Before dawn on Aug. 20, a custom-made double-barrel shotgun fired into the air at the starting line of the Leadville 100, sending more than 700 competitors into the dark. The race, aptly referred to as the Run Across the Sky, is a 100-mile-out-and-back ultramarathon with elevation ranging from 9,200 to 12,600 feet, with a total elevation gain of 15,744 feet.
This year, Leadville was filled with familiar faces, including many past winners. Joining the other 700 at the starting line was Boulder resident Clare Gallagher, who had her eyes set on the next 100 miles up and over Hope Pass to Winfield and back to Leadville. At the start of the Leadville 100 six years prior, Gallagher was relatively unknown. 19:00:27 later, she completed her first 100-mile race and won the 2016 Leadville 100 with the course’s second-fastest female time.
This win jump-started Gallagher’s running career, which now includes sponsorship deals from Patagonia, La Sportiva and Petzl. In the past six years, a slew of victories in world-class competitions (2017 CCC 100K in France and the 2019 Western States 100 in California) has led some to place Gallagher among the GOATs of running.
Earlier this year, Gallagher competed in the Black Canyon 100, a golden ticket race for the Western States 100. Gallagher went into Black Canyon knowing that if she won, she would refuse the ticket to the Western States 100, wanting to return to compete again in Leadville instead.
“Leadville is just this emotionally, historically charged place for me personally,” Gallagher says, “but then also, of course, in the sport itself, because it’s one of the oldest 100 milers in the country. It revitalized this sleepy mining town. It’s Colorado, the Sawatch Range, such a beautiful part of the world.”
Her coach, David Roche, calls the Western States 100 “the Super Bowl” of ultrarunning in the U.S. “And she stuck with [her decision not to race in the Western States 100],” Roche says. “People almost never stick with that decision, and it just shows that Clare has the type of character that she says what she means and she means what she says.”
Gallagher went into this year’s Leadville 100 as one of the favorites to win, along with long-time training partner Addie Bracy. Bracy had just come off a win at the Speedgoat 50K in July and was the runner-up at Leadville in 2018.
The two remained neck and neck throughout the first 60 miles, swapping the lead four times between aid stations. Just before returning to the Hope Pass aid station, Gallagher overtook Bracy and took off from there. Bracy, unfortunately, had to drop out at the 70-mile marker after feeling the same symptoms of rhabdomyolysis (a potentially fatal condition) at mile marker 60 that hospitalized her in February.
On the Some Work All Play podcast, Gallagher revealed she threw up everything in her stomach at mile 75. She gave a lot of credit for her win to her pacer, Clint Anders, who kept the mood light and helped her replace those vital calories.
“You can’t really feel sorry for yourself,” Gallagher says. “There’s no time for that, especially at mile 75. It’s a really pivotal time in the race. You still have a lot of miles to run. And so you have to stay focused … I had a really good pacer at that time, and he didn’t give in. He didn’t feel sorry for me. He just said, ‘Swish and spit,’ and gave me some water. And so it just takes focus and discipline.”
With just under a marathon of miles left, Gallagher was able to find the fight within herself and put it all together to finish with a time of 19:37:57, the fifth-fastest female time in Leadville history.
Roche explains that he uses the term ‘Earthraging’ with Gallagher, who isn’t driven by ego.
“When she is out in nature and is like, ‘I am here in this beautiful spot and through my body, I am celebrating this,’ that sort of internal justification is so much more sustainable than external validation that comes and goes,” he says. “And she wasn’t chasing ego at all—she was just chasing love: love of nature, love of running, you know, love of the good shit, the bad shit.”
Thirty-six hours after the race, Gallagher is back in Boulder in class at the University of Colorado where she is now pursuing her Ph.D. under the guidance of Dr. Cassandra Brooks in the Department of Environmental Studies. Gallagher studied ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton and graduated in 2014.
During the break between graduating from Princeton and going back to school at Boulder, Gallagher stayed committed to environmental justice.
“I think I have been an environmentalist at my core and in my heart really since I was a little girl,” she says. “At (Cherry) Creek (High School) I was president of the recycling club and we sold bracelets that said ‘stop global warming.’ At Princeton, I was highly involved with a divestment campaign to divest the university’s endowment from fossil fuels.”
Throughout her time as a Patagonia Global Sports Activist, Gallagher has used her spotlight to highlight several environmental issues, including testifying in 2019 to the Bureau of Land Management against all oil leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Shortly after running across the Mojave Desert in Joshua Tree National Park, Gallagher received a phone call from fellow Patagonia athlete Tommy Caldwell inviting her to Fort Yukon in Alaska to learn more about how climate change has affected the Gwich’in people, a tribe who has lived in the region for 20,000 years, according to some estimates.
The catch was having to leave for Alaska for multiple weeks and return only a few days before the Western States 100, causing a significant break in her training schedule. For Gallagher the decision was easy. She joined Caldwell and two other Patagonia athletes, Austin Siadak and Luke Nelson, in Alaska.
In January 2021, newly elected president Joe Biden issued an executive order halting all drilling in the Refuge, where the Gwich’in people live. In June of the same year, Biden suspended all oil drilling leases issued by the Trump administration.
Gallagher believes she is better off moving on from an advocacy role and wants to work to influence policy more.
“For now,” Gallagher says, “I feel that being in science and potentially more closely related to the policy side is where I am meant to be.”
Gallagher said she plans on taking a few months to rest and get back into the swing of school, but she’s already thinking about the next year of races.