To explore. To push his limits. To experience the world and lay himself bare.
These are some of the reasons Pavel Cenkl, of Craftsbury, enjoys endurance running. “I also run because I love to teach, to inspire,” said the associate dean of academics at Sterling College in a recent video he produced.
The video explains his newest adventure, Climate Run 2017: Arctic Trail, in which he will set out in August to run the Arctic Trail, a 500-mile trail that traverses remote mountainous terrain between Norway, Sweden and Finland, all above the Arctic Circle.
On this extended 12-to- 14-day wilderness run, he hopes to set the record for the fastest time completing a largely self-supported run on this trail.
Along the way, he will take stock of the impact climate change has had on the landscape and the Sami people, an indigenous population that inhabits the region he will run through, and whose livelihood depends on fishing, fur trading and reindeer herding.
“I want to use this run to bear witness to the rapidly changing climate in the region,” he said, “especially its effects on local Sami communities, and on mountain cultures and environments along the way. The Arctic is among the places on Earth where climate change is most apparent and most pronounced.”
It’s not the first time Cenkl has set out on a long run. The first Climate Run took place in the summer of 2015 across Iceland. There, he completed a three-day, 150-mile solo run on ancient Viking paths along both trails and roads among rivers, waterfalls, glaciers, thermal springs and through a high desert.
His first Climate Run netted Cenkl recognition by SHIFT (Shaping How We Invest For Tomorrow) and as one of Vermont’s Top 10 Athletes by Vermont Sports magazine.
When Cenkl first conceived of the Iceland run, he had in mind raising awareness for changing the patterns of consumption.
“We live in a consumer society,” he said. “ And that’s not likely to change anytime soon.”
Consumers have opportunities to make a positive impact on their environment by carefully choosing the products they consume, and he used his Iceland run as a platform to ask consumers to consider the impacts made by their product choices.
But in his research leading up to the Iceland run, and in conversations afterward, Cenkl began to expand his perspective to broader thinking about social and ecological systems. Through courses he teaches — such as Nature Writing, Adventure Literature, and Resilience, Complexity and Flow — he asked his students to consider the separation of social and ecological systems, and to imagine what life would look like if humans operated within a single socio-ecological system.
He’s not asking his students to think about saving the environment or mitigating their impact on it, but rather to think proactively about being a part of that environmental system.
“ How can we bridge that gap?” Cenkl asked his students.
It’s the same question he is asking of those witnessing his upcoming endurance run. As individuals, he wants people also to consider the power of working within their communities to affect change in local, state and federal policy, as part of the socio-ecological system.
“I want people to engage in deeper conversations and build stronger communities to take better action,” he said.
Cenkl acknowledges that climate change is a tough concept to grasp for many because it’s such a complex thing.
He recalled a recent conversation with a friend about cross-country skiing, and pointed to the lack of snow in recent winters as an example of the dramatic and severe impact climate change is having on the things many people love to do.
“I want people to start changing their conversations and to move policy that recognizes we’re not at odds with the environment, but rather to think about how we can work with it,” he said. “We have to change our collective narrative about climate change from one of resistance to one of resilience.”
“Climate resilience isn’t about just one intervention, or several,” Cenkl said. “It’s looking at the entanglement of infrastructure, culture, policies, and ecology, and seeing what we can do to not just mitigate our impact but to build more intentional and resilient relationships between social and ecological systems.”
During this run, Cenkl will also work with Adventure Scientists, an organization that equips partners with data collected from the outdoors that are crucial to unlocking solutions to the world’s environmental challenges, to provide samples for their ongoing global microplastics project. Adventure Scientists looks to create a database of microplastics proliferation throughout the world’s marine and freshwater environments. ‘Cool conversations’
As for the running itself, Cenkl enjoys pushing his physical and mental limits with endurance distances in high altitude and remote locations. It’s a tool he uses to experience firsthand the intersection of social and ecological systems. He gains perspective through being in remote locations, exposing himself to the environment and being vulnerable to the elements.
He enjoys running alone, but he also enjoys sharing it with people. In addition to his other roles at Sterling College, Cenkl also serves as athletic director, and has founded a trail mountain and ultra-running team called the Skyrunners, with 17 students participating last fall. It’s the United States’ only collegiate Ultra Trail Running Team.
Cenkl has engaged people from around the world through his blog, where he shares stories about his training and preparation, and has challenged followers to run along with him by logging 500 of their own miles by August 2017. Forty people have signed up from around the world. “We’ll all finish on the same day,” he said. “And it’s led to cool conversations with people I don’t even know.”
Also, there is the cultural component to his upcoming run, as he considers the impact of climate change on the indigenous Sami people. Cenkl plans to talk with experts and communities at the beginning and end of his run about the ecological impact of climate change and how it is being keenly felt by the native Sami population.
Hoping to inspire
When he returns from his run, he will host talks with the public to share stories from his run, images of the landscape, and his observations of the impact of climate change in this region. It’s a chance to spark the conversations he’s asking communities to hold in considering positive change.
He held talks after his Iceland run as well. During a presentation to school children, an 11-year-old student asked him to share his favorite part about his Iceland run. “Actually, it’s this,” he responded. “To get to talk to people about my experience and climate change, and how it relates to their own lives.”
Cenkl has been training for his run as both a solo runner and as the coach of the Sterling College’s Skyrunners.
“My hope is to inspire other athletes, adventurers, and outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds to take the initiative to preserve the lands that we love to explore and to find solutions to the challenges of climate change.”
Cenkl has a crowdsourced funding campaign to support his run, and he has a blog detailing his journey on the way to the Arctic Trail at www.climaterun.org. He has set up a GoFundMe page to raise money to support the planning, travel, equipment, and supplies needed for his run.
Sarah Galbraith is a writer covering outdoor sports, nature, and environment. Follow her on Twitter @ adventurevt.