In 2018, Canyon Woodward teamed up with his friend and fellow climate activist, Chloe Maxmin, to manage her campaign running for the Maine House of Representatives. She became the first Democrat to ever represent her district. Two years later, he organized her state senate run, which saw her become the youngest female state senator in Maine’s history.
A champion ultra runner, Canyon sees parallels between trail running and the campaign trail. Running also gives him a respite from the demands of politics, whether he’s on the old logging trails of his native North Carolina or competing in the UTMB.
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Canyon grew up in the mountains, in southern Appalachia and the North Cascades of Washington State. He and his siblings would ride their bikes to their one-room schoolhouse, and “just have total freedom to roam. Making trails in the woods, and paddling in the rivers, and doing raft trips, mountain biking, just eating up the outdoors.” Not that he entirely embraced it at the time. “Some of it certainly against my will,” he admits, “getting dragged on many a hike that I didn’t want to go on.”
He looks back on a childhood spent largely outdoors with his family and says, “I’m so grateful for it and it’s a core part of my identity and who I am and what I’m interested in now, but at the time, to get me out, there was a lot of licorice bars, and coaxing through treats, or what have you.”
When he went away to Harvard, he didn’t entirely cut ties to the outdoor lifestyle, but running took a back seat until a year after his graduation. His older brother, Forest, was working on a film, 3100: Run and Become, which followed the stories of long-distance running communities. Canyon got to go to the Navajo Nation to shoot with them there, and started to get back into running with his brother.
He had a book on ultra running, so he and Forest decided to follow the training plan for a 100-miler. They hadn’t even decided if they would actually cover the distance, but once they were into the training, he says, “We were like, ‘Well, we might as well just run 100 at the end of this.’” They ran their first 100-miler, the C&O Canal 100, together.
Training for the race was “a huge breakthrough” for him. He embraced the “type two fun” of daily running. “There’s days I really don’t want to do it, but I know I’m just gonna get out there and I feel so good, physically and mentally and spiritually, when I’m in that kind of committed practice of running every day, and I haven’t looked back since.”
That running routine has helped him stay balanced in a stressful line of work. “I’ve stayed in the groove of that being a really core practice for me. It’s been a huge, positive part of my life of just keeping my cup full, even amongst the organizing work that I do that can take so much and can be such a burnout culture. I think running has been really key for staying energized and staying in it for other parts of my life.”
Long distance running has also reconnected him to the land. Going to the Navajo Nation was “a really powerful experience” for him. “It was all about the land; healing the land, connecting with the land, and being deeply present with each other. And I think I took a lot back home with me from that. I feel like my sense of place for where I grew up has deepened. Getting to go out on foot and go 10, 15, 20 miles over land from the place I was born, in every direction through these mountains. I feel so much more deeply connected to where I grew up.”
It’s taken him to new parts of the world, as well. He was in the elite field at the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) this year, as part of the Green Racing Project. The GRP sponsors high-level, post-collegiate athletes, but it’s about more than bringing home medals. As Canyon explains, “The mission is very much around sustainability, and environmental ethics, and being stewards of the land and the communities that you’re in.”
Those are values that resonate deeply with him, and with Chloe Maxmin. When they were at Harvard together, they co-coordinated a successful campaign to get the university to take its $40 billion endowment out of fossil fuel companies. After he graduated, Canyon worked on Bernie Sanders’ campaign, and when Chloe decided to run for the state House in 2018, he went to Maine to serve as her campaign manager.
It was a daunting challenge. Could a young, female, leftist climate activist win an election in rural America? The political landscape had become decidedly unfriendly towards their agenda. In 2009, there was an even partisan divide among rural voters, but by the time of Chloe’s run, there had been “a huge lurch” to the right. “We lost almost 1000 seats in state legislatures over that time,” Canyon explains, “which was the biggest net loss of any party since the World War Two era.”
Still, Chloe prevailed, first in the House, then in the state Senate. Canyon credits their success to their grassroots campaigning. “Our approach was no script, just going in and trying to have an authentic, human connection and see what was on their minds and engage with that. Being willing to hear points of view that you disagreed with, in some cases really, really strongly disagreed with, and to stay in it with that person, to have empathy for where they were coming from. If you’re going in with the mindset of you’ve got to win an argument, you’ve lost that person from the get go.”
Canyon has been able to apply lessons he’s learned from running to politics, and the other way around. “It’s never about a single election cycle or about a single race. If that’s your mindset towards running, or if that’s your mindset towards organizing for the world that you want to live in, you’re gonna be really disappointed and out of the game really fast. We have to look at it as this long, long distance, run over many election cycles and training cycles. That’s just the reality of how political change and social change happens here and we’re gonna take steps back and we’re gonna take steps forward. Unless we can process the defeats and use them as motivation to get back on the horse, we’re not gonna be able to be as effective as we could be.”
You can watch the trailer for the short film, Rural Runners, following Chloe’s House and Senate runs and Canyon’s trail running career, here.
Dirt Road Organizing’s website
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“Thank you” to Canyon! We look forward to hearing your thoughts on the show.