Must-reading for anyone in the running business – or anyone who loves running –  the recently published “Becoming a Sustainable Runner,” written by Tina Muir along with co-author Zoë Rom, is not just another running guide on developing the physical attributes to run faster or longer. 

What it does is help anyone achieve is a newfound purpose that merges their passion for running with their concern for their health, community and the environment. It weaves together concepts of internal and external sustainability in a way that will help readers run, think and act in a way that is in line with their values.

Becoming a Sustainable Runner essentially is a practical guide for runners of all abilities and backgrounds who want to take meaningful action to protect the planet through their love of the sport. Weaving together personal stories, research and expert input, Tina and Zoë illustrate how every runner can better support their own endurance journey and how they can extend those lessons into meaningful environmental action.

Here in this Racing Issue of Running Insight we excerpt a chapter of particular interest to run specialty retailers and event directors: “Encourage Sustainable Events.” 

THere is enough to think about (or should we say obsess about?) on race day without adding climate concerns or the sustainability rating we would give our local event. We already have too much going on in our brains. In those final few hours before a race, time slows down. The mind is overrun with potential disaster situations that could derail our race. We know there is nothing we can do to control most outside factors (no matter how many times we check the weather!), but as adrenaline rushes through our body and our senses are on high alert, our brain is on the lookout for danger. Remote problems like the effects of climate change feel distant and unimportant in that moment.

An issue like climate change is big and complicated; therefore, the solutions are going to be big and complicated too. That said, there are several things that we can do to make a big impact. 

Reduce Consumption

The simplest way to start is by eliminating the unnecessary. Just because we like medals, shirts or single-use bottles after a race does not mean that we should keep taking them, race after race, year after year. Now is the time to examine what we are consuming before, during and after a race and consider how it could be done differently. Race directors can work on assessing each element of putting on a race to ask, “Is this integral to the success of the event? Does this item generate waste? Is there a more sustainable option?”

Learn About Precycling

As races work to reduce their carbon emissions, precycling needs to be an important step to make it easier on race-day staff and volunteers, runners and, of course, our home. Republic Services, a waste and recycling service, says, “Precycling is about reducing your impact on what goes into the waste stream by purchasing and using items that are unpackaged, reusable or recycled. It has also been referred to as a low-waste lifestyle” (Republic Services 2020). This means as individuals we should bring our own fueling and conveniences to races and say, “No thank you, I don’t need it,” to the swag and single-use products.

Having multiple recycling bins clearly marked in easy-to-reach places for runners and volunteers on race day is a must. If food is available (runners love bananas!), having a place to compost leftover food waste can have a bigger impact than we might think. 

In 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that 35 percent of the U.S. food supply is wasted every year, enough calories to feed more than 150 million people annually. The report also noted that “globally, food loss and waste represent eight percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions,” a number that can be reduced with composting (Jaglo, Kenny, and Stephenson 2021). 

Composting can turn race-day food waste into soil that helps grow plants and flowers in our towns and cities. Connecting with a company that collects food surplus before race day can provide a meaningful way for races to support the local community. Working with Food Rescue US, UKHarvest food rescue and other similar charities ensures leftover bananas and other food items are transported to social service agencies serving the food insecure. This reduces food waste, a key contributor to global emissions. 

For race events, diverting as much waste material away from landfills as possible is a priority. Chicago Event Management (CEM) has ensured that all their events, including the Chicago Marathon, use cups made from bamboo that break down in commercial compost. They separate their plastic water bottles to be upcycled into apparel like the T-shirts that they give out, which are made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled materials. 

In addition to reducing waste, using recycled polyester reduces carbon emissions by up to 30 percent compared to virgin (new) polyester. CEM also participates in the Blankets to Boards program through Heatsheets. The recyclable, lightweight blankets are given out at the finish and after runners hand them in to designated zero-waste stations, they are combined with sawdust and turned into park benches that are eventually donated to neighborhoods along the marathon route.

While we understand the allure and sentimental value that swag items can provide to participants, offering the option of opting out for a lower registration fee or donating to a nonprofit is a must moving forward. Reaching out to the local race director to ask for this option can result in change. 

Suggesting that race directors consider Trees Not Tees is a way to take this one step further. Trees Not Tees is a fantastic company that plants a tree for every registrant who opts out of a T-shirt at associated races. Adding an opt-out for participants during race registration can mean trees planted in the parks and neighborhoods your race traverses through.

As we move into the next era of racing, we need to consider how to safely reuse, upcycle or dispose of our race bibs. The overwhelming majority of race bibs are immediately thrown in the trash after use (likely along with their pins). Most bibs are made of Tyvek, a plastic known for its durability and resistance to breakdown — great for sweaty runners during races but not so great for the environment or the landfill it lives in for hundreds of years. Tyvek is not currently widely recycled, but there have been pushes to change this. 

When it comes to pins, remembering to bring your own pins is another simple step to reduce your consumption. 

Elitefeats has changed the game of race timing, scoring, online registration and event marketing by mailing race bibs directly to participants (with the bib as the envelope itself). By doing this, they reduce the footprint associated with participants driving to pick up their bib and a significant amount of paper for the race directors to have printed for volunteers. Going paperless, especially in 2023 and beyond, is a realistic expectation.

Advancing beyond these early steps could mean providing virtual goodie bags instead of physical ones, or at least offering useful reusable items or swag from previous years over brand-new single-use options. Most of the items provided in plastic bags from race finish lines are thrown away or lost. Instead, provide virtual coupons, discount codes, and other runner-related freebies for later use.

Ensure Access 

and Equity

Beyond the environmental viewpoint on sustainability, for races to survive and thrive in the years to come they need to be welcoming to everyone who runs or is running-curious. There are runners who do not feel that the current racing scene is a safe space for them — and for good reason. 

While the running community is seen by some as welcoming, we have work to do. Bringing in runners from all backgrounds and experiences, rather than appealing to a small subset of the population, not only helps race organizers broaden their worldview, but will also create better events. Races where runners feel comfortable to be themselves means runners who come back year after year, bringing more friends each time.

Chris Mosier, activist and founder of the website TransAthlete, believes in the power of inclusivity to change the world and he advocates for equity for all groups, especially trans people: “Running is universal. It doesn’t matter your age, race, gender identity, hometown, or faith — we can bring communities together through running. People come to running to be a part of a group of like-minded folks — after all, they could do it alone, but they are choosing to sign up for your event. We must create training and racing environments that openly welcome and embrace runners from all backgrounds, identities and abilities. Many people turn to running to escape, if only for a short time, the rest of their lives. Every person should have access to running.”

How does a race director know if their event is considered welcoming? According to Mosier, “Race directors and training group leaders can know if they are doing a good job by looking around first: Does everyone at your event look the same? What does your leadership team look like? While we can’t know each part of every person’s identity, we can make efforts to openly include all runners, both in running our races and in the teams that put those races on.”

Think about previous racing events you have been to, or look around at your next local race. Who isn’t showing up? We need to be able to identify who might constitute an underrepresented and underserved population in our community before we can begin the work to include them. 

This means considering what barriers might be preventing them from participating. It could be language, the absence of categories that speak to runners’ gender identity or disability, lack of equipment or gear, the expense of registration fees, lack of transportation or public transportation to get to the race and, last but not least, safety and feelings of acceptance. 

It is difficult to determine which factors are preventing inclusion, especially if many come into play, but adding a Runner Requests section on event registration pages may offer more insight. Including diverse images in promotional materials makes runners feel that their feedback will be welcomed, but this is not just a box to check that will make runners feel welcome on its own. As visually impaired and blind runners rely on guides to support them during races, free entry for guides and ease of sign-up are small but important steps to making the community feel that their participation matters. n