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Musings on reducing single-use disposability and waste in the endurance community

Photo by BigStockPhoto

There was no escaping the oppressive sizzle of Baja heat at midday. Equally unavoidable was the metric ton of trash strewn across the road in every direction. Plastic cups clink-clunked across the carretera while discarded, single-use water baggies flapped on the ground like feathered asphalt. Every passing runner trampled the trash as if unconsciously trying to hide the mess, to send it downward, out of sight, back to their earthly origins. But the plastic remained. It remained, defying decomposition, those petroleum-based, factory-farmed freckles. It remained.

Then there was me—Enabler, Violator, Hypocrite—handing out the disposable cups and water bags to runners by the thousands. All day long.

This happened back in March, when I was asked to work at the inaugural 2013 Ironman Los Cabos. Living in Baja Sur, Mexico at a nearby artist village, I found the invitation intriguing because it presented an unfamiliar flavor of endurance. As a trail runner, I carry baggage with me by way of mountain prejudice—a strong preference for peaks and trails and dirt; a penchant for glacial runoff so cold it makes fingers and toes ache with feral vitality. I find less inspiration in stiff saddles, gym memberships and sweating pavement.

But what I discovered surprised me.

Excavated from this exploratory dig was a robust community and a humbled response to the participants’ efforts. My friend and I managed the final aid station of the marathon. You know, that section following 2.4 miles of open-ocean swimming and 112 miles of cycling. No big deal. Add habanero-grade heat and you’ve got mercury tickling triple digits with Sun’s unflinching stare. For over 10 hours, we handed over 1000 runners Pepsi in cups, pretzels in cups and candy in, yes, cups. Then, there were the single-shot bags of water: rip the tip off with your teeth and down the hatch goes a single gulp of water. Toss and repeat.

By the end of the day, the accumulated waste fomented nausea. In hot pursuit of their goals, each athlete seemed to be putting the planet on the backburner. En masse, they were allowed to drink and chuck, use and abuse, discard and depart. I left the event championing their physical feats but pained by the negligence of disposability tolerated by the Ironman. So, naturally, I turned inward, auditing my own habits of running and racing, and asked:

Why do we, members of the endurance community, still subscribe to a culture of single-use disposability? Why during training and racing do we continue to support products that are (duh) choking landfills? Why must our personal goals eclipse environmental responsibility? Do they have to?

I say no. And others are, too. People are waking up. People are choosing to race and explore closer to home. People are mixing their own gel concoctions in reusable flasks. BPA-free handheld bottles are reused for years before replacing, then recycled. I see more running commuters than ever before.

This is consciousness rising.


One particularly exciting sustainability development within the endurance community is Ultraspire’s new reusable race cups. Conceived in 2012 during an Elite Immortal Athlete retreat, the goal was to kibosh single-use cups during races. Striking a chord, the cup is now being promoted at over 10 races around the country, including the heaviest of hitters: Hardrock 100, Speedgoat 50K, Lake Sonoma 50 and Miwok 100K, to name a few. You can find athletes using them all over the world, with orders sent as far away as South Africa, Japan and New Zealand.

As for repurposing? I’ve used my reusable Ultraspire cup as an iPhone anti-sweat protector, special belt-buckle holster, and, once, I even convinced a lady midflight to use it when ordering beverages on the plane. She was sold on it immediately.

This summer, I traveled to two of the world’s most prestigious 100-mile races: The Western States 100 and the Hardrock 100. Talking to dozens of folks about ultrarunning and environmental advocacy, the message was clear: nip disposability in the bud. We clock countless hours running through wilderness areas, places that teach us about their own earthly rhythms. And it is here where we learn that nothing is disposable. In my personal running practice, elemental contact is a prerequisite, to time travel through the sedimentary strata of Earth’s living museums. When I enter this space, I am reminded. I am reminded of the sacred cycles that run the show, always have and always will. I am reminded when Crow meets me for lunch at the top of a hearty mountain ascent, cackling:

“Stay alert! Drift with me along these totemic ridges and carved canyons, but go home to your village and don’t you forget. Ecological amnesia is unacceptable.”

So I listen, and I descend and I return to a modern culture with modern conveniences that rarely put the planet before the pocketbook. I try my best not to forget, but I’m certainly not perfect. None of us are. I still use gels occasionally. Yes, I own a car. But I try to use them as sparingly as possible, to work toward better solutions dancing between the reasonable and the practical. I try my best to listen, to remember, and then (most importantly) to act.

“Activism is my rent for living on this planet.”  –Alice Walker

If we still wish to cackle with Crow on the mountaintop, if we wish to have wild places left for our children and their children, then we must be bold. We must run, race and live with staunch conviction and accountability, as if Earth were more important than our PR’s.

Because honestly, She is.

Sure, a coal-fired plant opens every week to 10 days somewhere in China. Sure, approval of the XL Keystone Pipeline may just be “game-over” for the planet. Yes, fracking is an unacceptable alternative energy source and should be resisted. These are worthy fights and we should all be up in arms about them. But, there are also small battles to win, those closer to both home and hobby.

So, as we enter this “Golden Era” for endurance sport, we must stop courting convenience now. With race entrant numbers shooting steadily upward, we must look downward, to the ground, to the Earth. We must reject consumer models whose focal point is solely what’s the cheapest, the easiest or the fastest. I find this to go against the very spirit of ultrarunning, where races are often designed to avoid convenience, and instead to favor challenging terrain and aesthetic passage.

To me, minimizing disposability in endurance events is much more than waste remediation. It’s about a cultural shift. It’s about wiping the crusty goop from our slumbering eyes and beginning to see with fresh ones. It’s about seeing “single-use” as “short-sighted-use.” As athletes and as human members sharing a more-than-human planet, we are fully responsible to act. And when an opportunity, for example, to go “cupless” with racing comes along, this should be low-hanging fruit for all of us.

So, let’s start picking.

Nick Triolo is a competitive ultrarunner, writer, environmental activist and graduate student at the University of Montana in Missoula. More of his work can be found at The Jasmine Dialogues.

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