How to Pick a Race That’s Good for the Environment
Not all races are good for the earth. Use these guidelines to find one that helps you push your limits while protecting the environment.
When Kelly Caizzo considers signing up for a running race, she looks for the same factors that most runners do—distance, size, time of year and location. But Caizzo, a 37-year-old stay-at-home parent from Maine, also prioritizes another issue: how well the race treats the environment.
As runners and society as a whole put more emphasis on sustainable practices, race directors are taking note and making an effort to keep Mother Earth in mind when they oversee a race. For runners like Caizzo, that’s important. “I try to make eco-friendly choices,” she says. “It has definitely impacted which races I run.”
If you like to run and feel as Caizzo does, there are a growing number of race options for you. If you’re not sure where an event stands on its environmental policies, these pointers can help.
Where to Start
The trail racing community has traditionally been ahead of the curve on environmental efforts associated with events. Partly due to a growing cultural shift and partly due to the natural spaces where trail races are held, runners have generally high expectations of these events with regard to the environment. They look for things like collapsible/reusable cups, no race swag or the option to opt out of it and things like composting and recycling.
Road races, by comparison, can involve elements that don’t necessarily leave a small carbon footprint. Big expos, large swag bags, flyers, water stations with plastic cups and other less-than-environment-friendly features have long been hallmarks of road races.
Since 2007, however, the Council for Responsible Sport (CRS) has served as an education arm to the industry and also one that incentivizes race directors to be certified for environmental friendliness (determined by independent third-party evaluators). There are four levels of certification and runners on the hunt for environmentally friendly events can see clearly where a given event stacks up.
Shelley Villalobos, the managing director of CRS, says that the organization has certified about 175 races to date. “We’re seeing the demand start to bubble up,” she says. “In recent years, in particular, runners are moving toward experiences that keep the environment in mind. It’s encouraging.”
What to Look For
There are several key measures runners can use when weighing where to lace up and spend their racing dollars, says Villalobos. The easiest place to start is checking to see if the event has the CRS certification. Also look to see if a race claims to be environmentally aware on its website or social media. “If so, does the event back up its claims with detail about what that means in action?” she asks. “If they are certified by us, we have 61 recommended actions for how a race director produces an event.”
For instance, does a race offer an option to neutralize the climate impact required to travel to the event? Look for this on the registration website. “At checkout, it will ask if you’d like to contribute a small amount to offset the greenhouse gas emissions from your travel,” explains Villalobos. “The funds are used to purchase carbon offsets with a chosen provider, who will apply it in some fashion like renewable energy development.”
Other important considerations include the race shirt associated with the event. While a popular souvenir for many participants, how the shirt is made and what it’s made of matter. Responsible race directors might offer a recycled polyester or cotton shirt. Others might offer an “opt out” option at registration for a lower entry fee.
Another big step an environmentally conscious race organizer can take is eliminating single-use plastic water bottle or cups. Instead, you’ll bring your own bottle and fill up at coolers with multiple spigots on the course. Others might use compostable cups and ensure they are added to composting bins after the race. “I bring my own water belt, which not only helps the environment, but saves time on the course,” says Caizzo. (Don’t skip the hydration altogether, though: Even in cooler weather, it is important to drink enough fluids.)
As for large distance races where some runner toss “throwaway” clothing at the start line, it’s worth asking the race director if they donate the clothing to local shelters, as well as any leftover food from the post-race activities.
How You Can Help
Along with the races you’ll find listed on the CRS website, there are other green-minded events in the U.S. and Canada to consider. The Canmore Rocky Mountain Half-Marathon, 10K, and 5K offers waste-free zones at the start and finish lines, meaning everything must be reused or recycled after the race. Some years, proceeds go to an environmental cause. The Hartford Marathon features a 40-foot-long water fountain at the finish, allowing runners to drink together without the need for individual plastic bottles. It also composts all race-day food scraps. And the J.P. Morgan Corporate Challenge Series donates its proceeds to many of the public parks and conservancies that host its races.
If more sustainable racing is something you’d like to support as a frequent racer, speak to race directors. “I email race directors ahead of time to let them know I don’t want a swag bag, for instance,” says Caizzo. “Every time you reach out to event organizers, it plants a seed that sustainable practices are important to their participants.”
Villalobos agrees. “If race directors don’t hear from runners, how will they know you care?” she asks. “You can even organize letter-writing campaigns in your club or running community.”
Also consider racing closer to home to cut down on emissions used for travel. “Where I live, there are so many beautiful and fun race options,” says Caizzo. “I don’t have to go far for a good experience.”
As the pandemic ends and racing resumes, some of the old practices—like big bins full of bagels post-race—will inevitably go by the wayside. Watch for how race directors handle this. Individual packaged foods, for instance, are not a green swap out. You’ll likely find opportunities to speak up and help organizers with better options.
At the end of the day, remember that you have a role to play and a voice to be heard. “Smart race directors are listening to their participants,” says Villalobos. So use your voice for a greener future.