Running in The Age of Climate Change
What are our responsibilities as runners to give back to the environment?
When a trail is more than getting from point A to point B: What are our responsibilit ies as r unners who go outside and inhabit the environment?
The sun was getting low in the sky on Vermont’s 438-kilometre Long Trail when Pavel Cenkl reached the highest peak he’d climb that day. A fire tower jutted above the tree canopy, so Cenkl clambered up it. He’d already run 45-kilometres that day, and had 19 more to go to reach his crew and his dinner – this after a 343-kilometre bike ride the day before from the Canadian border to the MassachusettsVermont state line. He was exhausted. At the top of the tower, he sat to look out over the forest in the evening light. “There was some turning point at that
moment,” he recalls. “I felt this incredibly peaceful sense of bliss, spirituality, and then I got back up, hobbled down the fire tower, and finished up my day.”
Cenkl, who lives in Vermont and teaches courses that include environmental philosophy at the state’s Sterling College, has completed many ultramarathons and endurance runs. In nearly every one, like the Long Trail run this past June, he hits a point where he’s so exhausted, or dehydrated, or in pain, that the line between him and the environment that he’s running in seems to disappear. “I feel completely vulnerable at that moment,” he says. As a professor, athlete, and the coach of the college’s mountain and trail running team, he often thinks about the interplay between running and the environment.
“At the obvious level, that’s what you’re running through,” says Cenkl. As runners, we rely on trails, mountains, parks and green belts. (And those of us who run on cit y sidewalks still depend on clean air.) And yet, we also buy gear, shoes, and food, and sometimes drive vehicles to get to where we want to run – all things that have an impact on the environment.
“What are the responsibilities that we have as people who go outside and inhabit the environment?” Cenkl wondered in a 2015 video, shot before he embarked on a 2 40-kilometre self-supported run across Iceland, where glaciers are retreating as the climate warms. “Rather than just using it, what can we give back to it?”
Across North America, road races are making it easier for runners to be more conscious about their impact on the environment. With paper registration forms, excess race T-shirts, uneaten food and plastic cups, there’s long been room for races to clean up their act .
Many have done just that. The Toronto Waterfront 10k, for example, composts food remnants, such as apple cores and banana peels and donates leftover meals to Second Harvest, a “food rescue” organization that then delivers them to social-service agencies. The race also uses green portable toilets, which use eco-friendly cleaning supplies instead of harmful chemical-laden ones.
The Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, which hosts six races, recycles all paper and plastic cups, as well as Mylar blankets. Extra race T-shirts are donated to local shelters, and only online registration is available, to reduce the use of paper.
Other races exist primarily to raise funds for environmental causes. In 2015, Ben West and Mari McMillan started the Great Climate Race, an annual 10k in Vancouver’s Stanley Park. Racers fundraise, with the money going to various renewable energy projects in the province, like a solar-panel installation on the roof of the Vancouver Public Library, a whale research lab that’s transitioning to using solely renewable energy, and,
“The goal was, I guess you could say, to turn athletes into environmentalists and environmentalists into athletes.”
this year, a solar project for the Tsleil-Waututh Nation. “The goal was, I guess you could say, to turn athletes into environmentalists and environmentalists into athletes,” says West. “I want people to go for a run and see the solar panels that they helped raise money for and feel a connection to it. I think we just need more tangible, specific things in our day-to-day life where we really see that the solutions to climate change are something that’s very real – not something that’s far off in the future.” Using Strava, the race also offers a virtual way to participate, so runners don’t have to drive to the city (although the use of public transit is encouraged). Since its inception, the event has raised about $30,000 per year. On the other side of the country, in Toronto, two 10-yearold girls dreamed up another eco-conscious race. Back in 2015, Jasmine de Pencier and Jett Jardeleza-Toole decided to combine their love of running with their passion for nature and animals by creating a fun run. Today, the Kids’ Run for Nature is held in 20 different communities, and has raised nearly $100,000 for World Wildlife Fund Canada. These events create change via their large support base. As an individual runner, though, it can feel difficult to make a positive impact, especially when governments are ignoring greenhouse gas emission reduction targets or avoiding the implementation of a carbon tax. What can one person do in the face of negligence on such a grand scale? Vancouver-based ultrarunner Ellie Greenwood offers one model. In a 2014 post for iRunFar.com, she wrote about how she’s never owned a car, and commutes by bike, running, or public transit, in large part because she wants to live an environmentally conscious lifestyle. Once,
“What are the responsibilities that we have as people who go outside and inhabit the environment?”
Greenwood biked to the bus station and hopped on a bus to Whistler for a trail run. After, she took the bus back to Vancouver and biked home. “Being self-propelled definitely requires some determination, planning, and adaptation, but for me the benefits more than outweigh any of the inconveniences,” Greenwood writes.
West acknowledges that this lifestyle is not open to everyone. “I think we all need to do the best that we can. I think one of the tough things about being an environmental campaigner is it’s really easy to fall into making people feel guilty, and what I’m hoping that we do with the Great Climate Race, and with the work that I do generally, is to make people feel empowered and give them opportunities to connect with the natural world in as positive a way as possible.”
Cenkl agrees. He’s embarked on a series of long-distance on-foot adventures that he calls Climate Run, with the goal of teaching people about climate change while pushing himself to new limits. In 2017, he ran 360 kilometres of the Scandinavian Arctic Trail, where he observed the annual melt. And this past summer, he ran the seven highest peaks on the Faroe Islands, home to a large salmon-farming industry, as well as a polystyrene manufacturing plant.
He’s given presentations at schools in hopes of encouraging youth to get out into nature. But he’s also fielded questions about why, if he’s trying to help the environment, he f lies across the world to run. “My response is finger-pointing doesn’t really help the global systemic situation,” he says. “And I don’t think any of us who grew up in the United States or Canada or western European nations can really bear up to any sort of ultimate scrutiny that way.”
In other words: everything, and everyone, has a footprint. “I’d say even building a wind turbine or solar panels has got an environmental footprint,” says West. It’s about being as responsible as possible, and realizing the effects of your choices.
Does this mean it’s irresponsible to drive for an hour to the mountains for a run? Not in Cenkl’s eyes, though, of course; he supports carpooling when possible. If running in the forest will forge a deeper connection between you and nature, and a stronger relationship between you and the people you’re running with, he believes it’s worth it.
“I sometimes get really hard on myself and others,” he says. “Why don’t I just run up the street behind my house? Well, one, I wouldn’t be connected to the diversity of ecosystems and places. I wouldn’t necessarily be participating in a community activity – other people who have run up that same mountain, we can have those experiences, we can share stories about it – maybe I should vote against the mine that’s going to destroy part of it, or something like that.”
Cenkl’s view is holistic: “If you can leverage the impact that you’re having to have a net positive result, and perhaps build a stronger community or build some intentional relationships across international boundaries that help to create an international climate initiative or something like that, I think it’s certainly more than worth it.”
This is what he’s trying to do with Climate Run. He often talks about the importance of strong communities, which may at first seem unrelated to tackling climate change on the global stage. But he explains: “If we’re continuing to disagree and struggle and fight with one another on the community level, how can we possibly make some more meaningful outside change?”
In a way, de Pencier and Jardeleza-Toole, now 13, prove Cenkl’s point about forging a bond with the environment. Both girls have grown up spending time in the outdoors; de Pencier’s family has a cottage near Georgian Bay and Jardeleza-Toole often spends weekends at her grandfather’s home in northern Ontario, where she goes white-water paddling. “We’re so lucky to have such a close connection with nature in that way,” says de Pencier. It’s one example of how a personal relationship with the outdoors can encourage efforts to make change on a larger scale. Rhiannon Russell is a freelance journalist who lives in Whitehorse, and a regular contributor to Canadian Running magazine.
OPPOSITE Kids’ Run For Nature BOTTOM LEFT Great Climate Race in Vancouver BOTTOM RIGHT Recycling, compost and waste are all sorted by the Green Team at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon
ABOVE An aid station at the Ottawa Marathon shows the amount of waste created. Cups were later cleaned up and recycled by the race staff. RIGHT Jasmine (left) and Jett (right), founders of the Kids’ Run for Nature BOTTOM Kids’ Run For Nature
BOTTOM RIGHT Discarded blankets at the Ottawa Marathon are recycled Extra food from the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon is donated to Second Harvest Food Rescue BOTTOM LEFT