Out There: Porta-Potty Etiquette for Runners

The New York City Marathon has one of the largest portable toilet mobilizations in the world with roughly 1,800 port-o-potties at the start of the race in 2015 and a few hundred more throughout the course. Photo: Courtesy of NYRR

You guys, we need to have a talk about what you’re doing in the bathroom.

Not about the technicalities—there are enough articles about how to poop before a race and how to not poop during a race. There’s plenty of handy resources about using your pee color to determine whether you’re dehydrated/how much water you should drink/who you should vote for in the next presidential election.

But no one—and I mean no one—is willing to talk to you about the havoc your bowels are wreaking on the Port-o-John. Great Scott, what are you doing in there?

If I walk into the bathroom at almost any civilized event venue, it’s clean and odor-free. I am all but guaranteed the soles of my shoes will not stick to the floor. I likely will not gag with disgust. At a pre-race portable toilet, not so much. There is pee on the seat. There is pee on the wall. There is a lake of pee on the floor. And that’s just pee—don’t even get me started on the colonic exorcisms that apparently take place in every stall.

RELATED: Out There: Pushing to the Finish

What the hell, runners?!

While doing research for a local magazine piece last month, my paths crossed with the owner of a porta-potty company (he prefers to refer to his work as “waste management,” and yes, he’s heard all the Tony Soprano jokes). After interviewing him about the story I was writing, the conversation shifted.

“You’re a runner?” he asked, pointing at my jacket, which was embroidered with the logo of my favorite race. I nodded—yes, I was a runner. Tony Soprano wrinkled his nose and shook his head:

“Oh, man. When it comes to this industry, runners are the worst.”

He then proceeded to tell me he got the majority of the portable toilet business for local races, because some of his competitors simply turned down the contracts because runners are the worst. For one, race directors tend to underestimate and under-budget for the number of facilities needed, leading to, er, capacity issues—their portos runneth over.

And then there’s the ick factor—cleaning out a potty used by hundreds of nervous runners (and their even more nervous bowels) takes more time and attention than the decontamination process after other events. Runners, it turns out, are gross. Matter that should not end up on the wall somehow ends up on the wall—and also the floor, the seat, the door and the ceiling.

“The ceiling?” I asked.

“The ceiling,” he replied, with a look that clearly conveyed You don’t want to know. The guy has seen some nasty shit. Literally.

This is not entirely new news to me. I’ve frequented many a port-o-potty along my training and racing, and I’m always floored by the sheer grossness of it all. But I had never really considered that runners were more disgusting users than, say, attendees at a music festival.

“Oh,” he lit up, “music festivals are great. I can clean up and turn around a unit from those in less than 5 minutes.”

Loos from running events, on the other hand, take more than ten minutes per toilet to clean. Not just because of the biological waste, but the other crap runners toss in there—every race yields at least one dumpster’s load of abandoned space blankets, dropped sunglasses and iPhones, improperly discarded feminine hygiene products, and wrappers from gels and bars. (Which begs yet another set of questions, the first of which is who is eating while they’re on the crapper?)

You hear that? Runners make more of a mess than drunk frat boys at a Kid Rock concert. We really are the worst.

We should be better. We must be better. Not just for our fellow runners, but for those who have to deal with the aftermath of our pre-race jitters. I have created a brief guide to help you navigate the tricky business of using the portable toilet. It is my humble attempt to preserve not only proper port-o-protocol, but also the dignity of those who are still in line, waiting for their turn.

Waste Management Protocol

I have to go to the bathroom.

You should have thought about that before you left the house, young padawan. Now go get in line for the port-o-john.

I missed my mark while using the toilet. What do I do now?

How? No, seriously, how? Do you not realize the receptacle is generously sized in comparison to the stream that flows forth from your body? Your target isn’t a teacup, nor is it a moving carnival game. Are you whizzing into a jet blade in hopes of distributing a fine mist of bodily fluid everywhere? Please take a searching moral inventory of yourself while you’re wiping down your mess for the next patron.

To hover or not to hover?

Squatting over a toilet actually delays your ability to go to the bathroom, which delays everyone waiting in line who really, really have to go. Besides, hover-peeing usually leads to pee on the seat, which leads to the next person hover-peeing, which leads to…you know how this goes, right? Only you can stop the cycle. Help us. You’re our only hope.

But…germs!

Studies show a person’s bottom and upper thighs, which are covered most of the day, are usually cleaner than their hands. The same hands you are apparently utilizing to eat that pre-race gel while you unload in the loo. Stop trying to pretend like you’re a delicate, pristine flower. Sit down and take a load off already. There are 5,000 other runners waiting in line.

Just in case, I put toilet paper on the seat before I sat down. Now I don’t want to touch it, because…germs.

You made your mess, now clean it up. (Quickly, please. I really need to use the restroom.) 

What if I have to go Number Two?

Please, for the love of two-ply, just get it in the hole. Why is this such a hard concept to understand?

I don’t like the toilet paper used in the portable toilets.

I’m sure the feeling is mutual. Next time, bring your own.

What should I do with my trash?

Anything other than toilet paper should be placed in the proper trash receptacle located outside of the port-o-john.

What happens if I throw my trash into the toilet?

It would make for some very bad race karma. You know those pictures of runners crapping themselves on the course? Probably that.

I dropped my iPhone. Nobody go in there until we fish it out!

Are you freaking kidding me? Move aside, I can’t hold it any longer.

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About the Author

Susan Lacke does 5Ks, Ironman Triathlons and everything in between to justify her love for cupcakes (yes, she eats that many). She lives and trains in Salt Lake City, Utah with three animals: a labrador, a cattle dog, and a freakishly tall triathlete husband. Lacke claims to be of sound mind, though this has yet to be substantiated by a medical expert. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke

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