Hiredesai: Runsploration as a path toward collective action for climate change

Annika Hiredesai, Assistant Opinion Editor

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to many lasting cultural and behavioral shifts in how and with whom we spend our time. For people whose gyms closed, or who were concerned about social distancing, running emerged as one of the few options for remaining active. A 2021 study surveying almost 4000 runners determined about 29% of runners picked up the sport during the pandemic. 

I certainly include myself in that number. When I moved back on campus during Winter Quarter 2021, I quickly realized my worn-out yoga mat and tiny room were not cutting it for me. On the very first day that the temperature surpassed 32 degrees, I broke out the running armband and shoes I bought more than a year earlier. Running on the Lakefill with the Chicago skyline on the horizon and cool air in my lungs was sublime, and I quickly became hooked on that feeling. 

Eventually, I ventured farther out from Evanston to lakeside parks in Winnetka and south Rogers Park. While I was proud to be able to clock more mileage, the real thrill came from discovering new landmarks on my running routes, from a charming sailing club to a specialty hot chocolate shop. As the city opened up and the weather became warmer, I began to look forward to small interactions with people on the trail. Waving to parents biking with their children or weaving around a very friendly dog as the owner flashed an apologetic smile at me made me feel like I was a part of a community. I hadn’t realized how insulated I was as a student until I saw I was missing out on the everyday interactions with people in the neighborhood.

One day, as I was scrolling through running-Instagram, I discovered there was a term to describe the joy I felt when exploring new places by running: runsploration. People plan entire vacations around running through beautiful cities or stretches of trail. After all, there is no better way to get to know a new place than running through it.

The further I fell down the rabbit hole, I began to see how deeply runners care about their communities. There is a sense of stewardship when it comes to preserving the beautiful land they are fortunate enough to explore. It should come as no surprise then that the running community — as well as other outdoor endurance athletes — is profoundly concerned about climate change’s effect on our planet. 

Many long-time runners have noted they have had to skip an increasing number of training days due to unbearable heat or hazardous air pollution levels. Oftentimes, it is difficult to find a solution at the individual level when climate change is systemic and wide-reaching in its effects. Some runners, however, are more than willing to go the extra mile to advocate for the local communities in which they are invested, like forming groups to advocate for protecting public lands and campaigning for local political candidates who support climate-friendly policies. 

At the international level, there has certainly been an influx of corporate partnerships over the years. Major retailers like Nike are spearheading initiatives like a recent commitment to planting trees for every runner who logged at least one kilometer in the Nike Run Club app during April. Running icons like Eliud Kipchoge, the current world record holder in the marathon, and Joan Benoit Samuelson, the winner of the first women’s Olympic Games marathon, use their platforms to draw further attention to the urgency of addressing climate change.

I will admit a lot of runners, including myself, are not always plugged into the local running community, a hurdle that must be overcome before any collective action can be taken at this level. Still, running instills a deep appreciation for the land and the people around you. I believe few people are as singularly positioned to advocate for our environment as everyday athletes who are deeply impacted by the health of our planet. With improved organization and dissemination of information, I can envision a greater number of runners committing time and energy to preserve the environment for future generations.

Annika Hiredesai is a Weinburg junior. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.