A heart full of trail adventure, a passion for mental health
By Henry Howard
Lisa DeNardo is a single mom, entrepreneur and “recreational athlete and wild adventurer by heart,” as she describes herself.
After a long hiatus from the sport of running, she has picked up where she has left off, thanks to her 14-year-old son. In November, she finished sixth overall woman at the Tiadagthon Trail Challenge half marathon.
Now she runs for the joy and peace of the trails. As a youth, she found success early and often.
At school, she consistently beat all the boys in field day events. Her parents signed her up for a race when she was 8 and she medaled. Then things got serious.
“I did really well, and I trained with an Olympic coach for a few years, and ran in the Penn Relays,” she recalls. “My claim to fame that I always like to say is that my 400 time when I was a senior in high school, was four seconds from Olympic time. It's kind of like my, ‘Woo hoo.’"
Even though she was offered a scholarship, DeNardo prioritized her studies over running and didn’t compete in college. Then came marriage, kids and a business.
“I always thought you had to choose between being an athlete or a mom, or running a business, or having an occupation, so I just became a mom for a while,” she says. “I kind of look back at college and wonder what my life would've been like if I ran. But then another running friend of mine pointed out that I might not be running now had I done that.”
She didn’t get the urge to lace up the shoes again until the spring of 2020 when COVID hit and her son suggested they go for a run.
During her running hiatus, DeNardo stayed active, doing CrossFit for six years. While she was in decent shape, she wasn’t ready for what her son had in mind.
“He probably pushed me a little bit more than what I was thinking when he said, ‘Let's go run.’ Because he'd say, ‘All right, let's try for eight miles today. Let's try for 10.’ And then one day he suggested we do a half marathon."
"Oh my gosh buddy, you're nuts,” she recalls, thinking. “But I did it. And if I can go from zero to running a half marathon on nothing, on not running for a couple years, I knew I could do more."
Last fall, DeNardo started training daily and entered some trail races.
After placing in her age group at Tiadagthon and elsewhere, she thought, "Hmm, well, maybe I still got it."
‘I just fell in love with it’
Soon enough DeNardo found a Facebook group of trail runners who would meet and run.
“I actually never knew trail running was a thing. And so we would meet at a local state park, and I got to know the trails, and I just fell in love with it, because it's just like this freeing feeling of zooming up and down the trails, jumping over trees, swinging around trees. I'm not worried about my pace. I'm not worried about time or mileage, you just go. And to me, it just opened up this whole new world of playing, just being out there, doing my own thing.”
That led her to Bigger Than The Trail (BTTT), a group of which I am also a member that advocates for and supports mental wellbeing via trail running.
(I'd be honored if you would join me in supporting BTTT with a donation that will go toward providing counseling services for those in need. Learn more here.)
“Bigger Than The Trail definitely popped out to me right away when I first spotted it, probably on Instagram,” she says. “I am very passionate about mental health, and I'm very passionate about running. I need to be involved in this."
DeNardo says she has struggled with mental health, but thought it was taboo to talk about it. But that changed after her divorce and her kids were seeing a therapist.
“I was in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship,” she recalls. “My kids all witnessed that too. I felt for a long time I had to keep everything a secret, so that everything would stay fine.”
The therapist, noting she had seen growth in DeNardo’s kids, asked her, “What are you doing for you?” That led to an offer to counsel her, too.
“We reflect back a lot, how when I first went in, I was like, ‘Everything's fine. I'm great,” DeNardo recalls. “Then the walls crumbled down, and then broke apart, and then gradually built into something new. I am a completely different person now. I've grown so much through the process.”
The more she talked, the more DeNardo grew.
“It was through that growing process where I was rediscovering my strengths and my human personal assets that I had, that I got stronger, and felt comfortable sharing, because I see all of those things, a part of my growth to who I am now,” she says. “I don't see them as a bad thing anymore. Whereas, for years I thought all this baggage was so bad. I didn't want anybody to know, but screw that. We all have life experiences that you can choose to see as baggage, or you can choose to see as assets to your growth.”
She turned the corner about five years ago and has not looked back.
“I accepted that therapy is an amazing thing that helps people grow,” she says. “I knew that I wanted to start to talk about that and just normalize it as much as I could. The more we talk about our stories, our struggles and our successes, it allows other people to feel like they could do that too.’”
"I'm very proud of the person I've become'
While using therapy is no longer the stigma it once was, there is still hesitancy among some people.
“It’s OK to ask for help,” DeNardo counsels. “Sometimes we struggle in life with problems that we didn’t ask for. And we don’t have to figure it out alone. We are not meant to carry these burdens around with us forever. We are only meant to learn from them.”
Friends and family members see the difference in Denardo.
“They just say, ’I've seen you through it all. And what you've been through is amazing. And who you are now is just mind blowing,” she says. “I’m definitely very proud of the person I've become and who I am today.”
DeNardo’s mental wellness and return to running have helped in all of her roles, including mom and entrepreneur. Her photography business focuses mainly on weddings and events, but she occasionally does real estate, family portraits and some sports photography as well.
“My return to running has just filled this mental fulfillment compartment for me,” she says. “And when I create that space for myself, I'm definitely able to be more present with my kids and more just attentive, in the sense that I'm fulfilling my own box, so then I can be there to help facilitate them doing that for themselves.”
Right now she is working through a piriformis issue but is targeting the Sharp Top 50K in World's End State Park in June and then the JFK 50 in November.
“It's about pushing my limits,” she says. “I know I can do it. What I've found with the longer distances is that it takes me to a different place mentally. It takes me low, and I have to really kind of bring myself up out of that. And I think that in my life experience, I've learned that on a personal level, and a mental level, but now there's this sport that almost takes that difficult process and I'm choosing to do it, choosing to put my mind and my body through it, knowing I can come out on the other end, but also accepting that I have to go through this process over and over again during this race.”
As her body heals, DeNardo continues to inspire.
“Several people have shared with me that they hope I keep writing, and sharing my story and thoughts on life because it’s helped them to make big changes for the better in their own lives,” she says. “That is the biggest honor, for me to hear that. It is my hope that something I say or do will help make a positive impact somewhere along the line in someone’s life.”
Name: Lisa DeNardo
Hometown: I grew up and lived most of my life in Downingtown, Pa. In 2012, Scranton and northeastern Pennsylvania became home.
Number of years running: Technically I ran my first race when I was 8. I’ve been running my whole life really. Growing up, my dad and I would run local 5Ks together. I ran cross country, indoor and outdoor track from grades 7-12, running in the Penn Relays all four years in high school and trained with an Olympic coach. After a pretty long hiatus, I got back into running in the spring of 2020, but it wasn’t until August 2020 when I really started to take running and training seriously again. I started placing in races, so I thought, hmmmm, maybe I still have something here.
How many miles a week do you typically run: About 35-40 miles a week.
Point of pride: “I’m proud that as a single parent, who runs my own photography business full time, I still choose to prioritize my time and create the space to train and run. Carving out that ME time for just me and my thoughts, goals and the process has had huge benefits, both physically and mentally. I’m proud that at 42 years old I can do what I’m doing.”
Favorite race distance: “So far my favorite is the 25K trail race. It’s such a mental game though. There’s never been a trail race that I’ve run that’s actually 25K. It’s more like 26K or maybe 27K. As the race evolves, I find myself looking at my watch wondering if or when the race might ever end.”
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: “Hands down Tailwind. I do not like to eat when I run. Eating food is the last thing on my mind. With Tailwind, I know I’m getting the nutrients my body needs to stay fueled and I love being able to drink my nutrition while running and not have to stop to eat or chew.”
Favorite piece of gear: “I have three pieces of gear I can’t live without. My Nathan hydration vest, my Altra running shoes, and my Coros Apex Pro. However, if I really had to just pick one, it would prob be my Coros watch! I went and swam laps the other day and somehow it knew which strokes I did!!!”
Who inspires you: “Honestly, my kids. Of course there are lots of other runners and athletes out there who inspire me, but at the end of the day, it’s my kids who inspire me to be the best version of myself ... for them. I want them to see that you can accomplish anything if you put in the work.”
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: “I love to listen to EDM when I run. It’s kind of a silly ‘me’ thing, but sometimes, when I’m barreling down the trails, leaping over fallen trees and pricker bushes, I like to pretend I’m in some crazy high speed chase trying to get away. The music just kinda perfects the scenes that I have playing out in my mind as I’m running.”
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “My fav quote is one I wrote down while listening to David Goggins audio book, ‘Can’t Hurt Me.’ It says, ‘You cannot leave so much in the tank and just live a normal life. You have to explore yourself. Explore your mind. Explore your body. Explore your soul. Explore the limits to the human soul. That’s what it’s all about in life.’ I truly feel that’s part of my personal mission and drive to do most of the things I do. I want to experience and see as much as I can during my time here in this life.”
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
Facebook: Lisa DeNardo