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An Ultrarunner’s Guide to Efficiency, Renewables, and Resiliency

When I’m not behind my editor’s desk at Rocky Mountain Institute you can often find me on the trails of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, typically running, and usually for long distances. By long I mean longer-than-a-marathon-or-two long. For example, my training run this past Saturday was a 32-mile trail run on a loop through the Indian Peaks Wilderness, with more than 16,000 vertical feet of elevation change that included climbing and crossing the Continental Divide twice.

I’m a trail/mountain ultrarunner, a breed of runner—often accused of some form of insanity—that focuses on runs (and for me, about half a dozen times per year, races) of any distance longer than the 26.2 miles of a traditional marathon. Most of my races are between 50 kilometers (31 miles) and 100 kilometers (62 miles), and as I write these words I’m seriously contemplating my first 100-miler in 2014. But I digress.

Runners—and especially ultrarunners, I think—are acutely aware of issues involving fuel and energy, of sustaining output over the long haul, of making upfront investments that pay back-end dividends. We have to pay attention to these things; our success depends on such factors.

As the U.S. grapples with an energy transition, with media accounts of “battles” between utilities and solar, and with the behemoth of global climate change, there are lessons we can learn from the seeming absurdity of ultrarunning. In fact, mountain ultrarunning offers a number of valuable reminders—many of them familiar, if stated here from an atypical perspective—that we’d do well to pay attention to.

The scale of your input should match the scale of your output

In his landmark paper “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken”—published in a 1976 issue of Foreign Affairs—RMI cofounder and chief scientist Amory Lovins likened the disparity between energy generation in and energy end use out to “cutting butter with a chainsaw.” Energy should be matched in scale and quality to end-use needs. I’ve seen just such an energy mismatch many times during races. When an uphill climb gets steep enough, smart racers “downshift” from a run to a power hike. Inexperienced racers, meanwhile, often try to maintain their run up the hill, moving only marginally faster than a power hiker yet expending significantly more energy for more or less the same output. The smart use of energy is to scale the input—switch to the power hike and spend far less energy for pretty much equivalent output.

Efficiency is prudent

RMI often notes how efficiency is one of the cheapest and most readily available sources of energy. A focus on efficiency likewise shifts our thinking from one of energy supply and consumption to one of judicious end use. Ultrarunners are keenly aware of such an emphasis on efficiency. Our muscles store and run on glycogen, derived from carbohydrates, and each person’s body has a limited supply … about 2,000 calories or so, give or take. You’ll easily deplete those energy stores in the course of an ultramarathon, which then requires constant replenishment via energy gels and other foods. In other words, we become dependent on energy consumption. But there’s another way: fostering metabolic efficiency. With appropriate diet and training, ultra runners can activate a fat-burning metabolic pathway. Even in elite, lean athletes, fat stores can total tens of thousands of calories worth of energy. In other words, it’s basically a limitless supply that reduces the dependency on glycogen. Fewer calories of glycogen per mile equals greater metabolic efficiency and a more successful athlete. As Ed Ayres, founding editor of Running Times and former editor at the Worldwatch Institute, writes in his book The Longest Race: A Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for Human Endurance, “energy efficiency [is] a far bigger factor than energy supply in determining a man or woman’s ability to run over rough terrain all day and all night.”

Renewables are abundant

Compared to the finite fossil fuel stores on Earth, the supply of renewables such as wind and solar is basically infinite. If you’re going to plan a long-term (or long-distance) energy strategy, you’d do best to plan on the abundant source, right? Ultra runners certainly think so. Remember the balance between limited glycogen stores and abundant fat stores in athletes I just mentioned in the previous example? What would you rather depend on: 2,000 calories of easily depleted glycogen or 70,000-plus calories of nearly inexhaustible, healthy fat? I’ll take the abundant source. Efficiency and renewables for the win.

Required investment pays big dividends

I know that sometimes a switch to energy efficiency and renewable sources can require upfront investment, but that initial investment pays big dividends. It’s much the same in my ultra running. As much as I’d like to, I can’t just switch on metabolic efficiency overnight. There’s no button I can press to instantly activate my fat-burning pathways preferentially over my glycogen-dependent ones. Doing that requires commitment and investment: a heavy training load at moderate intensity, often on a deliberately empty stomach and glycogen-depleted muscles. But such investment is worth it. Once my metabolic efficiency is up and my fat-burning pathways active, the transition starts paying major dividends in my running performance. Similarly, for example, RMI’s Reinventing Fire noted that an incremental investment of $0.5 trillion through 2050 for building efficiency could yield $1.9 trillion in energy cost savings.

Plan for resiliency

Runners know all too well about “bonking” or “hitting the wall.” Consider such a situation a catastrophic loss of power, such as if your muscles are burning glycogen, you haven’t replenished those energy stores, and they suddenly run out. Your body shuts down, and it isn’t pretty. Thus ultrarunners plan for resiliency: they foster metabolic efficiency, reduced dependence on glycogen by activating fat-burning energy pathways, and they plan for a variety of energy sources that span high- and low-glycemic index carbs, protein, and fats. Do all those things, and your chance of total system power loss are greatly diminished. A combination of energy efficiency and largely distributed renewable energy sources similarly fosters a more inherently resilient electricity system, one that overcomes the vulnerabilities of the grid’s current hub-and-spoke model based on centralized thermal generation and long-distance transmission.

Of course, the challenges for the U.S. energy landscape are far more complex than they are for me as an individual runner. Where I can shift my training and diet to promote a more efficient, renewable, and resilient metabolism, a greater energy U.S. shift requires addressing myriad challenges, ranging from utility business models to the soft costs of solar to driving greater financial investment in energy efficiency and renewables, and more.

But with thousands of miles on the trails as my guide, I’m as resolved as ever that we must make the transition. The alternative of keeping to the status quo just doesn’t make sense, not when you’ve seen another way. And just as in running, progress involves doggedly putting one foot in front of the other, with a vision of the distant finish line firmly planted in your mind and your metaphorical sights. We can get there. We must.