A lot of us long-distance runners regard our sport as a welcome escape from the stresses of life. We can feel free, independent, and unencumbered on the trail in a way we might not in our workplace or at home. Up on a mountain trail, we can often breathe cleaner air than we can elsewhere, and we might appreciate vistas that more sedentary people rarely see.
But to some degree, that appreciation we runners feel may be an illusion. In evolutionary time, it's an eyeblink of paradise, and it's disappearing fast. The air we breathe as runners is endangered by a growing burden of smoke from coal-burning power plants and heavy industries; the forested vistas we enjoy are increasingly endangered by wildfires and by rapidly spreading diseases that are causing millions of trees to die.
As endurance athletes, we enjoy the wonders of a beautiful planet more than most people ever can. But now, if we want those wonders to be saved, we have a need--even a responsibility--to do more to protect them than most of us have so far. To emphasize how embattled our natural world has become, I only have to recall several times in recent years when major running events had to be cancelled or disrupted by massive forest fires. The epic Badwater run across Death Valley had to be shut down mid-race a few years ago, and runners who'd run all day and all night and were finally nearing the finish on Mt. Whitney were stopped by forest rangers just miles from the finish, out of the race. Then there was the cancellation of the iconic Western States Endurance Run. There was a giant fire in the Angeles National Forest of Southern California, which destroyed the course on which the Mt. Disappointment 50k and 50 mile are run. A year later, the race's T-shirt memorialized the event. And now, this summer, runners in Colorado and Utah are getting hit.
The root of the challenge we face is not a lack of resources to protect our environment, but a lack of adequate awareness and education in our American population--a lack that has been exacerbated by a mostly gutless mainstream media. There's a huge--potentially tragic and catastrophic--disparity, now, between what we hear on the evening news and what the world's scientists are trying to tell us with growing urgency. The media, which get vast amounts of their funding from the advertising of industries that profit from the combustion of fossil fuels, keep our attention focused on entertainment, scandals, crime-shows, juvenile comedy, and other distractions. Meanwhile, the climate and environmental scientists are increasingly frantic. Yet, the scientists are not getting through to us. Thanks to pervasive anti-science campaigns, polls indicate that the percentage of Americans who don't believe in evolution, or who don't think climate change is being driven by human activity, has actually increased in the past twenty years. In effect, a growing part of the American population has retrogressed into pre-scientific, medieval perceptions of the world--the kinds of perceptions we associate with the Inquisition, or burning witches at the stake. If Senator Inhofe of Oklahoma (the one who has declared that global warming is a "hoax") had been born a few centuries earlier, he'd have been one of the Pilgrim fanatics most avidly setting the women of Salem on fire.
And now, there's a guy in North Carolina who joins Inhofe in this anti-science, anti-life crusade. In recent days, when a group of climate scientists and oceanographers forcasted that by 2050 the sea level along the North Carolina coast will have risen by 39 inches as a result of global warming, the state's coastal development interests attacked the scientists for saying something they feared could dstroy their businesses by leading to restrictions on coastal commerce. Instead of expressing concern about what was happening to the atmosphere and ocean, they went to the North Carolina General Assembly and asked that such scientific forecasts be made illegal! Several of the politicians introduced legislation that declared, in effect, that it is against the law for anyone to publicly recognize that sea-level is rising. It was like making it illegal for fire alarms to sound when there's a fire, or for people to call 911 when someone has a heart attack.
I've never lived in North Carolina, but I've run several races there--the N.C. Track Club Marathon in the mid-1970s, where I finished second to Jack Fultz, who a few weeks later won the Boston Marathon, and years later the Frostbite 50K. The people I met in North Carolina were friendly and gracious--the kinds of people I'd enjoy having as neighbors. A few years ago, my wife and I nearly decided to move to Asheville, NC (we ultimately chose Southern California for its sunnier winters). But for runners who live in North Carolina today, whether along the endangered coast or in the mountains (where much of the Smoky Mountain National Park is being ravaged by the aforementioned coal smoke), be aware that at least a few of your legislators must rank among the most ignorant humans ever to reach adulthood without being eaten by other animals. Watch out, North Carolina!
And again, what's the point for us runners (not to mention our families, neighbors, and country)? It's simply that we can't take our trails and wildlands for granted, ever again. If we and others who have an educated perspective don't take strong action to counter the anti-science and exploit-the-land forces soon, we'll lose those trails and wildlands. Economic pressures will cause the federal government to give up its public spaces--national forests, national parks, wilderness preserves--one after another, to corporate interests such as mining, timber, oil drilling, and commercial development. The air will get more polluted, the vistas despoiled. It's already happening (California is shutting down hundreds of state parks), and it's only a matter of time where the places you run may be closed.
Our society has become fragmented, and we endurance athletes happen to be among the constitutents best able to appreciate and defend our diminishing environment. We know, better than many others do, how valuable the wild world is to the long-run vitality of our species, and to the human spirit. Runners and environmentalists have compelling reason to work more closely together.