30-year-old Canyon Woodward grew up and still lives in Franklin, North Carolina and while he is known by many as a gifted trail runner, he is also a passionate progressive political activist and a potter. Canyon and his siblings were connected to the outdoors at an early age and spent a lot of time traveling and exploring nature and other cultures. Their family made this happen by home-schooling and only partially attending high school to pursue athletics such as tennis and soccer. At that time running was only a tool to stay in shape for his other sports, but high school teacher Denise Davis who also was the cross-country coach tried to convince Woodward to join the cross-country team. It took time but eventually, he relented and joined the team. While Woodward speaks fondly about Coach Davis, he gives much credit to his parents.
“My Mom was a school teacher and my Dad was an engineer. They retired super young, making a decision to privilege time over money. We lived extremely frugally to make it work. They raised us with an incredible amount of love and intention, and so much freedom to explore our interests. Our schooling was generally very loose and self-directed, with a lot of room to dig into whatever piqued our interest. Both of them are incredible athletes. Competitive sports weren’t huge parts of their life, but they’re both all-around athletes who could go out in the mountains and crush it on the water on foot or bikes – while carrying or pulling four kids along. They’re models of lifelong sport – Dad is 86 now and Mom is 72. Both of them are still in incredible shape, biking or swimming or hiking daily,” beamed Woodward.
During his freshman year at Harvard Woodward attempted a 50-kilometer running race, but started the event unprepared and dropped out. As a sophomore, he jumped into another 50-kilometer race and this time, thanks to some training, made it through. With the help and inspiration of his brother Forest, he fully embraced the ultrarunning scene and has since recorded the FKT on both the Art Loeb Trail and the Smoky Mountain Traverse (S.C.A.R.). He also has a Cruel Jewel 100-mile win to his name, and in 2022 managed a top 50 placing at Ultra Trail Mont Blanc. He will return to Chamonix this summer with more ambitious goals after 3rd place finishes at the 2023 Bandera 100-kilometer (just missing a golden ticket) and the 2023 Canyons Endurance Runs by UTMB 100 miler.
“I would love to race WSER one day. But UTMB is the kind of race that really draws my imagination – super mountainous hard gorgeous hundred miler with the most competitive field in the world. I had a rough race there last year, coming down with a wicked cold the day before and having a day of it. While I held my own I know I have a much higher ceiling that I can’t wait to go back and chase. So if I had qualified for WSER this winter awesome, but I wasn’t going to pass up the chance at Canyons to qualify for UTMB and take another crack at it” said Woodward.
But the Canyons by UTMB race did not go as planned for Woodward. There were many unclear course markings on the 100-mile route, and almost everyone got turned around and ran extra miles – that was true for Woodward too. His Scarpa teammate Gabe Joyes added about nine additional miles and eventually pulled out. Woodward also contemplated ending his day earlier.
“By the time I made it back on course, I had fallen from 3rd place to 11th. It was devastating. I tried to keep my head in the game, but it was a struggle. Shortly before reaching [his crew members] Forest and Jeff I was mulling if I could give myself permission to throw in the towel – rather annoyingly, the answer I kept circling around to was no.”
His crew consisted of his brother Forest Woodward and family friend Jeff Berman, who with experience and detailed marching orders from Canyon were a well-oiled machine. They did everything asked of them and much more as they managed to coax him along, even as he struggled, and by mile 75 Canyon had moved back into 4th place keeping the UTMB dream alive.
“At mile 80, having dutifully processed north of 4,000 calories and 13 liters of water in adverse conditions, my stomach said to hell with this and turned inside out. The final 23 miles into the wee hours of the AM were hard. I came into the final crew point at mile 85 haggard, moving fine but stomach aggravated and lacking the fire to make a push for 3rd. Yet again Jeff and Forest revived me, blew on the embers, and sent me racing up the trail. Finally, ten hours after my wrong turn, 3rd place loomed back into view. I put on a head of steam and passed him in as convincing a manner as I could muster. Not convincing enough. For the next 10km, there was no shaking him. Mile 97 I let fly and managed to lay down two back-to-back 7-minute miles to ultimately open up a gap I could sustain.”
For Woodward, ultrarunning training and racing has always given him joy and balance. He sees himself as a political strategist first and has had success and acclaim there too.
He became interested in politics and environmental science as a 16-year-old while living in Phyang, a small village in a deep green valley of northern India. According to Woodward, more than one billion people who inhabit the Himalayan river basins are sustained by meltwater harnessed by intricate irrigation systems that conserve this precious resource. As the glaciers melt and dry up due to global warming, the entire region will be forced to grapple with severe water insecurity.
At Harvard, Woodward took courses in environmental science and public policy to further his understanding of climate change as a systemic crisis requiring systemic solutions. He recognized that individual behavioral change – becoming vegetarian, recycling, efficient lightbulbs, and so on – would not make a meaningful impact and that systemic change was the only hope. He joined protests on campus against the Keystone XL pipeline proposal and soon after joined Divest Harvard, a campaign on campus that his friend Chloe Maxmin had founded with a handful of other students to get Harvard to sell its fossil fuel stocks and reinvest in affected communities. In his view Harvard and its culture epitomized the status quo, and noticed that activism was not popular on campus. Despite that culture, the Divest Harvard campaign grew, and they organized the first student vote on fossil fuel divestment – with 72% of students voting in favor. This landed Divest Harvard on the front page of almost every major newspaper. Then 67% of Harvard Law School students voted for divestment. Over four thousand alumni and one thousand faculty were also on board. They then sued Harvard University for failing to divest, organized an international fast, and launched a twenty-four-hour sit-in inside Massachusetts Hall, the location of the president’s office. Politicians and famous alumni got involved, and in 2021 Harvard finally announced that it would divest from fossil fuels.
“At Harvard and at home, it became clear to us: the left needed to radically rethink how we build political power in rural America. Our rural communities needed a voice. The years of organizing at Harvard had given us the tools not only for analysis but also for action. The foundation for our life work in politics together began to take shape. We imagined working on campaigns at home that could empower overlooked rural communities to define a new political era. We bucked the tide of our peers heading off to big cities and work on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley, opting instead to return to our rural roots and invest in our home communities. Chloe returned to Maine, and I returned to the Carolinas.”
In 2016 Woodward worked on the Bernie Sanders campaign, and in 2018 he learned that his friend Chloe Maxmim was going to run for state representative back in Maine. Woodward thought it was a little absurd for a 25-year-old progressive to run in a staunchly conservative district… He also had an interesting offer back in North Carolina to work on a high-profile state senate campaign with much higher odds of success. But in the end he chose to support his friend and moved to Maine. Against all odds, Chloe Maxmim won the primary and then the general election becoming the youngest woman in the Maine State Legislature.
In 2020 Woodward helped Chloe Maxmim in her run for State Senate where she challenged the most powerful Republican in the Maine government – Dana Dow, the Senate Minority Leader and a longtime fixture of Maine politics.
“Dow had never lost a general election since he was first elected to the Senate in 2004. In fact, the last time that Senate leadership had been knocked out by either party in Maine was in 1992 – the year Chloe was born. The Bangor Daily News, one of the state’s largest papers, would later compare our race to the boxing match between Buster Douglas and Mike Tyson – one of the greatest upsets in sports history, Douglas – a 42:1 underdog – won that match by knockout against then-undefeated heavyweight champion of the world Tyson. On November 3rd, 2020, Chloe won, becoming the youngest woman Senator in the history of Maine,” said Woodward, who recently launched Dirtroad Organizing with Chloe to empower the next generation of rural organizers, staff, and candidates and provide them with concrete tools and strategies to work towards an equitable and just democracy.
When we asked Canyon who he looked up to he had plenty to say, and we’ll list them all in his ode to this community:
Clare Gallagher for being such an incredible athlete-activist and radiant human being.
Scott and Jenny Jurek for their writing, activism, and the way they’re raising their kids.
Dakota Jones for his work with Footprints, leveraging his talent as a runner to mentor young runners in climate activism.
Peyton Thomas for using running as a platform and tool to address environmental injustice.
David Roche for being an unapologetically positive, good human being and fostering a culture of being excellent to one another in this sport. On top of being a badass athlete, coach, father, and activist lawyer on the side.
Denise Davis aforementioned coach and the person who opened my eyes to ultrarunning with her unbelievable exploits around my home mountains.
Will Harlan – one of the best ultra-runners to come out of the southeast, an excellent writer, and an environmental organizer to boot.
Courtney Dauwalter for being the GOAT, having so much fun doing it, and her approach to the process and appreciating that it’s all about making memories with the people you love.
Joe Grant for his wisdom and approach of really deep soul running.
John Kelly for incredible tenacity and representing east coast running on the international stage.
Aaron Saft for fostering a vibrant trail running scene in WNC.
Zoe Rom for making Trail Runner Magazine a powerful platform for talking about climate justice and other real things.