In the most important race, trail running has a secret weapon — its runners.
The Chuckanut 50K is a classic Pacific Northwest trail race. Runners gather the third weekend in March to toe the start line in Fairhaven Park, less than a mile from Washington’s cold, swirling Puget Sound. They then trace a route up the Chuckanut Mountain ridge beneath a low, gray sky. The rain is everywhere. It pools on the trail in front of you. It drips from the visor of your hat. It seeps into your bones.
Just as fierce as the race’s sometimes inclement weather is its trailblazing organizer, Krissy Moehl, a two-time Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc champion who in 2005 became the youngest runner to complete the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. She now serves as a running coach and an ambassador for Patagonia. Moehl took over running the Chuckanut 50K in 2003 and has been its steward ever since. For her, a key aspect of this means putting on the race in a way that’s gentle on the environment.
Moehl is part of a growing movement in the sport of trail and ultrarunning to take a critical look at the impact that racing and organizing events have on the environment, and to take action to reduce those impacts. As global temperatures continue to rise, members of the community say their work is more important — and urgent — than ever.
“When I talk about sustainability in races, especially the Chuckanut 50K… it feels important to me,” said Moehl, “and I want others to feel, see, and act on the importance, too.”
In 2013, Moehl became one of the first trail-running race directors to stop offering disposable cups at aid stations and the finish line. Soon after, other events followed suit.
“It made runners really nervous so close to race day,” said Tia Bodington, an ultrarunner and race director who at the last minute went along with Moehl and eliminated cups from her event, the Miwok 100K, that May. Runners were initially hesitant and confused about the change, but it really snowballed,” she said.
Despite the groundswell of interest in making trail events more sustainable, there isn’t a single group or governing body overseeing these efforts. The Council on Sustainable Sport was founded in 2007 to help organizers manage the social and environmental impacts of their events. To date, the organization has certified 180 events around the world, but only a couple of them — the U.S. Trail-Running Conference and the Ragnar Relay Series — have been in the trail space.
The minimum cost to certify an event for one year through the Council on Sustainable Sport is $4,500 for events with a projected revenue of less than $999,000. “We haven’t had other trail events go through the process,” said Shelley Villalobos, the executive director of the Council on Responsible Sport. “What we’ve heard is that a lot of trail runs are organized by volunteer directors or committees — maybe they’re hosted by nonprofits that they are fundraising for. So they choose not to spend money on certification for that reason.”
A lack of hard data can make progress on the road to sustainability difficult to track. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. As is typical of the trail community, runners are banding together to make change at the grassroots level. The work is hard and messy and exciting.
When Tia Bodington took over as race director for the Miwok 100K in 2004, she inherited a 10-yard dumpster that would be stuffed full at the finish line. “We had to lay cardboard on top and jump on it just to prevent it from overflowing,” she recalled.
“Growing up, I always knew there was no such thing as ‘away,’” Bodington said. “When you throw something away, ‘away’ is somewhere. … So that’s how I approached the race.”.
Bodington’s first order of business was to dramatically reduce the event’s landfill refuse, by organizing compost and recycling services, and by precycling — a critical step wherein Bodington sorts through and properly disposes of as many recyclables as she can in the days leading up to the race. She slashed the event’s trash output by more than three-quarters, even as the race more than doubled in size.
What was once a leading-edge commitment is now an established best practice. But it’s not only about making the sustainable decision, Bodington and other race directors say, it’s about having the infrastructure to make a lasting change.
After sourcing compost and recycling bins, for example, Bodington soon realized she’d need staff to help sort waste at each aid station. “When you’re at mile 80 and you pull into an aid station, maybe there are bins that say ‘recycling’ and ‘compost,’ but you have no idea where to put that watermelon rind you’re holding,” she said.
Recruiting more volunteers can take time, and instituting change can eat away at resources. “My hat’s off to race directors who are trying to do work in this space,” said Luke Nelson, an ultra-athlete and race director, along with his partner Tanae, for the Scout Mountain Ultras. “It’s not easy work, it doesn’t necessarily make more money in an already low-profit business, and the results are often not seen by the runners.”
Nelson estimates that he’s invested several thousand dollars a year in various sustainability projects. But, he added, time is the most significant cost to these efforts.
Ultras have long offered creative swag — from shiny belt buckles to the droll lump of granite that finishers of Washington’s Plain 100 receive. The Nelsons have experimented with a variety of finisher’s prizes, settling last year on handing each runner a bar of homemade soap. Moehl now drapes a scarf around the shoulders of each participant — a bit of protection against the Pacific Northwest’s frigid temps.
But organizers today say they’re taking a critical look at the stuff they give to runners, considering its impact from inception to waste stream. Groups like Trees Not Tees help organizers give participants the option of planting a tree in lieu of a race T-shirt they might not wear. And race directors like Nelson have committed to investing in merchandise made of 100 percent recycled materials — from the swag bag runners receive to the bibs they don as they make their way along the course.
Race directors also say they’re excited about the prospect of the circular economy, and finding innovative new uses for race-related running gear at the end of its life cycle. The U.K.-based ReRun Clothing sells gently used gear and has developed a pattern for sewing old race tees into singlets. And brands like Patagonia accept back T-shirts made from cotton, linen or hemp, which they’re using to make new, even-more-sustainable clothing. Suddenly a fully recyclable or compostable race T-shirt doesn’t seem so far off.
Ultimately, race directors concede, it’s about being okay with giving away less stuff. “We’re starting to look at each of the items that we give away and to consider, ‘Does this serve the community and the environment?’” Bodington said. “There are some things that are such a big tradition and it can be hard not to do them anymore. But at the end of the day, it’s important to consider the impact of the things we give away.”
A study currently under peer review from the Council on Responsible Sport looked at 29 mass-participation events in North America and found that 98.5 percent of their carbon footprint was connected to participant travel. That’s a striking number, but it may not entirely reflect the trail running community. The American Trail Running Association estimates that there are currently between 3,000 and 4,000 annual U.S. trail-running events, with most of them attracting a majority of local participants.
Still, event organizers are intent on reducing their carbon footprint, whether by making fewer trips to haul gear and supplies to remote aid stations or by making public transportation accessible to runners trying to reach the start line. And RDs are analyzing every aspect of their events to try to whittle away at their emissions. For Nelson, that begins with setting an aggressive five-year goal to make 80 percent of the food he offers at aid stations and the finish line come from within 100 miles of his Pocatello, Idaho event. For Bodington, it means promoting carpooling and thinking critically about where to place the Miwok starting line, so runners could park their cars and leave them parked for the entire weekend.
Once runners and race directors have done all they can to reduce emissions, they may choose to purchase carbon credits to further mitigate their impact. UltraSignup is currently developing a project that would allow runners to purchase offsets, to reduce the impact of their travel to and from an event, the moment they register for a race on UltraSignup.com. The site plans to launch the new feature in spring 2023.
Imagine showing up at your next ultra, and instead of vendors hanging around the pre-race briefing you stumbled on a handful of nonprofit groups involved with a range of initiatives, including stewarding local trails. That’s the scene at Scout Mountain Ultras where, for the last few years, the Nelsons have hosted activism groups to educate runners about environmental issues. Runners earn raffle tickets by taking action (sending a postcard, signing up for a newsletter, etc.) with the groups.
Many trail runners are already aware of the environmental issues affecting the places they like to run. Hence, the rise in recent years in the number of races that require some number of hours of trail work as a prerequisite for entry. That’s because America’s National Trails system covers more than 86,000 miles of trails and the land managers, including the Forest Service and National Park Service, tasked with maintaining those trails are chronically understaffed and underfunded.
For the past couple of years, Moehl has encouraged Chuckanut 50K registrants to complete four hours of trail labor; she says she plans to make it mandatory in 2024. In addition to helping to preserve natural places, “It connects you to the trail,” she said. (Research from the outdoor nonprofit Leave No Trace also suggests that engaging in environmentally responsible behavior related to recreation, like building or maintaining trails, may make you more likely to take pro-environmental steps in other parts of life.)
When it comes to trail stewardship, “I think it’s a natural fit,” said Richard Bolt, director of marketing for the American Trail Running Association. “If we don’t take care of the land we run and race on, our sport won’t be sustainable.”