Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
For trail runner Peyton Thomas, life is about exploring and being open to unexpected opportunities. And while she’s more willing to go with the flow in her running career, she is laser-focused when it comes to her research.
Currently a biology and marine biology doctoral candidate, Thomas studies how environmental stressors affect marine species like the epaulette shark or little skate. “All of it is basically trying to relate back to potential effects of climate change because a lot of research is needed on basically all species, which is very difficult for a select few people to do,” she says. So she studies particular coastal species to be able to contribute to a greater body of work that can hopefully affect marine management practices and environmental legislation.
Thomas often combines her passion for running with environmental advocacy. After all, she became interested in protecting the environment by spending so much time exploring nature. “I just love the idea of bringing climate action to the outdoor community because we directly interact with the spaces that we run. We’re directly interacting with the environment, especially for trail running or climbing or snowboarding.” In 2020 she joined the Athlete Alliance as a trail running ambassador for Protect Our Winters, an environmental advocacy group made up of scientists, athletes, and business leaders. And in January of 2021 she joined the Patagonia trail running team where she gets to run for a brand that also aligns with her conservationist spirit.
“There’s this idea that if you want to keep having an outdoor lifestyle and using these spaces for your enjoyment and your adventure in terms of play, then you should also be advocating for it, so that it doesn’t get degraded,” she says.
Thomas is also an ultrarunner, a 2:42 marathoner (which she ran at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials), and a mentor to young advocates. We talked to the 25-year-old about what helps her succeed in all those roles.
Her Support Team
“First, I’d say definitely my mom. She’s always been very supportive of my running,” Thomas says. She also remains close with some of her track and cross-country teammates from Baylor University and cherishes their support.
But she really credits her coach, Tom Clifford, with pushing her to stretch her abilities and aspirations. “He’s very supportive and just very persistent with me, which is really helpful,” she says. With her busy lifestyle of running, research, and advocacy, she enjoys working with a coach who can keep her on her toes. “He was the one who encouraged me to try to run a qualifying time for the Olympic Trials,” she says.
Her Running Philosophy
Thomas bases her philosophy on kaizen, a Japanese term meaning “change for the better.” She learned the word from a friend, and it’s stuck with her. “It could mean a daily thing that you’re doing or something longer that you see happening throughout your lifetime,” she says. Running, for her, is a way to decompress and experience adventure, but also to become a better version of herself. “I have always had that perspective about the way that I should be living.”
A Day in the Life
Thomas wakes up around 4:30 or 5:00 every morning to make sure she has enough time to get in a run (after a quick cup of coffee) before she has to be at the lab at 7:30 a.m. After six to eight hours experimenting in the lab, she goes home to write or work on assignments for class. She’s in bed by 10 p.m. and ready to do it all again the next day.
She’s also recently started working with the Sunrise Movement in her spare evening hours. The Sunrise Movement is a youth-led organization focused on climate justice and climate action. “I’ve been working with kids, like nine and 10 years old, that are really interested in climate action and changing climate policy,” she says. In the months leading up to the 2020 elections, they had a lot of work to do. That has since shifted to pushing for a Biden administration climate cabinet. They’ve also teamed up with other organizations to rally around health care access, police reform, and living wages for everyone (“climate action affects everyone and disproportionately people who are not well-off,” says Thomas). “We’re just encouraging people to speak out about these issues that are impacting them and then actually going up to representatives to put policies into place that will actually help people,” she says.
“Ideally I’d like to get two fast marathons in 2021 and then two mid-distance ultra races,” she says. She knows there’s a lot more in the tank that she can show off. “I really think that I can run a really fast marathon, like run much faster than I’ve run this year,” she said when we spoke to her in November of 2020. California’s Broken Arrow Skyrace is on her radar if it goes on in June as planned.
Thomas also hopes to graduate this spring, as long as another research project doesn’t catch her eye first.