Ultrarunner Clare Gallagher Talks Running and Conservation

A woman running on a rocky trail in the mountains

trail running, the environment, and why we should care that they’re tied up together

Clare Gallagher, 26, of Boulder, Colo., a professional ultrarunner on The North Face ultrarunning team, is still a relative newcomer to the sport of trail running. In 2014, she was teaching English in Thailand after running collegiately. It was there that she rediscovered her love of running during long adventure trail runs and a 50-mile ultramarathon near Myanmar.

Two years later, she toed the line of Colorado’s famous Leadville 100, where she won in a blistering 19 hours, 27 seconds—the second-fastest time ever on the high-altitude course. And that, just two years into her ultrarunning career.

Since then, Gallagher has posted numerous podium finishes at competitive events around the world. But that’s only a fraction of what makes her such an incredible trail runner. She’s also a driven activist for public lands and she isn’t shy about using her platform in the sport to spread a message of environmental consciousness wherever she goes.

We caught up with Gallagher briefly to ask her a few questions about trail running, the environment, and why we should care that they’re tied up together.

A woman running through an alley in a city
Professional runner Clare Gallagher poses for a photo
A woman running on a rocky trail in the mountains

Photo credit (from left to right): Mike Thurk, Ben Duke, Thomas Woodson

You ran in college—at Princeton—but said you struggled with injury most of the time. When you graduated, what were you looking for out of post-collegiate running?

I was looking to not care about running. I pretty much stopped caring—or told myself that I didn't care—towards the end of my senior track seasons (indoor and outdoor). In reality, though, I cared immensely but was disappointed after injuries and poor performances. Once I moved to Thailand after graduating, I re-discovered that I do in fact love running and that I do want to compete. I wasn't looking for anything in particular; I just did what I wanted, and what I wanted happened to be lots of running. In Thailand, I ran for adventure and to train for a goal. Today it’s the same.

What is it about ultrarunning that appeals to you?

It's very mental. After a certain point in an ultra, fitness becomes superfluous, and the race isn't amongst runners, but amongst minds. I love it because collegiate running never offered the same opportunity to outsmart my competitors over a long period.

You’re very public about your activism for public lands. And you use running as a platform to vocalize this message. You’ve even said that racing is self-indulgent, so you need to do more philanthropic projects to balance that. What do you mean by this and how has running created a platform for you to efficiently voice your message?

Running is not inherently altruistic. Most of us run to make ourselves feel good. Not to mention that, in ultras, we require other people to forfeit time from their lives to help us run stupid distances. It's all so weird and time-consuming. That's not to say it doesn't have value, but I prefer to associate my running with issues more substantial than just running a race. Plus, I honestly race better when I think of climate change or the world’s injustices. I suppose that, too, isn't altruistic if I'm thinking of others' suffering to run better. … Regardless, I justify my running by making it about more than just me.

Any trail runner who doesn't support public land protection or climate change mitigation efforts needs to check their privilege. Heck, I need to check my privilege every day. That's why I put myself out there with advocacy work.

On that note, what sort of advocacy work are you doing these days?

I'm eagerly waiting to help support the pro-climate policy candidate for Colorado's 2018 gubernatorial race. Also, I'm helping Conservation Colorado with pro-wilderness bills in congress, including the Continental Divide Wilderness and Recreation Act, introduced by Jared Polis in 2015 (and hopefully reintroduced during OR this January). This would be in conjunction with Senator Bennet's push to make Camp Hale a National Historic Landscape.

There has been a lot of talk lately about complacency in the sport of trail running when it comes to land protection and stewardship. Why do you think this is?

There's an innate reclusiveness to running: we often do it to get away from the world, right? But this probably led to a lack of education about public lands and complacency when it comes to public land protection. We also lack an organizing body in our sport that all runners can connect with and be informed by. I think it's crazy that in trail running, we are directed to get information about public land from the Access Fund or Backcountry Hunters.

What three pieces of advice to you have to help trail runners become better stewards of the land?

  1. You can take better care of the land by knowing how your elected representatives vote, and in turn, take voting seriously.
  2. Volunteer for trail building;
  3. And, and of course, read more to learn about important issues.

OK, it’s 20 years into the future. How do you hope that you have made a lasting impact on the environment around you?

I hope I will have made the trail running organization that provides access, education, and support for public lands.