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Clare Gallagher mixes trail racing with advocacy

(Clare Gallagher competes in the Bears Ears relay. Photo credit: Johnie Gall)

Clare Gallagher has come a long way since she claimed her first 14er, a mountain over 14,000 feet, in Colorado.

Of course, she was around 5 years old at the time. Her parents gave Clare and her two older brothers a strong base of outdoors knowledge and experience, though there was a learning curve in those days.

“My parents have this story of me with my backpack,” recalls Gallagher, who grew up in suburban Colorado. “I had an extra change of undies because I was kind of wetting my pants at that time, a Lunchable and an umbrella. We got stuck in a lightning storm — and an umbrella is the worst thing you can have in your backpack because it has metal. My parents were very hands off so they let me pack my bags, to their own horror.”

The Gallaghers regularly went up into the mountains around ski resorts like Keystone, Breckenridge and Arapahoe Basin.

“I developed my love for the outdoors at a pretty young age,” says Gallagher, who set a course record at the 2017 CCC with a 12:13, becoming the first American woman to win the race. “My dad's super into suffering and would take us, my brothers and I, on stupid adventures, up 14ers. I grew up with a lot of pets in our backyard in the suburbs, chickens, goats, so I was always outside. I was always pretending like I was a little Laura Ingalls Wilder, pretending I was a homesteader, some Little House on the Prairie.”

Finding her way on a whim

That early adventuring led to her passion for the environment and environmental activism.

“I'd say it just was an innate connection to the environment,” she explains. “I definitely think that it sometimes can be taken for granted that my parents were really eco conscious, and we composted, and recycled just like it was the norm.”

Gallagher eventually set off to Princeton University in New Jersey with her sights set on running and getting a medical degree. She ran cross-country and track for four years. Along the way, she realized not everyone shared her passion for the environment.

“It wasn't until I became a young adult when I realized that's not normal, or everyone is doing their part with this insane environmental crisis of our earth,” she says. “It took me really going to college to fully understand that. That's when I started to take the environmental crisis really seriously.”

It wasn’t long before Gallagher’s path veered away from medical school and toward environmentalism, starting out in the Atlantic Ocean.

“I was really psyched on the outdoors but I was focused really on running, to be perfectly honest,” she says. “I got an internship in Bermuda. It has these amazing northern coral reefs, the most northern tropical coral reefs in the world. I started studying coral reefs, kind of on a whim, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is way more interesting than organic chemistry.’"

Finding solutions to environmental threats

Gallagher is among those riding the wave of positive environmental change. But more needs to be done. And anyone can help.

We just happened to speak the day after Patagonia unveiled a new website, Patagonia Action Works. Those interested in environmental issues can type in their city to learn of local grassroots organizations or big time organizations that are doing projects around you.

“The solutions to the environmental crisis really rely on local action, otherwise we would all be so depressed,” she says. “We might as well just give up if we were just thinking of climate change on a global scale all the time. And that's sort of what happened to me when I was researching coral reefs. I found it so overwhelming and so depressing just because of the state of our oceans is completely neglected. Thirty percent of the world’s coral reefs have already died, and a lot of that's irreversible just because corals are such a slow growing species. It’s horrible to have an attitude like, "’Oh, I can't help.’"

Gallagher feels fortunate that she re-entered this conversation on her own terms via trail running.

(Photo credit: Mike Thurk)

She has become involved with a Boulder-based organization, Protect our Winters. “It works on climate advocacy and climate policy across the U.S.,” she says. “If people want to get involved like that this tool, the Patagonia site, is going to blow people out of the water.”

Federal action has threatened wilderness lands for at least five years, though more media attention has brought it into focus lately. Gallagher is inspired by leaders in Colorado — the governor and members of Congress — to protect its land.

One piece of legislation — the Continental Divide Wilderness Bill — protects 90,000 acres above 11,000 feet. In Colorado the ecological wildlife above sea line, which is roughly 11,000 feet, is really vulnerable, Gallagher says, noting off-road vehicles present a severe threat.

“If you have an ATV on that land, it's really difficult for that vegetation to regrow,” she says. “So putting wilderness status on a lot of that land, and allowing spaces for mountain bikers to get around it without derailing their whole trip is a solution.”

The current anti-environmental pushback, has helped reinvigorate and motivate activists like Gallagher to push back even harder.

“It's totally a silver lining of whatever it is that our government is doing,” she says. “I've never been as politically involved in my life. Just understanding more about how the Senate works versus the House of Representatives and how we should all know who our representative is and who our state's two senators are. I'll just keep talking about that until most of the trail runners who I know understand the importance of that type of engagement. It's really invigorating for sure. It makes me more proud in a lot of ways to be American because we have so much to fight for.”

Only you can prevent public land devastation

Gallagher encourages others to not only vote but to contact their federal lawmakers. “It’s three people. You have to know them. Three easy numbers to call to express your opinions.”

At the end of the day, Gallagher says the top threat facing the world is climate change.

“Tackling climate change is not a one-person project; it's not a one-sport project,” she says. “I just don't understand how someone in the U.S. could vote for an elected official who isn't pro-climate policy. It's basically like saying ‘F- you’ to future grandkids. There's really no way around it. I'll sit and listen to those other arguments about this small profit we could have from minute extraction endeavors of fossil fuel and whatnot. But how can you sleep at night if you know you voted for someone who isn't pro-climate policy? It's just unfathomable to me.”

Gallagher implores other trail runners to follow her lead and passion.

“People who take these lands for granted, and take their time outside for granted, and yet who vote for people who don't look at the value of life — because that's what climate change is jeopardizing. And then more superficially, public lands. I find in the trail running community it's a lot easier to talk about public lands than climate change. So if that's the gateway drug to get people engaged with democracy than fine, totally fine.”

‘Super competitive’ on the trails

(Photo credit: Fred Marmsater Photo)

It’s easy to feel the passion Gallagher has for the environment. It’s just the same driven mentality she brings to running, describing herself as “super competitive.”

In addition to winning CCC last year, her accolades include finishing second at Black Canyon 100K in 2017, which earned her a Golden Ticket to Western States Endurance Run; and finishing first at the Leadville 100-mile trail run in 2016 with the second fastest women’s time ever in 19 hours.

“I get just jazzed about racing, pretty much more than anything, more than just doing a fun run,” she says. “Racing against other people is just intrinsically so wonderful, and badass, and the heart of sport to me.”

As we talked Gallagher noted that she was coming off a two-month off-season after a busy 2017 racing calendar. In fact, the previous week she notched 65 miles running, her heaviest workload in three months.

“I get pretty burned out mentally from racing and in the past year I had a taxing race season, but that was like February to end of November,” she says. “On the races I did well, which were CCC and North Face 50-miler. I raced above my fitness. It is kind of dangerous because I think that invites injury and just adrenal fatigue from going to deep in the well in a race if you're not prepared for it.

“I'm ramping up my mileage now. This week I'm feeling it. I'm definitely mortal. I've gotten acupuncture and body work in the past two days because I'm susceptible to injury.”

After the North Face 50-miler, she could barely walk for two weeks.

“That's what I mean when I say I race above my fitness; I was so wrecked,” Gallagher says, noting afterward she went to Thailand to assist a swim program she created. “I went back to Asia and I tried to start running, and I forgot what I had messed up at that point, my knee or my hamstring. So I was sort of on injured reserve, even though I wanted to run.”

Gallagher needs to heal completely before beginning another tough season, given the intensity her training requires. “I just started doing my first workout, which the way I work with my coach, David Roche,” she says. “The workouts are pretty intense because they're short repeats. I did my first one maybe three weeks ago. But then I strained my hamstring so I was not warmed up or something.”

Overseas racing and advocating

Her 2018 calendar includes a 47K in Italy in late March, and unsurprisingly the race calls to Gallagher’s running and environmental passions.

“It’s in the Cinque Terre Region, which I'm pretty psyched about because they're dealing with their own environmental issues of not conserving and maintaining the trail system that lies above these five super famous villages of Cinque Terre,” she says. “The villages are heavily populated with tourists who like to shop and eat, and it's just mass tourism at its finest. But the trails have gone in a bit of disarray. So I'm excited to race there and raise awareness for the importance of maintaining those trails. Otherwise, if that land isn't maintained, mudslides and landslides are really possible.”

Afterward, Gallagher will represent the U.S. team in the International Association of UltraRunning (IAU) and then race La Barrato in Spain in June. As for now, her fall calendar is wide open.

The secrets to a being a vegetarian ultra runner

Gallagher says she is a vegetarian for environmental reasons, inspired by utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer. At Princeton, she took a course from Singer.

“He started the animal liberation movement of the '80s with that namesake book,” she says. “That was more about animal rights. But now, the reasons why I don't eat meat are because it is one of the worst things we can do for our climate. It's pretty simple. Ideally, I would be vegan. I'm in the process of going there, but I really would love to be able to have my own chickens so I could eat their eggs because I'm partial to eggs now. But I know the egg-laying industry is really horrific for chickens.”

Those who follow similar diets face challenges in getting enough protein, iron and other nutrients. That challenge is amplified for endurance athletes who burn more calories and require more muscle and tissue repair.

So what are Gallagher’s secrets for a successful approach to her diet?

(Photo credit Mike Thurk)

It starts with the equipment. “I cook with a cast-iron skillet, take iron daily and eat a lot of hummus and eggs,” she says. “I really haven't had a problem with protein.”

Last year she tried the paleo diet as a rare break in her vegetarianism over the past years, looking to see if it would improve her recovery. Thankfully for her conscious, she quickly found it wasn’t for her.

“I just felt like crap eating heavy meat,” Gallagher recalls. “It's such a common misconception that we need to eat hunks of animal meat to survive. It's just such an American thing that it just makes no sense nutritionally.”

Trail runner as an advocate

As Gallagher pushes forward on her goals for running and the environment, she has no use for critics who say well-known athletes or entertainers shouldn't use their platforms to push their agendas, whether it's the environment, or other social change.

"It’s pretty simple — if people really think that sports are that removed, or outdoor recreation, from healthy air, clean water, protected public lands, then I don't think they should be participating in those sports,” she says. “If someone really thinks I shouldn't be talking about what I'm talking about than that's fine, enjoy the treadmill. It's completely unfathomable to me how people can disconnect these two issues.”

Her motivation stems from the needed preservation for future generations. So they can enjoy the outdoors like she did when she was a little girl.

“I would hate for it to be 100 years from now when I'm dead and there are young trail runners in the U.S. and they ask, ‘Why weren't trail runners more protective of these trails?' Or 'What did that trail or national park look like?' At the rate and severity at which public lands are being threatened, and our climate's being threatened, that's not out of the question.”

As Gallagher fulfills her passions for the environment and running, she draws inspiration from a variety of influencers. Among them are politicians who fight for what they believe is morally right, even though it may not be the popular opinion.

“I'm inspired to be a better runner because Michael Bennet is being a really good senator for Colorado, and he'll stand up in hearings against people he doesn't agree with,” she says. “I'm inspired, honestly, to just train harder and be better at my job, which in a lot of ways right now is a runner, a trail runner. I'm inspired by people who are brave.”

Speed drill

Hometown: Boulder, Colo.

Number of years running: 12 or so

How many miles a week do you typically run: 30 to 90

Point of pride: winning CCC

Favorite race distance: 100K

Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: fried rice

Favorite piece of gear: Patagonia Airshed (the best shirt/jacket/hybrid thing a runner could own)

Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Human Range, Nils Frahm

Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: What goes up must come down

Where can other runners connect or follow you:

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