These Nine Trail Runners Are Changing The Game

Wild spaces, public access, clean air, well-maintained trails—these are some of the requirements for a great trail run. As trail runners, however, we sometimes take these resources for granted.

In our midst, though, are fellow trail runners working for healthy trails, communities and a healthy planet.

From Rauma, Norway, to San Francisco, California, we’ve collected the stories of eight changemakers. While these trail warriors are diverse in many respects, common threads emerge. They first fell in love with the natural world, and, seeing their favorite landscapes at risk, were galvanized to action. They are most visible when working on high-profile national and international issues, but the reality is that much of their day-to-day work is out of the headlines, and often focused on their communities.

As Missoula, Montana’s Mike Foote puts it, “It’s not sexy and it doesn’t share well on Instagram, but that’s where I have leverage.”

In an era of rightful frustration and cynicism with the political process, these eight are refreshing reminders that one person can still make a difference. In doing so, they challenge each of us to do the same.

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Clare Gallagher

“Engage with other people who care … you’ll feel less alone.”

“Step 1 in environmental activism is being able to talk about the issues,” says Clare Gallagher, a Patagonia-sponsored trail runner who lives in Boulder, Colorado. “We need to educate ourselves, so we are ready to go to our city councils when critical moments arise.”

Gallagher took her first steps in those directions in 2014. After graduating from college, she headed to Thailand, where she started a youth environmental program. Once there, she also discovered trail running, jumping into the country’s first ultramarathon—and finishing sixth overall. After a collegiate career plagued by injury, it was just what she needed. Today, she lists big-name wins like Leadville 100 and the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc’s 100K CCC.

Gallagher co-founded the Trail section of POW, Protect our Winters. She has testified in front of Colorado’s legislature and in 2019 traveled to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to help build political support for the Arctic Refuge Protection Act. Shortly after, she won the 100-mile Western States Endurance Race, setting the second-fastest women’s time.

“Clare takes on big, far-reaching environmental issues,” says Chamonix, France-based Hillary Gerardi, a Black Diamond athlete and Skyrunning World Champion. “And she also works on advocacy at a smaller scale, exploring how environmentalism and social justice intersect on the local level.”

After a summer of enormous forest fires that impacted much of Colorado, Gallagher is focused on air quality this winter. In the Front Range where she lives, ground-level ozone regularly exceeds EPA standards. Over time, air pollutants like ozone and particulate matter from forest fires harm human health, exacerbating asthma and causing other long-term impacts.

Take Action: “Linking up with a nonprofit or advocacy group that speaks to you is really important,” says Gallagher. “If you find yourself reading their newsletters and taking their calls, reach out and connect with them.”

Gallagher also has some thoughtful wisdom for supporting each other. “Engage with other people who care,” she says. “It might be your trail-running buddies, but it might also be someone else. You’ll feel less alone.”

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Kilian Jornet

Our generation’s greatest trail runner sets a new personal goal: make an impact.

It’s hard to find a goal that the Basque athlete Kilian Jornet hasn’t ticked off once he’s set his mind to it. He’s got the fastest-known times (FKTs) on a number of the most famous summits around the world, has won many of the world’s hardest ultramarathons—some of them multiple times—and is a world-champion ski-mountaineering racer.

Now, he has started a new environmental foundation. It’s not just greenwashing, either. Born in Sabadell, Catalonia, Jornet has been living simply from before he could walk, having grown up at the Refugi Cap de Rec mountain hut in the Pyrenees, where his father worked as a caretaker and mountain guide. Despite all of his achievements, Jornet has managed to remain free of the trappings of success. He lives on a farm in remote Rauma, Norway, with his partner, Emelie Forsberg, daughter, Maj, and Labradoodle, Maui.

This past September, Jornet launched the Kilian Jornet Foundation. Like all his goals, it’s ambitious. The three-pronged mission includes direct action to solve environmental problems in the mountains, raising awareness about the importance of protecting the mountain environment and funding mountain-stewardship research.

“We all have a role in [ensuring] that the next generations are able not only to play in the mountains but to live on a healthy planet,” he says. “High mountains and glaciers are an essential part of the planet’s life … and my foundation is aiming to work for the protection of these regions and its role in the planet’s health.”

Take Action: Take the “outdoor-friendly” pledge at outdoorfriendly.org, where you can find ways to repair your gear and donate or upcycle your old outdoors gear. Read more, sign up and support the foundation at  kilianjornetfoundation.org

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Stephanie Howe

“Together we can use our collective voices and actions to put policy in place to protect our earth.”

Stephanie Howe was always been interested in protecting the environment, but November 8, 2016—the day Donald Trump was elected—she decided she had to do something. “I stared in disbelief at the headline and my heart sank. I was angry, frustrated and sad all at once,” she says. “Most of all, I felt really helpless.” Howe decided to take action. She connected with Protect Our Winters.

Why POW? Simple. “POW makes sh*t happen,” she says. Today, Howe works as the Trail Alliance team leader. This past fall, she hosted the POW Tales from the Trails series, giving trail runners fighting against climate change a chance to discuss their ventures into advocacy and to help inspire others.

A softball player turned Nordic ski racer, Howe came to trail running as a way to train for those sports. Speedy from the start, she was nicknamed “The Gazelle.” Howe found her way to trails while living in Bozeman, Montana, where her exposure to exercise physiology ultimately led to a PhD in Nutrition and Exercise Physiology. In Bozeman, she began trail racing. Now a Western States 100 Champion, she has since raced around the world.

In a pandemic year filled with tough headlines, Howe was a source of upbeat news for those around her, as she and her partner Jorge Maravilla, himself a top trail runner, welcomed into the world a baby boy, Julien Axel, this past December.

Take Action: Howe stresses getting to know your local representatives and their position on key environmental issues. “Save their phone numbers and don’t be afraid to call them,” she says. “This is the best way to influence local policy.” Staying informed is vital, too. “Read the news and have educated discussions with friends and family.”

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Peyton Thomas

“I have a drive to care of something bigger than myself.”

As a kid, Peyton Thomas would run off into the woods, “to see what’s out there.” That sense of exploration and discovery continues, making her one of trail running’s up-and-coming engaged and inquisitive activists.

She’s also a very strong runner. Thomas qualified for this year’s Olympic trials with her first-ever marathon, in a time of 2:42:57. Of 450 starters, she was the only African-American. About that experience she told Rungrl, “I hope to inspire more Black women to pursue the sport and realize, ‘You can do this, too.’ It shouldn’t be rare or an anomaly.”

Oregon’s 2018 Bigfoot 40 trail race opened her eyes to the world of trail running. “It was the first time I did significant mountain running. You explore a diverse and dynamic landscape. I saw people leap and bound,” she says. “I had never had that kind of experience before.”

An undergraduate degree in Environmental Science has led Thomas to PhD work at the University of North Carolina, where she studies how warming ocean temperatures impact muscle development in certain fish. Her research is connecting warming oceans and the presence of microplastics to a decline in biodiversity. Now, she’s using that knowledge to raise awareness. It’s not always easy.

“I’m trying to find a good balance between being informed,” she says, “and knowing what actions to take once you have that information.”

This pandemic year, Thomas ran trails around North Carolina, from the mountainous terrain on the Tennessee border, to the inland Piedmont region, to the trails of the Outer Banks. There, she ventured inland, away from the region’s famous shores.

“The huge trees and the swamplands were really cool,” she says. Thomas was just as happy appreciating the solitude on those trails as she was seeing countless residents out experiencing the forests near Charlotte.

For 2021, Thomas will be sponsored by Patagonia, and is targeting shorter trail ultras. “I want to be competitive in that realm,” she says. “I hope to make a name for myself in the trail-running scene.”

Take Action: “Get plugged into your local environmental organizations or local chapters of national organizations. Find the groups that will impact your life,” Thomas advises. “I’m focused on action.”

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Dan and Charlotte Lawson

“The most sustainable piece of gear you have is the one you already own.”

Running through woods and over mountains is certainly greener than many activities, but it’s not without environmental impact—our gear purchases chief among them.

For Dan and Charlotte Lawson, that realization happened while taking part in weekly 5K community runs when they lived in Goa, India. “Unlike here, in India everything about waste is out in the open, ” says Charlotte. The Lawsons felt compelled to take action, looking no further than their own running. A decade later, they have the nonprofit, ReRun, which takes donated new and lightly used trail running gear and resells it. Any profits get donated, and gear not suitable for sale is given to homeless or refugee charities.

Their “raw materials” come from runners who mail them clothing. “We must break this culture where we are given free stuff at every race,” explains Charlotte. Items not suitable for sale are donated to homeless shelters or refugee programs. The company creates fun half-and-half “mash-up” vests and recently added a “ReVolution” program. If you own a ReRun shirt, you can trade it in for free anytime for another.  ReRun also sells used gear, and finds homes for lightly worn running shoes, too.

These days, Dan is focused on multi-day trail runs. He recently broke the record for running from the southern end of England to the northern tip of Scotland, ticking off 820 miles in 9 days 21 hours 14 minutes, a feat already considered one of the greatest ultrarunning achievements ever in the United Kingdom.

In keeping with Rerun’s philosophy, he’s dropped his corporate sponsorship to avoid encouraging more consumption. Charlotte runs frequently and crews her husband, though she has other priorities. “Yoga is my thing,” she says.

“Wear clothing that already exists,” says Dan. “Don’t buy new. That’s the best thing you can do.”

Take Action: Visit Rerun at rerunclothing.org, or use Facebook running communities to swap, buy and sell gear. The Lawsons also recommend Patagonia Worn Wear and North Face Renewed. Barring that, look for a “B Corp” certification. 

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Mike Foote

I’m doubling down in my personal life, leaning in locally. It’s not sexy and it doesn’t share well on Instagram, but that’s where I have leverage.

Mike Foote grew up around muscle cars and baseball in Northeast Ohio, a world away from the Missoula scene that is now his home. Activism was not on his radar. “The landscape here got me into trail running,” he says. “I wanted to explore the next ridgeline and get to the next summit. It was an organic process,” he has come to realize. “I learned about the issues so I could take action to maintain this lifestyle. It just snowballed.”

And take action he has. For the last five years, he has been on the board of the Five Valleys Land Trust, which protects land throughout western Montana. “Everyone is at the table,” says Foote. “It’s not just recreation. It goes beyond my selfish desires to run on trails.”

The issues range from sustainable agriculture to fire mitigation, wildlife corridors to public access. The Trust recently protected a 4,200-acre forest on the south side of Missoula, a multi-year effort that will benefit everyone. “It could have been a handful of mansions,” says Foote.

Foote, who runs professionally for The North Face, has a long record of accomplishments on the trails, too, with top finishes at races like the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc and Hardrock 100. A member of the US Ski Mountaineering team, in 2018 he set what was then a new world record for the most vertical skied in 24 hours—a mind-boggling 61,200 feet of skinning. This past December 31, 2020, Foote and friend Rob Krar laid down a new fastest known time on the Grand Canyon’s Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim alternate route, crushing a strong prior result by nearly 50 minutes.

Foote is also race director of The Rut, the only North American stop on the Skyrunning World Championships. He strives to have the event advance worthy environmental and social goals. “We partner with organizations that align with us, like Protect Our Winters,” he says. “Lately, we’re focused on being more inclusive. That feels important now.”

This past pandemic year, his fellow Montanans have benefited from Foote’s hard work. “Our trails have been several times more busy,” he says. “Open space close to town is valuable to our public and mental health. We need to make sure everyone has access. There’s always a social component to environmental work.”

Take Action: “Go savor the world. Fall in love with it. Then ask yourself, ‘What can I do to save it?’ People underestimate their local influence. Start small and act locally.”

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Dakota Jones

“I’m willing to fight the battle. Fundamentally, I know this is the right thing to do. We need a healthy climate and environment to survive.”

Dakota Jones grew up with a deep appreciation of the environment. “My dad taught me about the value of protecting wild land,” says Jones, who grew up in Moab, Utah, and then Durango, Colorado. As a child, he remembers feeling overwhelmed and scared when hearing about environmental problems.

Today, he’s turning those concerns into forward momentum. He’s started to work with POW, Protect Our Winters. “That’s given me a lot of momentum,” he says. “I want to continue to expand my ability to take action.”

One of those actions has been going back to school at age 29, where he’s studying engineering. “I want to understand greenhouse emissions and climate change,” he says. “I want to get my hands dirty and create solutions.”

Another is Jones’ new Footprints Running Camp, a unique experience for ten teens that will combine trail running with environmental activism. The first edition will take place at Opus Hut in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, later this summer. Experts in each of the students’ fields of study will help empower the next generation of environmental stewards.

“I want to solicit their own ideas for projects,” he says. “I’m just the liaison.”

It’s not the first time Jones has merged trail running and environmental activism. In 2018, he cycled 250 miles through Colorado to the Pikes Peak Marathon—which he won. A fundraiser for POW, he also raised awareness of the power of individual action.

Pikes Peak was just one of a number of big international trail-running accomplishments for Jones. He’s also set the course record for California’s Lake Sonoma 50K, and had top finishes at Colorado’s Hardrock 100. It’s a remarkable record for someone who fell in love with trail running after his high-school football coach reprimanded him by sending him off for hill reps.  “I love racing, but at the end of the day, it’s about running in the mountains. That,” says Jones, “is what keeps me inspired.”

“I’m just one person. But everybody has to take their small step,” he points out. “Environmental activism is like an ultra—sometimes it feels impossible and pointless, but you need to just keep moving forward.”

Jones keeps it all in perspective. “You can make a noticeable difference in your own community. It’s risky, it’s difficult, it’s even sad sometimes, but it’s the right thing to do. “

Take Action: “Vote! It’s the biggest tool we each have. And get involved. Call your representatives and write letters. It may sound boring, but it makes a difference. An easy individual action that will help reduce climate change is to eat less meat. It takes eight times more land and resources to create a meal of meat than one from vegetables.”



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