Thursday, September 25, 2008

Saving the Earth, One Road Race at a Time

You're breathing hard, muscles burning, pushing yourself to maintain race pace, kicking up the dust on a gnarly trail. And suddenly you notice you're kicking up... paper cups?! Ah, yes -- the waste that goes along with racing.

While trail races produce less waste than your typical big-city marathon (scale alone dictates that!) race waste such as paper cups, non-recyclable gel packets, and other paraphernalia is as much a problem at trail races as it is in larger road races. This thought-provoking article in today's New York Times lists some ways that today's race organizers are trying to lessen the environmental impact their races have on the planet.

See you on the trail!

Saving the Earth, One Road Race at a Time
Photograph by Jacob Silberberg for the New York Times.
Published: September 24, 2008
WHILE competing in a half Ironman triathlon two years ago, Bruce Raynor had an epiphany: this event, so rooted in strength and good health, was actually polluting the planet. “I was walking around and had a plastic water bottle in my hand,” Mr. Raynor said. “I was looking for a place to throw the water bottle, and there was no recycling at all.”

This led Mr. Raynor to create Athletes for a Fit Planet, which helps races become a bit greener by installing recycling bins, ridding themselves of plastic bags and offsetting carbon emissions. Mr. Raynor is part of a fast-growing movement to help make road races and other competitive athletic events more environmentally friendly.

For decades, proponents said, these events have generated thousands of pounds of discarded cups, water bottles and uneaten food.

“Most races in the country do not recycle anything, and we have to bring awareness to the problem,” said Jeff Henderson, a race director in Portland, Ore.

While athletes and race directors were looking for environmentally friendly events, there was no system to measure how green they were. Because of this, Mr. Henderson helped start the Council for Responsible Sport, an organization that is working to certify events as environmentally friendly.

“It seems like athletic events have fallen behind the environmental movement,” said Mr. Henderson, who has worked to get the Portland triathlon powered entirely by solar energy and featuring bamboo bike racks, among other sustainable changes.

Many events are trying to catch up. The Hartford Marathon and team relay created a water fountain that could slake the thirst of 40 people at the finish line, eliminating the need for plastic bottles. The Los Angeles Marathon switched its pace cars to hybrids. The Reach the Beach Relay in New Hampshire is using septic toilets along the 209-mile course. The San Francisco Marathon powered its expo tent with biodiesel.

“Runners really see the environment like no one else,” said Joan Benoit Samuelson, the winner of the first Olympic women’s marathon in 1984 and founder of the Beach to Beacon 10K in Cape Elizabeth, Me. “We’re out there every day and are real barometers not only of the weather, but of the environmental conditions.”

Ms. Samuelson has implemented recycling, switched the media trucks from diesel to electric vehicles, and is considering making the race a loop to cut emissions from transporting runners from the finish back to the start.

Beth Shluger, the director of the Hartford Marathon, said she started making environmentally friendly changes about four years at the suggestion of a sponsor, Environmental Technologies.

The race now has a green event committee that looks for improvements in the areas of waste, climate, education and community. The Council for Responsible Sport is using the race as a test case for its certification standards.

Change doesn’t come quickly, or cheaply, the race directors said, and many are asking sponsors to back environmentally friendly changes. Meghan Steed, a director of the San Francisco Marathon, said the race spent about $10,000 of its own money to put in recycling bins, use biodiesel fuel and make all cups compostable, among other things.

Ms. Shluger has relied on sponsors to help pay for the changes.

“We’re trying to sell more sponsorships to companies that want to align themselves with us because of the whole concept of being green,” Ms. Shluger said. “We’re banking on its face that this really matters to athletes and they will choose our event over an event that is not so ecologically conscious.”

Barry Siff, founder of 5430 Sports, a Boulder, Colo., developer and organizer of sporting events, noticed in 2006 that his races generated a huge amount of trash, and committed to putting on sustainable events.

’The reality is, it does cost money,” said Mr. Siff, who is using solar power, compostable cups and recycling at all his events, at an added cost of about $10,000 per event. “And the reality is, it does take time. But if you’re concerned about that, get over it or don’t do it. You really have to put your foot in the sand and say, ‘This is my commitment.’ "
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