Running Green


Sarah Maisey opens the discussion on how to reduce the environmental impact of our sporting endeavours.

Until recently, I’d always prided myself on being the ‘environmentally conscious’ type. I have been vegetarian since I was 11 and for as long as I could remember I had recycled, taken public transport, and used energy efficient lightbulbs.

For years, I quietly ignored the fact that I would willingly take as many flights to foreign countries as my budget and annual leave would allow; thought nothing of purchasing pretty much anything wrapped in single use plastic; and would happily hike up the central heating to optimise my comfort levels. I also – perhaps subconsciously – steadfastly ignored any discourse about climate change and the environment. It was all just a bit too scary and there was nothing I could do about any of it anyway. Really it was a thing for governments and large corporations to address and until then, I personally had better things to focus on. Like my next marathon for example.

That changed in April this year, one week before I was due to run London. The marathon had been taking up a lot of my headspace for some time. I’d volunteered extensively 2 years in a row to get a club place, overcome injury with just enough time to fit in the requisite, gruelling 20 mile training runs and researched my race strategy meticulously.

I’m not sure if it was the David Attenborough Climate Change documentary, or the Extinction Rebellion crowd busily gluing themselves to a big pink boat in central London, or the Facebook posts of a Swedish schoolgirl quietly but determinedly telling the European parliament that “We need to panic”, but something in my thinking changed and suddenly all my race preparation paled into insignificance. How on earth do you think about whether your primary aim should be for a sub 4 or a sub 4:10, or at what point to take your caffeine gels, whilst also coming to terms with the fact that ecosystems everywhere were collapsing and we’re careering towards a 4°C rise in global temperatures that, if reached, would most likely result in the end of life as we know it? With this in mind, I wondered how on earth I was going to make it around the 26.2 mile course, or whether I should even bother trying. My only solution was to give the race some meaning and so, with 3 days to go, I did some careful googling and decided to raise money for CoolEarth; an amazing, Attenborough endorsed, charity that protects rainforests by putting them into the hands of indigenous communities. I was conscious that I was somewhat chancing my arm by suddenly trying to raise money at this late stage, but I was heartened by the response. Within 3 days I’d raised almost £1000, way more than I’d ever raised for any other charity sporting event. It seemed I wasn’t the only one passionate about the issue.

The marathon itself was wonderful and I came in well ahead of my target time. I was buoyed by the support, not just on the course but through the amazing donations as well. Yet the environmental issues stuck in my mind. Ten days after the marathon I boarded a flight to Montenegro. I was excited about taking part in my first half ironman and buzzing at the prospect of a few days around an awesome bunch of Serpies. But I was uneasy about the flight itself. The question of whether I should really be chucking so much carbon into the atmosphere for the sake of a recreational long weekend was playing on my mind. I resolved to avoid flying in the future. I discussed this with a few other Serpies. “Isn’t that a bit futile?” one of them asked. At first I blanched but that’s a fair comment. In many ways it is. Flights would not be grounding themselves without me, and it is questionable whether these small, individual sacrifices really make any difference (although I have since learnt that airlines are becoming really quite worried about the phenomenon known as ‘flight shaming’ so perhaps it’s not so pointless after all). Nonetheless, my reasoning was more based on emotion than rationality. It just didn’t feel right.

I continue to have the same thoughts about going to Lanzarote next year. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been to Lanzarote these past 3 years and I loved it. I’m definitely more towards the “Lanza is about partying” than the “Lanza is about hardcore training” end of the spectrum, but it’s unarguably a very gratifying 10 days, whichever way you look at it. However, I recently read a statistic which said that one standard class transatlantic return flight, per person, is equivalent to the loss of 3 square metres of polar sea ice. Lanzarote, I reasoned, was about half that, so therefore around 1.5 square metres of sea ice will remain if I don’t go. That 1.5m² probably has a cute polar bear living on it…

My ‘April awakening’ and the flight question got me avidly reading around the issue of climate change and further ways it could be mitigated. It’s a fascinating, but also broad and complex subject that encompasses not just science and politics, but also human psychology, sociology, economics and philosophy. I realised there is much more to the issue than following a straightforward list of individual actions, such as ‘buying an electric car’ or ‘avoiding plastic straws’. This is precisely why this article is not entitled “10 things you can do to make yourself a more eco-friendly runner” (for the record, I did try and write that article but then abandoned it on the grounds that it would either send you to sleep or leave you inclined to stab its preachy, hypocritical author). Nevertheless, after several months of deep engagement with the subject I realised that there were 2 general takeaways I could get on board with and, in a small way, do something about:

  1. Consumerism and excessive consumption, in all its forms, is the main driver of climate change and the ecological crisis.
  2. Everyone, and that is everyone, not just politicians, not just large corporations (although them particularly), needs to be engaged with the issue on some level if we are to get out of this mess. That means opening up the conversation as broadly as possible.

Both these things have affected the way I approach my running and triathlon related activities.  When we think about consumption there are a few basic resources runners probably couldn’t do without. A pair of trainers, some running clothes and enough calories to power you through is pretty much it. You might want to throw in a bike and a wetsuit if triathlon is your thing, but basically these activities, in their essence, use very little in the way of resources and leave virtually no carbon footprint. Moreover, they put us in touch with the landscape, our own bodies and, when undertaken collectively, each other. These are things that we may come to rely on if we are to effectively deal with the climate crisis, or cope with its effects.

So, what does this mean in practice? For me it means paring the trappings down to what I feel is really necessary. I buy fewer sports clothes and trainers, avoid taking single use plastic bottles, race T-shirts, medals, etc and undertake mainly local races to avoid excessive travel. There are some things I haven’t yet managed to cut out, but probably should. My gym membership with its lovely (and no doubt highly carbon emitting) outdoor heated pool and air-conditioned gym could probably be replaced with some free weights and more trips to the local lake. And whilst I exist on a mainly plant based diet, I could still cut down on the considerable amount of dairy that I consume (those that know me well will know that cheese is my Achilles heel!). What, if anything, you feel you can, or should, sacrifice is going to be a very personal thing and whilst the full gamut of such consumer choices remains readily available, it’s reasonable to question whether such individual sacrifices constitute a meaningful contribution towards tackling the problem or not.

But, for now, perhaps there are better things we can do than simply giving stuff up anyway. My gut tells me that it’s more about the conversations we have in all their forms. Recently the Serpentine committee discussed, and for the most part agreed, an externally tabled proposal to ask England Athletics only to support races where no T-shirt is offered as standard (if you want to know why this is important it’s worth doing some research into the absolutely massive contribution clothes manufacture makes to emissions and toxic river pollution). Something felt right about that conversation because it had the potential to change something bigger. I get a similar feeling when I get a positive response from a race organiser following an email questioning their use of plastic bottles at water stations when compostable paper cups and seaweed pouches offer a viable alternative.

Sometimes it’s just about those small everyday conversations we have with each other. When I discussed my reluctance to fly to Lanzarote with some Serpies over a post-handicap race coffee, I was half expecting to be ignored or shot down. I wasn’t, and the conversation led on to a wider discussion about climate change. Where the problem comes from. What it might mean. How we might tackle it. These sorts of conversations are beginning to happen everywhere and whilst less tangible, they sow the seeds for meaningful, wide-scale change. In my experience, the Serpentine community offers fertile ground for this. Its members are informed, respectful and, through a shared love of the sport, resonate with each other.

No doubt you will have ideas and thoughts about this issue that I haven’t yet considered. I’d love to hear them. It needs to be in our minds and part of the conversation in a way that accepts the complexities and uncertainties and doesn’t seek to blame individuals for not being perfect. That way we can collectively inch our way towards some meaningful solutions. And therein, for me, lies hope.

Sarah Maisey has been a member of Serpentine Running Club since 2015. She’s the social secretary of the club and in line with this is very much a social runner. You’re therefore more likely to see her in the pub after a race than during the race itself, but she occasionally indulges in the latter in a slow, plodding sort of way.

Grace Mackintosh Sim did the illustration for this article. Go and have a look round her website (link below).