How Green Running Events Work

By: Dave Roos
Trash lines a street in Queens, N.Y., during the 2009 ING New York City Marathon. Many marathons -- including this one -- have gone increasingly greener since.
Trash lines a street in Queens, N.Y., during the 2009 ING New York City Marathon. Many marathons -- including this one -- have gone increasingly greener since.
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

No sport is as simple as running -- all you need is a pair of shoes and the open road. For eco-conscious athletes, running would seem to be the ideal way to stay in shape and limit your fleet-footed footprint on the environment. Not so fast, say the eco-police.

For starters, that pair of $100 running shoes had to be manufactured, most likely in China, where environmental protection laws are lacking at best. According to estimates from Runner's World magazine and the Green Design Institute at Carnegie-Mellon University, an avid runner will go through three pairs of shoes a year, pumping a total of 430 pounds (195 kilograms) of carbon dioxide into the air as a byproduct of the manufacturing process [source: Stevenson].


One dude and his running shoes is one thing, but what happens when tens of thousands of runners converge on a race like the ING New York City Marathon, which attracted more than 35,000 participants (and untold numbers of spectators) in 2009? Just think of the paper cups and water bottles alone. Imagine the snowdrifts of garbage that litter the streets of major cities in the wake of one of these colossal road races. In the past, several tons of race-related trash would go straight from the course to the landfill.

And what about the impact of "destination" races, for which people travel thousands of miles -- burning mind-blowing amounts of fossil fuels -- to race in famous marathons or exotic locales? According to the organizers of last year's Boston Marathon, only 2 percent of the runners were from Boston. Seventy-five percent came from beyond the New England area, and 15 percent flew in from abroad [source: Abel]. If the average flight to a destination race is 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers), that means an extra 4,080 pounds (1,851 kilograms) of carbon dioxide for each traveling runner [source: Stevenson].

Fortunately, in the past decade, there's been a huge movement to make running events more "green." Runner's World magazine even formed an official "Green Team" to assist race organizers in designing eco-friendly events. The results have been impressive -- all-biodiesel support vehicles, biodegradable cups, composting stations and even recycled medallions. Keep reading to learn more about what makes a green race and what marathons around the country are doing to limit their collective carbon footprint.


How Running Events Become Green

Over the years, the organizers of green running events have identified several key areas in which resources are needlessly wasted. The first place is race registration. In the past, organizers would send paper registration forms to all interested runners. That's a lot of snail mail for a marathon with tens of thousands of applicants. The simple solution is online registration. Today's greenest races make online registration a requirement.

Transportation is another core concern for green running events. How will people get to the starting line? How do they get back from the finish line? Is there adequate public transportation or must people rely on cars? Green running event organizers have set up special shuttle busses running on biodiesel, natural gas and other low-impact fuels to transport runners and spectators.


Moving people around is only one transportation concern. Big races also require dozens of support vehicles to transport food, water, garbage, staff members and emergency workers. To go completely green, some races have transitioned to 100 percent bicycle power, while others insist on alternative fuel vehicles.

Recycling makes a huge difference at large public gatherings. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) posts guidelines for organizers of large outdoor events, including tips on where to locate recycling bins and how to distinguish receptacles for each type of waste. One effective idea is to hang clear garbage bags so people can easily see the contents of each bin and to employ volunteers to man each recycling station [source: EPA].

And what about those snowdrifts of paper cups? The simplest fix is to switch to biodegradable or at least recyclable cups. Last year, the ING New York City Marathon recycled 75,890 plastic bottles handed out during the race. Other races insist that runners carry their own reusable bottles and refill them along the way. The ING Hartford Marathon came up with an ingenious solution for the finish line refueling station -- a 40-person water fountain called the water bubbler that saves an estimated 10,000 plastic water bottles each race [source: Runner's World].

Another culprit is the goody bag that each runner receives at the end of the race. Instead of handing out plastic bags full of paper brochures, plastic knick-knacks and energy bars, green running events now give reusable canvas bags stuffed with organic cotton T-shirts, materials printed with soy-based inks and reusable water bottles. Organizers also select food vendors for local, organic and sustainable practices. The Austin Marathon sets up a farmer's market at the finish line.

For more details on some of America's greenest running events, click on the next page.


Greenest Running Events

Runners take off at the JPMorgan Chase Corporate Challenge, named one of the greenest running events in North America by Runner's World magazine.
Runners take off at the JPMorgan Chase Corporate Challenge, named one of the greenest running events in North America by Runner's World magazine.
Doug Kanter/AP Images

When Runner's World magazine compiled its list of the greenest running events in North America, the Austin Marathon led the pack [source: Bastone]. The event uses 100 percent online registration, solar-powered and biodiesel-powered generators; places 10 biodiesel support vehicles, recycling stations and compost bins throughout the course; donates discarded clothing to charity and sets up that famous finish line farmer's market [source: Austin Marathon].

The Whidbey Island Marathon in Washington prepares an organic prerace dinner, makes goody bags from 100 percent postconsumer recycled paper, composted more than half of its waste in 2008, makes its race medallions out of reclaimed glass and encourages participants to carpool using a ride-share Web site [sources: Bastone and Whidbey Island Marathon].


The Canmore Rocky Mountain Half-Marathon in Canada designated a "waste-free" starting and finish line area, where absolutely everything must be recycled. The race employs bicycle-powered support vehicles, provides locally sourced food and drinks, and donates all proceeds to green initiatives in West Africa and Central America [source: CAUSE Canada].

Portland refuses to be out-greened by its tree-hugging friends in the Pacific Northwest. The bicycles are out in full force on race day as support vehicles, and instead of handing out medallions at the finish line, exhausted racers can breathe in the rejuvenating oxygen produced by their very own tree seedling [source: Bastone].

The ING Hartford Marathon in Connecticut is working hard to be the green alternative to the neighboring Boston Marathon. In addition to the 2,000-gallon (7,571-liter) bubbler, Hartford racers also enjoy a post-race meal of local and organic foods [source: Bastone].

For lots more information about green initiatives and running events, jog over to the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Abel, David. "Organizers look to lesson Marathon's environmental impact." The Boston Globe. April 19, 2009.
  • Austin Marathon. "Recycle/Green Team."
  • Bastone, Kelly. "10 Greenest Races." Runner's World. November 2008.,7120,s6-240-488--12876-0,00.html
  • Christian Aid for Under-Assisted Societies Everywhere (CAUSE). "Green Focus."
  • Runner's World. "The Three R's: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle."
  • Stevenson, Jason. "Running's Impact on the Earth." Runner's World. November 2008.,7120,s6-240-488--12910-0,00.html
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Recycle on the Go: Special Events."
  • Whidbey Island Marathon and Half-Marathon. "Whidbey Goes Green."