Running away from net zero

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Running events have an elephant in the room when it comes to the climate emergency, says trail runner Damian Hall in his new book, and it’s the participants who need to take the greatest action 

My first running race, the 2011 Bath Half-Marathon, was a life-changing moment for me as it is for many. I took real pride in that first finisher t-shirt and medal, oblivious to the unnecessary environmental costs (more anon). I felt a little uncomfortable with the fields of plastic bottles and gel wrappers scattered down the road in our wake. It all gets collected for recycling by the lovely volunteers later, right?

As well as creating some 40,000 medals and 40,000 t-shirts, the 2018 London Marathon used 920,000 plastic bottles. That’s not far off one million plastic bottles. For just 40,000 runners. Post-race the City of Westminster collected 5200 kilograms of rubbish and 3500 kilograms of recycling from the streets, including 47,000 plastic bottles – hopefully the other 873,000 were collected by race staff? Things have improved since, but London Marathon acknowledged a stunning 118.86 tonnes of waste.

Around 10 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the oceans each year in what Sir David Attenborough has described as an “unfolding catastrophe”. Race bibs are usually plastic, timing-chip paraphernalia too, course markers and then there are those plastic goodie bags. They’re not good. More stuff no one wants. More waste. More CO2e sent skywards, heating our planet, making it potentially unliveable for our children and their children.

I used to take the free t-shirt offered to me at race finish lines without even thinking, stick it in a drawer and forget all about it. A total of 75 per cent of UK runners often or very often receive a post-race t-shirt and 60 per cent own 10 or more, says research. A few unused tees aren’t a big deal though, are they? Unfortunately running has an XXL t-shirt waste problem.

“All those discarded bottles, half-eaten bananas and cheap t-shirts … Are running events an environmental disaster?” asked Kate Carter in The Guardian. 

“It is hard to think of a better formula than a global sporting event for causing maximum environmental damage,” said author and activist George Monbiot. And we haven’t even got to the elephant in the room.  

The London Marathon is making progress. In 2019 it used 215,000 fewer plastic bottles and along with hundreds of UK and US races, London Marathon Events (LME) has partnered with Trees Not Tees, offering runners the option to plant a tree instead of taking a t-shirt or medal. 

“It’s often just so much stuff and a lot of it isn’t needed,” says Kate Chapman, a sports sustainability consultant who’s worked at the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, the London Marathon and many other mass-participation events. 

“Things like leaving the date off a product if the event will happen again the next year. If you give out less stuff, you create less waste.”

Elsewhere, the Bath Half is the first running event to win an AGF Run Award and the Cardiff Half Marathon has been working with Cardiff University to reduce its impact. Other UK races making efforts include the Oxford Half, which has gone plastic-free, as has Royal Parks Half Marathon.

Other races use biodegradable tape to mark the course, environmentally friendly loo roll, reusable wooden signs and separate out waste for recycling. The Manchester Half Marathon has taken the bold move of doing away with t-shirts altogether. 

Of course, it’s great to cut down on waste, which is tangible and emotive. But plastic bottles, t-shirts and medals are just a tiny fraction of most running races’ CO2e. Regrettably, the real harm comes from us, the runners.

At running races, food, beverages, waste, merchandise, generators and staff trips can collectively amount to less than two per cent of event emissions, according to 2022 analysis of 29 US mass-participation running events by the Council For Responsible Sport. 

“Participant travel is the elephant in the room,” says the report. “It’s necessary to get to events, but it’s also the largest source by far of climate-changing emissions.”

In the limited number of other studies we have, most concur that over 90 per cent of a running event’s CO2e emissions come from participant travel. 

Big city marathons can have up to 50,000 participants, not to mention thousands of event workers, volunteers and spectators hugely inflating that number and therefore emissions. The New York City Marathon hosts participants from 150 countries, with 37 per cent of runners coming from overseas. Such a huge volume of people travelling to a city may be great economically, but it’s terrible environmentally.

London Marathon

“Even sports such as athletics that are inherently harmless cause major environmental effects, thanks to the transport of spectators,” wrote George Monbiot in The Guardian. Yet few events seem to be aware of the participant travel problem, publicly at least. It’s a tricky one.  

Ultimately it’s up to individuals to take responsibility for how they travel. Trains in most cases are the lowest-carbon option, with flights the worst. Single-occupant car journeys can be nearly as bad as flights, but four in a car makes the journey roughly equivalent to a train trip.

The CO2e impact of a big running event is way bigger than I expected. The Paris Marathon, with some 57,000 runners, is independently audited at a whopping 26,500 tonnes of CO2e. That’s the equivalent of harmful GHG caused by the entire lifetimes of 34 people, or driving around the Earth 2600 times. We can only assume other big city marathons have a similarly epic and destructive footprint on the planet.

“Marathon event organisers must reconsider the dynamics surrounding attracting international participants if they genuinely want to lower the carbon footprint of their events,” concluded the 2021 study, The Carbon Footprint of Marathon Runners: Training and Racing.

In a normal year, some 3500 runners come to London from overseas and the event does offset elite travel, though that’s controversial in itself. “Offsetting isn’t a long-term solution. It’s a really difficult one,” sighs Kate Chapman. 

“There is an issue with people coming from overseas,” a mass-participation event insider told me. “At some point it’s going to mean having conversations about participant travel and what the event does there.”

The act of saying “no thanks” to a medal and t-shirt and carrying your own water round the course is hugely overshadowed if you fly or drive to the race. Most races are tidying up the five per cent and ignoring the 95 per cent.

London is part of the World Marathon Majors, a concept that encourages runners to fly round the globe clocking up some 34,360 miles to reach Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York – oh and soon Chengdu in China and Sydney, too – emitting huge amounts of GHG. It’s woefully out of step with the zeitgeist.

“I wouldn’t want to comment on how you should solve that one,” says the insider. “Discouraging people from participating isn’t really on the cards at the moment. Will we see quotas for international runners at some races? I think it’s probably gonna have to be.”

As for the World Marathon Challenge, where (very rich) competitors run seven marathons on seven continents in seven days, spending at least 52.5 hours in the air … I can’t even bring myself to calculate the unnecessary harm done to the planet from that one. It needs to stop.

Parkrun tourism needs some reflection, as well. The Facebook group has 8000 members, yet the point of having so many parkrun locations is surely to make it more accessible for local areas and stop people travelling long distances for it.

And parkrun itself? Tens of thousands of people driving, hopefully only a few miles, but just to run 5km, every week? As much is it’s a wonderful initiative in many ways, those 773 parkruns have a regrettable carbon footprint. 

Trail and fell races are taking a lead, by incentivising low-carbon travel. The Original Mountain Marathon encourages all competitors to use public transport – but with real action: they provide coach travel from railway stations to the event, which is often fairly remote. 

Rathfinny Half Marathon & 10km offers free shuttle-bus pick-ups from two local train stations and start the races at public transport-friendly times, saving 54 car journeys in 2022 (they also charge for car parking, except if there are three or more runners per car, in which case it’s free, and offer secure bike storage). 

For the Lake District’s Dunnerdale Fell Race, cars with one or two people in pay to park, vehicles with four or more park free and get a free beer, while, brilliantly, cyclists and walkers are paid £5. Most other races should take note. 

It’s common for races in Switzerland to offer free public transport as part of race registration. The popular Swiss City Marathon offers free transport within the whole country. 

Damian Hall (inov-8)

Away from running, the Racing Collective’s GBDuro is probably the first sporting event with a no-flight policy.

Some races have made significant changes towards greater sustainability, but people need to be along for the ride or they won’t work. 

“Organisers can place signs telling you where to put your banana skins, but a lot depends on the behaviour of the participants as well,” says Chapman. “These important changes need runner pick-up too.”

Ultimately, while events can help us significantly to make better decisions, it’s up to runners to play their part, too. 

We’re running out of time. 

» We Can’t Run Away From This: Racing to Improve Running’s Footprint in Our Climate Emergency by Damian Hall (Vertebrate Publishing) is out now – see

» This article first appeared in the November issue of AW magazine

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