For superyacht chef and health activist Helgi Olafson, finding a more sustainable way to do the things he loves is important. That’s why the former triathlete and ultramarathon runner created his own race with a limited number of runners in order to minimize the overall environmental impact. And so the Mighty Gallatin was born, a Big Sky 350 footrace through the Gallatin Mountain Range in Montana. However, it's noteworthy to mention that while it was originally supposed to be 350 miles, due to rerouting issues, they "only" completed 240 miles. The thing that didn't change was his sustainability mindset.
“It’s really important to mitigate the carbon footprint or else we’re going to lose access to these wild spaces where animals are king,” says Chef Olafson of M/Y Koju. These days, he says, there are many big races — the more people participating in these events, the larger the races are growing, and the more impact they are having on the environment, whether they’re trail runners, dirt bikers, mountain bikers, hikers, or even horse riders.
The Mighty Gallatin Race
The seven-day adventure took place from September 5-11, 2022. It was comprised of a moving unit of just 30 people — including the support crew like a medic and drivers — who participated in his 240-mile event, which included 80,000 feet of climbing in 162 hours.
Olafson personally invited and screened each participant to make sure they shared his sustainability mindset. And that paid off because each person crossed the finish line.
“It's not necessarily environmentally responsible to just sign up for a whole bunch of races because you have the time to do it."
During the week-long event, the course moved throughout four campgrounds. To practice safety, there were aid stations, an aid station vehicle, as well as a run director who watched everything on their tracker in case a rescue needed to be performed — fortunately none took place. Everybody was required to have a two-way satellite communication beacon (for tracking and communication purposes).
Olafson says it was an amazing experience connecting with Mother Nature as they ran more than “200 miles over steep grades of multiple 10,000-foot peaks, rivers, meadows, waterfalls, mountain lakes, and burn scars. The group came together as trail runners and left as family, excited for the next adventure.”
Raising Awareness for the Spondylitis Association of America
That mileage is mind-blowing for anyone, let alone someone with the inflammatory arthritic disease ankylosing spondylitis (AS), which can cause some of the bones in the spine to fuse. This fusing, according to the Mayo Clinic, makes the spine less flexible and can result in a hunched posture. In some cases, if the ribs are affected, breathing can become difficult. Though there’s no cure for AS, treatments can lessen symptoms and even slow the disease’s progression. He was diagnosed with it at age 19.
It hasn’t stopped Olafson, though. He has run more than 10 sanctioned 200-plus-mile races, such as the 2018 and 2021 Triple Crown of 200s.
As part of his lifelong mission to raise awareness about his condition through the medium of endurance sports as a platform, he’s been a long-time supporter of Spondylitis Association of America (SAA). His “movement as medicine” approach has taken him far, and he’s motivated to help others understand that they can do it too, no matter if they have AS or not, because one of the worst things you can do if you have the disease is be sedentary.
That mileage is mind-blowing for anyone, let alone someone with the inflammatory arthritic disease ankylosing spondylitis.
“I’ve done a number of different projects and have been involved in helping a lot of other folks who have my condition get moving and realizing that it’s not the end of their time if they have this disease. They can manage it as best as they can and still do hard things and find the other side of their limits,” he says. “There are just so many people out there that don’t realize what their potential is. It’s been a huge thing for me to try to be a motivating force for people to get out there and stay in motion.”
The yacht chef subscribes to the belief that one person can make a difference. “In order to change the world, you’ve got to change the world! You can't just think it's going to happen; you've got do it. I feel like a lot of people will sell themselves short and think, ‘Oh, one person's not going to leave an impact.’ But you know what, it actually does, and that's how impacts are made: because one person does it,” he says. “I just want be one of the people that is known for trying to do that.”
Filming a Documentary
Another medium that’s being used to promote change and inspiration is a film documentary. The race was filmed by acclaimed director Matt Van Horn and cinematographer Tony Hill for a documentary that follows everyday people battling “pain and pride.” And they filmed every moment, says Olafson.
His eco approach is only one aspect of the documentary. “The main angle is that we’re really trying to promote the everyday man or woman,” he says. The participants he chose for his inaugural race weren’t necessarily fast or very experienced. “We [had] some mid-pack athletes, but this [was] going to be one of the hardest things, if not the hardest thing, that any of us have ever done,” he says. “We wanted it to be like that because the chance for failure is great, and it’s going to really bring people together to work through this thing and get it done.”
The documentary is slated to come out later this year. Watch the trailer below:
Why Most Races are Environmentally Irresponsible
The founder put a lot of thought into this running format, which he wanted to take place in a sensitive wilderness area. For one, large events of these nature are a danger to keeping it a wildlife area. That’s why Olafson urges people to think about the impact that they're leaving on the environment.
“It's not necessarily environmentally responsible to just sign up for a whole bunch of races because you have the time to do it. Why not go adventure in your own backyard, leave your house, and finish at your house? Don't drive,” he says, suggesting that people try that approach at least once. “I think people just really need to be doing their part a lot more. And that's what this is all about.”
In regards to why change needs to happen, Olafson comments on an article that made an impression on him from a couple of years ago. “It was talking about trail runners being lazy parasites. Some runner made that comment and a whole bunch of opinions came about it,” he recalls. In response to people’s indignance at runners being called lazy parasites, he explains why “at the end of the day, it's true.”
- They drive there or fly there.
- The trail runner pays for their race entry, runs the race, then leaves.
- Plus, they have crew and pacers who all have to fly or drive there — which has a very negative impact on the environment.
There’s always room for improvement, though. “I’ve raced 10 of these things and I've either flown or driven to them,” he says, adding, “I'm a yacht chef. I use a lot of plastics when I'm working.”
Chef Olafson’s Career Progression
“It was kind of a fluke,” he says about how he came into the yachting industry in 2011 (which is also when he started raising awareness through doing endurance sports). While working in restaurants in Oregon, he checked out Craigslist for any available jobs when he found one for a charter chef in Alaska for the summer.
“So I put a nice email together and ended up being chosen out of a lot of different candidates. I took the train up to Seattle and rode my bike from the train to the boat,” he says, adding that the captain is a good friend of his now.
Check out the Mighty Gallatin on Instagram @TheMightyGallatin.