Fiona O’Keeffe raced into the record books in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials this year. In her debut at the distance, she smashed the previous record, set by Shalane Flanagan in 2012, by over three minutes. She also became the youngest woman to claim victory. She’s focusing on her performance, but she’s also embracing the opportunity to champion environmental advocacy, leveraging her running platform to inspire change.

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Fiona is well qualified to talk about climate change; she earned her degree in Earth Systems at Stanford University. That course of study was a natural fit for her. “I grew up in California and grew up spending a ton of time outside,” she says. “So I definitely always loved and appreciated nature. Then as I got older, I was running outside all the time. And we did start to see a lot of forest fires, and there was a big drought. The whole time I was in high school, I never ran a race in the rain because the drought was so bad.So I did start to see the crossover of it early on.”

She appreciates that running gives her a way to be in nature. “We’re starting to see research studies about the benefits of time in green spaces psychologically. But I can just speak on my own experience of how much better I feel when I’ve been outside for a run, and in the sunshine and the fresh air. 

“I feel like it gives me time to think and slow down and just connect to my surroundings. And it’s always a cool run if you pass any animal or something like that. Like just today, my teammate picked up, or she didn’t pick up actually, but there was this giant spider crossing the trail and we all stopped to look at it. So it’s little stuff like that, that a lot of the time, you wouldn’t notice or even have the opportunity to observe. And you know, running is, for runners, naturally the vehicle that gets us out there.”

Runners’ exposure to the natural world makes the changing climate personal for them. “I think that we are seeing a lot more discussion around temperatures on race day and that kind of thing,” Fiona observes. “And that’s a conversation that pretty much everyone is engaging in, regardless of where they stand on environmental issues. Let’s just take the next step and acknowledge that this is part of a pattern. It’s not random that we’re seeing more races moved around or canceled, due to these warmer temperatures and other factors. 

“So maybe we can try to make it more constructive, instead of worrying alone and talk about, ‘Okay, this is a reality that we’re gonna face and why is this happening and what can we do?’  How can we make more responsible decisions individually and as a collective and hopefully push for systemic change, because I think that a lot of people end up feeling guilty or like they’re not doing enough individually, when really it’s these larger systems that we’re operating within that are going to move the needle or not.”

That feeling of guilt, or the sense that if they’re not living 100% sustainably, they shouldn’t be talking about conservation, makes many people hesitant to speak about environmental issues, but Fiona doesn’t allow perfect to be the enemy of good. “I like the idea of imperfect advocacy a lot because I’m not perfect. I’m flying around to all these races, using new running shoes all the time, that kind of thing. And I’m aware that my actions do probably have a substantial carbon impact. But at the same time, I do have a bit of a larger platform now. So that hopefully gives me the ability to speak on this issue a bit more and get more people in the running community to themselves acknowledge, ‘Okay, yeah, I’m not some climate saint out here, but I can let people know that this is something that I care about,’ and this is a conversation that we can start to have more in the running community and work on solutions together.”

For Fiona, imperfect advocacy means “not being afraid to just start, even if you don’t know exactly what that looks like, being open to raising your voice about climate and other environmental issues. I think that it’s really important to start  engaging with the information and the system. Like advocating for getting out to vote, I think is really important. Learning more about what these issues mean on a local level is a good place to start, wherever your community is. 

“It’s being willing to go into it with that beginner’s mindset and try to learn and engage with people, without feeling like you need to yourself be perfect about everything. And be okay that there’s maybe a little bit of hypocrisy happening, but we’re all learning and we can hopefully all be on this journey towards improvement.”

Early on, Fiona feared that her lifestyle as a professional athlete delegitimized whatever she had to say about environmental issues. “But,” she says, “I’m trying to push myself to have more of these conversations and see that as a vehicle of action, hopefully. And then I do try to do little things like make sure that I’m donating old and used gear, instead of just throwing it away. I do feel guilty sometimes about the amount of travel, but I try to see it as a privilege. And also, if I can perform better, then I will have more of a platform to speak out on this stuff and be taken a bit more seriously. 

“And I also think that this is the system that we have right now. So I don’t think that me choosing to move away to the woods and live off the land because that will have zero carbon impact, does anything to help change that system. Removing myself from it doesn’t help change what already exists.”

Elite athletes are often wary of expressing opinions that may be unpopular and cost them fans or sponsorships. “I think that anything that can have any sort of political spin put on it can feel like something that we want to avoid,” Fiona says. “You know, it’s the line, ‘Shut up and dribble,’ that basketball players get. That narrative does get fed to athletes that, ‘Oh, it’s just your job to perform.’ But I think that we’re seeing more open conversations in general in athletics. 

“Like I think that the conversation around mental health, for example, has taken off in the last few years in a really positive way. I think that people feel that they can speak more freely on that. I’m hoping that, not that this is a comparable issue really, but just in general that athletes feel more comfortable having real conversations about concerns that they have in other areas of their lives, and environmental issues might be one of those for people. So if it is something that people care about, not being afraid to show that they are a full person who has thoughts and worries and concerns and passions outside of the sport, too.”

Of course, fear of criticism isn’t limited to professional athletes or others in the spotlight. It’s something that prevents many people from speaking up, but, Fiona says, “If you feel like you would regret not saying something, it’s better to get out there and say it and stand for something, and deal with it if there’s a little bit of negative feedback on the other side. At the end of the day, I think it’s knowing what sits well with you. If you feel more aligned with your values because of what you’re doing or speaking out about, then that’s going to make a bigger impact than whatever little grumpy comments you might get.

“I would also encourage anybody to have those conversations at home and in whatever their running community is, whether that’s just the one friend that you meet up with or if you meet with a run club. I think that you might find that there’s more of an audience and more willingness to engage on this stuff than you might imagine.”


Fiona’s Instagram

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climate change, environmental action, marathon, olympic trials, Olympics

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