The song, Chicken Tenders, by Dominic Filke played from Elsa Jaworski’s phone at 5am on one of her most recent ultra endurance runs, Running Up for Air. Still dark, she trudged along on her seventh lap up Grandeur Peak, a prominent local mountain overlooking the Salt Lake Valley. Her friend, Derek, hiked behind her offering company and intermittent words of encouragement. By that point, Elsa had ascended nearly 18,000ft in 42 miles.
“I just needed to see the sun rise,” Elsa recalls. “My pace definitely slowed by laps six and seven.”
Feeling nauseous and disoriented, Elsa started to lose steam. “I told myself, we’re just going to keep moving until we can’t move.” Having completed six laps at the same event in 2022, she knew she had more to give. Fortunately, Elsa’s spirits started to lift with the sunrise, and her eyes beamed with gratitude watching a new wave of runners start their own journeys up Grandeur.
“That’s the absolute best part of RUFA – seeing all the headlamps scattered throughout the mountain.”
Running Up for Air (RUFA), now a multi-event series, is the brainchild of professional ultrarunner, Jared Campbell. Originally, RUFA consisted of Campbell and a few friends running laps up Grandeur Peak – literally running up to escape the poor air quality that plagues the Salt Lake Valley in the wintertime. RUFA has since grown immensely and now has events across Utah, Montana, Washington, and Colorado including public educational seminars with leading experts in the field. This year, the series is on pace to surpass $100,000, which goes directly toward clean-air organizations and charities working toward solutions to bring healthy air to all.
The Grandeur Peak event has three categories for participants to choose from: 6-, 12- or 24- hours. Runners are asked to complete as many laps up and down the mountain within their allotted time frame. One lap consists of six-ish miles and ~2600 ft of elevation gain. Last year, I naively signed up for the 24 event. Never having completed an ultramarathon – let alone one with that much vertical gain, I’m not sure what made me think I had 24-hours in me. Predictably, I only completed two laps and waddled back down the canyon with my tail between my legs. Multiple laps on Grandeur is an ass-kicker. Despite my “defeat”, a spark was lit. This event was something special.
I was especially inspired by this year’s first place female and second overall runner, Elsa Jaworski. She absolutely tore up and down Grandeur, completing eleven laps in 22 hours and 32 minutes. Originally from Orlando, Florida, Elsa grew up in a family of avid triathletes. Inspired by her family’s propensity for endurance sports, Elsa found ultramarathons as a way to carve out her own niche.
Jared Campbell said in a previous interview for Like the Wind Magazine, “If someone is solely interested because of the competition, their time, or their athletic results, they’re missing the point.” Despite her impressive athletic achievement, Elsa has most certainly not missed the point. For the past several years, Elsa has turned nearly all of her races into fundraising opportunities, most often for the Alzheimer’s Association. Four years ago, her father was diagnosed with Early-Onset Alzheimer Disease at 55 years old. Elsa says he takes his predicament in stride and continues to lead by example through educating others about environmental factors associated with the disease all without letting up the gas on his Ironman training; he even competed in the Ironman World Championships in Kona last year. When asked how his diagnosis affects her running, she described slight guilt for living so far away from her family who are back in Florida. “…but being here on these trails feels so right,” Elsa explains. “It’s going to be a slow burn. We’re constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop and living in that state feels wonky. But if anything, running is the one thing that helps calm me.”
Elsa moved to Salt Lake City in 2020 after accepting a job at the popular pancake company, Kodiak Cakes. On her very first day, she met up with one of her only contacts in town, fellow Floridian, Meredith Johnson. “The day I moved here, Meredith made me run up at Brighton [Resort] with her,” Elsa recalls. Shortly after that run, Meredith offered an idea she had for a trail running group welcoming women-identifying and non-binary individuals – which quickly became Women of the Wasatch (WoW). Excited to help Meredith make her vision a reality, Elsa promptly offered to help in whatever way she could. Now Elsa serves as the Director of Outreach for WoW helping to organize brand events including shoe and product demos and fostering an overall sense of community among members.
“[The community] makes it easier to do these crazy feats, because it doesn’t seem so crazy,” Elsa states. “My coworker told me that [RUFA] is insane. I thought, “Well you should see the shit my friends are doing.” There’s no doubt in your mind that you can’t do something. I wanted to fully send it [RUFA]. Justine did it last year. And so if she can do it, I can do it.” Justine Hewitt is a close friend of Elsa’s, fellow WoW member, and 2022 female winner of RUFA with eleven laps as well. “Justine is gritty as hell,” Elsa says. “In my mind, she will always be queen of RUFA. I think seeing her reach for something and go into the well helped keep me going.
As an added treat this year, Patagonia hosted a livestream interviewing a variety of participants and volunteers. While quickly grabbing food at the base, the interviewer asked Elsa how she was feeling.
“I’m hanging on by a thread!”
“Well, we’ve heard it’s a very strong thread.”
“Industrial strength!” Elsa laughed before darting off.
When I asked her about this comment, Elsa stated that while it was a fun bit, her friend Katie Brown (another RUFA champion) offered a different perspective: hanging on by an industrial strength thread is great, but how much stronger is it when woven with others’ threads? Elsa notes that it’s the volunteers on top of Grandeur at 2am shouting encouragement, the person cooking grilled cheese sandwiches in the base tent, your parents flying across the country to watch the race, and your fellow runners passing you lap after lap with high fives that make it all worth it. It’s the community coming together in support of a goal that’s bigger than any one individual. “If you just get out there and realize how special these events are and how important this is to our community and ecosystem, that fuels you for so much time.”
What strikes me most about Elsa is her authenticity. Whether quietly trotting along the Bonneville Shoreline Trail each morning, filming a dance move per mile while running across the Grand Canyon, or grinding up and down Grandeur Peak eleven times, Elsa shows up as herself and invites others to do the same. “I want people to feel included and important in the community,” Elsa says. I am deeply encouraged by this mindset. Not just because fostering inclusion is generally a good character trait, but because inclusion makes events like Running Up for Air possible. When people feel that they not only belong to a community, but are important to that community, they will try to fight for it.
Witnessing Elsa and the other participants at RUFA this year inspired me to not just think about what my own limits were, but how I could use running to support larger community goals. What’s stopping me from setting up a fundraiser for my next race? Can I include these types of topics in my writing more often? Can I volunteer more? Similar to the ideas put forth in Rod Farvard’s recent Freetrail article, Elsa’s overall bad-assery certainly inspired me to think bigger, and who knows how many others were also similarly affected. How can we weave our own industrial threads with others to create meaningful change in the world? Dylan Bowman frequently reminds us that trail running will save the world. After watching Elsa finish her eleventh lap, surrounded by her loving community, I’m starting to think he’s right.
You can support Running Up For Air by making a donation through their website – DONATE – Up For Air Series
You can also donate to the Alzheimer’s Association here – Alzheimer’s Association