’s San Juan Range where they’ve been cohabitating in a tent so Hughes could nab high-altitude training miles.
Mentally, it’s a different story. Hughes often finds herself right back where she was at Fat Dog. “I won’t say this is easy,” she says. “I’m not a 20 year old bumming around the mountains anymore. I’m a 43 year old woman with a toddler. And there have been sacrifices as a mother.”
But, she takes solace in the fact that this is a one-time opportunity that is the culmination of a decades-long goal. “Hardrock is the spiritual epicenter of my trail running journey. Over the years, I often ran to get a break from being a mom, but in the end it was my boys, each in their own way, that brought me back here.”
And both of her boys, Colin and Ansel, will be right by her side, even crewing for mom on the big day(s).
As for the ‘Future Hardrocker’ shirt? Hughes is wearing it for pajamas.
“You better believe I’ll be wearing it to check in at the race too,” she says.
“Because I’m a future Hardrocker.”