What's a green marathon?

Runners generate a lot of unnecessary waste during large races.
Pontus Lundahl/Associated Press

­You don't need much to be a runner, or so m­any of us believe. Just running shoes, right? For endurance runners, however, the gear list can quickly grow to include much more than shoes. A runner might assemble a collection of performance apparel, gadgets and nutritional drinks, gels and bars -- and then there's getting to and from marathons, which aren't always close to home.

All of this adds up to runners with giant footprints -- carbon footprints, that is. A carbon footprint measures the amount of carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere as we live our daily lives. Running gear often includes synthetic materials, and the manufacturing and transportation of those materials and products emit toxins and fossil fuels.


In 2008, the magazine Runner's World calculated the annual CO2­ impact of a typical American runner, including everything from clothing and shoes to travel. It found that one runner generates 5,449 pounds (2,471 kilograms) of CO2 in one year. That's equal to driving an SUV (getting 15 mpg or 0.15 liters/kilometer) 300 miles (482 kilometers) per month every month for a year [source: Stevenson].

Green runners, on the other hand, make green choices about their gear and travel arrangements: They reduce, reuse and recycle. They trade synthetic fabrics for organics or alternative fibers such as bamboo or recycled materials. Running shoes are notoriously ungreen, but savvy runners reuse them for running errands instead of marathons or give them to organizations able to reuse or recycle them. They also choose to race close to home, carpool or purchase carbon offsets. Carbon offsets allow you to balance your greenhouse gas sins by buying into carbon reduction projects such as wind farms or other clean energy.

­Turning a race green is similar. Race directors can make eco-friendly choices when planning a marathon, from finish-line farmers' markets to recycling the waste generated at the event.


Green Marathons: Making a Race Green

The Las Vegas Marathon participates in an eco-rideshare program.
Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

­Green runners don't make a race green, although they certainly deepen the shade. Greening a marathon takes effort from the runners, race directors, volunteers and sponsors.

According to the Greenteam, a group of experts from Runner's World and Nature's Path, there are about 30 green-friendly races in the United States and Canada (races varying in distance from 5Ks to marathons) [source: The Greenteam].


Every race needs a location. Green races are located near public transportation and emphasize biking, ride shares and car pooling. The Nike Women's Marathon and Las Vegas Marathon both recently joined an eco-rideshare program called PickupPals. The Fall Cross running series in Colorado encourages participants to travel green by giving away prizes. The Mount Werner Classic Trail Run, also in Colorado, offers carbon offsets to runners who travel more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) to the event. Marathons also need sponsorship to help offset costs, and eco-friendly race sponsors can help increase green awareness and advocacy for anyone attending the event.

With location and sponsorship down, the race is on and runner registration begins. Most registration and communication is paper. Race directors looking for an eco-friendly change look to online registration and e-mail communication. When paper is used, green options include printing on FSC-certified (Forest Stewardship Council) recycled materials with soy or vegetable-based inks rather than petroleum-based types. Race bags, the goody bags given to race participants, don't need to skimp on good swag to still be green -- instead of plastic bags, they're replaced with reusable cloth versions and filled with Earth-friendly race shirts and other treats.

On race day itself, pace cars and security vehicles are replaced with bicycles or hybrid or biodiesel cars. Clean power can be used to generate electricity at the start and finish lines and to power the race clock -- the Austin and Portland marathons both use solar power.

Participants wouldn't sustain their energy for long without being provided food and water. Biodegradable paper cups, recyclable containers and foods from local farmers' markets are provided at many green marathons; some require runners to bring their own handheld water bottles or waist packs to refill along the course. One stunning display of green originality is the 70-foot (21-meter) long water fountain created for the ING Hartford Marathon finishers -- so far it's saved 20,000 plastic bottles and paper cups from use since it was built in 2007 [source: Hartford Business Journal].

Green marathons commonly reward their finishers with medals created from sustainable materials such as recycled glass, metal and wood. The Portland Triathlon gives out trophies made from recycled bike parts and the Portland Marathon offers one of the most sustainable awards -- a tree seedling.

At the end of the day when the race has been run and the medals given out, the final thing to do is clean it all up. Waste collection at conventional races usually means a lot of plastic cups and sport drink containers -- at the 2007 ING New York City Marathon alone, 75,890 plastic water and Gatorade bottles were collected on the course. What helped green the race was that 22,080 pounds (10,015 kilograms) of plastic and cardboard were then recycled [source: Bastone]. It's not only cups and cardboard that trash the course -- shoes and clothing are discarded along the way. Green events donate gently used clothing to local thrift stores, and at the Yuengling Shamrock Marathon, for example, runners can donate old shoes at the finish line to the Soles 4 Souls organization.

Learn more about green marathons on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Bastone, Kelly. "10 Greenest Races." Runner's World. 2008.http://www.runnersworld.com/article/0,7120,s6-243-297--12876-0,00.html
  • Bastone, Kelly. "Races Go Green." Runner's World. 2008.http://www.runnersworld.com/article/0,7120,s6-243-297--12875-0,00.html
  • "Carbon dioxide emissions calculator and offset estimator." Carbonify.com.http://www.carbonify.com/carbon-calculator.htm
  • Carbonfund.org. http://www.carbonfund.org/
  • Galbraith, Kate. "Marathons: Reducing the Runner's Footprint." Green Inc. Blog. The New York Times. 2008. http://greeninc.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/10/14/marathons-reducing-the-runners-footprint/?hp
  • The Greenteam Green Guide. The Greenteam. http://www.runnersworld-greenteam.com/
  • "New Fangled 'Bubbler' Saves Water at Marathon." Hartford Business Journal Online. 2008. http://www.hartfordbusiness.com/news7012.html
  • Stevenson, Jason. "Running's Impact on the Earth." Runner's World. 2008.http://www.runnersworld.com/article/0,7120,s6-240-488--12910-0,00.html
  • "What is a Carbon Footprint?" Carbon Footprint.http://www.carbonfootprint.com/carbonfootprint.html