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Bringing a runner’s mindset to the global “Race to Resilience”

The International Climate Adaptation Summit is the official start of the “Race to Resilience”, the adaptation counterpart of the “Race to Zero” to reduce carbon emissions and global warming. Inspired by the racing metaphor and her own running routine, SEI’s Karen Brandon muses about the notion of adopting a runner’s mentality to pick up the pace of climate action.

Karen Brandon / Published on 25 January 2021

Marathon runners. Photo: Larrayadieu / Getty Images

“Now bid me run, and I will strive with things impossible.” – William Shakespeare

At the Climate Adaptation Summit, the starting gun will fire for the “Race to Resilience”, which aims to address the growing recognition that the world must do more to adapt to climate change. This is the counterpart to the “Race to Zero” to speed up the effort to transition away from fossil fuels. Among those of us who are regular runners, these racing metaphors resonate in a distinct way.

Having just completed a morning 7.5 kilometre run, I find myself, slightly out of breath, at an improbable three-way intersection where the Race to Resilience, the SEI adaptation research agenda, and my own running routine meet. From this vantage point, and with endorphins still high, I can indulge in the conceit that a runner’s mindset has something to offer for this symbolic race. I am well aware that it is a rhetorical artifice, a turn of phrase to move people forward in ways that eclipse sport. Still, I find myself musing on the parallels.

The running habit

The act of running is more important than the race. Any runner learns that the day-in, day-out habit builds the strength, speed and endurance for the actual race. SEI’s own adaptation research and guidance make a similar point. The work shows that resilience comes from the capacity building that occurs through the processes used to decide how to adapt to climate change-related impacts. The manner of making decisions is more important than the decision itself. Put another way, the process is the product. So, a race to resilience will not be a sprint. Nor will it be a marathon. It will be a daily practice.

The Parkrun approach

I came to running relatively late in life along a 5-kilometre course called the Parkrun. The founders of this phenomenon turned a run among 13 friends at a London park into a weekly event that has attracted some 6 million people at 2,000 locations in 22 countries. A central feature of the Parkrun’s success is its capacity to create a global, motivated running community, in which world-class runners and plodders like me, who never thought they could do such a thing, run against the clock. People run with, rather than race against, one another (though it is a thrill to pip someone at the finish). The race to resilience could borrow a page from the Parkrun’s success.

The concept chimes with SEI’s adaptation work, underscoring the importance of collaboration to achieve aims. The “co” – in co-exploration, co-design, co-production processes for effective adaptation decision-making – refers to this insight that expertise and experience, in science, policy and life must work in combination. Science and scientists alone cannot make the change.

Global traction and meaningful policy changes require “all-in” thinking, bringing in those who are often outside the process – the runners who were never athletes and who lack the confidence, or the invitation, to join the run. SEI has explored the potential of this collaborative approach for adaptation, demonstrating this, for example, by combining traditional, indigenous knowledge and meteorological science to help farming communities in Indonesia adapt to new conditions, and by bringing together a diverse group of people to conduct more collaborative planning in cities in Africa to help them prepare for more severe droughts and floods. Adaptation work at SEI also recognizes that the resilience quest demands global reach and cooperation.

Training and kit

Runners use new understanding about the benefits of high-intensity training, the ways to build muscle and recovery from injury. Innovations extend to the design of the running shoe itself. The race to resilience should similarly leverage research that advances understanding about what works in terms of how to best use financial resources. It should tap new technological tools to mutually reinforce efforts on both climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction. The adaptation mission ought to enlist the private sector to come up with a “race to resilience” counterpart of the  Vaporfly – the thick-soled, springy shoes that engineered such success that they raised questions over whether they give runners wearing them an unfair advantage.

Chasing the PB

Runners chase the PB – the personal best – that serves as a universal motivator.  Running apps clock PBs on any old segment, and they tally up the miles as they accrue over months and years. Fellow runners reward each others’ efforts with kudos. This inspires. The Race for Resilience is leveraging a similar strategy by using pledges to reach certain goals (setting aspirational PBs), and publishing subsequent accomplishments (tracking the miles) that the rest of us can follow and cheer (giving kudos) as the world moves along the course set out by the Adaptation Action Agenda.

My running routine gave me, a person with scant athletic ability, much more than physical “resilience”. It led me to meet new friends, to tap creativity, to vent frustrations, to expand my horizons, and to better appreciate the great outdoors in all its muddy glory. Most of all, it showed me this: We are capable of more than we think.


Runners cross the finish line. Photo: Alan Thornton / Getty Images

Written by

Karen Brandon
Karen Brandon

Senior Communications Officer and Editor


SEI Oxford

Topics and subtopics
Climate : Adaptation
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