The Oversized Footprint of Ultrarunning

A little before 7:00 am on June 19, 2010, I climbed to the top of the first major mountain in the San Juan Solstice 50 mile race. From that vantage point I could see two wilderness areas, two 14,000-foot peaks, a herd of elk and, far below, a road winding through the canyon. I felt strong and confident in my ability to complete the race, but even more overpowering was my sense of awe at the landscape. The San Juans are stunningly beautiful. They rise in unbroken four- to five-thousand foot climbs to top out in fantastic formations more than two miles above sea level. Any time spent in them makes a runner feel small, yet challenged. Like the mountains are offering themselves as a test ground. On sunny days the views extend for countless miles to distant horizons unknown and beckoning for exploration. What’s to prevent a person from simply continuing on indefinitely?

Well, we are.

San Juans Hardrock Garett Graubins

Do we consider the environmental cost of running through the San Juan Mountains?

We’re literally loving our wild places to death, ultrarunners included. While the myriad issues facing the planet these days are widely known and lamented, we rarely think of the impact of the sport of ultrarunning itself. As if we’re so in tune with the landscapes we traverse that the thought of us polluting them is laughable. Yet it’s the truth. Emissions from cars and planes add CO2 to the atmosphere while thousands of pounds of waste are generated through the disposal of countless thousands of gel packs. Inefficient aid stations feature single-use paper cups for small amounts of drinks and paper bowls for only a few servings of candy or fruit. Running shoes are commonly made from synthetic rubbers derived from petroleum products that take thousands of years to fully break down in landfills. And just about all clothing and gear in the sport is stitched or assembled in Asia – in factories whose power comes from coal-fired power plants – and then distributed worldwide on high-emissions vehicles. Even if we forget about all that, the ecosystems we run through are fragile, and the massive influx of people for races naturally degrades their unique characters. Running is commonly idealized as an environmentally low-impact sport, but the reality is that we pollute far more than we know.

This issue has arisen in part because ultrarunning is now a legitimate sport. In the past when only people like Rick Trujillo were roaming the high wilds in solitude, the amount of waste in the sport was negligible. Less abundant races featured less aid and placed more responsibility on runners. Since people weren’t even sure if completing such epic adventures was even possible, the goal was simply to finish and survive. However, we’ve honed our technique to the point that runners are now able to compete at extremely high levels. The stats are enough to amply support this point: Only two people finished the first ever Wasatch 100 in 1980, with the winning time over 35 hours. Twenty-eight years later Geoff Roes ran the same race in little over half that time. The 1996 Hardrock was completed in a then-unbelievable 30 hours, yet in 2008 the new course record was set at 23:23. These numbers are certainly subjective due to changes in courses, weathers and gear, but the data show an undeniable trend toward increased performance. This entails greater traffic between aid stations and increased long-distance travel to races, among other effects. Once a fringe activity relegated only to people interested in the adventure, ultras have now become attractive to elite runners from other fields seeking profits and fame.

So what does this mean for the environment? More interest means more people. More people means more traveling, eating, pooping and littering. A consumer culture makes people buy new clothes instead of repairing old ones, or buy new shoes after the manufacturer-recommended 300-500 miles. Half a world away, Asian coal plants contribute to climate change, but that effect is usually too far removed from the mind of a runner when buying shoes to affect their decision.The problem is that the impacts are rarely visible. This kind of situation – where people are largely unaware of the impacts of their daily lives – is common in every aspect of American life. Who worries about the destruction of ocean beds by trawlers when picking out Atlantic Cod at the grocery store? Not many people. But runners use the environment far more than most, and thus we have a greater reason to save it.

The good part is that a lot of possibilities are out there for improvement. Although what we do may not have a very noticeable effect on the environment individually, every little act of preservation has the ability to add up with others to create an expansive and definitive solution. First are the small lifestyle changes that everybody should practice, not just ultrarunners. These create a mindset of eco-friendliness that guides people to make healthy decisions in every aspect of life. Next are some ideas specifically for runners to reduce their footprint. These are more specialized versions of the first category that show ways ultrarunners can continue to be well fed and hydrated while also helping the environment.

Everyday Ways to Reduce Impact

  • Insulate your house and keep the heat even. Heating often comes from in-home combustion or power plants that reduce air quality and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Better insulation reduces wintertime reliance on the thermostat and summer reliance on A/C.
  • Get rid of unnecessary appliances, and replace old ones. Extra fridges in the garage use large amounts of energy and can boost electric bills. Try consolidating everything into a single fridge. In addition, replacing old appliances with Energy Star models can save both energy and money.
  • Eat local and organic. Buying local and organic will increase health – of both you and the planet.
  • Run large appliances in the morning or evening. Peak times for appliance use is roughly 3:00-7:00 pm. Avoid using the dishwasher or doing laundry during these times and keep costs and energy demand low. Reducing peak demand reduces the need for additional power plants.
  • Compact fluorescent light bulbs use a third of the energy of regular light bulbs and last longer. Use them.
  • Use “Tree-Free” paper products. Just about every paper-based product comes in post-consumer recycled form, which means that few if any trees were cut down to make the product. This is good.
  • Use fewer plastics. Think about how many sandwich bags you threw out last year. Now multiply that by 300+ million and you’ll get roughly the number thrown out by America. Reducing plastics, whether in the form of bags, disposable silverware,  or something else  lowers the demand for items steeped in polluting petroleum products.
  • Bike or run to work or wherever you go on a regular basis. Driving pollutes, while biking and running is healthy, personable and good for the environment.
Mont Blanc

UTMB is worth running, but at what cost?

Ultrarunning Solutions

  • Don’t travel as much. It’s definitely cool to go to Europe to run UTMB (I’m planning on it this year), but getting there uses an unbelievable amount of energy.  Flying can emit as much as 50% more than driving, but driving is far from being a problem-free substitute. A gallon of gasoline emits roughly 19.5 pounds of CO2, so at 25 MPG a 300 mile trip emits about 234 pounds of CO2. Now if thousands of people are making that trip, the numbers quickly add up. Try running more local races to reduce emissions.
  • Bring your own bottle and food to races. Filling up personal bottles at aid stations cuts down on the number of paper cups used, and the less food you take from aid stations, the fewer disposable bowls will be used for runners. Also, instead of using individual gel packs, buy gel in bulk and fill small containers that can be traded out via crew or drop bag.
  • Buy eco-friendly shoes. Plenty of companies are now making shoes from recycled materials or materials from renewable sources. This reduces the demand for resources and lessens the impacts of consumerism. Also, consider sending old shoes to programs like Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe and keep the cycle of sustainability going.
  • Buy domestically produced clothing and/or repair old clothing. Most companies produce their products overseas, and incur a large carbon footprint as a result of their cost cutting. That’s not to say the quality is worse, but avoiding foreign products eliminates the need to transport products thousands of miles just to get home. Companies like Melanzana in Leadville make their stuff right in the building and, though the prices are sometimes higher than imported goods, the benefits to the environment are incalculable. [Editor’s Note: Admittedly, the complicated path of components often makes determining the transportation impact of a complex product difficult. Patagonia’s Footprint Chronicles do a good job providing examples.]

The world is a changing place, and trailrunning is as good a gauge as any. While our sport continues to grow at an unbelievable rate – while thousands more people every year realize that running 50 or 100 miles is not only possible but also fun – so our trails become crowded and our air degraded. Nobody hurts the environment with that purpose in mind, but our means of enjoying the wild places we love is killing them. The issues facing the environment seem insurmountable at times, but by making small changes individuals can make a difference. Long-term solutions arise as slowly as they take effect, and our society is gradually grasping the implications of our unsustainable lifestyles. Ultrarunners are in a position to be catalysts of change. We are fit, healthy and motivated to protect the places we love. We can begin by adapting our sport to sustainable practices and expand the initiative from there. Change on a large scale will be necessary for a long-term solution, but change is necessary for every good thing in life. And preservation of the places we run is certainly a worthwhile goal to change for.

Call for Comments
What environmental factors do you consider when trail running or ultrarunning? How do you mitigate your environmental impact?

Works Cited
Archer, Ann. 10 Easiest Ways to Green Your Home. MSN Real Estate. Web. 14 Jan. 2011.
Armstrong, Lindsay. The Best, Green Running Shoes and Clothing. Huffington Post, 2/21/2010. Web. 15 Jan. 2011.
Kolecki, Catherine. How Running Shoes Are Made. How Products Are Made, Vol. 1. Web. 15 Jan. 2011.

There are 71 comments

  1. Trail Clown

    Great post. Here are my ideas:

    (1) If you use a gel pack, eat the packaging as well as the gel.

    (2) Fill plastic bottles with asparagus-scented urine instead of using gatorade.

    (3) Swim to UTMB, then walk the land bridge back.

    (4) Consider moving to neighborhoods where the Home Owner Association's policy allows for only 1 communal car per neighborhood.

    (5) Go naked or go home.

    (6) Toilet paper any house bigger than 1000 square feet.

    (7) Put solar panels on top of your running hat.

    (8) Use nuclear weapons instead of conventional weapons.

    (9) Eat squirrel meat instead of fish.

    (10) Re-use toilet water by straining with a colander.

    No seriously, I love that you speak out on these issues. My big thing this year is no more gel packs, I've been using the new tablet gels from Hammer…no more gels for this Trail Clown. Peace out!

    1. Trail Clown, Arlingt

      Just want to add here that I too was confused by the initial author byline (since corrected) and thought that Bryon wrote the piece. Since I know Bryon, I made up a funny top ten. But since I don't know Dakota, I hope I didn't offend by my use of silly humor. I do think it is an important topic of discussion.

  2. Ned Barrett

    RE: clothing: One word: goodwill. I have found several high quality used shirts, long sleeve, short sleeve, fleece, for very little dough-re-mi.

  3. Tomah

    Or maybe you should drop out now so you don't damage the San Juan Mountain environment any more.

    But don't ask for your money back because as the website states "All proceeds benefit the Lake City EMTs, our all-volunteer emergency medical team, most of whom will be helping at aid stations on race day!"

    Compare ultrarunning where many runners use their own bottle and pack out trash to road running where you see thousand of cups used for one drink and strewn on the ground for a mile.

  4. Gina

    It's true that runners may be overlooking their consumption and impact. But there's an added bright side, too. Runners and athletes tend to be healthier overall than the average American. That translates to less consumption of healthcare goods over time. Which translates to less environmental impact. I think most people would be shocked to see how much is consumed/goes to waste in a hospital, medical office, etc.

  5. John

    Trail Runners, like most individuals, will probably get defensive when first reading this article. While it's true that we pack out garbage, use bottles, are in better shape and typically produce less garbage than other athletes; to assume that there isn't room for improvement is misguided at best.

    And that (to me) is the point of the article. There is ALWAYS room for improvement.

    Forget about all the other sports out there…just focus on improving your own. I like the vibe of this and agree with it wholeheartedly. Just because somebody else is doing something far worse does not mean that you can't be doing any better.

    1. Bryon Powell

      John, you hit the nail on the head. It's easy to get defensive when reading an article that suggests we could be better people. However, even great people can further improve or at least periodically reflect regarding whether they can. We surely do so with regard to our training and race… why not do the same with regard to the world around us! :-)

  6. George

    After realizing that my garbage primarily consisted of energy bar and gel wrappers, I started making my own. There are plenty of recipes online to experiment with. If possible, buy ingredients in the bulk section of your grocery store (and bring your own bags/containers to fill).

  7. Brett

    I see your point, and don't mean to make light of it, but taken to the extreme cynical point of view, an athlete contributes much more to climate change than the average person. (I vaguely even remember seeing scientific studies on exercise versus climate change.) The number of calories athletes burn requires a much higher consumption of food every day. They run through shoes at an exponentially higher rate. And so on, and so on.

    But as a whole, how many athletes do you know that litter trails…litter at all? How many athletes do you know that smoke? End up in the hospital for diabetes, heart disease, etc? Who is it that takes care of trails, nature, parks, etc.? Who advocates for them?

    I try not to be wasteful, but I don't feel inclined to change much after reading this. Broadly speaking, I believe we contribute much more positively to this world than the average folks (not just in the environmental sense). I hope that doesn't come off the wrong way. Its great to put information like this out there to get people thinking.

  8. Joel

    Well, it's all relative.

    The most effective thing any person can do to limit his or her environmental impact is to refrain from having children.

    But mentioning that will make you even less popular than suggesting that people should drive smaller cars, or drive fewer miles, or travel by airplane less frequently, or to eat food that's produced locally, or what-have-you.

    1. Anonymous

      [Comment removed by administrator: Anonymous attacks on other readers will not be tolerated. I will note that you strongly disagree with Joel. Nothing is achieved by calling another person names or attacking his or her intelligence.]

    2. Bryon Powell

      I hope that there's not a prolonged battle over this comment. Joel's comment is not farfetched in terms of actual environmental cost; however, it is a step that many have no desire to consider for a multitude of reasons. If you stop and think about it, there's certainly a huge environmental impact in having one or more children (NYT article) and growing ranks of people deciding not to have children, in part due to environmental concerns (Grist article). On the other hand, biological urges as well as many familial, societal, cultural, and religious not to mention personal desires speak toward having kids.

      Unless others are willing to have a respectful discussion of this point, I encourage you to refrain from replying. I've removed but a handful of the 10,000+ comments in iRunFar's history, mostly because iRunFar's readers have been respectful of one another and I've had no need to do so. That said, I will not stand for name calling, personal attacks, flaming, or trolling.

      1. Joel

        Thanks for that reply, Bryon. I don't know that it's my sentiment, per se, meaning that I'm not necessarily advocating that people should do or not do anything in particular, including have or not have children. It's just a statement of fact, the unpopularity of which I mentioned in my first comment, the aim of which was to highlight how complex the issue of an individual's environmental impact is. What is the "right" thing to do, and for whom is it right?

        There is a certain irony in someone becoming upset about that comment. That unhappiness is, I'm sure, analogous to the feeling many people have when they feel judged for the lifestyle choices they make, such as the car they drive or where they do their shopping.

        For the record, I spend a lot of time in the backcountry, and I stick to the established trails and I never litter. I do everything I can to "leave no trace." At home, I limit my meat consumption, I don't consume a lot of electricity, I drive a fuel-efficient car, I don't do much discretionary consumer spending of any kind–at any store or on any products, et cetera. I'm pretty "green" my any measure.

        But there's always a greener fish. So: where is the bottom? It's a legitimate question, and pondering both the question and its answer is not mutually exclusive with being conscious of and actively living a low environmental impact lifestyle.

        1. ned barrett

          Joel,

          I don't think there is a bottom–human beings will always have a deleterious impact on the environment. I read once an apropos line: something to the effect that we will always–no matter how sensitive we try to be, have a negative impact on nature because of our desire to settle. I don't think the point is to have no impact, but rather to make that impact minimal, intentional (ie thoughtful–full of thinking), conscious.

        2. Bryon Powell

          Joel, I didn't mean to put words in your mouth by writing "Joel's sentiment" in the second line of my response. I've revised it to simply say "Joel's comment." I hope that works better.

        3. Steve

          One of the books that I read to my four kids starts out going on about the harmony and balance on earth before the evil humans entered the picture. Well ok – I added in the evil part in to give them an early start on the guilt factor that they will be bombarded with at school.

          Me – To absolve my guilt I agreed to use a pushmower on Al Gore's lawn at his third home. Of course I drive the pushmower over to his house in my 1985 p/u with with a 4 barrel Holley – you know, need to keep it out of the landfill and follow thos 3 R's.

    3. Paul

      I have heard many times that the environment issue = population issue. But people are always saying those populations are centering more around cities and with proper planing the environmental impact of a person in a city is a fraction of what it is in the suburbian model.

      But this had issues of water, waste water, type of food…

      This is a very complex critical mass equation.

  9. Chris

    Great article Bryon. I agree that we could all do more, but are probably more sensitive than most about environmental issues.

    One other thing most trail runners could add to their list is not making special trips just to get to a trail head. If at all possible, pick a trail that's on your way home form work or the store.

    One of the coolest things about reducing your impact, is that 9 times out of ten, it will save you money too!

    1. Bryon Powell

      Chris,

      Dakota Jones did a great job writing this story.

      I couldn't agree more about reducing impact by not driving to trailheads. I spent last year road running because I couldn't run to any trailheads. Last November, I moved to Park City, Utah so I could run to numerous trailheads in less than a mile. I do occasionally drive to meet up with friends to run, but most of those are within a few miles. I can understand driving to mountains or trails for key workouts when you don't have race day terrain near your house.

      1. Chris

        I did not realize that Dakota had written this article. It is always great to see young people with passion about such an important topic!

        Thankfully for me, I have several different trails I can hit on my way home from a long day in the classroom. Although it would be awesome to someday experience the mountains out west, I really love life here in the Foothills of the Blue Ridge.

        I too think an occasional trip to a cool new spot, or your favorite race is definitely in order. As with most things, even conservation can be taken to extremes!

    1. Bryon Powell

      Spud, that's a great way to cut down on one's environmental impact. Even substantially reducing meat consumption is worthwhile and it avoids the need for all or nothing resolve. I can't really call myself a vegetarian anymore… but if I can't imagine I eat more than three pounds of meat in a given year and almost all of that is sustainably caught fish.

  10. Anonymous

    I am sorry, I was out of line. However, not having children is far from the answer. Why should we safe the planet if there is no one to enjoy it? I have children, I know the effected they have on the enviroment, but my children can one day grow up and make a REAL difference, and actually help the cause, as opposed to just commenting close minded on a blog. Joels answer is to NOT do something(a very big, and very serious something) I recommend we all DO SOMETHING. The no baby idea is a lazy and easy way of dealing with things, so I am not surprised that is the suggested solution. The whole concept is a good insight into why our country and soctiey is where it is right now. On a seprate note…Bryon you should be a politician.

    1. Bryon Powell

      Anonymous, I hope you continue commenting on iRunFar. In my deletion, I tried to keep your negative sentiment. There's nothing wrong with that. Joel posted a comment that was sure to incite strong opposing responses. I welcome healthy debate such as what was included in your longer response. The only reason I deleted your comment was because it was solely an attack on Joel.

  11. James Madson

    Really great article! I couldn't agree more.

    Although, the title was misleading… I was hoping you were going to write about guys like me who wear size 15 running shoes and how hard it is to find the right shoe!

  12. Brett

    Joel's comment was the same as this article…just to get people to think. Just because he is right doesn't mean he is advocating for that idea…just food for thought.

  13. Dave M

    Great article by Dakota.. the credits list Bryon as the author though.

    The point about children is interesting.. it is commonly accepted that a child in the developed world makes a larger impact than one in an undeveloped world. That said, I am a hypocrit for having two kids. I would like to think that they will make a positive impact environmentally and cancel out their inevitable western lifestyle and carbon output, but this is out of my hands as they are to choose their own paths with a small influence from me and my wife.

    I disagree with anonymous, "The no baby idea is a lazy and easy way of dealing with things, so I am not surprised that is the suggested solution." Actually, to choose to NOT have children takes WAY more effort than to have children. I know several couples who have chosen to not have kids exactly because of the impact that these kids could likely have on the planet, which takes a ton of personal sacrifice and requires that one put aside innate emotional and biological needs.

    1. Bryon Powell

      Dave, Thanks for pointing out a few things.

      First, I whiffed on the byline. I set Dakota up with an author account on the website, but failed to change the author name for the post. That's been correct.

      Second, I was going to let the sleeping dog lie, but I'd agree that "“The no baby idea is a lazy and easy way of dealing with things" is incorrect. It's certainly not "lazy" not to have kids… It's not like any one of us, in particularly, needs to have kids and those that don't are skimping out on a duty. As for not having kids being easy…. well, it's actually a minor societal taboo NOT to have kids if you can. I have a cool family, but I was asked on numerous occasions when I was going to have a kid until my sister did. I can't say that my family really put pressure on me, but families, societies, and religions can put heavy pressure on individuals to have kids. The hard choice is not to have them. Plus, there's the personal asked that you mention. I think kids are great. I spent a heck of a lot of time babysitting when I was younger and it was fun. Few things make my day more easily that video conferencing with my 21 month old niece. That said, I won't have kids with the environment being one of many considerations that led to that decision.

      For everyone else, I don't think that the point of anyone in this thread is to make anyone feel guilty about having had children. You have lovely children (I hope), enjoy them! Rather, as with the article, it's to think about all of your actions… especially the major ones. Deciding whether or not to have an additional child in the future is one such decision.

  14. Lloyd

    Yes, just ban all races on trails, close all public lands… completely, limit travel to within walking distance of home, plow under the roads, make every family move into the house next to theirs, so they can all share body heat to warm the place, and every other home will be vacated, eat only what you grow, wear shoes made out of woven dandelion stems! Mother may I?

    Come on, seriously! This smacks of 'as-long-as-I'm-in, shut-the-gate-behind-me-and-I'm-fine". (An attitude I've witnesses over many years in one suburb after another in Park City, btw.) Don't take that plane to UTMB (but wait, it's going anyway, right.) What now, only those who were already in ultrarunning before a certain date should be allowed in? Hey, I'm ok with that, as long as it's cut off after I started, how about you? Hell, just ban it altogether.

    I'm as concerned about the environment, as the next guy , probably much more concerned, but there are a myriad of options for any given individual to take that would have a far greater positive impact. I've always loved trail running and ultras because it wasn't corporate, and wasn't elitist. Guess I was wrong on at least one count.

    1. Bryon Powell

      Lloyd, I think you might be over reading the article. I won't speak for Dakota's intent, but I read it as an article that asks us to consider out environmental impact as people and as runners. It's good to be reminded of that from time to time. I can't see anything in Dakota's story that we absolutely shouldn't do any one thing. He acknowledges that compromises are made to meet our desires when he share he'll be going to UTMB even after knowing the cost.

      1. Joel

        I think Lloyd's reading is an accurate one. The article jumps back and forth between them, but ultimately it makes two basic points:

        1. Rich Westerners live high-energy lifestyles, wherein we consume and waste recklessly.

        2. Once upon a time, ultra-running was so unpopular that the choices individual participants made didn't matter since the net impact of the entire sport was so small as to be completely negligible.

        Lloyd is responding to the tone in which point (2) is made. When I was in college, this was called NIMBY-ism. NIMBY: Not In My Back Yard. Everyone wants to live on the top of the hill. But then, one day, another suburb gets built–behind yours, and further up on the hill! Horrors! (Never mind that yours is the fourteenth in a never-ending series of developments.)

        As far as point (1), the author suggests several things, like insulating your home, eating organic food, et cetera. Half of those suggestions require either large capital expenditures (insulation, new fridge) or regular increases in household goods spending (more expensive light bulbs, more expensive food, more expensive paper towels). Earning the money to buy those expensive light bulbs or those locally grown tomatoes or that high-tech insulation takes a lot of energy!

        The author overlooked an obvious suggestion: buy a programmable thermostat if you don't have one. Program it to keep the temperature considerably warmer (summer) and cooler (winter) during those times when you're usually away. In general, let the temperature be two degrees closer to the outside temperature than you historically have. The thermostat represents a whopping one-time $20 cost, and will make a huge difference in your energy usage (that is, your wallet). If your home is sufficiently poorly insulated, then it may be worth the significant expense and time, but the go-to suggestion is to alter your thermostat settings.

        Likewise, the suggestion to use fluorescent light bulbs: sure, if you're already at the store and you have to buy light bulbs, consider those over incandescents. But if you have a stock of incandescents, consider using them rather than increasing the demand for light bulb production by purchasing new ones. The best suggestion where lighting is concerned is to simply switch off more lights. In general, people over-light their homes.

        Replacing your refrigerator: not necessarily the best idea for everyone, financially. It might make more sense for someone to refrain from buying and keeping frozen food. That's right! Empty your freezer. Then turn the temperature all the way down on your empty freezer. As Gordon Ramsey will remind you on those Fox "Green it, mean it" promos, it takes 10 times the energy to make frozen food than to make fresh. And again, if you already find yourself in need of a fridge, then consider the most energy efficient one you can afford. People usually like to buy new fridges, which increases the demand for fridges, which increases production, and making fridges takes a lot of energy! So if you can bear to have a 'used' fridge that's a couple years old and is energy efficient, that's the best option, from an environmental point of view.

        In general, consider behavior-based changes, rather than different consumer choices. It's ironic that the author, who derides consumerism, guides the reader toward high-energy, expensive purchased solutions (updating your home's insulation, get a new fridge, replace light bulbs). I would have preferred to see suggestions based on changing behaviors (adjust your thermostat temperature, turn off lights, stop using your freezer) rather than buying specified types of products.

        The suggestion to run your washer/dryer and dishwasher off peak hours is a great one. Kudos to the author on that. A behavioral change that requires no purchase. Good suggestion.

  15. Bryan

    Bryon/ Dakota.

    Awesome article. I'm in the midddle of re-reading "Let my people go surfing" by Yvon Chouinard founder of Patagonia. I read this a few years ago and it impacted me so much I have changed so many parts of my once wasteful lifestyle.

    Patagonia leads the industry on giving back and monitoring its footprint.

    I bring my own cup for coffee, use my own lunch cooler, NO plastic bags. Recycle everthing possible. I refuse to buy from a Mall.

    I have made my own hurache sandals from a lawn tractor tire. I could order some Lunas but why? My current runners have about 800+ miles on them. My old runners go to a charity that sends the shoes to areas that need them. In Ghana Africa they prefer used shoes to the bootleg new shoes the sell ther. A used shoe has a quality that will last.

    You make great points on how we can lower our footprint. Race directors need to get in on this as well. Here is a 50k in our area that has gone green. http://www.ncnr.org/nrt50k.html

    You can get a shirt, for the price of the shirt or you can get the lower fee for no shirt. Limited paper cups. Bring your own handheld. First 100 entries get a Nathan quick draw hand held. Our running group van pools whenever possible. 4-6 per van. Whay should everyone drive. It builds a better community and saves on the footprint.

    Gels are tough. You can make your own but what do you store them in? I have found a Fuel belt with 4 bottles works. A good gel is chia seeds. It helps with hydration as well.

    Energy bars still require you to wrap them in plastic. I believe Lara bars have a bi-degradeable wrapper.

    Ned had a good point about Goodwill. We have one that sells clothing by the lbs. Its the last chance they have to sell some of the donated clothing. For a few min of digging you can get some great stuff. Found some new Dry-fit pants today. 50 cents. If I need to have something to ditch at the start of a race. I didn't lose out on anything.

    Back to race directors. Why do we need to have the big name sponsors on every event. I like the Fat Ass format much better than the Big name sponsored event.

    And do you run the race if the major sponsor is something you don't agree with.

    Cabalo got it right turning down North Face to sponsor the Copper Canyon. Running should remain free and clean as possible.

    I may never make it to Leadville or Western States. But I'll be happy to know I didn't increase my footprint getting there.

    Sorry if any of this copies other responses. I stopped reading them after the Joel situation.

    Run Free.

  16. jared

    First time commenter here. Can I make a constructive suggestion for your gear reviews? Make a special point to always mention where the manufacturers get their material for the product, what provisions they make to dispose of the product (if any), and what the reputation of the company as a whole is on the environment.

    The manufacturers rely on blogs like this to give honest appraisals of their gear for your readers and their consumers. Blogs can be a loud voice saying what is like and disliked about a product. If all their customers demand sustainable products I think more manufacturers will provide them. Additionally, as a consumer, when I buy I would like to support companies that manufacture as responsibly as possible and that additional info would be helpful to me.

    Thanks – love the blog.

  17. Geoff Roes

    there are too many issues raised here to comment on all of them, but i think it's great that Dakota (or anyone) is raising these points. no matter what you think about these issues and how much you are willing change (if at all) to lessen your impact on the planet, i think it's valuable for these issues to be in our consciousness. i think we as humans are completely unaware of most of the stress that we put on the natural world around us. there are a few "hot topic" areas where most everyone knows about their impact (transportation, trash/recycling, type of light bulbs we use, etc), but these things are just scratching the surface when looking at human impact on the planet. this piece doesn't go a whole lot deeper than most of this, but it does go a little bit deeper and brings up some things which many of us have probably never considered.

  18. Dominic Grossman

    When I think of eco-conservatism, I think of the mass effect of the general population. This article brings a few good points to the front of ultra runners' conscious, but ultra runners themselves also naturally bring these points to the front of many other individuals' conscious.

    For example, the work that Krissy Moehl has done with the Conservation Alliance has had a hugely positive effect on the environment, and (not to speak too much on her behalf) probably largely inspired by various awe-inspiring experiences in her ultra running career.

    Personally, I've become much more conscious of my environmental impact through my runs in the San Gabriels. I've observed first hand the decreasing tree population on my favorite trails due to uncontrollable forest fires spurred by global warming (that caused extremely dry conditions for the Station Fire of 2009). I now make a large majority of my decisions on what I do and what I buy by the environmental impact of them, and spread these ideas amongst friends.

    The bottom line is that ultra running (though harmful like almost any human action) has inspired me and many others to take better care of our environment. I believe that in the end, the power of the idea of eco conservancy (planted through ultra running) is more than worth the trangressions needed to do so.

  19. Tom

    I’m a bit of a conservationist so that’s the perspective I bring to these debates. Although it’s true that trail runners and trail events can leave a lot of unfortunate flotsam on the landscape, and the consumption that goes into our sport carries with it some nasty side effects, I think it’s also important to highlight the important role our community should play in promoting open space. On balance, I think I’d rather have more people out on the trails (as long as they act responsibly), if that usage reinforces the value of the open space to local communities. Otherwise there are plenty of economic reasons to bulldoze every field. So I’d add to the list: (1) support local conservancy efforts; and (2) support local businesses at your favorite running destination.

  20. Joe Gerard

    3 things:

    Simple math tells me that a gallon of gas which weighs about 9 pounds, once burned, cannot produce more than 9 pounds of anything, let alone 19 pounds of CO2.

    And how could a local farmer produce goods with less of an impact than a giant factory farm? The economics tells me that it is more efficient to mass produce something and then ship it. If it was less efficient, economics would block giant farms from ever being developed in the first place.

    Lastly, why write an article suggesting people not fly to europe for UTMB, then tell us you are going anyways?

    1. Bryon Powell

      Joe,

      I do all I can not to tell someone they're wrong on this website, but you're wrong on at least point number 1.

      Your approach to math is over simplified. When combusted, the gasoline, which is primarily a hydrocarbon (a compound made up entirely of carbon and hydrogen atoms), is oxidized by external oxygen gas (O2) into water (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2). A hydrocarbon can have, at most (in methane), a ratio of 4 hydrogen atoms to 1 carbon atom. In gasoline, that ratio is much closer to 2 hydrogen atoms to 1 carbon atom. Roughly speaking, the atom weights of the relevant atoms are 1 for hydrogen, 12 for carbon, and 16 for oxygen. That means for every carbon atom in gasoline there are just over 14 units of weight, but I'll give you 15 units of weight to err on the conservative side (12 from carbon and 2+ from hydrogen). Each carbon then combines with two external oxygen atoms. The combined carbon atom and two oxygen atoms (C02) have a mass of 44 weight units (12 from carbon and 32 from oxygen – 2×16). Various factors slightly reduce this general additive transformation from 15 weight units to 44 weight units when each carbon in gasoline is combusted, but it shows the principle that the end result of chemical reaction between gasoline and oxygen (combustion) is a significantly more massive amount of carbon dioxide that the gasoline combusted.

      If you don't trust my back of the envelope math, take a look at the work of the Bush II-Era EPA, which pegged the CO2 emissions from a gallon of gasoline at 19.4 pounds and at 22.2 pounds for a gallon of diesel fuel.

      As for the glory of the invisible hand of the market creating efficiency, that only works in providing the most efficient solution when all costs are internalized (CO2 emissions, land degradation, and many other factors are not internalized costs) and no external forces skew the working of the market. As it is, petroleum (used in factory farms' inorganic fertilizer) and crop subsidies greatly skew the market for produce. Beyond that, you cannot equate market efficiency ("The economics tell me it is more efficient…" with "less of an impact" unless (1) you are talking strictly about fiscal impact or (2) the costs of environmental impacts are internalized at a cost significant enough to drive the market equation. Even in an efficient market (i.e., all costs are internalized and there are no external forces) environmental impacts would only be on part of the equation that includes cost of land, labor, inputs, transportation, etc.

      I won't seek for Dakota on the last point, but I will speak for myself. As the editor, I allowed the article to be published to encourage thoughtful reflection… which seems to be the primary reaction to the article. As noted in the majority of comments, we are certainly not willing to cease to exist or to give up every last thing we enjoy for the sake of environmentalism. Personally, I take many steps to reduce my environmental impact, but I, too, will be flying to UTMB. Noting one's own personal compromises provides a means of relating to others difficult decisions and eliminates one from provide a holier than though perspective.

      1. Chris

        Even if you ignore all the environmental science, supporting your local farmer is just the right thing to do! They are our neighbors and friends, who in many cases are carrying on a family tradition that sometimes goes back for generations. It deeply saddens me every time I see a farm field turn into a sub-division. Some call it progress, I call it losing sight of our heritage.

        Never mind the difference in taste! Anyone who has ever been to a local farmers market can attest to what real vegetables taste like. That stuff they sell in the supermarket is "OK" but pales in comparison to fresh picked. Which brings up another great point – grow your own! One of my greatest joys, besides trail running, is tending to my vegetable garden. If you have never tried it, and you have the space, I promise you it will become your second addiction – if your reading this, I already know what your first one is already.

    1. Bryon Powell

      Jill, thanks for taking the time to put together your thoughtful, well-written response. I encourage others to go read it. If you haven't read Jill Homer's writing, it's some of the most enjoyable outdoor writing I come across.

      P.s. Best of luck at Susitna!

    2. Meghan

      Jill,

      Your blog post makes me sad.

      I'm sure you've read "7 Habits of Highly Effective People" and recall Covey's heavy use of the phrase "circle of influence." Some of us have circles that encompass a household. Others have circles that include an entire business. You have a circle that includes probably a few thousand blog readers every day. Most of us have circles that include only ourselves.

      Covey's point about these circles is that the most effective work we can do is inside that circle of influence. He says that, if we spend too much time trying to control that which is out of our control, we are much less productive.

      This is my take on environmentalism, that I spend my time trying to green my lil' circle of influence. The recycling truck just came by my house and took about 10 gallons of stuff away. I'm very aware that my recyclables will not go off in the truck and change the world, but that doesn't mean that I shouldn't do it anyway. If I don't recycle every piece of stuff I can, and if I don't make wise environmental choices as often as I'm able, and if I don't try to give the little bit of money that I can afford to conservation organizations, and if I don't read up as much as I can about treating others and the earth better, then my circle of influence is just gonna stand stagnant.

      That idea of stagnancy, of not doing as much of my part as possible, I can't live with it.

      1. Jill

        Megan, I understand what you mean and do believe that environmentalism is much too complex an issue to discuss in a blog post or a few comments. I do believe we can work to make the places we love better – you mention the clean-up at Yosemite – but picking up a few pieces of trash in a National Park doesn't change the fact that hundreds of millions of tons of coal are being burned in China, pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and contributing to the climate change that in the long run will have an exponentially larger impact on the Yosemite Valley than even a million tourists have. I'm not saying we should give up hope and stop doing the things that make our world a better place. I still do all those things you mention, including donating funds to environmental causes that I believe in. I was only saying that these days, I keep the larger context in mind when making decisions, and do what I feel is best for my life. Yes, small personal changes can spread to everyone we know which can spread to everyone they know. But even if everyone in the United States decides to recycle everything they can, it takes energy and infrastructure to process it, and a market to reuse it – two things that don't yet exist on that scale. And even then it doesn't address the exploding consumption in developing countries. It's such a massive undertaking that I really do believe we have not yet developed a solution that adequately addresses it, even if we could somehow spread those solutions to everyone in the world. I'm not saying I don't believe we can – energy is everything and fusion would go a long way – but until then, we can only do that which makes our own lives better. Picking up trash in Yosemite is a great start.

        1. Meghan

          In his book, Covey says that, if you focus on being productive in your circle of influence, then it will begin to expand all on its own. That is, others will see the good stuff inside the circle of influence and want to be a part of it.

          This bandwagon-type mentality is occurring right now, all over the environmental movement. If I tell someone, "Recycle now!" they are likely to react negatively. If they see that others are recycling, they wanna enlist themselves in whatever's cool with the masses.

          And, this bandwagon mentality about minor environmental issues like recycling is critical before Americans can even wrap their heads around the major, life-impacting environmental changes we need to make, those about which you've written. It's a gateway drug, if you will, to mass buy-in and epic environmental progress.

          Without recycling and picking up trash in Yosemite and, maybe, just maybe, being conscious about how your hobbies affect each other and the planet, there is nothing.

          But that's just my lil' opinion. :)

          1. Jill

            Good points indeed. I think one of the best things we all can do is help the people in our circle fall in love with nature. That's a small thing that can lead to huge things. Invite them on a run, invite them to a race, and maybe in that circle is the brilliant scientist who can help develop a clean energy source but perhaps never had the real motivation before (because there's certainly little economic motivation right now, with oil and fossil fuels still so prolific and prevalent.) This is why I feel sad when outdoor enthusiasts push each other to stay out of the woods, so to speak. For the minimal environmental impact a thing like an ultra-race has, its impact on our collective psychology is huge.

  21. Meghan

    I've arrived late to this discussion, it seems. However, reading the article and the comments together provides a unique perspective.

    Props to you, Dakota, for being brave in opening a wriggly can of worms. You're young, idealistic, and, perhaps most importantly, your piece is probably not unlike the internal dialoguing that many of us have about the pluses and minuses of our sport. Thank you!

    What strikes me as most shocking in this whole discourse is the defensive commentary it has incited. Dakota points no fingers at any specific person, yet many commenters are reacting as if he has. Why such reflexive defense?

    It is sad but true that we are loving some of our wild places to death. The widest part of Yosemite National Park's carbon footprint comes from people traveling to and from the park. And, the second largest piece of the footprint is the stationary combustion that takes place to light and heat Yosemite's tourist facilities. Each year, the Yosemite Facelift, a large-scale garbage clean-up that takes place right after the high tourist season finishes in September, picks up, literally, tons of garbage. All of this pollution originates from people like you and me, folks who just love and want to spend time in places like Yosemite.

    I consider myself a greenie, trying to negate my footprint on the earth to something more like a baby's foot than that of a sasquatch. But, I'm not even close to perfect. All the time, I internally debate the choices I make, not unlike the debate Dakota has about traveling to a race. Dakota has, simply, reminded me to keep conscious awareness of my impact on others and on the planet. I'm grateful for the reminder.

  22. Evan

    Great discussion so far. I’d like to weigh in too.

    My opinion is that the only significant way a person can reduce the environmental impact of humans is through aiding technological advancements. It would be very hard to change people’s behaviors significantly without policies that would cause havoc on our economy or way of life. Society as whole is not willing to take drastic steps (including most trail runners posting here) and I don’t blame them. However if you give a person a more energy efficient anything (electronic device, car, etc… ) that has the same or better performance as the old for a similar price, they will readily switch. Or if you can provide them the same product that is more durable or creates less waste, they will use it without blinking. Or better yet help develop cleaner, more reliable, safer, and more cost effective energy sources and then municipalities will switch without the consumer even noticing.

    How do we get better products and energy sources with less waste? Well nerding over whether to use a plastic bag or a gel packet is the right direction, but innovation and policies that support innovation are the true answer. Usually a lot of science, engineering, and creativity is involved in this process. So in my opinion if any trail runner truly cares about the impact of humanity, study science/engineering and then work in a field to help make these advancements. If you can’t or don’t want to do that then make sure to encourage the spending of serious $$ on such programs in our country.

    1. Geoff Roes

      evan,

      problem with what you're saying is that in almost all "advancements" in energy efficiency you end up with people simply using much more of that particular device. This has happened within a wide spectrum of things from refridgarators to air conditioners to cars, to name but a few. we can't technologically advance ourselves out of this, not at this point, not with 6 billion people living on this planet. the reality is that our usage needs to drop and drop dramatically. not a likely thing to occur anytime soon, but the only real, actual way out. There was an interesting story (with some depressing figures) talking about this exact thing in The New Yorker magazine a few weeks back now. i'd highly recommend checking it out.

  23. Evan

    Regarding decreased environmental impact from energy use – there appears to me three primary paths:

    1. Each person uses less energy and creates less waste by making significant lifestyle choices.

    2. Each person uses less energy and creates less waste without effort because the products they use require less energy and make less waste.

    3. Develop new cleaner (less wasteful) energy sources so it doesn’t matter environmentally how much energy is consumed per person.

    Even among the this crowd, which I think is considerably more “green” than mainstream America there is reluctance to make any significant change in lifestyle so #1 does seem hopeless. Most of the suggestions people make I actually do, but I often think it is a drop in the ocean (see Jill Outside's blog). # 2 is tough also as Geoff points out many products actually get worse with advancements. As an example the new TVs are reportedly huge energy hogs. However, I think we have to go backwards sometimes before we can go forward so I would still bet on #2 over #1. That leaves us with #3 which is a tall challenge but in my mind the only realistic answer. Western society and the developing world could maintain or increase energy consumption and lifestyle choices, while air and water quality could potentially increase significantly with technological advancements in these areas. I think #3 is hard to swallow because it is a long term solution that is not something any of us can make a difference in today or next week.

  24. adam

    I agree that we need to think about all these issues and hell do more than think act on these issues. The kids add up quick when it comes to impact. So does air travel.

    The one thing that I think doesn't pass the sniff test is the buy organic argument. Don't burn me! I buy organic 70% and always and forever agree with local. But it's just a math question. We have ~7B folks on earth and growing. current US organic market =2% of all food! You simply can not grow organic food and feed the world. Hell, we don't have the aggland acreage or climate area to feed the US on all organic or even 50% organic! I've read a few research papers ( i think they said the best we could do was 20%) on the topic and agree that it's just for folks who care about their kids and them selves. I mostly do it for the environment and the farm hands who suffer for our sake.

    Mostly we are doomed and to support this I can only use our current economic down turn as an example. What's happened in the last 3-4 years, less driving, less ozone, fewer acres of rain forest cut down, etc. These things are now revving back up and will until we have a "healthy" world economy. 20-40 years we'll have 10-12 billion people who all will need everything we American ultra runners have

  25. andy sutton

    Dear Bryon, to be a smarty pants, this article makes me feel bad about the free plastic sticker i received in a paper envelope, through the mail, carried in a fossil fuel burning automobile that say iRunFar. Thanks.

  26. olga

    I have to say that to me personally Joel's long response to Lloyd/Bryon seemed to have most common sense. As Jill and other mention, it doesn't mean we shouldn't make an effort to go "greener", what we do. But do try and keep perspective. And yes, it is easier to "walk the talk" when the job picked doesn't require you to live far from trails. Say, I'll stop commuting to a trailhead for my runs (which I don't drive to anyway, since it's at the backdoor, but that is an accident – does it mean I have to commute further to work, or my kid has to commute longer to school, or all of us get inot a car for more miles to buy groceries (I can't grow potatoes living in an appartment)? Again, we can strive, and the awareness raising is awesome (I pick every piece of paper after my co-workers, often pulling it out of trash cans), but please, please do change the tone of preaching. We ain't that bad, and as Jill said, not only coal mines are burning in China, nobody recycles in RUssia – and it's a huge country. Small steps, mostly for our own consience. Make-me-feel-good, integrity style.

    1. Joel

      Thanks, Olga. =)

      Relating to some of the content of my earlier post, I would just add that, in general, people don't think about the environmental cost of producing high-tech items like the Toyota Prius or 5-Star energy rated refrigerators. I always hear or read suggestions like: get this car; get that fridge. But never a mention of the environmental cost of producing those items in the first place! I would like to see more emphasis put specifically on buying used.

      Here's something I often mention to people: let's say you're going to get a car. Do you get a brand new Prius or a circa-2000-to-2005 Corolla? Which is better for the Earth? Forget about the Earth for a minute: which is better for your bank account?

      That sort of brings me to another point: it's almost always implicit in these kinds discussions that all participants are rich and can afford the 'correct' products. Has anyone ever noticed that?

  27. Matt D.

    I believe I am almost as committed as most of you, but with much to learn from many of you and articles like Dakota's, in taking care of the environment. We are the stewards of the world in which we live and we must take that responsibility seriously, as we see so many here doing. We must realize that there is so much more that can be done and that needs to be done in order to provide a healthy, enjoyable, and beautiful environment for the generations to follow. So if there are to be generations to follow there obviously has to be procreation, and I will tell you I have done my part by having six kids, sorry if this counter acts those of you who have decided not to have kids…which if you feel led not to have children I think that is great, you are more than welcome to hang out with mine and help formulate ideas and a mindset of environmental consciousness and responsibility. Procreation and the impact it has on the environment has to be looked at on a local,national and international basis. We could go on about population growth rates, migration, density, who is being most irresponsible….but that would take forever and there are still so many unknowns. So I will give you my heart, mind and soul on the matter and that is: The earth is an incredible and amazing creation, more complex than we will ever know with self regulating abilities, i.e. the ocean, the sun, the air, climate, the soil, plant life, animal life and human life that all work together to help balance each other. Looking at the big picture we are the stewards in a complex creation with the responsibility to care for the Earth in ways that respect the environment in thoughtful and intelligent manners that is also rich in cooperation, love and concern for each other. At least that is what I am shooting for.

  28. Sarah Lavender Smith

    What an interesting thread! A few things I'd like to add:

    – I echo a point made by Tom above: "On balance, I think I’d rather have more people out on the trails (as long as they act responsibly), if that usage reinforces the value of the open space to local communities. Otherwise there are plenty of economic reasons to bulldoze every field."

    – on the kid thing, FWIW, we stopped at 2 for enviro reasons even though part of me yearned for more. We justified having 2 in part by committing ourselves to raise conscientious kids whom, we hope, will be leaders to help solve problems of the future.

    – and finally, I'm surprised no one has said Thanks for spotlighting the gorgeous San Juans — my favorite home-away-from-home mountain range! nice work :-)

  29. Lincoln

    I'm really surprised that more has not been said about the single biggest impact we can all have on the environment – stop eating meat and fish.

    Dakota, I'm not sure what your diet is like, but give up meat for a day and you just paid your environmental ticket to UTMB.

    1. adam

      Not quite equal to a RT flight and all the travel to Eru. But Meat, mostly COW does add up a lot and is one of the things i hate most about Colorado. We have billions of gallons of water (thanks to out dated laws) goingout to the high desert plans to grow grass and feed for all these cows. Not all meat is bad. Chicken is on the good side of the scale and of course local game always being the best.

      I was thinking more about this and we are all suck hypocrites! I mean really, the fact that we are wealthy enough to own the computers to write this crap and have the free money to run and race… no matter how much eco crap you buy you're still buying a ton more than a working mother of 3 who takes the bus to work and shops at walmart for all her things and never has enough money to take a single vacation. By default the more money you have the more of an ass you are to the earth.

  30. George O

    ALL OF THIS ECO CRAP IS TOO DARN COMPLICATED!!!!! DAMNED IF YOU DO AND DAMNED IF YOU DON'T!!!!

    I'm gonna go run 20 miles and try to clear my mind now! thanks allot for getting me all stressed out!

    :)

    No but really, It was a good article and thanks irun for providing a kick ass website!

    Cheers!

    George

  31. Maya

    Tom, I think this is really well said. There is certainly a value to preserving some areas of human-free habitat, but trail races go through such a small percent of the areas contained in parks and wilderness preserves that the benefits outweigh the consequences. Parks have to have some kind of economic viability to be politically popular. It also seems unfair to people living around parks trying to make a living by running a restaurant/campsite/whatever to try to keep people out.

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