Champion Ultra Runner Clare Gallagher on Running, Reefs and Frosting
Clare Gallagher quietly made her ultra running debut while living abroad in Thailand. It did not take long for the 25-year-old Colorado native to make a splash on the ultra circuit when she returned to her home state and won the 2016 Leadville 100 in the second fastest women’s time ever recorded: 19 hours, 27 minutes.
Gallagher visited Mammoth Lakes this March as a speaker for the Winter Adventure Series and shared with us her stories of how she got her start ultra running, living abroad, and how she balances being an environmental activist with her passion for running. And yes, she explains the frosting.
At 25-years-old you are pretty young for the success you’ve already had in ultra running. How did you get your start?
I did my first ultra in Thailand, which is a weird place to do a first ultra race you’re from Colorado. It was an 80-kilometer race in the northern part of the country in the golden triangle. In the ’80s that was where opium thrived. All the drug lords were there, and crazy, crazy opium fields. Now there are other things being grown, but the hills are real. It’s a challenging first ultra. I did well, only two women finished and I won. It really got me into the sport in a way that doing a really standard western ultra never would have. I was eating sticky rice, seaweed-flavored Lays, fried rice—there are no gels, there is no Gatorade. So I fell in love with the ultra from its rawest point, which is cool and I am realizing it now after the fact that I really do love the sport.
You were in Thailand for a couple years after you graduated from college. What was your purpose living there?
After I graduated from Princeton, instead of finishing my eligibility I decided I needed to get out. I needed to break the cycle of not loving running and not knowing what my purpose is, so I took a teaching fellowship in Thailand and was there for almost two years. I was teaching beautiful kids and started an environmental stewardship program. The area was hit really hard by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. I was there ten years after and people are still afraid of the water. They don’t know how to swim. All of the tourists come to this area to go SCUBA diving, but Thais are not thriving from the tourism economy. It is a cultural gap. Thankfully this program I started is still going without me. A local dive shop is giving kids the opportunity to get dive certified, so they can enter that economy.
So your first ultra in Thailand was successful, but it wasn’t until you returned to the States that you were recognized as a real contender in ultra racing?
Last summer I ran my first 100-miler in Leadville, Colorado and I won it in pretty good time, so that sort of broke me into the ultra scene. It’s really changed my life because at the time I thought I was going to med school. I was taking organic chemistry. I realized, I don’t want to be a doctor and spend seven years of my life in school, so I dropped organic chemistry, I stopped working in hospitals, and then I was like: Crap what am I doing? Well, I am running a lot so I might as well try to make something out of it. Fortuitously, you take big risks. I dropped my entire life plans to run—it’s working out so far.
Why are you known for eating frosting?
For the Leadville 100 I ate frosting. I was too cheap to buy gels so I bought a thing of Betty Crocker frosting and ate that instead. My crew would give me plastic spoonfuls of it. Now I have one nutrition sponsor it’s a frosting company: FROST’D. In the ultra world it’s usually the first thing people ask me about. No questions about actually running—the most interesting part of ultra running is what you eat.
Other than your organic coconut oil-based frosting sponsor, do you have a specific diet for training? What do you eat?
I love sour patch kids, but I eat pretty clean in my normal life. I used to be a vegetarian for a lot of years, but recently I read this book about stone age diets for endurance athletes, so I started eating meat again. I think it’s all about balance. I eat a lot of vegetables, a lot of fruit, a lot of eggs—love eggs, meat here and there, and a lot of Sriracha. I try not to think too much about it, but I don’t eat crap. I eat good things. I eat crap when I race because that’s what I crave.
This is a quick springtime visit to Mammoth Lakes for you. Any plans to come back and really train on the trails here?
I ran with Tim and Lindsay Tollefson today in Round Valley. They are so nice. It was beautiful. Tim is a really great salesperson, he sold me on the area and I can’t wait to come back. I am racing Western States this year, so maybe before that. I’m from Boulder, but I’ve been in Mammoth Lakes for 24 hours and it’s awesome here. I’m definitely coming back.
You studied oceanification in school, and are passionate about educating people on the effects of climate change on coral reefs. How do you balance your passion for environmental activism while living and training in the mountains?
This is just eating away at me. It is paralyzing for me sometimes, which can be difficult. What do I care about most? What can I do? The pain of running 100 miles is really insignificant to the thoughts of: what is the point of being on this planet unless I am going to do something about it, about something that matters, or for people who are a lot less privileged than myself. It is a privilege to be able to run professionally and I get that so, what else am I doing? Sometimes I think, am I the only one who cares about climate change? I am not alone. You are not alone. There are reasons to carry on. I am going to continue to do what I love to do, what I am meant to do, and not be paralyzed. Should I get out every day? Yeah, of course! I am motivated to be apart of the world and really get after my passions every single day. I am inspired by this Edward Abbey quote so I will leave you with this. Cheers to continue doing what we love and protecting it along the way!
“Do not burn yourself out. Be as I am—a reluctant enthusiast … a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it is still there. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, encounter the grizz, climb the mountains, bag the peaks. Run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, that lovely, mysterious and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much: I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those deskbound people with their hearts in a safe deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: You will outlive the bastards.”—Edward Abbey