By Heidi Wachter |
Growing up in Englewood, Colo., Clare Gallagher was surrounded by the strip malls that dot Denver’s suburban valleys. But the nearby Rocky Mountains served as an outdoor playground away from the concrete and cacophony. “My parents really valued the mountains, so, like good Denverites, we would regularly head up into the high country to go skiing and hiking,” she recalls.
“My dad was really into scaling 14ers, and Colorado is home to 53 peaks over 14,000 feet,” says the 27-year-old ultramarathoner. But unlike her peak-bagging father, Gallagher didn’t much enjoy hiking. Instead, she swam with local clubs and took up lacrosse and track in high school.
That competitive spirit helped land her at Princeton, where the budding environmentalist studied coral ecology. “I spent a summer in Bermuda researching the impacts of climate change on reefs,” she notes.
She also ran. A lot. “Indoor track, outdoor track, cross-country — it was like 12 seasons of running,” Gallagher remembers. Plagued by injuries from covering so much ground, however, she decided to take a break from the grind.
After graduation, she moved to southern Thailand on a yearlong fellowship to teach English and swimming to kids. While she was there, she cofounded Earthraging with English, a youth environmental and swim program based in Bangsak.
Gallagher also took the opportunity to explore the beauty of Southeast Asia. It was during a backpacking trip that she heard about an ultrarace (a contest covering more than a standard 26.2-mile marathon; typical distances range from 50 kilometers to 100 miles) in northern Thailand.
“It made sense geographically, so I signed up with some of my friends and we made a big, fun trip out of it,” she says. “The race was heinous — and it was awesome! There were four aid stations for what was about a 50-mile race in a remote area, home to poisonous snakes. I was completely hooked!”
Finding Her Stride
Gallagher headed home to Colorado in early 2016 with a reinvigorated passion for running and fell in with a supportive crew in Boulder. In August the then-24-year-old made her debut at the storied Leadville Trail 100 Run (which is produced by Life Time). Fueled by cake frosting, homemade rice balls, and veggie broth, Gallagher took first place — clocking the second-fastest women’s time in race history.
“Winning Leadville completely changed my life,” she says. “I had given up my plans to go to med school already, but winning nabbed me a North Face sponsorship, and I ran for the next year.”
Along the way, Gallagher set the course record at the CCC, a 100-kilometer race around the Mont Blanc massif in the French, Italian, and Swiss Alps. But the dirtbagging life was unsustainable. “That year was incredible, but it’s really hard to be an endurance athlete trying to make ends meet,” she admits. She eventually began a partnership with Patagonia and now serves as the company’s trail-running ambassador. It was the perfect fit.
“Patagonia doesn’t care about race results; they care about how you live your life,” she explains. “Now I can embrace all of my talents. I can do the races that I’m inspired to do, which allows me time to also focus on environmental stewardship.”
Spending all that time running in nature, she adds, “makes me a better, stronger, and more motivated environmentalist.”
In 2017, Gallagher started POW Trail, a branch of the climate-change advocacy organization Protect Our Winters. “Traditionally, trail running hasn’t had a community environmental organization like climbing, snow sports, surfing, hunting, and angling have,” she explains. “I wanted to fill that void.”
Gallagher’s goal is to engage fellow trail runners to register and vote, volunteer for trail-maintenance efforts, and contact their elected officials about environmental policies, such as renewable-energy development.
“During the last election, we organized trail runners to campaign for a Colorado attorney-general candidate who wasn’t backed by the fossil-fuels industry,” she notes.
Gallagher hopes her organizing efforts will inspire everyone to connect with nature regularly. “You don’t have to hike 14ers,” she says. “I grew up in suburban Denver with a backyard, a big garden, and chickens.”
Going With the Flow
“Now, as an adult, I’m reliant on being able to go out in the woods for an hour, to breathe clean air, and to feel what it’s like being in a flow state.”
Finding and staying in that state is a key to Gallagher’s long-distance success. “The goal is to be in flow state coming toward the end of the race,” she explains. “So even if you see a snake or spill your entire soft flask of Coca-Cola all over your face and end up super sticky for the next 10 hours, you just keep mentally going.”
Gallagher employs mind tricks that help her stay in the zone. “For example, I’ll tell myself not to look at my watch for a while,” she says. “Then an hour goes by and I haven’t looked at my watch, which helps me stay in flow state in good or difficult times.”
That mental toughness and resilience come in handy off the trail as well. “Running helps me be resilient to things that would maybe normally throw me off, make me mad, or otherwise distract me,” she says. “I think I’m almost a better person when I’m running, because I don’t let little things bother me.”
Enjoying and submitting to the process of running helps her avoid fixating on each mile or hour that she runs and gets her through injuries and discomfort. “From accepting the process, I’ve learned to focus on the beauty of each unique, imperfect run,” she says. “I’m obsessed.”