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Environmental Activism In The Trail Running Community

Environmental activism is on the rise among the trail running community—but even so, it's not as prominent a trend as one might expect.

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It’s hard not to notice the space around you when you run along a trail. The terrain can show signs of erosion and decay. Let’s also consider the amount of debris runners leave behind—gel packs, granola bar wrappers, even plastic water bottles. In fact, Sweden has a practice called “plogga,” a combination of the terms “plocka” (pick up) and “jogga” (jog). With a little initiative and a plastic bag, you could rid the landscape of rubbish while getting in some exercise.

But what happens at a race?

“It’s hard when there are hundreds or even thousands of people at an event moving in the same area,” said Krissy Moehl, a top female ultramarathoner who specializes in trail running. “There are no street sweepers that will come sweep up.”

Moehl is not the only runner who thinks about the natural spaces around her. Environmental activism can mean anything from proper recycling to overpopulation and rising sea levels. To these athletes, it means all of that—and then some.

Amy Norris, senior legal counsel for Clif Bar, is a hiker, skier and avid trail runner. She’s concerned about climate change, land preservation, ocean pollution, industrialized agriculture and its impacts on biodiversity. For her, it’s not just the little things that make a difference. “I focus on making decisions in my day-to-day life that have a positive impact,” Norris said. “I try to drive less. I eat organic foods. But I’m also focused on being engaged and aware as a voter: how my representatives are voting and advocating issues that I feel are important.”

Clare Gallagher, a vocal environmentalist and record-setting trail ultrarunner, agrees with Norris and argues that knowing who your representatives are and what they’re voting on is important. Political apathy could mean the difference between gleefully running outdoors or just pounding pavement. “Vote for people committed to climate change and saving public lands,” Gallagher urged. “That is quite possibly our biggest threat: putting people in office who are not committed to protecting the environment.”

Launched in early 2017, Run Wild is a group of athletes seeking to protect public lands. Spearheaded by ultrarunners Hallie Fox and Emily Peterson, they rallied around H.R.621. Proposed by Representative Jason Chaffetz, the bill was set up to sell off “excess federal lands.” If federal lands are transferred to the state level, most states can’t financially support them, so they sell to the highest bidder. Oftentimes, those bidders are in the mining, logging, oil and gas industries. While Chaffetz withdrew the bill last February, there is still concern for efforts to sell off land in the future. Run Wild has more recently scaled back their efforts, as the rigors of work life called. But according to Fox, they continue to “fight the fight in our local communities and stay up to date with public land issues.” As far as they’re concerned, fighting for public lands should be an important issue for all trail runners.

“We need more than shoes to practice our sport,” Peterson explained in a Trail Runner Nation podcast last spring. “Every iconic trail race takes place on public land.”

That fact hasn’t yet fired up the trail running community at large. Mike Foote, an ultrarunner and ski mountaineer based in Montana, wrote last year in Trail Running Magazine that this community is “complacent” when it comes to saving public lands, lagging behind active groups like rock climbers, mountain bikers, hunters and fishermen. “Where were all the trail runners?” Foote asked in his article.

Gallagher echoed his point. “Trail runners have a disconnect from their favorite activity. Why aren’t we doing more? There are roughly 8.5 million trail runners. Where’s the action?”

Sarah Lavender Smith, a trail runner, coach and author of The Trail Runner’s Companion: A Step-by-Step Guide to Trail Running and Racing, from 5Ks to Ultras, said one reason trail runners aren’t as mobilized as other groups is a lack of community organization. The sport tends to be a solitary activity, and it’s still relatively in its infancy in terms of advocacy groups.

“I don’t think trail runners are complacent per se, but [they’re] not very organized yet,” she said. “That is changing, as seen by the establishment of Run Wild.”

Running events like endurance races may be the perfect platform for raising awareness. The threat of losing natural resources when you are about to race them just might have the biggest impact. As Gallagher put it, we need more “earth raging,” her catchy name for enjoying Mother Earth while caring for her at the same time.

So how can we make a difference?

Start small. Pick up your litter and recycle, dig a hole and cover up your own waste, stay on the trails to prevent erosion and be conscious of your carbon footprint by driving less and eating less meat.

Or, think big. Join a movement, start an initiative for trail cleanup in your area or get politically involved with candidates who promote environmental protection.

Michelle Pratt, an enthusiastic trail ultrarunner and Ph.D. candidate in Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota, has a great suggestion: “If you don’t have a green space and you want it, work with your local legislation to get it.”

Be the change you wish to see. Environmental action can’t be accomplished alone.