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Waste Not
Cleaning Up Courses:
How to Bring Distance Events Closer to the Sustainability Finish Line

On foot, by bicycle, through water and combinations of the above, distance races such as marathons and ocean races are a global phenomenon. Running and cycling races have become a big business in recent years, due to the opportunity for sponsorship and the brand affinity that comes with it.

On foot, by bicycle, through water and combinations of the above, distance races such as marathons and ocean races are a global phenomenon. Running and cycling races have become a big business in recent years, due to the opportunity for sponsorship and the brand affinity that comes with it. Races including Tough Mudder, the Boston Marathon and the Tour de France have taken their place among sporting events such as the Super Bowl and the World Cup for the name recognition. But instead of paying to watch, fans are paying (and training) to play.

As performance sport, racing — a healthful, community-driven activity — remains widely accessible to individuals and groups, as almost anyone has the ability to hit the trail and get moving. You don’t need to run a marathon to be a runner, just as you don’t need to cycle every day to sign up for the next bike race. Yet, consumers at all levels of training are interested in crossing these experiences off their bucket lists, and look for the events that align with the things they value.

When it comes to races, these values may include alignment with budget, preferred time of year and, increasingly, the sustainability of the event. It is becoming common knowledge that racing events can be somewhat of an environmental disaster, due to the massive amounts of trash generated from refueling athletes quickly and on-the-go — not to mention the ubiquitous but inexpensive branded race gear (ex: race shirts) and freebies from sponsors that, like so many event-related swag items, get thrown away.

To put things into perspective, the 2016 Paris Marathon featured over 57,000 participants and accounted for almost half-a-million plastic water bottles; 83,000 gels, fruit boosters and energy bars wrapped in multi-layer wrappers and films; and 42,600 liters of isotonic and energy drinks served in little plastic and paper cups. In the US alone, there were at least 816 marathons of this type scheduled last year, not even counting the smaller runs and cycling races — that’s a lot of litter!

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Potential race participants are more cognizant of the waste impacts of single-use packaging and event-related consumption, and look to race directors to put on a more sustainable race they can feel good moving in.

Going cupless can cut back on a significant waste stream crunching under sneakers and wheels on race trails, but providing endurance athletes with a comparably convenient alternative is the key to this switch’s success. One of the first races in the US to go cupless, the Chuckanut 50K, did so by banning single-use cups while offering for sale the original C2 cup from UltrAspire — a lightweight, collapsible, reusable plastic cup that’s as easily carried as it is to take care of. Options for custom printing offer opportunities for value creation with a quality (as opposed to disposable) item that can be used again and again.

Another common sight on courses, literally, is race shirts — cheaply made race swag often gets discarded on the trail itself. Reducing clothing waste at the source by giving participants the option to opt out of a shirt nips this in the bud. But where there is swag, participating in systems that collect unwanted race shirts and other items for donation diverts usable, valuable garb from the garbage pail to those in need; New York Road Runners is a non-profit that donates extra race premiums — including T-shirts, hats and glassware — along with shoes, furniture and exercise equipment to local organizations.

Some of the innovations in performance sports nutrition — such as energy chews, gels, hydration recovery and energy beverage mixes — have contributed to pollution on race trails and the environment at large. GU Energy LabsPerformance Nutrition Recycling Program, open to race directors and fitness enthusiasts alike, works to solve this by accepting all brands of performance nutrition packaging waste for recycling. Not only does it offer consumers a free way to divert this packaging from landfill, it allows them to raise money for charity just by sending in this difficult-to-recycle waste stream for recycling.

The Gazelle Girl 5k/10k/Half Marathon partners with TerraCycle to collect performance nutrition and energy bar wrappers before and during events, and promotes its store, Gazelle Sports Grand Rapids, as a public drop-off point for these items year-round. Happy Planet Running is on a mission to help races “Run a great race. Leave no trace,” and cites TerraCycle’s recycling solutions as ways race directors can supplement their waste stations, which ideally have bins to separate all recyclables, trash and compost and administrators to oversee them.

Attracting enthusiasts to your race through sustainability isn’t just about “going green,” but setting an example. Sports and other modes of performance are a microcosm of society, reflecting its virtues and vices. If through sport, directors, administrators and coaches strive to new, less wasteful and more conscious ideals, perhaps the general public will look to represent it. Until then, it is valuable for race directors and organizers to engage athletes past, present and future around their events as an activity that’s as good for the world as it is for the body.