With all the sweat and fresh air, running certainly feels like a healthy activity. Good for you? Of course. Good for the planet? Well, that depends. Especially when you consider the environmental impact of races with thousands upon thousands of people adding litter and traffic to city streets or wild trails. From paper registration forms and single use cups, to leftover food and the impact of people traveling to events, races can be significant environmental stressors. The good news: there is room for improvement, with many major events already making significant changes.
Reducing trash through recycling and reusing items is a visible area for improvement at events. Race course aid stations littered ankle deep in cups, as volunteers manically attempt to keep up with the ever-growing pile of refuse, is an all too common race day sight. In 2013, the Chuckanut 50K was one of the first races in the U.S. to go cupless.
“As trail runners, we are completely sustainable running through the mountains, so my thought was ‘why do we need cups at an event?’” says Krissy Moehl, Chuckanut 50K race director. “I already had people bringing bowls for post-race soup, so it made sense. The first year I provided cups for people to buy, after that they got the idea.”
The cup Moehl offered for sale was the original reusable C2 cup from UltrAspire, created out of conversations from an athlete summit the brand hosted. Moehl now works with Ultimate Direction, but was an UltrAspire athlete at the time.
“The idea for the cup came from Roch Horton, long time ultra running legend. He volunteers at aid stations in many prominent races and sometimes the aid stations are in remote places,” says UltrAspire owner Bryce Thatcher.“I knew something needed to be done to help with this. Interestingly enough, this is the same reason we developed the first gel bottle, to keep gel wrappers off the trail.”
Now Moehl partners with Sustainable Connections of Bellingham, Wash., for the Chuckanut 50K to ensure the race is as environmentally friendly as possible. From a race shirt you get only if you specifically order it, to food trucks serving food in compostable dishes and sustainable awards, Moehl is setting a blazing example. Corralling the trash was a recent hurdle.
“Last year our garbage bin was completely full because bags coming back from aid stations weren’t sorted. Doing it after the fact wasn’t fun,” Moehl says. “We now provide separate bags for recycling, compostables and trash. We also implemented a ‘King’ and ‘Queen’ of trash who help with the sorting process. This is something we definitely learned the hard way!”
HydraPak also has a reusable cup, something they created for similar reasons to UltrAspire.
“We designed the Speed Cup when we saw how much waste was being generated at aid stations during races,” says Morgan Makowski from HydraPak. “There are always garbage bins full of paper cups and for larger road races, the pavement is littered with cups.”
Runners are required to carry reusable cups or refillable containers at all the races of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc as well. Savvy UTMB aid station volunteers also use the cut off bottom of empty soda bottles as reusable cups for runners who are too tired to find theirs.
Navigating the process can mean an extra long to-do list for race directors. But now there are certification organizations, like the Council for Responsible Sport and Athletes For a Fit Planet, to help.
The Council for Responsible Sport was launched in 2007 to “support, certify and celebrate responsibly produced sports events.” Their certification process is rigorous, making it all the more impactful when events are recognized. The end goal is to increase an event’s “social benefits while reducing its environmental impact.” The Chicago, Los Angeles, Marine Corps, Austin, Flying Pig, Eugene and Hartford Marathons, Vancouver Half Marathon, Beach to Beacon 10K and U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials are just some of the events that have recently received ReSport Certification. Chicago is the largest marathon to be certified.
Several Ragnar races have also received ReSport Certification. Now the Ragnar Trail Series is partnering with Klean Kanteen to reduce environmental impact and waste at events and educate runners about reusables. Ragnar Trail Races are already cupless events, meaning no disposable cups are offered in the race venue. Education and awareness are the next step.
“Single use waste is prevalent in the world of human powered races. There is a lot of potential for improvement around how races handle on-course water stations and the disposable cup waste they produce,” says Melissa McClary of Klean Kanteen. “It is our end goal to help shift the paradigm around what racers expect from the events they participate in terms sustainability measures.”
Reusing Race Swag
Clothes are also an issue. From race shirts, that may or may not be worn again, to the endless mountains of clothes dropped at the start line and along the course, races are finding viable solutions. Many races, like the Chuckanut 50K and Bolder Boulder 10K, give runners the choice to opt out of a shirt or donate it to a good cause. Other events offer organic cotton shirts or shirts made completely of recycled polyester. Some races have found charitable solutions for clothes left along the race course. Ten tons of clothing was collected from the start line of the 2016 Chicago Marathon and donated to the Pacific Garden Mission and Illinois Amvets. While the New York City Marathon has donated 166,050 pounds of discarded clothing to Goodwill in 2016.
When feeding runners, the last thing races want to do is to run out of food, meaning there will be leftovers. Much of that used to end up in landfills. The Chicago Marathon donated 17 tons of food and water to the Greater Chicago Food Depository after the 2016 event. The 2016 New York City Marathon donated 19,000 pounds of unused food to area homeless shelters, a positive trend being implemented at other races. Much like the discarded clothing, tons of waste is kept from landfills, and is used to help those in need. These actions build the social benefits and reach of running events.
As for racer goody bags, often plastic bags filled with a stack of paper inserts, those are getting better too. Many now distribute reusable bags. Other races have switched to virtual goody bags, meaning all special offers can be found online. Instead of a medal, the Bolder Boulder 10K gives every finisher a reusable lunch bag.
Other social impacts include creative initiatives such as required volunteering. The Western States Endurance Run requires eight volunteer hours of trail work or at a running event for each runner. Both the Chicago and Hartford Marathons plant trees to offset their environmental impact. Whether you agree with the concept or not, the Chicago Marathon also purchased Green E-Climate certified offsets to help with the impact of the Marathon’s carbon footprint.
There is still a long way to go. But these are encouraging signs. Both road and trail races are making environmentally friendly changes. Companies and brands are working together for smart solutions. Even participants are taking responsibility for their race day decisions—carpooling and using public transportation for the win. The future of racing is looking green indeed.