Clare Gallagher - Sustainable Trail Running Part I
Pictured above, a Running Up For Air event, which combines hours of trail running to spread awareness for air pollution (Jared Campell) ...
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Why should we be concerned about our impact as trail runners?
In many ways, running has no negative impacts. Presumably, we leave no trace. We don’t emit greenhouse gas emissions while running, save for some methane. We don’t add negative energy into the world, save for the occasional tantrum mid-100-miler. And we finish our runs as happier and healthier individuals with a deeper reverence for trails and clean air.
Well, that’s not the whole picture.
Not to mention, shouldn’t we be asking what more can we do to give back to the trails and climate that give us so much?
In this blog series, I aim to inspire our trail running community to be part of the long-term solution: to keep our air breathable, our climate liveable, and our trails wild.
You still might be asking, but what’s the problem? Why do I need to read this?
The answer is simple. There’s the big picture: climate change is impacting trail running directly. And as a community, we are not pulling our weight in helping the situation. And then there’s the magnified picture: we can still improve our impact on the trails themselves.
This first blog will cover the big picture. The second blog will cover the zoomed in picture of our direct impact on the trails.
How is climate change impacting me? For brevity’s sake, let’s stick to trail running impacts. We all know that there are myriad more devastating impacts happening, not to mention millions of climate change refugees around the world. But, let’s keep this as personal as possible and cover three impacts.
San Francisco cast in a sheet of smoke while the Camp Fire burns in Butte County, California. (Kevin Payravi, Wikimedia Commons)
1. Forest Fires
Do you know anyone who lives in California? Were they impacted by the Camp Fire last fall? Or, were you planning on running The North Face 50-mile Championships in San Francisco?
Know anyone impacted Southern California by the Thousand Oaks Fire? Were you planning on running Sean O’Brien in Santa Monica, California this past February?
These forest fires killed dozens of people, leveled thousands of homes, and canceled our beloved races. For me, the only races I signed up for, six months ago, initially, were TNF 50 in November and Sean O’Brien in February. Both canceled due to forest fires. I now ask myself, is this volatility the new race calendar norm? Will dozens of people die every new forest fire?
Looking broadly, the science is clear that mega-fires, like the Camp Fire, will continue to increase in number and severity as climate change worsens. Why? Increasing average annual temperatures—caused by climate change, from the burning of fossil fuels—create conditions that dramatically elevate the risk and severity of forest fires. Especially in the American West, longer fire seasons and dryer conditions should be expected. Makes our fall race calendar not so reliable, eh?
2. Glacier Melt
Ultrarunners Today, descending the steps is stark, disturbing evidence for how much climate change is impacting the mountains. Or as La Sportiva athlete Nick Elson says, “ I think everyone who has walked up those stairs in ski boots has experienced how much climate change really sucks.” Many skiers and snowboarders who descend the glacier in winter have to walk up the stairs to get back to town.
It’s not just impacting the North and South Poles. Glacier melt across the mountains of the world is making underlying rocks less stable, and along with permafrost thaw, rockfall is more common.
What does this mean for us? Trail running and mountain travel are becoming more dangerous as these deep layers of earth thaw and shift. One only needs to spend some time in Chamonix to witness the changes for themselves, like descending the hundreds of eerie steps to see the ever-shrinking Mer de Glace glacier.
Or talk to a climber about how routes are changing: “A 1970s climbing and mountaineering guidebook to the 100 best routes around Mont Blanc isn’t useable any more as most of the routes have changed and can’t be used,” says Jacques Mourey, a climber and scientist who is researching the impact of climate change on the mountains above Chamonix.
3. Air Pollution
We all breathe air. Whether we live in Salt Lake City, Denver, LA, or Chamonix, we’re likely to breathe unhealthy air many times in a given year. And remember, you don’t have to be a mountain runner to breathe air.
Clare excited to summit Grandeur Peak at RUFA Utah in Salt Lake City 2019 (Kyle Richardson).
What are the health effects?
Both particulate matter pollution and ozone pollution seep into our lungs, worsen asthma and other lung conditions, like COPD, and worsen heart conditions. Young people, old people, and asthmatics are the most vulnerable to the harms, but healthy people will feel the impacts, too. Air pollution is a carcinogen after all.
Just this March, a study report released that an estimated 8.8 million people die each year from air pollution worldwide. Co-author of the study, Professor Thomas Münzel, said, "The link between air pollution and cardiovascular disease, as well as respiratory diseases, is well established. It causes damage to the blood vessels through increased oxidative stress, which then leads to increases in blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, heart attacks, and heart failure.
"Since most of the particulate matter and other air pollutants in Europe come from the burning of fossil fuels, we need to switch to other sources for generating energy urgently. When we use clean, renewable energy, we are not just fulfilling the Paris Agreement to mitigate the effects of climate change, we could also reduce air pollution-related death rates in Europe by up to 55%."
Back to Trail Running
What is our community doing about this? A lot of us identify as trail runners – over 8.5 million in the U.S. alone according to Outdoor Industry Association—but as a massive community, are we doing our part in this global problem?
Surely, there are thousands of us who work in fields related to the climate impacts, or who donate time, skills or money to environmental nonprofits working towards systematic climate change solutions.
Air pollution is a family affair. Clare and her mom at Running Up For Air Colorado (Brendan Davis).
But in order to tackle global climate change, we need sweeping systematic change across the world. This is like an ultra, people! We’d never take on a 100-miler by thinking of it as a whole. We take it step by step.
So, with climate change, where do we start? At home. Step by step. We need climate policy in our home cities, states and national government.
Let’s do our part and chip in.
The non-profit I suggest getting news from is Protect Our Winters.
POW speaks our language. It’s not a traditional environmental nonprofit in that it appeals to people who love to spend time outside doing mountain things, like trail running. It disseminates important climate policy news, campaigns, and public comment periods.
Stephanie Violett and Clare Gallagher at the Mer de Grace glacier in Chamonix. The glacier has shrunk hundreds of feet since the early 1900s when scientists started recording its retreat with signage on the side of the trail.
From the past two years of working with POW, I can vouch that they know what they’re doing. They run on a shoestring, are very strategic with what policies they support and they are additive to the many climate organizations already out there.
Other ways to get involved: support Running Up For Air. Jared Campbell created this ingenious event to raise money and awareness for bad air pollution in the Wasatch Front. It’s been wildly successful and fun! It’s now grown to a Colorado event and a Chamonix, France event. Maybe you want to start one in your hometown?
To summarize, we should:
1. Sign up for POW newsletters. POW does an incredible job of filtering out and choosing the most important climate policy news.
2. Run RUFA or something similar. Let me know what’s going on!
3. Vote for smart elected officials.
Marching for climate policy is one method. Climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kitty Calhoun with Ultrarunner Clare Gallagher make signs for the Climate March in San Francisco in 2018.
If none of these appeals to you, there are many other nonprofits that are worth your time, like Citizens Climate Lobby. Also, by searching Patagonia Action Works, you can find even more local nonprofits to get involved with.
In the next blog, I’ll discuss individual actions we can take to improve our impact on the trail. Preview, trash, feces, and erosion control.
In the last blog, I’ll discuss how being a conscious consumer of gear, races and travel can add to the systematic change we need.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
CLARE GALLAGHER is a member of the La Sportiva Mountain Running® Team.
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