Running Resistance

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?

Photo: Joe Grant

Joe Grant

frequently adventures in wild places, both close to home (a frequently changing location) and very far afield. He inspires others by sharing his words and images that beautifully capture the intersection of the wilds, movement, and the individual at Alpine Works.

There are 16 comments

  1. Erin

    I love this. Definitely feel that running is an act of resistance and would like to use it more as a way to shed light on, or help with the environmental crisis. As trail runners, I think most of us connect deeply to the natural world by moving through the mountains. I try to do the best I can in other realms by choosing a vegan diet, using less plastic, being cognizant of travel and taking it seriously to leave no trace. But I am curious to hear what other trail runners do and how we may have a bigger impact as a group on shedding light on and helping with the environmental crisis seeing as the mountains and nature are so important to us as a group. I love Claire Gallagher’s activism. What else can we do?

    1. Enric Martinez

      I was thinking on what to answer. I’m a lot like you (diet included). And I was thinking that maybe it’s not that running made us this way, maybe it’s just that we are as we are and choose trail running because of that. Of course, not all trail runners are like this, there is a fair amount of jocks (of all genders) who are into it just to show off expensive gear (something very European, BTW).

      But yes, I do see it as a part of my activism, actually one that lowers the threshold a lot for others to accept you and therefore become more willing to listen to your points, as your are going to be stereotyped as “The sporter”, “The dude or chick that does feats of legend (well, kinda)”. Not to dis other activists, most of them more authentic or effective than me, but it’s my experience when speaking with common folks.

  2. Ozrunnergirl

    I totally love this. thank you Joe and thank you for your lovely film at the Vancouver Trail running night. Agree running is an act of resistance and we all have to do our best as Jon said.
    thank you!

  3. Ella

    Love this! I think there’s a lot to be said for us as runners increasing our connection to the natural world, but also focusing on adventures that require less energy to get there. I was totally inspired by Rickey Gates #EverySingleStreet in San Francisco. I always feel a bit of trepidation when meeting up on the trails with friends, with every single one of us driving there. It’s a major goal of mine to achieve as much in the mountains as I can by getting there on foot myself, or by taking the bus. We have to get a bit creative, but I do think run commuting and running as transit to GET to the mountains is a major way we can have an impact!

  4. Brian Schroder

    I run as an act of resistance by run commuting almost every day. Sometimes I even carry my laptop home in my backpack with a full change of clothes and shower supplies everyday.

    1. Susan Cable

      You go Brian Schroder! I also spend almost all of my weekday miles on commutes; the other days/legs I usually bike. It’s easy to forget that running, like walking, is basic transportation; it’s a sport only to a minority of fortunate people.

      It seems most folks have not uncoupled the thought of leaving the house from the act of getting in a vehicle. Yet leaving home under one’s own power is empowering, a great way to start the day. And usually more eco-friendly, too.

  5. Andrew Gilbert

    At the risk of getting hammered, I have to throw some poop on this mutual affection feel good about your self kumbaya nonsense. NO. Running is not, for me at least, a form of activism or resistance.

    We live in a hyper politicized rather shallow cultural world. Life, everything, stuff. It is way more complicated than just idle musings. Just because I run doesn’t mean I give a crap you are a vegan or worry much about plastic, or whatever the latest hipster angst of the moment might be. I run for myself. By myself. Responsible to myself. That’s it. And that’s why I do it. Why I love it.

    I also love meat. And I frankly think extremely high priced electric power that is “renewable” is kinda of stupid. Or at least there should be more serious discussion on the unintended consequences. If you want to burn up your Tesla trying to drive the pothole driven roads of Vermont, at 23 cents a kwh, the price for renewable energy nirvana, go for it. Strikes me as an odd decision. Keeping in mind almost none of your neighbors could possibly ever afford to join you regardless. Because at a local, real level, economically, it is just stupid. Beyond stupid. Not feasible. And frankly they are probably more concerned if their opiate addicted kid is going to steal catalytic converters from the local “junkyard” more than they are where the plastic from the milk jug is going.

    Frankly, I fear much of what is called “activism” in todays world is little more than egoism. Look at me BS guilt relief that has little real impact on the greater forces at work. And the real stuff, meaningful policy changes, that only gets worse. Few espousing systemic solutions are really honest about the costs, unintended consequences, meaningful criticism. Ideologies and politics run over reason. Soon it’s all blaming, boogey men, faux solution nirvana. So we have renewable commitments and clean energy in Vermont. And the highest priced most unreliable electricity in the country. And ridge lines destroyed to elect do-gooders that make everyone feel better without actually changing anything. Beyond needlessly killing bats and birds. For what?

    I can’t solve the worlds problems. I can only work to make myself better, and try to positively impact those immediately around me and in my local community. And to show some gratitude for the paths laid down by others.

    I run because I get extremely exhausted by the constant stupidity presented in constant, never ending, shallow and manipulative “political” commentary. By the irony that everyone wants to shine, but few listen. Wants you to join their “truth” because they think they have the answers. When they clearly don’t. I run to escape this. Not to embrace it.

    I run for the art of thoughtfulness, nurtured in quiet moments through solitary and quiet activity. Something I myself have a long way to go on developing as a trait. And which generally seems to be a lost and much needed skill set in an increasingly depressing culture.

    So perhaps more accurately, maybe running for me perhaps is resistance. But not against what everyone here, including the author, assumes it to be. It’s resistance to YOUR activism. YOUR agenda. Because in the end, my run is not about you. It’s about me. And my guess is there world would be better of the more of us that were honest about that reality.

    1. Joe Grant

      Andrew, I think we agree more than you assume here.

      Running is personal. It is something we do for ourselves, and that’s kind of my point. Running (the act itself) doesn’t contribute to the destruction of the environment. When we run, we don’t directly produce anything material. Instead, I see it as an opportunity to foster a deeper connection to the places I’m passing through, and lay the foundation for a greater level of ecological awareness.

      1. TF

        Joe you stated the following “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”. I don’t think that is just an opportunity to foster a deeper connection to the places I’m passing through and the lay the foundation for a greater level of ecological awareness.

  6. TF

    What is the “system” can someone define that for me? Is the system here in the United States, India, China, Maldives or Venezuela? Also can I get a full understanding of the Environmental Crisis? Trying to understand that one.

    Running equates to zero form of Activism for me. I run for the pure enjoyment of it. Why can’t we just leave it at that? Why does it have to get political with references to “they system”.

    I would love to know what % of gear you (Meghan / Joe) where is made in China.

    Joe could you have watched the presentation from your home instead of travel to Vancouver? Stream it? Or do the rules only apply to others and not you.

    How come there are more political / environmental themed articles under the current administration vs prior?

    Writing this while my car idles and I have every light on in my house and a cow just farted.

    1. Joe Grant


      In this context (short article), I’m referring to using my time spent running as a counterpoint to excessive consumption and a constant desire for exponential material growth. Running, in and of itself, doesn’t produce anything material, and it’s refreshing to remind myself of that every once in a while. I can use running as a conduit to greater environmental awareness, or I can just run for fun (one doesn’t exclude the other, neither do I believe that one is more meaningful than the other).
      For a better understanding of the environmental crisis, I’d suggest checking out this website: which is both educational and solution driven.
      I own lots of gear made in china. I also drive a truck, eat meat, and take baths. I’m a flawed, imperfect human, and I don’t pretend to have the solution. However, I do think it’s worth thinking about these things, and trying my best to be a better person.

  7. Steffen

    ‘ooopla! my comment was supposed to be a Reply to Ella’s comment further above (about her suggesting we’d all try to avoid driving to the start of our runs).

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