Running Up For Air 2021Events
An Interview with Martin Johnson
Photography by Phil Young
Running Up For Air is an endurance challenge, involving running up and down a mountain for three, six, 12 or 24 hours. In May 2019, the first European edition took place in Chamonix, France. And on 31st July, 2021, Patagonia are bringing Running Up For Air to you, wherever you run vert – over hills, through the mountains or even up and down the stairs.
Today, across Europe, we are all breathing in toxic air. It damages our health and the environment around us. As trail runners we feel this and for communities living in busy cities, exposure to air pollution is a critical issue.
In advance of this year’s challenge, we spoke to trail runner Martin Johnson to learn more about his Fastest Known Time along the Thames Path National Trail, commute running and the importance of raising awareness of air pollution.
Sidetracked: How did you get involved with trail running?
MJ: My experience of the outdoors was limited throughout my childhood and teens. Growing up in south-east London, it just wasn’t something I was aware of. Nobody introduced me to that world. Hiking holidays in the countryside, in the mountains, or trips to the seaside were not things I did. I played a lot of football, but in my mid-twenties I stopped and did a couple of marathons for charity and some casual running. It was only a few years ago I got back into running after the birth of my two boys, really to get back into shape.
I started running to work, from the outskirts of London into the city, to avoid being packed onto the tube like a sardine in the morning. A friend, who I used to run into the city with, then introduced me to the wonderful world of trail running, and I’ve spent the last few years discovering a world that was unknown to me. I’ve been on a journey from a commute runner – a practical application of running – to something that has grown into a passion.
People in cities tend to be road runners. So yes, mine has been a slightly strange route, arriving late to the outdoors and from an inner-city environment. It is not like I open my door and am met by endless trails to explore! I’m reliant on seeking out green spaces in the city to get my trail fix. Being a father of two, living and working in London, it’s not always an option to head to the countryside to run trails there. So I am always seeking out urban woodlands, green spaces or the river – to train, to prepare for events, and to get closer to nature and the outdoors. In my area there are a couple of route options, but I go for the Thames Path and river route to get away from main roads. And that decision to take the river route, as the more ambient, cleaner way, has led to this other challenge which I have taken part in recently, to run the full length of it!
Where do you run local to you?
In the spirit of running outdoors, I don’t like the idea of jumping in a car to drive 20 to 30 miles to run a trail, so I try to do as much as I can from my front door. This means seeking out woodlands and local hills, such as Shooter’s Hill and Oxleas Wood – a woodland around 10 minutes from me, with some nice inclines in there. Occasionally, when life allows, I will get out further afield to the North or South Downs Way, to get some really specific training in.
You’re taking part in Running Up For Air 2021, a Europe-wide endurance challenge to raise awareness of air pollution. London has the highest health costs from air pollution of any European city. As a London-based runner is this something you have experienced and what do you think can be done to improve things?
Through my years of commute running, and as someone who experiences both running in the city and on the trails, I can quite literally feel the difference in the air quality and my breathing. I always think of pollution as this invisible problem. But when you have that experience of running out in the countryside or the mountains, in the clean air versus cities, it becomes very apparent.
In London, we had the tragic case of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, who lived in a neighbouring borough to me, near the extremely busy South Circular Road in Lewisham. Ella was a young girl who passed away in 2013, aged nine, and was the first person in the UK to have air pollution cited as the reason for her death. Her mum Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah is a great campaigner and is bringing awareness to the issues of health problems caused by air pollution. As the father of two children, that particular case brought it home for me, especially being down the road from where we live. I would like to see more information being provided on air pollution from the government and more events like Running Up For Air, and other initiatives which bring awareness and make this invisible problem visible.
Do you think it’s something that the trail running community is engaged with already?
I think more could be done within the trail running community. It sounds like a cliché, but we have a vested interest in the environment, air pollution and everything which comes with it – so there should be a willingness to bring about change for the better. As it’s not something which is talked about that often, it’s not as high on the agenda as other environmental issues. It would be nice to see what we can do to bring about some action!
There’s a lot of debate about how trail running can become more inclusive. Do you think this is happening and what needs to be done?
Conversations are starting to be had with organisers and with brands, off the back of George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter movement. I have seen some positive steps, conversations and great initiatives to try to improve representation and access over the past year, and I hope these will continue. Up until a few years ago, I didn’t know trail running existed as a standalone sport, so it was new to me. In part it was because I didn’t see anyone like me doing it. So there is still a lot of work to be done. I hope that it stays on the agenda, and that brands, organisers and communities work together to continue the positive conversations.
You’re passionate about getting young people into trail running. Can you tell us a bit about what you are doing on that front?
As a father of two boys, and someone who discovered the outdoors and nature much later in life, when I look back, I didn’t really have any role models or cultural reference points to bring me to that world.
But now I’ve felt the physical, mental and social benefits from discovering trail running, the community, and the outdoors, so I think it would be fantastic if I could be that role model to inspire young people to get involved earlier in life. Last year I joined Black Trail Runners, a group which is looking to improve representation, access and skills for black and brown communities in cities, and increase participation in trail running events.
That set the ball rolling for me to meet some other groups, and i’m currently working with an organisation called Muted Media that focuses on young people in the prison service and pupil referral units – those who have fallen out the education system – to encourage them to look at the outdoors, trail running and hiking as positive things. Often these young people have never had to check weather reports, or done map reading, orienteering, or any general life skills around planning, so we try to teach them and pass on the skills in a safe environment. I’m trying to get involved in as many initiatives as possible that encourage young people, particularly from marginalised black and brown communities and working class backgrounds, to engage in the outdoors.
You achieved a Fastest Known Time (FKT) along the Thames Path National Trail recently. Can you tell us about this?
In conversation with Phil Young, of Black Trail Runners, I mentioned that I had a dream to get the most unlikely person to lace up a pair of trail running shoes and discover the outdoors. For me that would be a young person from south-east London who has no idea of the outdoors, or that these activities exist.
During my run commute, I had always fantasised that when I got to my office in central London, I would just carry on running along the Thames, and see how far I could get. I mentioned that to Phil, and we started discussing how the Thames Path runs 184 miles from the Thames Barrier in south-east London, right out to Kemble in the Cotswolds and the British countryside. It’s a symbolic journey as we’re encouraging people to get up out of the city and discover the outdoors. So we thought it would be fantastic to run the river, as not only a journey to the countryside but also to explore the complex relationship that black and brown people have had with the outdoors, through the history of the river itself.
Over the last few years I’ve built up this love affair with the Thames, but the history of it includes the transatlantic slave trade. Through the run, I set the FKT, but also I wanted to inspire others to get up and lace up – to make people aware there are ways you can form a deeper relationship with the outdoors, even when living in cities.
You became a Patagonia Ambassador this year. Are you driven to become more environmentally engaged?
Patagonia is a brand that I’ve admired from a distance for many years now – leading the way on so many environmental and social issues. In the short time I’ve been with the team I’ve learned so much and my eyes have been opened to so many more issues, and ways you can make a difference.
Often there is the feeling that these issues are so big we can’t, as individuals, impact them for the better, but already I’m learning that you can raise awareness and create positive change through action, collaboration and conversation. Often people in cities are disengaged when we’re talking about protecting our outdoor spaces and nature, so I feel that by getting people out into nature we all become invested in it.
Do you have plans for Running Up For Air 2021 and where will you run it?
Any excuse for me to run up and down a hill is great. And because you can take part wherever you are in Europe on 31 July, RUFA will kickstart my training for my mountain legs. I’m hoping to get out to the Peak District or the North or South Downs Way and get up some proper hills.
And finally, what advice would you give to people who are thinking of taking up trail running?
The images that the trail media or brands put out there, often you see people running in the Grand Canyon or up Mont Blanc. It creates this impression that it’s something which is unattainable, or not for you if you live in a city. But I would encourage people to get out to their local trails or woodlands or even a park or hill – just give it a go, start slowly and build from there. I am a firm believer that once people engage with trail running, that immediate benefit you feel from it quickly becomes addictive. Don’t be put off by the imagery of the mountains, find your local spot, throw on your shoes and go for a one-mile run!
Running Up For Air 2021 will connect runners across Europe to raise funds for 18 environmental groups fighting for clean air.
Whether you are logging your vert on alpine trails, or lapping the hill in your local park, every vertical metre counts. A full 24-hour grind or a relaxed three hours at a comfy pace, pack the gels or the beers, grab some friends and join us for one uplifting day – experienced your way.