Cupless Concerns

A look at the trend toward cupless races… and the cups that come with them.

By on October 9, 2013 | 101 comments

Thankfully, over the past few years there has been a movement in ultrarunning culture and in races themselves toward a more environmentally conscious approach. I’ve heard of more and more individuals deciding to race closer to home to minimize their environmental impact from burning fossil fuels to travel to far away races. Several races have ‘gone green’ by including recycling at start/finish areas, and in rare cases at aid stations. Other races have seemed to discourage waste by minimizing the amount of throwaways they put in race ‘goodie bags:’ flyers, stickers, and other advertisements. Some races have even stopped giving everyone a shirt, knowing that the majority of people end up just giving them away or throwing them in their closet under dozens of other race shirts.

This consciousness is of course a move in the right direction, and is very much preferable to the alternative of blindly promoting consumption, waste, and excess which modern culture has seemed to do to a shocking degree. There can come a point, though, where all this excitement about conservation and sustainability can go too far. Things which can have the best intentions, and make a lot of sense initially can, and often do, become so popular and trendy that they end up becoming an excessive and environmentally unfriendly practice in and of themselves. A great example of this would be the use of reusable canvas bags to replace plastic and paper grocery/shopping bags. If we all owned one or two of these bags and used them most every time we went to the store this would be an undisputed benefit. Instead, in our excitement over being as ‘green’ as possible we all now own dozens of these bags, and retailers push them on us by having them conveniently located at the checkout stand for 99 cents (or in some cases give them out for free). The prevalence of these bags makes it way too easy to assume that using one of them is ‘good’ and using a traditional paper or plastic grocery bag is ‘bad.’ The problem is that in our demand for these reusable bags, we have created a market for manufacturers to produce these things by the millions, and nowadays these ‘reusable’ bags have become a throwaway item of their own. However well intentioned it may have been at the beginning, the canvas-bag trend has become an extremely excessive and ecologically unfriendly consumer trends.

There is a trend starting in running races that I could also see going down this same path. I am referring to the reusable-cup trend. On the surface, this seems like a very good idea. The use of thousands of paper cups to serve runners their water, electrolyte drink (hopefully the new Clif electrolyte mix because that stuff rocks), and soda is extremely excessive and cannot be replaced soon enough. The idea of giving runners reusable cups so that they can carry just one with them and reuse it at each aid station is a great idea in theory, but now that’s it’s becoming so much of a trend it’s easy to see a future in which one can reasonably question whether this is a preferable alternative to the throwaway paper cups. How many foldable silicone cups does one person really have a use for? How many will we each need to have in our closets before they become as clearly misguided of an answer to a problem as the canvas bag has become?

The good thing is that, as racers and race organizers, we are at a point where we can still nip this excess in the bud before it happens. Currently the trend is to go ‘cupless’ by giving everyone one of these reusable cups to use to drink fluids at the aid stations. This is a great approach if you are the only (or one of a few) race doing this, but as this becomes more and more the norm, the last thing anyone (or any ecosystem) needs are more of these reusable cups. As a solution, I suggest we all shift our consciousness as soon as possible from looking at this trend as an undisputed benefit to this planet to something that has potential to be a large problem of excess in its own right. It’s only a benefit if we keep the amount of these things in circulation low enough that those that do exist are being regularly used, and not thrown in the back of a closet, and then a year or two later into a landfill.

Race organizers: many of us don’t need any more of these cups. Yes, some of us do, but not all of us. I can’t be the only one out there who has as many of these as I could ever possibly use. Especially considering that one is as many as you can ever use (I can’t recall a single time in my life in which I used more than one cup at a time). Going cupless is a great idea for your race, but you are not actually going cupless if you purchase hundreds of silicone cups to give to all the racers. If you’re going to go cupless, seriously go cupless. We can handle it. Consider allowing people who want to purchase a reusable cup as part of their race entry to do so. This way, those of us that already have them will just pass on that option, and instead of purchasing hundreds of these items, you will be purchasing a couple dozen.

Racers: Don’t be afraid to demand this foresight and consciousness from the races you run. Your voice will be heard. Also, consider that we’re all carrying water bottles most of the time. Shift your consciousness. Why can’t you pour a bit of Coke into your water bottle to drink at the aid station? If that doesn’t work for you, then simply bring one of your foldable cups with you that you already have in your closet. This might take four or five seconds longer at each aid station. In a 100-mile race this might cost us a full minute. In my opinion, this is a very small price to pay for the alternative of either using a couple dozen paper cups, or of blindly allowing the reusable-cup trend to become so popular that we are eventually filling up shoeboxes with these things, never to use them again.

I know I can’t be the only one who has a hook in my house for canvas bags that has nearly a dozen bags on it. Is this better than the alternative of the couple hundred paper/plastic bags I might have used instead? It’s a moot point to compare. The reality is that they are both very excessive, and the best answer would be to have one or two canvas bags that I used all the time. The way canvas bags have been forced on consumers in the past decade, though, it would be nearly impossible to only own one or two of them. Hopefully as racers and race organizers, we can avoid the same being true of reusable silicone cups a decade from now.

Call for Comments (from Meghan & Bryon)

  • Tell the truth, do you have too many reusable grocery bags and reusable race cups?
  • In addition to Geoff’s suggestions, what else can the running community do to ensure that reusable cups don’t follow the same trend as reusable grocery bags?
  • While Geoff suggests using your own water bottles, are there any other options you can think of for drinking at aid stations that don’t require obtaining another piece of gear?
Geoff Roes
has set numerous ultramarathon course records including the Western States and Wasatch 100 milers. Salomon, Clif, Drymax, Ryders Eyewear, and Atlas Snowshoes all support Geoff's running. You can read more about his running on his blog Fumbling Towards Endurance and join him at his Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camps.