Green Races: Trail Races and the Environment

When you trail race, do you leave skid marks and a cloud of noxious fumes in your wake? This post, […]

By on April 22, 2008 | Comments

When you trail race, do you leave skid marks and a cloud of noxious fumes in your wake? This post, the second in iRunFar’s Earth Week series, considers the environmental effects of our racing and what can be done to lessen them. More specifically, the focus will be on ways race directors (RDs) have been consciously trying to incorporate green aspects into their races. Read on for examples of these changes.

With the exception of an urban trail race to which most runners can take public transit, run, bicycle, skateboard, kayak, etc, a trail races biggest environmental burden is likely to be its runners, volunteers, and fans traveling to and from a race. Some runners are lucky and can drive to many trail races within an hour of their home. For the rest of us who don’t live in Northern California we often have to drive at least a few hours to race on the trails. Living here in Northern Virginia, I’m fortunately enough to be able to drive to many races the night or morning of the race. However, even in my Prius, I still burn a significant amount of gas traveling to and from these races in central Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina.

While we trail runners must be conscientious of the effect of our own actions, at least one trail race I know of, the Uwharrie Mountain Run, has taken the step of offering carbon offsets to its participants. Yes, there is currently an active debate about the relative merit of carbon offsets and their brethren, the renewable energy credit, but I find it hard to believe that such actions do not have some positive effect. At the very least, the RDs offer to purchase such credits as part of the race application may spur participants to consider how and when they travel.

I would love to see RDs require mandatory carbon offsets for travel to and from the race just as they require volunteer work. Although an RD could calculate the carbon footprint of the event and purchase offsets for the entire race, a better way may be to require participants to pay a fee relative to how great an individual footprint they will have. Of course, RDs should active promote carpooling (or alternate transit if possible) to the race.

You should really read the Uwharrie Mountain Run’s Carbon Neutral Plan, which goes well beyond participant travel to the race. The RDs developed a three year plan to make the entire race carbon neutral by 2009. The started with participant travel in 2007 and moved to include other aspects of the race like aid station food and awards in 2008. Next year, they plan to make the entire event carbon neutral by factoring in lodging and waste generation.

Annette Bednosky addressing the environmental impact of her new race, the New River Trail 50k, in another, no less considerate manner. Much like some folks are talking about eating locally these days, Annette is striving to locally source materials for her race. She writes

When choosing materials, foods and supplies for aid stations and runner “giveaways” we are striving to have 75% of our goods come from either local manufacturers and/or growers (within 100 miles of course start) or from companies that have a demonstrated commitment to reducing their impact on the Earth.

The local sourcing of materials reduces the pollution and carbon output associated with bring those materials to the race.

Annette also aims to hit all the legs of reduce-reuse-recycle triangle:

    1. Reduce? Check. She will minimize the amount of disposable materials used at the race.


  • Reuse? Check. Annette is encouraging folks to drink from water bottles rather than disposable cups.



  • Recycle? Check. When waste generation cannot be avoided, she will choose products that are locally recyclable.



One aspect of races that often gets overlooked when considering the environmental footprint of a race is the swag that’s given away. As described at length in the iRunFar post, I Don’t Need More Ultra Swag, it would be nice if race directors provided participants with an option not to receive giveaways, whether its a shirt, something more exotic, or both. In short, this could be accomplished either by allowing runners to opt out on the application or by not giving away any gear. In the latter instance, RDs could charge a lower entry fee and provide shirts or other gear for purchase.

If RDs want to give away a momento to all runners, it may be best to think outside the box. Most iRunFar readers probably have more t-shirts than they could possibly need, right? On the other hand, a new pair of running socks like Sean Meissner gives away at the Peterson Ridge Rumble might be a bit more useful. Personally, I love and use towels, cutting boards, and mugs I’ve received at various events over the past two decades. On the other hand, I’ve got three brand new technical running shirts sitting on my dresser waiting for me to give them away.

A recent post by Nancy Hobb’s highlights some major as well as some minor environmental considerations for trail races. Included among the post are several considerations noted above, such as using water bottles rather than cups, having interesting awards, reducing and recycling aid station waste, sourcing locally, and carpooling. Nancy makes the good point of trying to make the locally-harvest post-run feed organic. As little things add up, RDs should check out her post for ways to green up course marking, registration, and race numbers.

More broadly, the American Trail Running Association has developed a trail racing etiquette guide (see second half of page) that incorporates some discussion of a race’s effects on the natural world.

Much to my surprise, the most comprehensive guide I found regarding green racing and races was put together by Runner’s World. Do check out the Runners World Green Team website. Look under the “Green Races” tab for both ways to green up your own race and a list of green races.

A post over at Harlem Runner challenges that no trail race can be truly green due to the RDs failure to account for the changing trail conditions in the capacity of their events and that the erosion/compaction caused by the trail racers id a huge effect. While the post itself is inflammatory and over the top, it is worth considering the harm a few hundred runners can cause under the right… or perhaps wrong circumstances.

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[Added 7/28/08]

Beyond individual races trying to reduce their environmental, organization are now being created to assist race directors find environmentally responsible solutions for their races. One such organization, Athletes for a Fit Planet, assists with all sorts of races including multi-sport, running, cycling, swimming, and walking events. According to AFP, it’s four main areas of focus are:

    1. Reducing waste you send to landfills


  • Reducing the emissions produced by your event



  • Leaving the event site cleaner than you found it



  • Encouraging your sponsors and vendors to adopt environmentally responsible practices



Does anyone know of any other organizations or companies that actively assist with or consult regarding putting on green races, as opposed to issuing guides the ATRA and Runners World?

[Added 7/31/08]

If you are a race director who wants something between a consultant and free advice, the group Road Race Management recently issued (7/15/08) a Guide to Greener Running Events that is available for $50. While the guide appears geared for road races, its contents include:

    • A look at the environmental state of the sport


  • Green event trends



  • Green running initiatives



  • Glossary of green terms



  • Guide to green sponsors and vendors



(If anyone has seen this guide, please share your thoughts.)

Phew… that’s it from iRunFar on the the subject of green racing for right now. Please share how you think trail races and ultramarathons can be made more environmentally friendly.


To all the RDs out there (and I know you’re out there), what steps have you taken to green up your race? What challenges and complications do you face in trying to lessen the impact of your race?

Green Races: [Added 4/23/08]

Below are a list of races that iRunFar or a commenter has identified as having green features. iRunFar is not a certifying body for green races (yet), but we do like to spread good news.


  • New River Trail 50k – Fries, VA
  • Reduced waste, recycling, local sourcing (race’s green info – scroll down page)
    • Sydenham Fall 8k – Sydenham, ON, Canada
    • 100% green power, organic and locally sourced food, on-site recycling and composting facilities, educational efforts/literature (see comments for more info)


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Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.