How to be an eco-friendly trail runner
by Lizzie Rosewell
(published on trailrunningmag.co.uk on November 20, 2019)
As trail runners we are privileged to access some of the most beautiful and rarely visited areas of our countryside, but could our activity be harming the very environments we love? There is growing awareness within the trail running community of the damage that runners can do to the natural environment and a move towards behavioural changes that could help preserve these environments for future generations of trail runners.
Gel wrappers and plastic bottles are a regular sight, particularly on more popular routes or after organised events. Some littering may be accidental, but it appears that much is not. Benjamin Verliere of the 50 Summits project this year climbed the highest point of every European country to raise awareness of mountain littering. “One of my greatest frustrations is that people realise they are doing something bad, because they try to hide it. I can’t recall the number of times I’ve found garbage shoved between or under rocks” he said.
Stuart Walker started the charity Runners Against Rubbish, and points out that runners have a vested interest in maintaining clean trails, as litter is a major reason for landowners’ refusal to grant access to their land for races. The Swedish craze for ‘plogging’ (picking up rubbish while running) has now spread to other countries, and many runners are taking responsibility for collecting rubbish while on the trails. And some races will disqualify any runners seen dropping rubbish. Walker said: “I hope that as awareness grows, it becomes socially unacceptable to drop rubbish and absolutely acceptable to pick it up”.
David Broom provides ecological advice to events including the Original Mountain Marathon (OMM), Spine Race and Dragon’s Back Race, and says that races often take place within vulnerable habitats, with significant conservation implications for vegetation and wildlife. As trail runners we need to be aware of the unintentional damage that we can cause by trampling fragile plants, contaminating water or disturbing nesting birds. Many race organisers are now seeking ecological advice to help mitigate the impact of races, but David also urges individual runners to think about their own impact when making route choices and to ensure they follow any guidelines provided by race organisers, such as avoiding trampling vegetation by cutting corners or damaging the edges of paths when passing other runners.
All race directors should think carefully about how their race impacts the local environment. Course markings such as spray, signs and tape are both unsightly and an environmental hazard if not carefully removed after races.
Trails can be badly affected as a result of the erosion caused by large numbers of runners. In the UK, the Hardmoors race series has adopted some sections of the Cleveland Way, as well as making a financial contribution to the Cleveland Way Trail from every entry. Teams of runners patrol each adopted section three times a year, trimming branches and vegetation, clearing drainage channels, checking signage and reporting any major repair work needed to the National Park Authority. “It was a way we could give something back” says Wayne Armstrong, Hardmoors patrols organiser.
Dealing with the large quantities of waste produced at a trail race can be a significant issue for organisers. Many races now require runners to bring their own containers for drinks. Not only does this lessen the demand for single-use plastic, but also reduces the amount of rubbish produced. Most race organisers try to recycle as much rubbish as possible, but much of the waste generated by races does still end up in landfill. For individual runners there are choices to be made between the convenience of pre-packaged gels or portions of ‘real’ food.
Food waste is a consideration for organisers providing sustenance at checkpoints or the finish, as it is difficult to cater accurately for racers and avoid large quantities of leftovers. The disposal of unused medals and finishers T-shirts is also an issue at races with high rates of non-finishers.
Gear and gadgets
Dan Lawson and Charlotte Jalley started ReRun Clothing to raise awareness of textile waste and its impact on the environment. They take unwanted running gear (in any condition) and guarantee to prevent it entering landfill. Clothes are sold online, upcycled or donated to local homeless charities. ReRun say the bulk of their donations come from unwanted (and often unused) race T-shirts.
Runners are vast consumers of kit, whether that is trainers or the latest electronic devices. ReRun would also like to see greater transparency from brands about how clothes are made and a move towards more sustainable materials and production methods. In the meantime, perhaps we should all be asking ourselves whether we really need, rather than just want, that new item of running gear?
Running might be a low-carbon activity, but how we get to the trails can have a big impact on our environmental footprint. Whether in a race or training run, we often seek remote areas.
Some races encourage car-sharing, via social media or the Racelifts website (racelifts.org), while others provide runners with incentives to use public transport. Nick Smith of Racelifts points out: “Not only does car sharing help the environment, but it also saves money and can be a great way to meet other local runners, as well as helping ease parking congestion for race organisers”.
If we respect the countryside we run through and reduce our impact, we can preserve the very environments that draw so many people to trail running. As ReRun’s Charlotte Jalley says: “We are blessed to spend so much time in mother nature and it is our job to be guardians of these trails to protect them for future generations”.1