The Oversized Footprint of Ultrarunning

A discussion of the environmental impacts of ultrarunning and tips for lowering your environmental footprint.

By on January 24, 2011 | Comments

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.

Dakota Jones
Dakota Jones explores the wild places of the world on foot and tells us about it every few weeks. He runs for Salomon and Clif Bar.