WORDS BY EMILY SCHMITZ
Emily Schmitz is a trail and ultra runner who loves spending long days in the mountains and exploring new trails with friends. She coaches runners of all levels, experiences and backgrounds to reach their running goals. We asked Emily to write about how trail running connects her to nature and inspires her to protect the places she runs, through every little action, from the sunscreen in her daily routine to the ways she encourages her running community to care for our planet as well. Read on and you might just find yourself running out the door!
“There is nothing quite like the state of flow found in nature. For me, the only feeling that closely parallels the flow unleashed from trail running over high mountain passes and through pristine forests is the feeling of sharing it with others. It’s become my personal mission to take my running community off of the streets and into the wilderness. By leading the way to the road-less-traveled, embracing the art of noticing nature’s wonders, and enjoying companionship in a new and exciting place, I’ve convinced a fair amount of my road-runner friends to take on the trails. That said, it doesn’t take much convincing - once shown the way, it's pretty easy to get hooked. And the more people I bring over to the sport, the more inspired I am to keep going.
I didn’t start out running on trails. I started out in high school cross-country, where we would trod over freshly cut grass, on a clearly-marked path, in manicured parks, or occasionally, if our coach was feeling bold… over the grassy hill. It wasn’t until much later in life that I stumbled upon trail running (literally). The sport appealed to me because I loved adventure, seeing new places, and seeking out challenges that were more daunting than those posed by the streets. I didn’t come to the sport because I was an environmentalist or conservationist, or trying to protect winters - that came along later. With each and every step taken in the mountains, the more I wondered what kind of environmental footprint I was leaving behind.
© Peignée Verticale
Although trail running wouldn’t be possible without the conservation of the land we run on, conservation seemed to be at odds with many of the things I loved most about trail running – traveling to far-off races in remote mountain towns, growing the sport, and especially, the amount of gear (shoes, clothing, gels, technology …) that I went through. The sport, in its very nature, draws nature-lovers and outdoor-enthusiasts; people who cherish national parks and firmly believe in their protection. And yet, we can’t seem to align our consumerist selves with our nature-loving, environmentalist values - a dissonant paradox that poses some inner exploration.
In 2021, I moved to Chamonix, France, situated in the heart of the Alps and home of endless trails, snow-capped white mountains and massive glaciers. For trail runners, Chamonix is oftentimes lovingly referred to as the hub of trail running, hosting the world’s largest trail race every year, the UTMB. The UTMB – the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc – follows a famous route that crosses over high mountain passes, and through tiny mountain villages.
© Peignée Verticale
The race, claims to be the biggest and best trail race in the world, and fills a tiny French village with about 10 000 participants each year. It’s grown massively since 2003, when it had only 67 participants in total. Its growth has led to controversial sponsors. In 2023, the race partnered with a European-manufactured SUV company. The partnership outraged many runners, leading to letters of concern addressed to the race directors.
Despite its rapid expansion, the sport remains comparatively small. These are the initial phases of growth. As trail runners and participants of the sport, we are still shaping it into what it will become. And yet, although I truly believe this, it is easy to see my own individual actions as inconsequential, especially as it relates to environmental damage and my own carbon footprint.
© Peignée Verticale
I’m not a perfect environmentalist. I cannot spout facts about climate change, glacier melt or how fast the world’s oceans are rising. I’ve slid into bad environmentalist habits. I’ve purchased single-use plastic and driven a car when I could have otherwise not. And, in a space like running, surrounded by shoe brands, technology, and the newest and latest products, I’ve been pushed into unnecessary consumption.
I'll admit that I am eco-imperfect. We all are. We can be both eco-imperfect and, simultaneously, advocates for the environment. Beyond finding joy on the trails, I use running as a method to increase awareness of our connection with nature, and consequently inspire others to become more mindful of their actions. I'm educating myself where I can, and aligning my passions with brands that are made for people, not profit. That's where Avasol comes in. I found Avasol accidentally one day, scrolling on instagram while looking for sunscreen that was less damaging to my skin and contained less toxins and unnecessary plastic packaging. I was spending long days in the mountains, where it seemed impossible to protect my skin for long periods of time, no matter what I did. But more than that, I liked the people behind Avasol. They support nonprofits that are making a difference, keep production small, and - most importantly - believe their product can make a difference.
As the sport grows – and it will – it will go through growing pains, as all growing entities do. Mistakes will be made. Some of them will be corrected, and some of them not. We will make decisions that align with our values, and others that don't. I know that my presence in the mountains doesn’t go unnoticed. As the sport grows, so will our impact. Our job is to remember why we are there in the first place.