Environmental Sustainability for Trail Running
Outdoor activities like hiking, biking or running in the wild, are supposed to be good for us, right? There are health benefits related to both physical and mental effects. And we learn to appreciate our magnificent nature, and maybe take an interest in preservation and environmental issues. Paradoxically the increasing success and rise of trail running as a sport also has some negative environmental side effects that worry me. And I totally realize that I'm very close to keeping double standards on some of the issues I'm about to adress, so I will try not to be hypocritical here. So first some confessions.
I own three running/hydration vests, regularly replace my digital gps watch, buy several running shoes each year, and have no lack of choice for running wear. On several occations I have traveled with airplane, both domestic and internationally, to participate in competitions. I have for sure run past litter without picking it up, and I cannot guarantee that I haven't lost any myself either. I have taken short-cuts and skipped to the side to avoid wet and muddy trails, thus extending the trail footprint. I have marked trails with plastic bands, and possibly lost some of them before I was able to take them down again. My family owns two cars, both with diesel engines. I eat meat (although probably less than my average fellow citizen). And I'm probably guilty of many other actions or loss of actions that have negative environmental impact. What I haven't done though, and which I'm now pretty sure I will never do, is to hand out t-shirts to the participants of my events. But I still have a cupboard full of race t-shirts that I have received myself, and probably with more to come...
These confessions also summarize the main points I think it is useful to discuss in order to adress the environmental sustainability of trail running:
- Equipment - manufacturing, distribution, use, re-use, repair, disposal, race requirements
- Travel - greenhouse gas emissions (and offset mechanisms), energy consumtion, noise, dust and other pollution
- Nature wear and tear - effects of big crowds on vulnerable places, extending trail footprints, plastic pollution and other littering, disturbance of wild life, intrusions upon indigenous people
- Race organization - how race organizers, sponsors and other involved parties can act and collaborate to reduce the negative environmental impacts of trail running events
So thats the outline of what I expect to discuss as I elaborate on this subject. In the meantime, feel free to share your opinions, insights etc. with me via e-mail to email@example.com.
"All you need is a body!"
(see full quote in How Runners Can Celebrate Earth Day Every Day)
Every (popular) sport is a potential market for manufacturers of sports related equipment. Running in general, being one of - if not the largest sport in the world, is of course a highly targeted market segment for almost all major sports equipment brands. We are talking shoes, clothes, sensors, hydration, nutrition, treadmills and much more. For various types of mountain and trail running we get additional stuff like running vests, safety equipment, poles, rainproof wear, snowshoes etc.
For those who like to move fast in the mountains carrying minimal weight, the plethora of modern lightweight equipment is really welcome. But for those who compete, the struggle to minimalize weight could come with a high price. Not only does the top equipment cost a lot of money, but the tendency to buy new equipment with the closet already stocked with fully usable (although slightly inferior) versions of the same equipment comes with an environmental downsize.
Did I really have to buy those new poles when my old ones was only slightly bent? Do I need a new GPS watch just because the battery time has decreased from 16 hours when it was new to 10 hours now? And what about that rain set that is mandatory for my big race next year - should I buy the very thin and lightweight (and extremely expensive!) top brand rain set, or will my current cheap (but somewhat heavier) one suffice? How many shoes do I need?
Some have said that running is the most basic sport you can do. All you need is a pair of shoes. After the barefoot movement, you could even say you only need your own body. But if you want to do ultra-trail mountain running, the story is a bit more complicated. Safety must not be taken lightly. One must consider the possibility of suffering both injury and bad weather, with possibly a considerable time delay before someone can come to the rescue. Most of us also need (good) shoes. And the more you run, possibly in different conditions and on different surfaces, the more shoes you probably need. On technical trails you need shoes with a good grip. On asphalt you need good cushioning.
I feel it is necessary to share some responsibility between athletes and manufacturers here. Athletes' responsibilities: As runners, we should consider every purchase and ask ourselves if this is a necessary product to buy. And if we go ahead with the purchase: Make sure that we select products with good environmental rating. Manufacturers' responsibilities: Manufacturers should take every reasonable action to ensure that their products have a life cycle with a minimal environmental footprint. They should of course also keep high ethical standards in other areas like human rights, child labour etc.
We will return to race organizers' responsibilities later, but with respect to equipment, the race organizers should consider what mandatory pieces of equipment they require the athletes to carry in their races. Maybe equipment could be shared, provided by the race organizers or maybe the requirements can be made less product specific in order to let each athlete use what they already have available, as long as the end purposes - typically safety considerations - are covered. More on this later.
There is much more that can be said about equipment re-use, durability and suitability for maintenance and repair. Recycling of old products in a 'circular economy' is also a hot topic. But all this will have to come later. For now, I just hope that all of us can become a little bit more conscious about our consumption of sports related products. And let's show the manufacturers that we care - and so should they!
Support your local race!
The covid-19 pandemic has ment a huge change to everyones daily life. Travel has been out of the question, and most competitions - at least larger events - have been canceled. This is of course great news for the environment, because travel has been reduced a lot. It could however be only a temporary effect. Old patterns are likely to emerge as soon as the restrictions are lifted. But maybe, just maybe, we can keep some of the positive effects as well?
Researchers think that we will see more digital meetings and home office use even after the pandemic. Technical solutions and infrastructure have been upgraded, people have established both the know-how and the physical environments suitable for working from home, and virtual team collaboration through digital channels has never been easier. In trail running we have seen a surge of attempts for Fastest Known Time (FKT's) on classic (and freshly invented) routes, and lots of athletes and recreational runners are playing more in their own backyards than they used to. Virtual running events are now much more common, and take on forms that resembles and includes many elements from 'real' competitions. In general the aviation industry is expecting that the 'good old days' will not return, which is a good indicator that both recreational and professional (air) travel will not bounce back to old heights as soon as the pandemic is over.
But we do see that race organizers are back with most of the classical competitions from before covid-19. And I don't see any reasons that the surge in popularity for trail-running will not continue. So how can we make the environmental impact from traveling to trail running events less?
First, I would like to make a stand for participation in local races. The gras isn't always greener on the other side of the fence. I would also like to see the race organizers to reward and prioritize local runners. They can differentiate prices (maybe to offset greenhouse gas emissions from long distance travel), and direct their advertising to local areas. Maybe they also can encourage use of more environmentally friendly transport - like train instead of airplane for instance. I realize that spending time on slower transport may not be an option for all, but we could all benefit from considering our options. I have regrets from traveling by airplane when I could have been perfectly fine working on the train instead. Next time...
Another thing to consider is to combine race participations in connection with other travel purposes - business or leisure. All my foreign race participations have been combined with vacations. For instance I participated in a trail run - the Victoria Secret Dirty Half - when we went on holiday to the US in 2014. I didn't travel for the race, so in fact I look at this on par with participating in a local race since I was already in the Black Mountains anyway! Similarly I had a work trip to Oslo one time, which I combined with a running event at Bislet (no - NOT the Bislet Games!) On the other hand I traveled 150 km (by air and train) solely to run the Østmarka Backyard Last Man Standing - a much less environmentally friendly race participation on my part.
Leave no trace!
The principle says a lot: Be welcome to use nature for recreation and sports, but don't disturb wild life and leave no marks! But there are things here that we don't think too much about. For instance, this applies to both competitions, training and other situations when we spend time outdoors. A small thing, like introducing a new trail shortcut in your local backyard - is that ok? Making a camp fire - is that even possible without leaving a trace? Picking rocks to bring home as a souvenir from your lates peak conquest? Building cairns? Picking flowers can't be bad, or can it? But treading on a birds nest, or scaring wild reindeer clearly is.
[More to come on nature wear and tear - effects of big crowds on vulnerable places, extending trail footprints, plastic pollution and other littering, disturbance of wild life, intrusions upon indigenous people, etc.]
Help - I'm organizing a race!
Race organizers come in all sizes and shapes. From the smallest, single person, impulsive initiative takers with just a crazy idea about a running event and no experience with race organization whatsoever, to massive professional organizations with payed employees, huge budgets and profit objectives. And all different variations in between. As a general rule, the larger the race, the larger the potential environmental impact, and therefor the more important that the organizer sets high standards for environmental sustainability issues.
As I have already touched upon, the race organizer can put several requirements and incentives in place to encourage the athletes to be more environmentally friendly when it comes to travel. I also alluded to the fact that mandatory equipment should not be made into "yet-another-gadget I need just for this race."
I would like to discuss with other race organizers if a system could be put in place with some standard race packs that could be used and re-used in several races. Other sports have similar concepts where you have to use the equipment provided by the organizer. This is more often to ensure that competitors compete on equal terms, but it also seems to be a resource friendly alternative for some more advanced safety gear like gps trackers, emergency beacon transmitters, compact bivuacs, crampons etc. I don't know - this might be a bit far fetched since such advanced equipment is seldom required anyway.
On the other hand, I'm also quite in favour of putting a large responsibility on the athlete to bring the necessary equipment and gear to take care of themselves and be safe on a level that they themselves are comfortable with. Let's put it this way: I'm very happy that we don't have to bring a medical certificate to any events in Norway like we must in many other countries. In some cases we have to sign a self declaration, and I would be happy to see something similar for safety issues in general. That said, I fully understand that for some races with very exposed segments or other major security issues, the race organizers want to make sure they don't run into situations where athletes are seriously hurt due to lack of important safety equipment.
Other aspects to consider as a race organizer:
- Course markers in degradable materials (not plastic!)
- No plastic cups or plastic wrappers at aid stations (bring-your-own-cup)
- A 'Leave no trace' policy enforced both in race regulations and in practicality; when was anyone disqualified due to breaking such regulations? How about a separate prize for the runner who picks up most trash along the course? And a mandatory waste bag?
- Measure and offset the carbon footprint from athletes traveling to their event (included in the race fee)
- Plan the race course to lessen strain on local nature and wild life - for instance avoiding off-trail segments, wet/muddy segments, areas where birds hedge (at times when they hedge) etc.
- Keeping race participation within necessary limits to avoid major impact on local environment
- Provide all involved parties with information about environmental sustainability and how each can contribute
- Recruit sponsors who endorse environmental sustainability
- Maybe provide opportunity to participate virtually (for some suitable race formats)
- Strive to keep the organizers own environmental footprint as small as possible
- And finally: Don't provide prizes that hurt the environment - like (crappy) T-shirts!
I'm sure there are other things you can think of as well. Let me know! Having made this initial list, I now have to check against the events that KrUltra organizes. Maybe we could collaborate on a checklist that can be used to rate and compare the environmental sustainability maturity of different events? I would love to see such an initiative from ITRA or other major actors on the international trail running scene. Or maybe NFIF, who is comitted (although it's a fairly vague comitment...) to sustainability, could take an initiative?
Feedback can be given by mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org. Update: There is also a discussion on the facebook group Norsk Ultra; Look for my post on the subject from 19-Jul-2021.
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