Running on Fumes: Can Marathons Find a Sustainable Stride?

Rethinking the Future of International Running Events in an Era of Climate Crisis

On a frosty morning in March, I lined up with 25,000 other runners at the United Airlines Half Marathon start line in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Temperatures barely reached 29° by the time I crossed the finish line, exhausted. And yet, I was not alone. On November 5, I will join 50,000 others for the 2023 TCS New York City Marathon. To suggest that running is merely popular in New York City would be an understatement. It is the sport.

The popularity of running is fueled by the ease of getting started (all you need is a pair of sneakers) and the many, many races put on by the New York Road Runners (NYRR), the largest running association in New York City and the organizers of the TCS New York City Marathon. Over 600,000 people participate in NYRR races and events; a figure that doesn't even account for the many thousands of spectators who show up to support their friends and family. 

As I ran (and sweat) through this summer’s climate-crisis-fueled heat waves, I considered the impact of my running: piles of extra laundry, new exercise gear, used pairs of sneakers, increased food consumption, and hundreds of single-serve hydration or gel packets. Is a marathon, that major bucket list item for so many people, a “green” event? 

Dr. Veronique Billat, an exercise physiology researcher at L’Université d'Évry-Val-d'Essonne in France, who has written several books on the mechanics of running, told Bluedot Living Brooklyn: “Some aspects of practicing sports, like running abroad — many French people go to New York to run the marathon — can be bad for the climate.” As an avid runner herself, Dr. Billat encourages athletes “to be conscious of this aspect of carbon expense when you cross the Atlantic just for running.” 

marathon runners on Verrazano-Narrows bridge
Runners crossing the Verrazano-Narrows bridge at the start of the TCS New York City Marathon. Photo: Evan Buchholz via Unsplash

Dr. Billat and other researchers published a study in 2021 that analyzed the carbon emissions of a hypothetical runner training for and traveling from France to New York City for the marathon. “Nowadays,” the authors write, “sport is no longer considered to be separated from environment, and sports participation results in a disproportionate consumption of raw materials, traffic congestion, related air pollution, exhausting local water supplies, and a challenge around waste disposal.”

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To put it in simpler terms, Dr. Billat explained, “Effectively, when you go to run the marathon in New York [flying 6+ hours], you spend 30% of the average carbon of a French citizen [in a year] just to do it. That’s a big percentage.” 

While this study “cannot be immediately generalized to marathon runners worldwide,” Dr. Billat says she wanted to do the study to bring attention to the topic and “just to say, ‘Do you know this?’” The information can help runners better understand their impact. 

“This article is the first to demonstrate that marathon training and competition is a low carbon footprint activity if you do not travel to the competition,” wrote the authors of the study. The “if” statement is important. Air travel, one of the most environmentally detrimental activities for the average person, is often the only practical way for anyone overseas — or even in a different state — to compete in a major sporting event.

On average, a staggering 37% of all runners at the TCS New York City Marathon travel internationally to attend the race. 

Nickie Waddington will fly from Australia to New York this November to participate in her second TCS New York City Marathon. “The atmosphere is amazing,” she said, “that's why when I did it in 2017, I said I would definitely do it again.” For a recreational runner like Nickie, running the marathon is just “a bit of fun.” 

Having run the Paris Marathon, and with plans to do the London Marathon soon, Waddington is returning to New York because “For an international runner [New York] is great because it's such a buzz. To be going somewhere like that, it actually helps with the motivation, just knowing that you're going to such a fantastic city to run an amazing race.” 

Waddington plans to turn the marathon into a complete vacation. But before she can reach the start line, Waddington must commit to at least 21 hours in the air (one way) to make it to New York City from Adelaide, Australia. When asked about the impact of marathons on the climate, she responded, “I don't really know, I hadn't thought about it.”

As Dr. Billat notes, flights are the largest contributor to marathons' climate impact. She suggests that race organizers compensate for emissions related to event operations and race-related travel. Many races, such as the Boston Marathon and the Chicago Marathon, now make it relatively easy for runners to pay to offset their flight-related carbon emissions. The Boston Athletic Association, the organizer of the Boston Marathon, buys carbon emission credits to offset bus travel for all participants to the start line. 

The Chicago Marathon goes one step further and purchases carbon offsets for any unavoidable emissions from all event operations. This step sets the Chicago Marathon apart and is partially why the event was certified as a Council For Responsible Sport Evergreen Inspire event. The Chicago Marathon also has composting available at all its fueling stations along the race course, water bottle refills (not just cups) available at races, and even made a guidebook to hosting green events. 

The Council for Responsible Sport stipulates that environmentally responsible races recycle everything from aluminum to cardboard; use renewable energy to supply at least 50% of the race’s power; are accessible by public transportation (or provide carpooling); source food locally; minimize water consumption; and offset carbon emissions.

NYRR isn’t trying to certify the TCS New York City Marathon; instead, it has applied to become one of the first running organizations certified by the Council for Responsible Sport. To become certified, NYRR had to commit to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. While NYRR has not outlined how it plans to achieve net zero, it has committed to an accelerated timeline of reaching the goal by 2040.

runners on streets of chicago
Runners at the 2019 Chicago Marathon. Photo: Michael Carruth via Unsplash

When asked if running can be a clean sport, NYRR CEO Rob Simmelkjaer simply said, “We are committed to minimizing the environmental impact of our events and facilities and work hard to embed sustainability in all that we do.”

NYRR and the Chicago Marathon both use ReScore, an application that helps holistically monitor an organization’s responsible sport performance. 

“ReScore takes applicants through a scorecard of five categories — (1) Planning and Communications (2) Procurement (3) Resource Management (4) Access & Equity (5) Community Legacy,” Shelley Villalobos, executive director of The Council for Responsible Sport reported to the Early Call Time podcast. “For single events [like the Chicago Marathon] there are 50 standards of good practice and 61 total possible points; for responsible organizations [what NYRR hopes to achieve] there are 97 standards of good practice and 314 total points possible in the scorecard.”

New York Road Runners has made visible strides towards becoming a Council for Responsible Sport certified organization. At the marathon, many runners shed outer layers at the start line and along the course. Since 2012, NYRR has partnered with Goodwill to donate over 1 million pounds of shed clothing. NYRR also works with other organizations; Simmelkjaer noted that NYRR partnered with All of Us Clothing to donate 8,755 pounds of clothes discarded at the 2023 RBC Brooklyn Half Marathon. Any extra race premiums, like T-shirts and hats, are donated to 74 organizations.

NYRR donates any leftover food and beverage items from its 50 annual races to City Harvest. For some races, NYRR has begun giving out medals made from recycled materials and recycling any medals that are left over. Beyond the organization’s impact, Simmelkjaer noted, “NYRR encourages runners to bring their own, clear reusable bags to races, take public transportation when possible, utilize reusable water bottles, air dry their clothing, donate old shoes, and to dispose of gel wrappers following their runs.” 

Two NYRR medals, one from March 19, 2023, and one from June 17, 2023. The June 17 medal has a statement on the side which reads: “This medal was made in the USA using recycled materials.” Photo: Michaela Keil/Bluedot Living Brookyln

The TCS New York City Marathon has 23 different fluid stations serving the runners and uses a staggering 1.4 million disposable cups in just one race. As part of the NYRR Sustainability Initiative, many of those cups now are compostable. “We work with our hired waste removal provider, in conjunction with the New York City Department of Sanitation, moving from the start line to the finish line, collecting waste and sorting recyclables,” the NYRR website states. It is unclear how many compostable cups actually get composted.

As NYRR goes through the Council For Responsible Sport certification process, it still has room to improve.

While the TCS New York City Marathon airline partner, United, does not offer carbon offsets, NYRR does support other environmental initiatives at select races. Ahead of the June 10 Mastercard New York Mini 10K, “As a part of Mastercard’s Priceless Planet Coalition, runners [had] the opportunity to pledge funds when registering for the race that will lead to the planting of hundreds of trees in honor of the event,” Simmelkjaer told Bluedot Living Brooklyn. Hopefully, NYRR will find a way to introduce carbon offsets ahead of the 2024 marathon. 

Other improvements may be simple in theory. For example, running gels, which have become widely popular among endurance runners, as evidenced by the thousands of bright colorful little packages ground into the pavement following a race, are recyclable — though it’s difficult to recycle them en masse. GU, one of the most popular running gel companies, offers free recycling of sports nutrition wrappers through a partnership with TerraCycle. Science in Sport, a UK-based sports nutrition company (and the sport nutrition partner of the TCS New York City Marathon), has a similar program in the UK. While these recycling options could be offered at or around running events in New York, they aren’t. 

Michaela Keil (author) at mile 11 of the United Airlines Half Marathon on March 19, 2023. Photo: Alyssa Schiff/Brooklyn Bluedot Living

Simmelkjaer has said that NYRR “Will be exploring new and additional methods to achieve these [environmental/sustainability] goals in the coming years.” 

On a hopeful note, Simmelkjaer suggested runners can promote and enjoy a more sustainable running community “without sacrificing the quality of their training and racing.” As the sport begins to confront its impact, runners themselves emerge as catalysts for change. Athletes can advocate for a more eco-conscious community and hold athletic organizations responsible for these beloved races and events. After all, to keep running outside, we need a clean earth.

Nickie Waddington, at the end of our conversation, smiled wide and said, “Talking to you now has me buzzing, has me motivated.” Motivated for change or motivated to go on a run, she didn’t say — hopefully it was both.

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Michaela Keil
Michaela Keil
Michaela Keil is the Editor of Bluedot Living Brooklyn, and the Managing Editor, Special Projects, for the Brooklyn Eagle. When she's not writing, you can either find her outside — in the rain, shine, snow, or cold — or inside baking bread. Find her on twitter @mkeil16.
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