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Zoë Rom had a problem. The compost in her 400-square-foot basement apartment was starting to smell. Bad. And so, like any discerning millennial, she turned to the internet for help.
Her plea was answered by Tina Muir, former elite runner out of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and an environmentalist activist. Muir solved Rom’s compost issue, and the two became fast friends, bonding over shared passions for running, community, and protecting the planet, while also challenging each other on ideas and preconceptions.
The two captured their ideas and actionables into a comprehensive book, Becoming a Sustainable Runner, available now.
We sat down with Rom to learn how this book came to life, how it differs from your traditional “rugged individualist” self-help book, and how trail runners can most effectively employ its principles to enhance their own running, community, and climate activism. This interview has been edited and condensed slightly for clarity.
In the book, you talk a lot about sustainability, including sustainability at a personal life level. How did you juggle all of the things you do while also writing this book?
I think one of the fun tensions of this book is that a third of it is dedicated towards sustainability in terms of a running life.
As an individual, I am not awesome at sustainability. It’s actually really cool to have put something out into the world that kind of owns up to some vulnerabilities I have in that area.
It’s not coming from a place of, ‘I, as someone with perfect work-life balance have it figured out and I’m passing down what I’ve learned to you.’ Tina and I really wanted to pass down the fact that we are moving through this world with the same challenges and flaws that a lot of people are.
We’re functioning in the same broken systems and, rather than positioning ourselves as undeniable experts, we wanted to own our humanness and own our flaws in that process.
Maybe that makes us more trustworthy authorities in that regard.
We’re not saying we have it all figured out. One of the most interesting parts of doing this work was going back and editing something that I’d written when I was like 26 years old. I was like, ‘Oh my God, sweet baby Zoë, you had no idea what you were talking about when you were talking about work-life balance.’
So, is it safe to say that writing this book was not necessarily a “sustainable” process?
Yes, which is why you don’t write books all the time, I guess? I think there will be chapters of your life that aren’t inherently sustainable, which we cover in the book. I think it’s more about looking at the macro and really trying to ride those waves, rather than trying to make your sea be quiet all the time. That helped me embrace the wave-writing approach. I used to blame myself, feel bad, and get down whenever I couldn’t keep a calm interior sea rather than saying, ‘Yeah, we got some choppy waters today, but let’s ride, baby.’
Perhaps the wave metaphor extends to big burst, recede, repeat.
Totally. Like if you’re training for a 100-mile race, the idea is to intentionally overload your capacity in order to grow that capacity. But afterward, you do have to rest in a super intentional and concerted way. And that is something that I did after this book. I really did take a step back in my own writing, and in my career, and revisit from the ground up how I was managing things, and that has actually been really generative.
Sustainability is a daunting subject. What gave you and Tina the confidence to tackle it?
I wouldn’t necessarily say I have the confidence, even now. But we wanted to perform what we would like other people to see, which is stepping into imperfect and flawed advocacy, rather than waiting to be perfect and waiting to be confident.
And so, I would encourage folks who maybe feel the same as I do, to be like, ‘OK, I don’t live in as great alignment with my environmental values as I would like to, but I’m not going to let that stop me from doing the best I can to bring attention to these issues in a way that is in good faith and is grounded in my environmental values.’
Another thing that comes up for me here is to look at myself as an individual. I’m never going to feel enough or perfect or confident, particularly when it comes to climate change. And that can actually be a really powerful and generative feeling to lean into, because it will connect you with the community, which is when you’re going to be the most potent activist anyway. Get curious about those feelings of inadequacy, and maybe they can encourage you to step into your community in a new way.
The book is broken up into three parts: becoming a sustainable runner, sustaining your community, and sustaining your planet. Within that, some of the book is written in third person by you and Tina, some is first-person anecdotes, and each chapter ends with actionable steps. How did you land on this structure?
Part of it was recognizing that not everyone is going to rush out and buy a book on environmental justice and running. But a lot more people might be interested in hearing us out on those topics if there’s significant interest for them, in terms of helping their own running.
Your health depends on the health of your community and the health of your planet. So if you’re only focused on yourself and your own sustainable running, you’re leaving out two-thirds of the equation. It’s like a three-legged stool. Without any one component, things all fall flat.
We wanted to bring something for everyone so that there’s a context where, likely, you already agree with us. And then we’re going to challenge you on two other things.
While reading the book, I appreciated that you acknowledged the need to take care of yourself before you can take care of others. You just framed it in the opposite direction. The causal mechanism works either way.
What’s compelling for me is that I didn’t see much writing in this space. So much running writing has this rugged individualist approach where it’s all about how to optimize yourself. ‘Here’s how to get in green powder to feel healthy.’ Maybe you don’t need the green powder. Maybe you just need to advocate for clean air and water where you live. To understand those things as all necessarily interrelated is to also see an overemphasis on the individual. That systemic mindset, too, can keep people disengaged from doing the work that they want to, and need to, be doing.
This might be controversial, but after just watching Barbie it’s top of mind. The book reads like it was written by two women, which it was. It took this more holistic, empathetic perspective than you usually get in self-help books. Was that intentional or the byproduct of two female authors?
I think that having the perspective of two women really was foundational for this book, and I think one aspect of that is you’ll see is that we oscillate between our collective voice to single out our individual voices and the individual voices of activists and athletes that we look up to and who have challenged and informed us along the way. We wanted to create a kaleidoscope of perspectives rather than the stereotypically male perspective in this space, which would be a single voice.
Culturally, women are typically socialized to take on more communitarian aspects of life. Often we’re the ones who are providing the most labor for the family, doing the most emotional labor, doing the labor of child care, doing a lot of this more community-centric care. I think that that does sort of resonate, that having two women and really trying to ground it in a more wide-ranging perspective rather than just a dude telling you to take cold showers and meditate. (Although we do recommend meditation in the book!)
The book advocates for a more localized approach to racing, community, and climate activism. At the same time, trail and ultrarunning feels increasingly globalized. Any advice on how we can try to be more sustainable runners and climate activists in that context?
I feel like so often this question is levied against athletes as a ‘gotcha, but you fly!’ sort of question. And I’m going to say let’s all wade into the tension together as a running community. I don’t think I can in good faith say fly all you want. I also can’t in good faith say never fly again.
I’m encouraged when we see athletes like Kilian [Jornet], Damian Hall, or Xavier Thevenard set these boundaries for travel around what races they’re going to engage in. But I think we need to be honest that that is grounded in a sort of privilege of platform, and a privilege of taking up space in the sport that allows them to make that decision. But it also gives that decision more meaning than it would be if I said, ‘I, Zoë Rom, am going to bravely not race at UTMB this year.’
The impact of that is laughably small, right? But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be very careful about how I make these decisions. I think we just have to understand that there are so many complex valences. I always want to encourage people to be really considerate around questions like: where does privilege account for these decisions? Where does platform account for these decisions?
If you’re only focused on yourself and your own sustainable running, you’re leaving out two-thirds of the equation. It’s like a three-legged stool. Without any one component, things all fall flat.
I’m not saying that to let myself off the hook. I really try to be conscientious about these travel decisions that I make, and make sure that, at the end of the day, I’m comfortable with them because I’m making those decisions meaningfully for other communities as well. The amount of carbon I emit as a part of my lifestyle meaningfully impacts people all over the world.
Obviously, I should be more mindful about my consumption. There is no ethical consumption under capitalism. You can check that off your bingo free space. But yelling at people for buying one extra pair of shoes a year achieves so little when you could be engaged in your local community on issues of housing, justice, economic justice, reproductive justice, food, justice, agriculture, water, air, housing and urban development, taxation, all these things can be much more effective ways for you engage. But you can’t let yourself off the hook and buy all the shoes you want either. It’s very complicated.
Becoming a Sustainable Runner packs in the information and each chapter ends with a list of action items. How do you envision someone most effectively consuming the book?
Very slowly. And maybe with journaling? I’m a big fan of marginalia. I love books because I really like interacting with the text in a physical way, because I feel like that helps me stay engaged, helps me stay focused and present with the material, and really be in dialogue with it.
My challenge for people is they don’t just let this text wash over them. I want them to exist in it. I want them to challenge and push back and interact and be in dialogue with our voices and ideas in a way that feels relevant to them.
I also think that the best way we absorb information is sort of struggling with it. There’s this perception we should read in just a way that’s extractive. I want people to move beyond that extractive sort of framework in the same way that we’re advocating against just consumption and extraction in this book. I want you to engage with the text in the same way that feels community focused, that feels generative, that feels challenging, and that feels…sustainable.
Becoming a Sustainable Runner is available online through many major retailers. Find your copy here.