This past week I was out on my usual neighborhood run on a pleasantly warm day for early March. As I crested the hill on the outskirts of town, the view of the eastern plains was choked by a wall of copper-colored haze. Denver, Colorado was experiencing some of the worst air quality in the country. Pollution stagnated over the metro area due to an inversion caused by warm air in the atmosphere trapping cold air below, preventing the polluted air from dissipating. The level of toxicity in the air was so great that it had a direct impact on everyone’s health, not just those with a high sensitivity to pollution.
This same phenomenon has plagued the Wasatch Front in Utah for years. This prompted ultramarathon legend Jared Campbell to start an event named Running Up For Air (RUFA). The aim of RUFA is to demonstrate the issue by running up and out of the smog many times to cleaner air on the mountain top, all the while raising funds and awareness for improved air quality. His initiative, now in its eighth year, has inspired the creation of a sister event in Colorado. Fittingly, the second edition of RUFA CO took place this past weekend.
Since I already wrote about the inaugural Colorado event last year, I won’t dive into the details any further here. What I’d like to expand on though is an idea I’ve been mulling over while at these events (running laps up and down a mountain gives you plenty of time to think), a personal reflection on running as a form of activism.
In general, we tend to think of running in terms of the benefits we derive from the activity. Health, fitness, fun, and community are but a few examples in a long list of reasons that make running so compelling. The meaning we draw from the practice is constructed, and most often its value is measured quantitatively in gains, distance, and progress. For instance, when we talk about running, we usually reference our gains in fitness, or how much fun we had as a result of running. Yet, in its simplest articulation, running is just bipedal movement through a place. We create nothing tangible or material in performing the act itself. For that reason, we think of the activity as selfish, unless we can frame it in a context of collective participation (such as a group run or a race), or use it to benefit a specific cause.
I’d like to propose going one step further, in suggesting that running can be a form of resistance to the very system that has brought about the current environmental crisis. When running, we are not directly contributing in any way to the destruction of our planet. In fact, we can use running as a vessel to experience a higher sensibility to our surroundings, an attunement of all our senses to the spaces we are traveling through, allowing ourselves to delve into a deeper level of ecological awareness.
To illustrate my point, I’d like to refer to a talk by Jon Turk I recently attended at the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival. Jon is an environmental scientist and adventurer who is still very active in his seventies. He’s a remarkable public speaker and had all of us on the edge of our seats with his quirky and eclectic style of storytelling. Inevitably, given his background, the question of climate change and what we can do about it was brought up by a member of the audience. His answer was not what I expected. He walked across the stage, stood there in the spotlight scratching his head for a minute, before launching into a graphic and theatrical description of the feeling of skiing powder down a steep couloir. He transported us into his world in such vivid detail that even if someone had never skied powder in their lives, they could get a sense of just how sublime that sensation is. He punctuated his story with “…about climate change? I dunno’, you just do your best.”
The solution to climate change is multifaceted and there is no one way to address the problem. But, what Jon was hinting at is that through our chosen activities, whether it be skiing or running or whatever vessel best speaks to us, we can immerse ourselves into the raw power of nature and touch the essence. As such, we can use running as our method to foster a more intrinsic connection to the land, and lay the foundation of a deeper level of ecological awareness.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Do you also feel that running can be an act of resistance to the systems which created our current environmental crisis? If so, can you put words to your perspective on this concept?
- Does running act as a mechanism by which you deeply connect with the natural world? What other actions allow you to feel close to nature?