Teenage distance runner tells AW about climate activism and her racing plans for this winter after winning BBC Green Sport Award
When Innes FitzGerald turned down the chance to run for Britain at the World Cross Country Championships in Australia earlier this year, the story blew up in the media. The teenager from Devon was dubbed the “Greta Thunberg of athletics” in newspaper headlines and she was inundated with interview requests. “It was quite overwhelming at the time,” she says.
Since then she has decided to deal with questions relating to her stance on the climate crisis during small periods during the year, but then focus on her training and studies for the rest of the time. Being a well-known young athlete, she’s come to realise, means she has a platform to potentially spread her eco-friendly messages to more people.
Monday (Oct 2) is a perfect example. The 17-year-old was named young athlete of the year at the BBC Green Sport Awards for 2023 and this involved an appearance on BBC Breakfast television followed by an interview with AW.
“I didn’t expect this award,” she says. “It’s been quite a strange experience but good fun.”
With her trademark front-running style, FitzGerald has dominated distance races in her age group in the UK over the last couple of years and placed fourth against much older athletes in the under-20 race at the European Cross Country Championships in Turin last December.
On that occasion she did not fly with the GB team and instead got several trains from her home near Exeter in the South West of England to the Italian city. But she arrived feeling weary and she felt she underperformed.
The World Cross Country Championships in Australia three months later was a chance to test herself against the best on the planet, but she said at the time: “I would never be comfortable flying in the knowledge that people could be losing their livelihoods, homes and loved ones as a result.”
In April she won the Mini London Marathon before heading straight to an Extinction Rebellion event at Parliament Square in London with the Champions for Earth group. She says this is nothing new for her either. “I was at Extinction Rebellion protests in London in 2019,” she says.
Climate activism runs through her family. They own an organic smallholding selling fruit and vegetables close to the Devon and Dorset border and her dad, Joe, has been arrested in the past for sitting down in the middle of the road to protest.
“Most of it,” says FitzGerald, referring to her climate concerns, “has been planted by my dad and his enthusiasm and concerns about the planet crisis. From that I’ve done more research and gained more knowledge and am interested in the issues myself.”
What is her advice to fellow athletes? “Just question your actions. I don’t want to say that everyone is in the wrong but just think through all your actions and realise the consequences and make sure you get the education you need to be aware of the impact of the aviation industry so you can make educated decisions.”
She adds: “Until the governing bodies themselves arrange different travel, it’s up to the athletes to make the most educated decisions as possible. Don’t just do things because ‘it’s the way things are done’.”
The sport of athletics has become increasingly aware of its impact on the climate crisis. Large events attract thousands of competitors and spectators, many of whom fly to the venue. Thousands of medals, t-shirts and water bottles are made – and then discarded. There are also race bibs, timing chips, plastic goody bags and so on.
In recent days, for example, a group called The Green Runners sent an open letter to adidas to object to its new “single-use” plastic super-shoe which was worn by Tigst Assefa to break the world marathon record in Berlin. “The fast fashion product,” Damian Hall from The Green Runners said, “is strikingly at odds with our climate and ecological emergency, a symbol of our wasteful, throw-away consumer culture and the global overconsumption crisis.”
Given all this, which aspect annoys FitzGerald most about the climate crisis? “Obviously the flights are the most energy intensive form of travel” she explains, “so avoiding that as much as possible is the best thing to do.
“It’s also people thinking they have no power. We do have lots of power and young people have lots of power. So it’s using that and not feeling that we’re powerless and that other people should make decisions and that’s it. If we don’t like what’s being said, then we should say something.
“I don’t like going along with something if I don’t agree with it. Making yourself heard is important and coming together with other people can be powerful.”
In addition to her training, FitzGerald takes her A-level exams next summer. “I’m hoping to go to university but I can’t say I’m the most studious person,” she says. “I don’t always have as much time as I’d like to do my studies but I try to keep on top of it.”
What subject will she hope to study? “I’ve been toying with different ideas such as biology but I’m veering toward sports science as it fits in with the career path I want to go down. And I want to do climate activism on the side too.”
Not surprisingly the US collegiate system is not among the Briton’s preferred choices.
There isn’t much time for much else but FitzGerald teaches sailing on the coastline five minutes from her home. When she’s not running you can probably find her cycling instead too. “I’m very active,” she says.
This summer she ran 4:15.04 for 1500m and 9:07.54 for 3000m in addition to winning another English Schools title over the latter distance. “I was hoping to run faster in 3000m and 1500m,” she says, as her 3000m best of 8:59.67 from 2022 is the UK under-17 record, “but I didn’t get the opportunity really although I did run a PB for 1500m which I was pleased with.”
She would have liked to have run in the European Under-20 Championships but chose to sit it out due to the length of the journey. “I was slightly gutted the Europeans was in Jerusalem again,” she says, “because I would have loved to have gone to that.”
She insists her reluctance to fly will not affect her athletics career too much. “One race will not cause too much of a problem. I feel I can have a successful athletics career without leaving a huge carbon footprint.”
Her big goal in coming months is the European Cross Country Championships, which is a short train trip away in Brussels in December. “I ended my track season early as I wanted to build back into the winter and get things rolling before the Euro Cross and World Cross.”
The latter is in Belgrade on March 30 and she is undecided about it. “We will see how things go. The main thing is to enjoy it all.”
Her first event this winter will be the national road relays at Sutton Park this coming weekend. She plans to team up in the Exeter Harriers squad with Jo Pavey, the five-time Olympian and wife of FitzGerald’s coach Gavin. After turning 50 a few days ago, FitzGerald is looking forward to being in the same relay team as the former European 10,000m champion.
READ MORE: Running away from net zero
“It’s a bit of fun really and we’re trying to encourage Jo back into racing,” she says, adding that she trains with Pavey although it’s “not competitive at all … it’s very chilled!”
Yet there is one problem. “I’m not sure Jo has a vest to wear now because she’s given me her crop top,” says FitzGerald. “We’ll have to find her one.”
In comparison with rising sea levels and extreme weather events, though, this is the least of our problems.
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