Jared Campbell is a renowned endurance runner who has finished the Barkley Marathons three times. He is also the founder of “Running Up For Air”, a mountain endurance race raising awareness and funds to support the fight for improved air quality. This year the event goes digital for the first time in Europe, on 31st of July runners from all over will take on the 3/6/12/24 hour challenge in the fight against air pollution.
Interview by Hannah Bailey at Patagonia for Like the Wind
Q: In the unlikely case someone doesn’t know you, can you explain how you came to be a trail runner?
JC: I came into the sport through a rock climbing background. In my junior high school years and college days, I was mostly a climber and travelled around the world doing sport climbing and traditional climbing. As a young student at University, I had a professor that I worked for who was training for a 100 mile race, and I knew nothing about it at that point. I looked at what he was doing, and the way he was training, and I just thought it sounded miserable. At the time, I said I never want to do anything like that! But then one day, I got intrigued by it. That eventually led to me signing up for my first long race and I decided I was going to just do it once to prove that I could do it. Then it became a big part of my life, for about 18 years now!
Q: So then what was the first race that you actually ever did?
JC: It was a hundred miler out in the mountains just outside of Salt Lake City, and it went as you might expect. I didn’t quite know what I was signing up for and it was absolutely brutal. Inevitably when you do something like that you make a tonne of mistakes. I think there’s a personality trait that is common amongst runners that just wants you to improve and figure out how to adjust your approach to be better. That’s what captivates a lot of us. That pursuit of improvement. Here I am many years later having done quite a few long races.
Q: What’s been your career highlight so far, finishing the Barkley Marathons three times?
JC: That was definitely a highlight but there are other events of the hundred mile distance and longer, both in the United States and in Europe which stand out. I guess, as far as a highlight, I jumped into the Hard Rock 100 pretty early, it was my second hundred miler. That’s a pretty tough high altitude race and I went on from there, and fell in love with it. I won it in 2010 and then completed it 10 times – I think I’m the youngest person to put that claim to fame. Another one for the Wikipedia page!
Q: So how did you then become connected with Patagonia?
JC: I reached out to Patagonia to see if they wanted to be involved in “Running Up For Air” as it seemed to really align with their business ethos. One of my friends, Luke Nelson, is an Ambassador for them and Justin Roth (Patagonia Global Marketing Manager) used to live in Salt Lake City. I knew him loosely in the early days of “Running Up For Air”, and he quickly jumped in and said Patagonia wanted to be involved. I think they were impressed at the notion of a race, for environmental reasons. As opposed to it starting as a race and then deciding to do something connected to environmentalism, I was motivated to start the race because of the issue of air quality which is a big deal we face here in Salt Lake City.
Q: So it was actually what you were feeling around you in Salt Lake City that sparked some sort of a need to work on it as a runner?
JC: So if you have never been here I’ll take a minute and explain. Salt Lake itself is the remnants of what used to be a really big lake tens of thousands of years ago. The lake dried up and what was left is the Great Salt Lake. So Salt Lake City is at the very bottom of a bowl. In the wintertime we have what are called thermal inversions, which means we have these episodes where cold air sits in the bottom of the bowl and until a storm comes along and blows it out, that cold air is just stuck at the bottom and it doesn’t go anywhere. Then put two 2 million people living in the bottom of that bowl, and in that pool of stuck cold air, add all the pollutants that they put out, whether it’s from the back of their car, or from an oil refinery and it is just going to stay there! These episodes sometimes last two or three weeks. So three weeks of two million people’s pollution going into this little pocket of air that we all live in, means it can get really bad. That’s just the reality of living in Salt Lake right now.
As an athlete, especially an aerobic athlete or someone who’s running, you know if you run down into that bowl you are ingesting a tonne of that pollution and just putting it right in your lungs. That’s really bad. At the most severe times, we don’t even go outside. So back in 2012 I was training hard for my first Barkleys Marathon. Often I started in the crappy air that I just mentioned, but because I was ascending, eventually I would pop out of it. It was amazing, up above. The temperature changes 10 to 15 degrees and the air was beautiful all of a sudden. But then I would have to go back into this nasty air. Every single day I was having this experience and so it was at the front of my mind. Eventually I wondered if there was a way that I could take this training and turn it into something that would help solve the problem of this bad air.
Q: Wow, what a thing to take on – so how was the first race?
JC: At the very first iteration of “Running Up For Air” we did this funny 24 hour challenge and people threw money at me to try to get up and down the peak as many times as I could. I gave the money to an environmental activist group called Breathe Utah. I teamed up with them from day one and I’ve been by their side every year and able to generate some money for them.
It felt like a tiny vibe in the beginning. In my mind, nobody else was out there in the middle of the winter running and nobody wanted to do that. So I didn’t want to ask people to do it with me. I thought this is something that I like and I doubt anybody else would like it. But a few years into it, people kept asking, why don’t you turn this into a race? So I thought, I guess I’m not the only one who thinks this is cool. So we started figuring out how to get a permit and turned it into a real event. If you saw the vibe at the last event..
Q: Amazing! How has it changed?
So we had around 240 runners – we really can’t accommodate any more than that! It’s just amazing. Throughout the 24 hours, from the start of the event, all the way to the end, it was this awesome vibe, cool community and positive energy.
Q: So does everyone do the 24 hour race?
No, there is a three hour, six hour category, 12 hour and then there’s a 24. So people can pick their poison!
Q: Last year, we had a RUFA stop in Chamonix. It was really fun to see it live in action, but what were your thoughts on the fact that Patagonia wanted to bring it over to Europe?
JC: I thought it was fantastic that Patagonia wanted to do it, even though I didn’t have a big association with Chamonix. I appreciate that it is also at the bottom of this pretty mountainous area. The event has grown to have seven races in the United States now, and then the one in Chamonix and it’s only going to grow from here. The people that I end up connecting with to put on these events are amazing people and they come to me because they believe in the same vision. They want to take their passion for running and help the cause. So it has worked out really well. I think the same is true in Chamonix, even though I wasn’t there last year, I know everyone had the same objective.
Q: A few years ago, some people maybe hadn’t connected the issue of air pollution with trail running or they hadn’t really thought about it before. People were shocked and inspired. But has the general trail running community always been connected with this issue and active in it for a long time?
JC: No, it really hasn’t. I think that’s what makes our little event or series of events pretty unique. In the past, the only association runners had with air pollution was if there happened to be a fire in the area and a race was cancelled because of it. So it’s definitely never been part of the main discussion to tie the two together until my little event came along. The reality is, we (as runners) breathe a lot, three to five times harder than when you are sitting still, so I think we should work three to five times harder on the problem.
Q: RUFA is taking place digitally this year in Europe, what is the silver lining when it comes to running it in this way for you?
JC: When life throws the unexpected at us it represents an opportunity to see how we respond. Often being forced into different solutions reveals better ways to solve problems, which we might not have seen otherwise. The format being deployed for RUFA Europe 2021 will enable far greater participation than with the current formats used in the USA. At the end of the day RUFA is about our trail loving community banding together, unified around a common mission to improve air quality for all. We might likely learn things about this new format and the associated expanded inclusion that help us re-shape the events for the better.
Q: Finally, why would you encourage people to enter it?
JC: Since the event’s inception I have wanted people to not only “enter” the event, but to participate in the mission of RUFA. This involves education, communication, and community. If someone is solely interested because of the competition, their time, or their athletic results, they’re missing the point. I encourage people to learn about air quality issues and think about the decisions they make on a daily basis related to energy consumption and the associated pollution. As a species we need to change our behavior and adjust our habits to create a liveable future. As a community of athletes and lovers of the outdoors we can use our voices and minds to help accelerate the change. Sign up for RUFA, but more importantly be part of the change.