Keith Peters had his "ah-hah" moment about global warming a year ago while stuck in a traffic jam. But this wasn't your ordinary, big-city rush-hour, on-the-Interstate kind of jam. This one involved thousands of athletes wrapping up a 200-mile bicycle ride between Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Ogden, Utah, and trying to drive places.
The logistics of the one-day event meant participants had to figure out how to get themselves -- and their gas-guzzling vehicles -- back to the starting gate or home from the finish line.
"It dawned on me that there were something like half a million miles of vehicle driving over the course of the weekend," said Peters, a race director and consultant who became inspired partly through this to become a more ardent environmentalist. "I was having a great time at this event. I was outdoors; I was healthy. But I'm sitting in this huge line of cars and I thought, 'What are we doing here?' Which was quickly followed by, 'So what am I going to do?'"
Keep my event eco
Peters now has become part of a small but fast-growing movement to help organizers, sponsors and participants of trail and bike races, fitness events and conferences or road runs become better environmental stewards while doing what they love. This translates into everything from reducing paper cups at water stations to reconsidering T-shirt giveaways.
"There's no set recipe for what people can do," said Peters, who actually hosted a workshop for race directors sponsored by Road Race Management in early April in Arlington, Va. (www.rrm.com/rdm/green/green.htm), which focused on road races since those are easier first targets.
"Nobody wants to become a monk," he said. "At the same time, we have to find practical and realistic ways to minimize our environmental impact, whether through transportation, waste or the kinds of equipment and materials we use."
Interest in putting on low-impact events is taking off in triathlons, marathons, bike races, trail runs and even surfing contests. Companies such as Nike, Clif Bar, Patagonia, REI, The North Face and Keen are among those putting financial muscle behind the effort by purchasing clean energy offsets, contributing earth-friendly gear and spreading the sustainability message. Others have been less focused on the bigger picture but are starting to take small steps, such as IHRSA's fitness show this year putting programs and handouts online to save paper waste.
But the real juice may come from a non-profit organization started last year in Portland, Ore., called the Council for Responsible Sport (www.responsiblesporting.org). The group aims to establish a third-party certification system to help sort out the boasters who want to jump on the go-green bandwagon from those serious about making a difference.
"If a race is saying they're recycling, we'll check to make sure that they have recycling bins and that things are actually going to a recycler," said Jeff Henderson, who founded the organization with friend Jonathan Eng. "If a race says it's carbon neutral, we want to see the calculations and we want to see where they're buying their carbon offsets, to verify they are in fact doing that."
The CRS, which so far is focused mostly on triathlons or road runs, will certify events based on its commitment to five principles: waste, climate, equipment and materials, community and outreach, and health promotion. It offers bonus points for innovative ideas for sustainability.
The organization plans to sponsor some 15 "seedling races" this year (see a map on its website by clicking here) to test and fine-tune its certification process. The events, a mix of triathlons with a handful of marathons thrown in for good measure, are spread throughout the country.
Henderson and Eng will be collecting feedback on the proposed certification standards this spring, and said they hope to launch the certification program by September. But turning ideas into action takes deliberate effort. For every 1,500 people who run a marathon, some 3,000 pounds of trash is generated, Henderson said. An estimated 1.8 million paper cups were left in the wake of last year's scorching hot Chicago Marathon.
Fitness can't ignore the issue
The fitness industry is starting to step up to earth-friendly ideas, too, though efforts so far have aimed at low-hanging fruit -- primarily at reducing paper waste. It's an easy strategy to implement, and has a friendly bottom-line result, too, in that it cuts down expenses.
For example, the IHRSA club association eliminated paper handouts at its March convention in San Diego, allowing participants to peruse and print out the handouts before arriving for the four-day event and then go back afterward for additional information.
The IDEA Health and Fitness Association took that same approach with its Fitness Fusion Conference in early April, moving faculty bios and convention handouts online. IDEA Marketing Director Kelly Nakai said the group would normally print out 20 percent above the ballroom capacity for such events, meaning normally even more waste and cost. The group also is asking participants to bring water bottles, and to carpool and use mass transit to get to the conference.
Nakai acknowledged it's a small start and that the group hasn't begun to exert major pressure on hotels and convention centers that host its events. But she said sometimes just raising alternatives -- such as using bulk containers for sugar and salt, asking about donating excess food to food shelves or suggesting motion centers for lights in hotel rooms to save electricity -- can lead to changes.
Indeed, while Al Gore may have done his part to raise awareness of global warming, the masses aren't yet clamoring for change. A recent Road Race Management survey found that less than a third of race directors had been asked to make their event more environmentally responsible by a participant, sponsor or municipality.
But that is a sign of hope for Peters, who prefers a glass-half-full reaction:
"This tells me there's tremendous opportunity to raise the bar," he said. "However modest it is, there's a chance to get people thinking. Maybe a light goes off. And we save half a million vehicle miles between Jackson Hole and Ogden, Utah."
Here are a few eco-ideas in action at events across the country:
>> The Carlsbad Marathon went litter-free for its event in January when race organizer, InMotion, teamed with Keep California Beautiful. Every water station on the course had trash and recycling containers, with a smattering of bins in between for cups, gel packs and other trash. Sam Huber, an "eco-runner" from Milwaukee, whose social network of runners is dedicated to picking up trash while hoofing it through parks and other scenic byways, helped draw some 700 eco-runners and walkers to the field of 9,000. With a slogan, "Only have your feet hit the ground," Carlsbad organizers hope to export the model for other events around the country.
>> The Keweenaw Trail Running Festival, begun in Michigan's Upper Peninsula in 2000, is said to be one of the earliest green races, according to Running USA. In 2006, the two-day event didn't produce a single bag of garbage. Racers get organic cotton T-shirts, and, instead of marking the course with paint, organizers now use wire flags. For this year's July event, it plans to conduct online-only registration to avoid paper waste.
>> Health clubs are installing energy-saving treadmills and even looking at self-powering elliptical machines to save energy. A club running 12 treadmills a day could save an average of $3,000 a year, said Amber Maechler, marketing coordinator at SportsArt Fitness in Woodinville, Wash., which has ramped up its nationwide effort to sell the equipment.
>> The Sea Otter Classic has worked for 17 years to reduce the ecological footprint on the Laguna Seca Recreation Area. Clif Bar, now a sponsor, purchases enough wind energy to offset the carbon dioxide created by participants coming to the event.