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We know. Ultrarunning isn’t an Olympic sport (though rumor has it cross country will be featured at the 2024 Paris Games). But Western States Endurance Run defending champion Clare Gallagher still has a critical year ahead. To make a list of powerful women in the sport at this moment in history and not feature Gallagher? That would be a big mistake.
She’s proven her prowess on the trails with a 2016 win at the Leadville Trail 100 and a victory at the prestigious CCC 100K in 2017. Then came the dramatic victory at Western States in 2019, which came down to a sprint finish—or at least ultrarunning’s equivalent. Gallagher, 27, had to find her leg speed in the last six miles when runner-up Brittany Peterson chased her down. Somehow Gallagher dug down deep to fend off the challenge and finish in 17:23:25, the second-fastest women’s time on the course.
Fast? Yes. Funny? Hilarious is more accurate. But Gallagher is just as widely recognized for her environmental advocacy and devotion to drawing attention to climate change as she is for covering 100 miles very quickly on foot. Case in point: she spent the two weeks leading up to Western States not tapering, but packrafting and mountaineering in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is under threat of oil drilling.
“The whole point of the trip was to see a very fragile ecosystem where thousands of people rely on that ecosystem for their livelihood. How can you say ‘no’ to that?” says Gallagher, who is based in Boulder, Colorado. “Western States will come and go, but I do feel like with the severity and intensity and timeliness of the climate crisis, as these opportunities come up I have to take them. It won’t compare to the opportunity to run a race.”
Her love of the outdoors and of running go hand-in-hand with her environmental work.
“Even in the Denver metro area, we have some of the worst air pollution in the country on certain days. The entire American west has the constant threat of fire,” she says. “Being outside every day for a run, I feel so strongly about protecting that ability and the lifestyle that running allows all of us. Right now we have these existential threats to our lifestyles. It’s my duty to talk about them.”
So, when Gallagher thinks about 2020, it’s less about the Olympics and more about the election. She’ll go on speaking tours throughout the year in swing districts, where runners have the option to vote for environmental champions or not. “I feel like this election is the biggest of my lifetime with what’s at stake environmentally,” she says.
She’s planning to defend her title at Western States in June, too.
“Although I don’t think I’ll be embarking on an Arctic expedition beforehand this time,” she says, with a laugh.
This profile was first published in the January/February 2020 print issue of Women’s Running as part of “Front Runners: 20 Power Women of 2020” which celebrates 20 elite female runners who are giving power new meaning, and a new image. You can see the full list of honorees here.