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The Race for Sustainability

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

Do running events have the capability to become more sustainable? As more of us are taking to the streets to run and exercise, many of us may be considering training for race type events in the future. Molli Tyldesley addresses the issues around sustainability within race events and explores if they can truly become sustainable and curb their waste.

After a long day in the sunshine with record temperatures, 40,000 athletes had passed through the finish line of the 2018 London Marathon. Devoid of runners, the 26.2-mile route should have been left empty, but instead, the London streets were littered with 920,000 plastic bottles and over 5000kg of rubbish.

Exercise is an important part of maintaining our physical and mental wellbeing, a message stressed by the UK government amid the coronavirus lockdown. Running is one of the most popular and easily accessible sports in the country and indeed the world, requiring nothing but a pair of trainers to participate. However, organised races have the potential to have a detrimental impact on the environment.

Finishing on The Mall, the London Marathon is revered as an iconic race. Whether seeking to complete the ultimate challenge or raising money for charity, every year, an increasing number of people enter the ballot to run 42km around the capital. However, as well as a huge amount of rubbish being left behind, this means thousands of runners travel to London to compete in the marathon. Not only do athletes drive from all over the country, but they also fly from all over the globe, with over 66,000 overseas ballot applications in 2019.

Furthermore, the marathon gives out a t-shirt for every finisher. Avid participants in organised running events will amass a collection of race t-shirts, many of which will never be worn again.

Many races, not just the London Marathon, give out t shirts to finishers or competitors.

With 5% of the UK’s total annual carbon and water footprint coming from clothing consumption, this wasteful accumulation of clothes is harming the environment.

But what can be done about this? I spoke to Run North West’s Operations Manager and Regional Parkrun Ambassador Sam Blacow, who explained how race organisers are working to make their events more environmentally friendly. For example, Run North West give their excess t-shirts to local running clubs who award them to Couch to 5k graduates. Their excess medals are re-homed in schools and scout clubs, who award them to pupils on sports days.

Furthermore, they have successfully been able to go 100% plastic-free in several Cheshire-based trail races, and at larger 10k events, they have introduced a ‘bring your own drinks’ table, to reduce the number of single-use plastic bottles used after the race.

Run North West’s ‘Bring Your Own Bottle’ Table

Happily, this is not a singular occurrence: many event organisers are making the effort to make races more sustainable. In 2019, the Manchester Half Marathon decided to get rid of race t-shirts completely to reduce wastefulness. Previously they had been producing 12,000 t-shirts for the race and always having a surplus: they began to feel this was “environmentally irresponsible”. Similarly, the Royal Parks Half Marathon in London decided to get rid of their metal medals, often air-freighted into the UK from China, in favour of sustainable wooden medals.

Royal Parks Half Marathon wooden medal (via Twitter: @RoyalParksHalf)

As staying hydrated is paramount when running, perhaps the most significant challenge facing event organisers is the provision of water. Single-use plastic bottles have become symbolic of the plastic pollution problem our planet faces, but unlike medals and t-shirts, water is a necessity. In 2019, the London Marathon used ‘Ooho pouches’ which are made from seaweed and plants. The pouches biodegrade within 4-6 weeks and are also edible, so can be completely consumed by runners on the route.

While still a long way from being plastic-free, this was a significant step in the right direction for a eco-friendlier London Marathon, as the number of plastic water bottles was reduced by 215,000. As the world becomes more environmentally conscious, it is comforting to see large event organisers like this working towards a more sustainable future.

There is no doubt that large companies need to lead the way in making sustainable choices. However, as individuals, we too can take steps to exercise in an environmentally friendly way. One way this can be done is through participating in local events where possible. For example, going to your local Parkrun. In larger races, using public transport to get to the race rather than driving, refusing t-shirts and goody bags, and bringing your water bottles are all simple ways to reduce the environmental impact of our participation.

Travelling to races is much more environmentally friendly if done by public transport, or even by bike or foot. If public transport connections are not an option, car shares are another good option.

Perhaps this prompts the question: why participate in running events at all? Considering the potential detriment to the environment, and the ease of running alone, are mass participation events necessary?

Sam Blacow made the excellent point that “organised running events and races are helping to improve people’s health and wellbeing, encouraging more people to get fit and healthy and unconsciously helping people to make better lifestyle choices that will have an impact on the environment – for the better.” Running with others makes us conscious of not only our fitness but the health of others and the world around us, with organised events providing a sense of community and togetherness.

Of course, this sense of community and togetherness is intrinsically linked to environmentalism. To build a more sustainable future, we must understand that we have a collective responsibility to take care of our planet. The running community can and should be at the forefront of this.

About the Author: Molli Tyldesley is an English Literature student at the University of York. She is a member of a running club and passionate about sustainability.

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