Sustainable Missoula: Running up for (clean) air and a livable climate

Trail running on Mount Sentinel. (Photo by Seth Orme)

“All I want is for it to rain ALL summer; I would take that over a smoky summer any day.” It was March, and my running buddy Nico was already lamenting the impending smoke season months away. I gazed out over the Missoula Valley as the two of us ran slowly up the Pengelly Ridge Trail. A faint brown cloud, an inversion, trapping pollutants from escaping into the atmosphere above, hung low in the valley.

Nico and I both realized that while Missoula is a fantastic place to live, it is also often inundated with poor air quality. We kept looking out at the surrounding peaks and forests as we ascended the ridge, making our way over to Mt. Sentinel. Nico’s exclamation rattled around in my head – how many months would we be forced indoors that summer due to wildfire smoke?

Seemingly against all odds, Missoula dodged the worst of the 2019 fire season. But memories from the historic 2017 season are fresh in the minds of many of us. The American Lung Association agrees – their 2019 “State of the Air” report found that the Missoula area is the fifth most polluted area in the country for short-term particle pollution and the 11th most polluted for annual particle pollution.

For a community defined by its amazing access to public lands and exceptional outdoor recreation opportunities, it’s not surprising that poor air quality strikes fear into the hearts of even the hardiest of Missoulians. Nobody wants to be laboring up the steep flanks of Mt. Sentinel while inhaling a big gulp of wildfire smoke or pollutants trapped by a wintertime inversion.

Unfortunately, scientists are finding that climate change may well increase western wildfires and poor air quality in the coming years (see here, here, or here). It’s easy to feel helpless when faced with smoke-filled skies, but trail runners in Utah and Colorado have found a constructive, fun way to fight for clean air.

Salt Lake City, Utah, home to famously dangerous air quality during wintertime inversions, is also filled with outdoor enthusiasts. Ultrarunner Jared Campbell started an event in 2011 while running laps on a local Wasatch Range peak. Campbell wanted to raise awareness and money to address Salt Lake’s air quality issues. Soon it became a formal wintertime challenge, called Running Up for Air (RUFA) that engages hundreds of participants each year.

The Up For Air Series, which includes both climbing and running events, spread throughout the Wasatch Range and into Colorado over the past few years. RUFA events ask participants to rise to the occasion and climb a literal mountain, while also tackling the figurative mountain of air quality issues. For 3, 6, 12, or 24 hours, participants scale a local peak in February, climbing it as many times as possible in the given time limit. 

While enjoying the clean air atop Mt. Sentinel with Nico last March, the rambling conversation we were having drifted again to Missoula’s air quality. We soon realized that Missoula would be a perfect fit for another RUFA event. Our valley is home to everyday adventurers and athletes that head up Mt. Sentinel on a regular basis. People that love being outside and cherish their easy access to trails as much as they do their access clean air. Our wheels got turning, and it wasn’t long before RUFA Mt. Sentinel was born.

The Runner’s Edge is excited to put on Montana’s first RUFA event, RUFA Mt. Sentinel! Join us on February 22nd, 2020 to ascend Mt. Sentinel for 3, 6, or 12 hours and take a stand for clean air in Missoula. All proceeds from the event will go to Climate Smart Missoula and their work to both address climate change, and provide vulnerable people and groups with HEPA air filters.

Whether it’s your first time up Sentinel or your 100th, join us for a wintertime lap (or two, four, or ten) on Missoula’s favorite mountain. Casual hikers/runners trying to summit the mountain once can rub shoulders with those running and walking for 12 hours.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re fast or slow, what matters is that our community comes together to take on the task of keeping air clean in our community. All events will finish at the same time (6:00pm) in a celebration of clean air and time well spent outdoors.

Tackling air quality issues is an incredibly challenging endeavor. Climbing a mountain in the winter is too. Join us on February 22nd for a hard, fun, and rewarding day on the trails of Mt. Sentinel to support clean air in Missoula.

For more information visit runnersedgemt.com/events/rufa

Jeff Mogavero is a Runner’s Edge employee and RUFA Mt. Sentinel race director. An earlier version of this piece appeared recently on the Runner’s Edge Blog. This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every Friday by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Upcoming Sustainability Events

Every Friday. Missoula Friday Climate Strike. Noon – 1pm. Jan 31 at NorthWestern Energy’s Headquarters. Every Friday meet at the Missoula County Courthouse as we stand in solidarity with climate strikers around the world. The last Friday of the month will be at a different location. More here.

Now through February 3. Comment online on the draft Climate Ready Missoula plan.

Now through mid-February. Dear Tomorrow Missoula letter writing project, sponsored by Climate Smart Missoula and Families for a Livable Climate. Dear Tomorrow is a global storytelling project focused on sharing personal messages about climate change to inspire action. Details here.

Feb 6. UM’s Seeking Sustainability Lecture Series continues. Meets Thursdays 7 – 8:30 pm Jan 16 – May 7 in Gallagher Business Building room 122. Free and open to all. Learn how UM, local government, nonprofits and businesses are working together to create a more sustainable community and how you can help. See the weekly schedule here.

February 8. Fixit Clinic at Home ReSource. 11am- 3pm. Free. Drop in for sewing repairs, small electronics, a 3D printer and more – keep it up and on and running and out of the waste stream! More here.

February 19. The Big Climate Change Event. Join us at the Wilma. 7pm. Presentation you won’t want to miss + climate commitments and what we can do. Save the date and learn more. FREE and open to all.

February 22. Running Up for Air endurance event sponsored by the Runner’s Edge and in support of Climate Smart Missoula. 3, 6, or 12 hour up and down event on Mt Sentinel. Join us by signing up to participate or pledging to support runners!

February 25. Climate Conversations. Deep Time: the journey of the universe and human response. Presented by Dan Spencer. 6-8pm, dinner provided. St Paul’s Lutheran Church (202 Brooks St). All welcome – Faith and Climate Action Speaker Series.