“Whenever I do die, I want to know that I didn’t kick the can down the road and didn’t wait for the right time. I made the time every year.” -Mikah Meyer.
Mikah Meyer is the change he wants to see in the world. Meyer, American travel journalist and gay rights advocate, has become the role model for openly gay adventurers and outdoor enthusiasts that he never saw growing up. “I grew up in Nebraska. I didn’t have any openly gay role models. I didn’t meet an openly gay adult until I was nineteen and left Nebraska. I never saw anyone like me. Now, I have one huge goal that permeates everything I do: to be the openly gay adventurer that I never saw growing up.”
Meyer, a talented public speaker who has been featured on The Today Show, NPR, Late Night with Seth Meyers and acquired sponsorships with brands including Brooks Running and Michelob Ultra, inspires the world with his adventures. In 2019, he completed a three-year journey to visit all 419 US National Parks service sites (a Guinness Book of World Records achievement).
For this article, I spoke with Meyer about his National Parks journey, trail running adventures and gay rights activism.
[TAYTE POLLMANN] Tell us about how you discovered trail running.
[MIKAH MEYER] My introduction into trail running is more normal and relatable than exciting. I was on my National Parks journey, living out of a van for three years. Two years into that three year journey my doctor told me that I was the heaviest of my life and that if I gained five more pounds I would be medically overweight for my height. I was traveling nonstop and couldn’t join a gym, so I realized that the only workout I could do anywhere was running. I was up in Alaska and said I’ve got to start running to be healthier. I put Kim Petras’s hit single “Heart to Break” on repeat and said I would run for thirty minutes. That turned into one lap around the block before I had to start walking but the next day it was two blocks, then four blocks, etc. Within two months I went from barely being able to move without taking a break to running for an hour nonstop. My running was motivated by health and being in my early thirties and kicking it into gear. Getting to go and run on all of these trails in the final year of my National Parks journey was amazing. Now, I live in downtown Minneapolis, MN, which is one of the few places in the country that has a National Parks service site running directly through its downtown. My daily route is through a National Park on a trail that runs right next to the Mississippi River. It’s crazy to see how in just three and a half years I went from someone who thought he could never run a mile to somebody who is now a professional runner.
[TAYTE] You are a professional athlete but also don’t identify as an “elite athlete” who is focused on winning races. What does it mean to be sponsored by Brooks Running and how do you view your role as a professional athlete?
[MIKAH] Some athletes probably look at my sponsorship with Brooks Running and hate me. Who is this guy who’s not out on the circuit racing elite runners? One of the things that Brooks loves is that I’m not like every other professional runner. I’m not trying to make the Olympics. I’m not trying to win every race. I’m trying to show a demographic of people that maybe haven’t felt invited to the sport that they can and they are wanted and that there are people who represent them. They can see themselves. For me, I worry less about the competitive aspect and more about the representation and showing people the openly gay athlete and adventurer that I never saw growing up.
It’s good for the sport. Traditionally, most marketing efforts are targeted at people who already love the sport or are trying to be more elite, but in reality, if we want to grow the diversity of people involved in the sport, we need to be marketing to that majority of humanity that would give it a try if they had one person who invited them. Or one person who inspired them. What’s fascinating about social media today is that you can be a sponsored athlete, without being an elite athlete. My title with Brooks Running is a “Run Happy Advocate.” It’s because of my advocacy and work with LGBTQ+ representation that I’m sponsored. It’s cool to live in an era where it’s not just about how elite you are that allows you to make a career running, but about who you are, the story you tell, and the communities you are able to connect with. To me, that’s awesome because that makes it easier for communities who have traditionally been pushed out of these sports to join, make a career and have an easier path to reaching a level that they might have been held back from even ten years ago.
[TAYTE] If it’s not winning races, what is your main mission as a professional athlete?
[MIKAH] I have one huge goal that permeates everything I do. That goal is to be the openly gay adventurer that I never saw growing up.
[TAYTE] Could you tell us about your vision for your ‘trail running’ travel channel show?
[MIKAH] Growing up, my outlet to the world was watching the travel channel. I never saw anyone like me. There are no mainstream openly gay hosts of a travel channel. One of my main goals is to be that. I’m currently developing my own T.V. show that is about taking people to the best National Parks they’ve never heard of. One of the things I’ll do in each episode is run my favorite trail in each park and show audiences what they could do on these amazing trails in these hidden gems. The only thing I’m lacking now is funding. I’ve already done the research, I have the video production team. We can have an openly gay adventure show host showing off the best National Park trail runs tomorrow if we want.
[TAYTE] You call yourself a “professional road tripper.” Tell us what you mean by that? Where does your passion for adventuring come from?
[MIKAH] When I was nineteen, my dad passed away from esophageal cancer at fifty-eight. I had always been taught that we go to school where we get good grades so we can get into college where we can meet our spouse, and that we can get a good job and we’ll do that job until we’re sixty-five and then at sixty-five we can do all of those things we’ve been dreaming about our whole life. Except, I saw my dad pass away and he didn’t get to live that American Dream.
He was a big road trip fan, so I took his car and went on my first independent road trip just after he passed. I’ve done one road trip every year since around the time of his passing, every April 29, to honor the road trips he never got, the road trips we would never have together and to honor this lesson I learned that I could die next year. Whenever I do die, I want to know that I didn’t kick the can down the road and didn’t wait for the right time. I made the time every year. The first big road trip I did, I lived out of my father’s car for nine months, from age twenty-five to twenty-six.
[TAYTE] Let’s talk specifically about your National Parks journey. What was your inspiration behind this adventure?
[MIKAH] One of my bucket list goals before I die was to visit all of the National Parks service sites. Checkmark, I can say I’ve done it! The other reason was that I had to learn the lesson that life is short in a very hard way. I wanted to teach that lesson to other people in a way that is positive. When I thought about how I can reach people, I realized that the National Parks are the one thing that every political party, socioeconomic group, and racial group loves. Right now, people find success on social media by being polarizing. Using one political party or type of person they make a lot of money and acquire large followings. I wanted to do something that was expansive and inclusive. I wanted something that every demographic could find some sort of connection to and that I could use to share my “carpe diem” message. One of the few things that could reach all demographics is our National Parks.
[TAYTE] You spent much of your time trail running along your National Parks journey. How are the National Parks great for trail running?
[MIKAH] The parks are designed for vehicles to be able to drive through, yet when you get on the trails you’re able to see so much more than the average visitor gets to see. Runners travel faster than people who are just hiking, so you physically get to see more with your time. Trail running through National Parks is such a special way to experience them because you’re getting to experience the parks in ways that only the tiniest percentage of visitors get. You’re maximizing your time in a world where “days off” are so precious.
[TAYTE] You created the Outside Safespace program. Could you describe what this is to those who are unfamiliar?
[MIKAH] I did interviews with media outlets, including the Washington Post, Today Show, etc. and all of these people heard stories of my outdoor adventures. The people who wrote me the most were other queer people who expressed their love of the outdoors too, but expressed concerns of safety. They would ask me questions such as “How do you feel safe taking pictures on the trail with a rainbow flag?” These queer people that wrote me shared stories of how straight people made them feel unsafe or unwelcome in nature. The common thread was that somehow there needed to be a way for the culture to change to where queer people didn’t need to think of the outdoor space as unwelcoming, but as welcoming and think of people who embrace them and not hate them for who they are. I realized the only way to do that is to get people who are allies to come out. The easiest way to communicate something is nonverbally. I made an Outside Safespace symbol which is basically the Safespace Emblem, that indicates in spaces such as classrooms that it is a safe classroom where the teacher is a resource to talk about being queer. It’s an indication that the individual is safe if you need someone to talk with about your sexual orientation.
The problem is that this symbol is primarily in or on doors, so we needed something outdoors. I came up with the Safe Space Outdoors symbol to be something that could serve as the equivalent of the Safe Space symbol but meant specifically for outside spaces, outside of traditionally safe spaces. Every backpack I have, I have the symbol on the front strap, so that if somebody meets me on the trail, they’ll know I’m an ally. It can be pinned on a hat or stickered to a water bottle, so people can see it easily on the trail. I don’t have to tell them I’m an ally, they can see it and know.
[TAYTE] What do you see as the main mission of Outside Safespace in the trail running community?
[MIKAH] Especially for gay men, athletics as not been a safe space for us, or a place where most of us were made fun of growing up or where we felt like we didn’t fit in. Going to the locker room was terrifying. When I go to a trail race and I’m surrounded by cis-straight white dudes, I have my guard up and I have to be careful what I say as they might be offended or think I’m hitting on them. I’m cautious that trail running is a straight “bro-to-bro” space. However, if I walked up and saw everybody with a Safe Space Outdoor pin on, I wouldn’t have to worry about them being hostile towards me because of who I am and how I was born. The assumption and history is that in these sports spaces it’s not welcome, so we have to do something to counter that history.
[TAYTE] You are an accomplished public speaker and have had over 150 speaking engagements from New York to New Zealand. You were also chosen as the keynote speaker for the 64th RRCA Running Convention in March 2022. What is your background in public speaking and how did you become the respected public speaker that you are today?
[MIKAH] My entire life, I grew up watching my dad preach a sermon every Sunday (he was a highly respected preacher for a local college). Most students don’t come to church every Sunday. Their parents aren’t there to force them and they are probably going to go out Saturday night and sleep in on Sunday. However, one Sunday during their four years in college, they will get dumped, fail a test or get fired from their job and they will feel bad and know that the church is the only place they can find comfort, so they will show up that week. If you don’t preach a good sermon with a strong gospel message, they will never come back.
What I realized was that my whole life I was watching somebody, every week give a twenty minute speech with the purpose of inspiring people. This became ingrained in me. I was on my National Parks road trip, running out of money. I have a background in singing and performance and a church in Florida invited me to come sing to help fundraise for my National Parks journey. During the service, the pastor also told me that I was going to preach the sermon. This was nuts! I hadn’t prepared. On the spot, I made up a sermon and it went so well that the pastor called another pastor who invited me to sing that week, who called another pastor, and so on. Over two years since that first sermon I preached in Florida, I was the guest speaker at 113 churches around America. I became a speaker because one Sunday this pastor convinced me that I needed to give a sermon on the spot. After this, I was invited to speak at conventions, colleges, corporate headquarters, etc. I spoke to Amazon.com in December and I’m speaking to FedEx headquarters next month.
[TAYTE] Is there anything else you’d like to share about yourself and your running journey?
[MIKAH] There’s a saying in Lutheranism that we all have a vocation. It’s not our job or career, it’s our life’s calling. We don’t find our vocation by studying our navel or listening to our innermost thoughts. We find our vocation by listening to the calls of the world and how the world is asking and telling us to use our greatest talents to solve the world’s greatest needs. When you’re using your talents to solve the world’s greatest needs, that’s what helps you come to find your vocation. Lutheran heritage and theology says we find our vocation by listening to others and what they’re asking us to do. People hear my story and say we need this person to speak, we need a symbol, we need somebody to make the outdoors safer and somebody to speak. It was the world saying, Mikah these are your talents and here’s what you need to use them for.