The Number One Issue Facing Our Sport


Running on a treadmill sucks. Let me clarify, running on a treadmill on a sunny day sucks. But that’s exactly where I’ve spent the past five days: in a gym, on a treadmill. I’d much rather be outside running on a trail, but the problem is I live in California. I know, I know, California is a state with perpetual sunshine, what gives? Well, unfortunately California has also become the state with perpetual wildfires. The air quality these past five days has made the act of even being outside unhealthy, let alone attempting to exercise outside. So I’m in a gym.

California is experiencing its worst fire season in the state’s history. And by some indications this is the new normal. Not only are wildfires becoming more prevalent, they’re becoming larger in acreage. One reason I moved to Marin County – a place I can hardly afford – is the stellar air quality. Since we runners are so dependent on the air we breathe, Marin County seemed like a worthy investment. But the number of “spare the air” days has steadily increased, and my days in the gym have ticked up in lockstep. Not a welcome trend.

And the problem of clean air is hardly unique to California. It’s a global issue. Fixing this problem is not going to happen in our lifetime, and perhaps not in our children’s lifetime unless more is done. The globe needs a refresh, and that is going to take time.

Hiking under smoky skies. Photo: Carleen Kopacek

And effort. Perhaps no other group is more dependent on the air we breathe than outdoor athletes. We are uniquely positioned to take a stand and to do what we can to turn this ship around. Yes, I’m getting preachy. And that is my intention. It may not be possible to change everything, but you can change yourself.

How? By making daily decisions that minimize your “carbon footprint” (I hate that term, it seems unnecessarily ambiguous). Just do less stuff that pollutes the air. Do what you can, and lead by example. And be vocal about it. Yes, be “that guy.” The one that’s kind of obnoxious, but still makes you think.

Right about now you might be saying to yourself, “Okay Mr. High and Mighty, what have you done to practice what yer preachin’?” Well, for one I sold my car. It was perhaps the least practical decision of my life, but it immediately eliminated unnecessary driving. That option no longer existed. Now I have different sized backpacks and when the air quality is sufficient (which, in all fairness, it is most of the year) I run to wherever I’m going. Is it awkward walking into a meeting all sweaty and exhausted when everyone else is dressed up in nice business attire? Yeah, it is. But I can live with that. Is it uncomfortable running home from the market carrying a backpack stuffed with groceries? It is, and it’s also a good strength building exercise. My lifestyle has adapted to this self-imposed measure of ditching the car.

To conclude, this article has either inspired you or convinced you I’m a whack job. I get that. Fair enough. But I’ll sleep a little more soundly tonight knowing that I’ve written it. If we want to continue doing what we love, and pass along this beautiful sport and pastime of ultrarunning along to future generations, I encourage you to do what you can. You’ll sleep more soundly, too.

Dean Karnazes has run across America and serves as a US State Department Athlete Ambassador for the Greening of Sports Initiative.


About Author

Named by TIME magazine as one of the “Top 100 Most Influential People in the World,” Dean Karnazes is a passionate ultrarunner and extreme athlete. He’s run across the Sahara in 120-degree temperatures, and he’s run a marathon to the South Pole in negative 40 degrees. On ten different occasions he’s run a 200-mile relay race solo, racing alongside teams of twelve. Dean has swum the San Francisco Bay, scaled mountains, bike raced for 24-hours straight, and surfed the gigantic waves off the coast of Northern California and Hawaii. He lives with his wife and family in the San Francisco Bay Area.


  1. You do know that the majority of the most recent Cali fires were set accidentally by humans illegally camping and not to do with your pseudo science right? Google Cranston fire suspect.

  2. Mike Palmer on

    But years of drought contributed to the wide devastating fires, supplying them with fuel. That all has to do with climate change and our addiction to fossil fuel burning vehicles.

    • Not really. The many droughts that Cali suffers are from the naturally occurring weather patterns known as el nino and la nina.

      • Mike Palmer on

        You think that the burning of fossil fuels, pollution from factories, does not adversely affect the environment? Try living in Beijing for awhile where you can breathe the refreshing air to be found there.

        And I suppose you think that sea of plastic in the ocean is just a naturally occurring phenomenon with no long term consequences.

  3. Brenda Near on

    Excellent article. There are things we can do.
    I am cutting red meat ( carbon /green house gas contributing) out of my diet and I won’t buy any or anything made with California almonds ( grossly water dependant, pesticide ridden crop). You’ve made me think about ditching the car…that one’s hard. I am impressed with your commitment. I do try to limit my driving but we live kind of in the middle of nowhere. I have planted a native plant grassland for pollinators and we grow a lot of our own food organically.
    Going to think about how to reduce my driving more.

  4. It’s so awesome to see this issue being brought up! I think cutting out beef, stop buying so much stuff, and don’t travel by air are probably the 3 easiest and most effective changes we can all make. You can survive on less or no beef (there’s plenty of chicken and fish available if you’re not vegetarian/vegan), you actually probably don’t need that latest iteration of running/hiking/camping gear – is that fleece jacket, rain shell, tent, running vest, etc really so completely and utterly trashed beyond any use (or repair) that it needs to be replaced? The article below doesn’t mention air travel but if there’s any way to blowout your carbon footprint into a really big stomp, hop on a plane for your next race! The races near you may not be the most iconic or on your treasured bucket list – but unless you’ve got the time to take a car/bus/train, stay local! Don’t just eat local, race local!

    Thanks again for bringing this up – there are huge changes coming that we all need to face!

  5. Thank you for raising this issue — the science behind climate change and impacts to wildfire seasons in terms of duration and severity is irrefutable. While I’m glad that your piece focuses on emissions reductions, the reality is we’re going to have to get used to living with fire — and that means we probably need to reduce fuel loads through prescribed fire and forest management. The debate seems polarized between a few of our elected officials who think we can log our way out of this problem and those that think we can simply focus on fossil fuel emissions — in the middle, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done in the woods that’s not always going to pay its way, but can help reduce fire severity and help us manage smoke at the right time and in the right place… that work can also support local forest products industries while we work to reduce emissions and tackle the bigger problems with climate.

  6. One way to reduce your carbon footprint is to stop running ultramarathons. Think about it. All the extra fuel you need, both for the training and the actual race itself really take a toll on the environment. Those calories are not without environmental costs.

    Then there’s getting to the trails unless you’re fortunate enough to have a trail right outside your door. How many miles do you drive to get to the trailhead every month?

    Do you fly to races? Do you bring a crew and have pacers? All that adds to your carbon footprint.

    We’re all here because we love running long distances on the trail but if you truly cared about our environment and climate change, you wouldn’t be an ultrarunner.

  7. Justin Schott on

    I wish this conversation was about more than personal carbon footprints – it’s a classically individualistic line of thinking (no surprise from ultrarunners) about what the solution should entail. It also comes from a place of privilege – tell the people who can’t afford to live anywhere near their low wage jobs in the Bay Area to ditch their cars. It’s a non-starter. We need to be thinking of the people most impacted by climate change and how solutions can benefit them. And couching the issue as air quality, which is a symptom of climate change, doesn’t seem the most honest approach, either.
    We’re not all going to vegan our way out of climate change–this needs to be about large scale, political solutions that include things like carbon taxes and divesting from fossil fuels. Or lets get rid of farm subsidies for cheap corn and soy that feed artificially cheap beef.
    This doesn’t exclude cutting your own footprint, and sure take pride in your thoughtful individual choices, but your voice, advocacy and action beyond the borders of your own consumption is far more important than anything you can do personally. We need to invest in movements; the number of ultrarunners who are living off the grid is inconsequential.

  8. Scott Reeves on

    Air is dirty, carbon footprint is possible, but why are we paving large areas of our countryside – effectively creating a heat sink way more significant than the CO2 thing?
    And why did Calif. veto fire mitigation legislation in 2016(?). Yellowstone apparently showed it works.