With Greener Races, Athletes Try to Tread Lightly on the Earth

Marathons and triathlons are fun—and often wasteful. Some environmentalists are trying to change that.

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Run a marathon or finish a triathlon, and your first thought may be "I can't believe I did it." Look back at the course behind you, and your second may be "Holy Nike, look at all the trash on the road!" Between the paper cups, plastic bottles, energy bar wrappers, and even those post-race foil blankets, these popular events produce a whole lot of waste. Not as visible, but equally or even more troublesome, is the impact of people traveling to the big events. The Council for Responsible Sport estimates that the athletes participating in the 2007 Ironman World Championship in Hawaii produced greenhouse gases equivalent to the yearly carbon footprint of 972 average U.S. homes.

There's now a growing movement seeking to "green" this kind of event by making it more sustainable. ReSport, as the Council for Responsible Sport is known, has developed a list of standards for races based on criteria such as waste handling, climate impact, and the materials used in finishers' awards and T-shirts. Depending on how much event organizers do, events can be certified at four different levels. ReSport executive director and cofounder Jeff Henderson says there is a "growing sensibility that races could do better." Events as large as the Nike Women's Marathon in San Francisco, with 20,000 participants, have been certified.

There are plenty of things races and athletes can do to reduce the impact of their participation in races, says Bruce Rayner, who started Athletes for a Fit Planet, which consults with race directors on how to green their races. For example, they can encourage people to use public transportation or make it easy for them to carpool to events, use energy from renewable sources, and buy carbon offsets for energy use they can't avoid. As for the extra cost, it's either a voluntary contribution made by athletes when they sign up, paid for by a sponsor, or covered by the race director, he says.

Urban Epic in Portland, Maine, a short-distance triathlon, was certified by ReSport last year and worked with Athletes for a Fit Planet to institute changes to the race. Will Thomas, executive director of Tri-Maine, which manages the race, says the efforts provided a highly visible reminder for athletes that their own actions matter. A sponsor sent a team out on the run course to gather all the trash discarded by the athletes before them, then hauled it across the finish line. Another company sorted the trash into recyclables and compostables and even took the bar and gel wrappers to make into products like backpacks. "You build this into the way you think about things," says Thomas, who is extending the sustainable practices to another Urban Epic race this summer, this one in Boston.

I wrote previously about the environmental impact of your fitness routine. Here's a new list of 7 tips for making your workouts and races as green as possible.