Running World Going Greener


The worldwide concern over single-use plastic is a spiralling issue that has long been acknowledged by runners, but presents race organisers with challenges in terms of practical and viable solutions. – BY NORRIE WILLIAMSON

In working on, or having the opportunity to attend events around the world, I have seen many changes in recent years, and there is a general exponential increase amongst organisers in attempts to reduce the carbon footprint, as well as a reduction in paper and plastic coupled with an increase in recycling. However, the solutions used in one country or culture may not work in another. For example, at the recent Satara Hills Ultra Half Marathon in India, which runs into a World Heritage site, the move is back to paper cups. The high humidity together with the torturous challenge of a 400m climb over 6km sees the organisers place water points at 1.3km intervals for the up-and-back event! That’s around 230,000 cups for one event, with the paper a more attractive recyclable alternative to plastic.

Steps such as these reduce the plastic use, but what about trees, and the carbon footprint of manufacture? At the finish the drinks are provided in a separate area where runners can pour their own water from large plastic ‘cool-box’ type storage kegs, and the drinks sponsor provides its rehydration in small Tetra packs which can be recycled. The culture in India means that this can be in the open as people understand, and respect that these resources are for the runners and not the supporters. Would such a system work in South Africa? Possibly, as long as the fenced off section was long enough after the finish line to prevent a back-up of runners across the finish line.

In the Chembur 10km held in Mumbai, India, the organisers went a step further by manufacturing small unglazed clay bowls as water ‘cups.’ These are completely recyclable, but only work effectively for small numbers in a race – and were less practical for the elite runners speeding by. That’s part of the worldwide challenge to solve the water table question: How to provide each runner with around 150-200ml of water at regular intervals of 1.5km to 5km, depending on humidity, heat, and prevailing culture. The IAAF rules do not allow for the distance between stations to be longer than 5km, and the fact is that exertion-initiated heat stroke is the biggest medical challenge in the vast majority of mass participation events.

Currently the ‘favoured’ option is to provide 350-500ml bottles at those regular intervals. Even in temperate London it is every 1.6km, with additional Lucozade stations for energy. That’s about 1.2 million bottles, but most importantly, its around 1.2 million small plastic caps! It is the caps from these bottles that tend to escape the clean-up team.

On that note, the cleaning teams in first world countries tend to be more thorough. Within 30 minutes of the prize-giving after the Minsk Half Marathon in Belarus, five tractor-trailer combinations lined up with four street-cleaning and brush machines, and toured the streets as an army of clean-up team moved into the start/finish area. Three hours later there was little evidence to be seen of the race, and those few remaining bits of celebratory confetti shot into the air were uncovered and removed by the daily cleaning service in what is a spotless city.

The major advantage of a city marathon is the hard surfaces, which makes collection easy, and this is also assisted by a culture that endemically scorns litter. The challenges in rural and developing countries is often harder, as only hand-picking works for bottles, cups, sachets and elusive tops in rough grass or veld.

However, it’s not just about refreshment tables. The ‘greening’ commences with registration where online entries are an ideal means of reducing the carbon costs, and can save a mass of trees. At Satara Hills, the 6000 entries sell out in just three hours – Indian running is going to be very big soon – and as with the Old Mutual Two Oceans Half Marathon here in SA, Satara Hills has no real reason for printing an entry form, other than to ensure the opportunity exists for all to enter. Entries for London, New York, Berlin, even Mumbai, etc focus on the digital mechanisms, but even they have a portion of manual hard-print materials. Unsurprisingly, the printed option is greater in less developed regions such as the Middle East, Africa and India.

However, races in these countries or regions do not lack innovation, or the willpower, to make their greening contribution. For instance, the ‘goodie bag’ is moving from using a sponsor’s plastic bag, to instead using a recyclable tog bag that can be used for shopping and other future purposes. Even the nylon ‘shoe bag’ is being replaced. And these new bags frequently carry a motivating environmental awareness slogan, reminding runners of the overall objective.

Also, in India, races have a tradition of providing a post-race breakfast for the runners, which in Satara came in another small ‘collectable’ recycled multi-purpose bag. The Chembur 10km went one better with its goodie bag, which was constructed from newspaper by underprivileged communities, which gave those communities an opportunity to earn some money. This hit the spot in so many ways that it will be adopted for the 2019 Navi Mumbai Half Marathon, which attracts 9000 runners.

Greening has become an important point for all race organisers, and in road running worldwide. In June this year, AIMS (Association of International Marathons and Distance Races) issued its fifth version of the AIMS Green CD, with new and greater concepts, recommendations and checklists, and the IAAF were amongst the first signatories to the sporting world’s commitment to green procedures. There are also a myriad of ways that organisers can reduce their use of plastic and paper, and the effect of their race on the environment — and because of the high public profile of road running, events that don’t become more environmentally-friendly will become targets in their local community.

However, the greatest contribution that running can make is a much-needed change in attitude and culture towards littering, waste management and use of single-use plastics. Of course, the potential contradictions that exist highlight the need for this cultural attitude change… After all, the supporters of trail running or MTB cycling who go in search of ‘nature’ are often amongst the most vociferous complainants about road running, but it’s not unusual for them to drive to their events in large SUV vehicles, or travel with less than full vehicles.

The point is that greening is not an event, nor an action, it’s an attitude and culture, and that is where the power of road racing comes into the picture. With an estimated 1% to 2% of the world’s population being runners, the sport makes it possible to reach a mass of people and hopefully change their attitude, and to increase their awareness not simply of alternatives, but just as important, of what to do with waste when there is not a viable or practical alternative. The real impact of these mass events is the lessons we can learn, the attitudes that can change, and the message and actions we take away and use in the future. We all need to be part of it.

About the Author
Norrie has represented Scotland, Great Britain and South Africa in ultra-distance running and triathlon, and he is an IAAF-accredited coach and course measurer. You can read more from him at

IMAGES: Norrie Williamson