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Caption: Clare Gallagher after her win at the 2017 Courmayeur Champex Chamonix Ultramarathon. Credit: Trail Runner Magazine

Her junior year, Clare Gallagher ’14 returned early to campus for cross country preseason. It would be the third of four disappointing seasons for her, but she didn’t know it yet. She was focused instead on an alarming trend. 

Everyone –  “I mean everyone” – was gushing about their Wall Street interviews. 

“I’m not talking shit,” she laughed, “but our world is dying. I knew I didn’t want to use my Princeton education to serve a giant financial institution with questionable morals.” 

So she didn’t.

Instead, Gallagher earned a fellowship with Princeton in Asia and spent two years in Bangsak, Thailand. She put her degree in ecology and evolutionary biology to work and founded Earthraging with English, a program that taught young Bangsak students about water-safe skills and their marine backyard environment.

Those two years made Gallagher realize that she was passionate about service, about teaching, about nature advocacy. They made her realize something else as well: that she still loved running.

For each of her four years at Princeton, Gallagher had competed on the women’s cross country and track and field teams. As a senior in high school, she’d placed 16th at Footlocker Nationals. Her injury-riddled college years had panned out less well. 

She’d run once at NCAA Cross Country Nationals and locked down top-ten finishes at invitationals across the country. Those results weren’t enough for her.

“I’m extremely grateful for the four years I had running at Princeton,” she said, “but I never accomplished anything really significant.” By the time she graduated, she’d grown disenchanted with her sport.

For former women’s cross country coach Peter Farrell, Gallagher’s talent was never a question. “I knew she had potential,” he said. “But we never gave her the vehicle, the distances, to flourish. I guess she just never found her niche here.”

Gallagher found that niche in Bangsak, a tiny southern fishing village where she was the lone English-speaker. In dire need of a way to pass the time, she decided to start exploring her surroundings. Walks turned into runs. Hour-long runs turned into two-hour-long runs. Two hours turned into six.

And in a way that she hadn’t for the past four years, Gallagher loved every step.

In 2014, she caught word of Thailand’s inaugural ultramarathon, an 80-kilometer trail race near the borders of Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand.

“I had nothing to do that weekend,” she said. “So I signed up.”

A whim turned into a win. Gallagher trounced the women’s division and placed sixth overall. She was hooked, again.

“I think everyone should try an ultra,” she said. “It’s incredible. I mean everything can go totally wrong — you hallucinate, you get injured, you shit your pants — but you also get this natural high that’s impossible to get anywhere else.”

Two years and thousands of miles later, Gallagher returned to the United States. In the wake of her initial victory, she’d run a series of other ultras: the North Face Endurance Challenge in Utah, the Cimarron Endurance Run, the Golden Gate Dirty 30. Gallagher had crushed each of them.

So naturally, she decided to switch it up.

She registered for the 2016 Leadville 100 Miler, one of trail running’s most prestigious races. It was more than twice as long as anything she’d run before. And every inch of it was above 9000 feet.

In 19 hours and 27 seconds, Gallagher won.

To be fair, she didn’t just win. She dominated. She recorded the second-fastest women’s time in history. The second-place competitor finished a full two hours behind her. Indeed she had potential. 

Her victory electrified the running world. It catapulted her from relative obscurity to (admittedly niche) rock-star status.

Trail Runner Magazine called her a “phenom.” To Runner’s World Magazine, she was “a name to be reckoned with.” To Abby Levene ’13, Gallagher’s ex-Princeton-teammate and now-professional -teammate, the triumph was “insane.”

“It was probably one of the most impressive performances in the history of the sport,” said Levene. “It was mind-blowing. She’s absolutely ferocious.”

Farrell echoed Levene. His initial response to Gallagher’s win, he said, was “shock.”  

But after further reflection, he wasn’t surprised. “She has a steel-trap mind,” he said. “She just locks onto something and doesn’t let go. She brings ultra-focus to everything she does.”

Gallagher didn’t stop after Leadville. She set a course record with a first-place finish in the 2017 Courmayeur Champex Chamonix Ultramarathon. She was one of UltraRunning Magazine’s 2017 ultrarunners of the year. Forest fires cancelled a planned 50-miler in Sausalito, California. To keep herself busy that weekend, Gallagher instead set the world’s fastest known time of the Zion Traverse.

Those historic victories earned Gallagher sponsorships with Petzl, La Sportiva, Revant Optics, and Honey Stinger. Suddenly, she had a platform. People knew her name. People cared about what she had to say.

She knew exactly what she wanted them to hear.

At Princeton, Levene said, Gallagher had “constantly bugged the cross country team to recycle.” An environmental ethics course with philosophy professor Peter Singer had “changed her life.” Based on two summers of scuba research, her senior thesis dealt with the impact of climate change on coral reefs. She remembers hosting an Earth Day event at Frist Campus Center. The turnout was “lame,” she said. “But the advocacy just felt right.”

Her extensive academic background had taught Gallagher about climate change. But her career as a trail runner has exposed her to its effects on a visceral level.

“Mountains are becoming increasingly dangerous. Glaciers are melting in the Alps and the Dolomites. Rock fall is increasing. Forest fires are becoming a constant. It’s pathetic, and I see all of it.”

“In the wake of all that, traditional sports weren’t enough anymore,” she said. “My going around and winning races all around the world was great, but it wasn’t enough anymore. It wasn’t doing anything to save our home planet.”

There exists one company whose goals align precisely with Gallagher’s. Last December, Patagonia changed its official mission statement: the company is “in business to save our home planet.”

Gallagher now works as one of Patagonia’s global sports activists. She partners with nonprofits like Protect Our Winters to lobby for carbon emission reduction and a renewable energy economy.  

“One of the hardest parts about being a professional athlete is feeling like you’re not contributing to the world,” said Levene. “Clare perfectly balances being an intellectual and an athlete. She contributes in the most tangible way. What she learned at Princeton, athletically and academically, has totally informed what she does now.”

Gallagher is the first to acknowledge that her career — which Levene called a “dream job” — is unconventional for a Princeton graduate.

She wishes it weren’t.

“At Princeton, you play baseball and then you work at Goldman. If that’s what inspires you, great. But that’s not how it has to be. There exists an entire universe of career options outside of New York City.”

Evidently, most people are not cut out for Gallagher’s athletic prowess. But she stresses that activism is accessible to all. 

“If you have social media, if you have any sort of following,” she said, “you should talk about something important. Talk about what you care about. That’s what Princeton is supposed to teach you: to think for yourself, to express yourself, to write well. Use it.”

Gallagher is a formidable athlete and a formidable activist. She sets national, international, historic records. She strives for change in her community and for other ones. She is the face of a company, of her sport, of a movement. She boasts an awe-inspiring six-pack. To Levene, she is “inspiring on every level.”

But to Farrell, Gallagher – who admits to eating Betty Crocker frosting straight from the tub – is mortal on one level, at least. 

“She does so much,” said Farrell. “And somehow, she fuels it all with junk.”

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