Trail Runners taking the Lead

The trail community is a pretty special place to hang out. Because our sport takes us in to remote areas and along routes that lend themselves to dangerous situations, we’re good at looking out for each other. Most times, the emergency medical kids that we carry are used to take care of fellow runners, rather than ourselves. And, because we like nothing more than exploring pristine natural environments, we tend to take care of them, too. Our natural heritage is part and parcel of why we get out there. As a community, we fight hard to reduce our environmental impact.

And we aren’t anti-road running; most of us dabble in a little tar, too. So it isn’t surprising that we’ve taken our passionate “greenie” hearts in to the organisation of South African road running, and are working to shift the thinking in this arena, too. A combination of the glaringly obvious plastic pollution crisis that our globe is facing, as well as the more recent Cape drought, has highlighted the very real need to change our thinking. As runners, we simply need to lead the way.

Cape Town trail and road runner (of the very fast variety), Karoline Hanks, has been working tirelessly to change the environmental impact of road running for the past few years.

“My personal anti-plastic sachet journey began 5 years ago, a day after the 2013 Two Oceans Ultra. As a Noordhoek resident and runner, I was appalled at the plastic that had been left behind a few days after the clean-up teams had been through.  After the 2013 Ultra had passed through Noordhoek, I went up onto the slopes of Chappies and filled several bags full of race debris. I came home, dumped the lot onto my garage floor and did a rough tally: 350 plastic bottles and 600 blue sachets, a few peak caps and several solid plastic plates used at the refreshment stations to serve food.

This really got me thinking long and hard about road races in this country and the propensity for running clubs to just dish out plastic water sachets, little plastic cups and unrecyclable paper cups by the ton. It’s just the way it has always been done. The more I read and chatted to people, the more I was struck by the madness of it all.

Post Clean Up Crew Collections. Found on small sections of the Two Oceans route in 2016 and 2017. Up to 350 sachets collected by Karoline in 2016. Even the best clean-up crews do not get all the sachets, and do not come close to finding all the small corners bitten off the sachets.

How can it be acceptable that road runners are pampered to the degree where they can drink and cool themselves down every few kilometres? Why is it ok for millions of tons of carbon to be emitted in order to process this convenience?

The stark reality is that it (the plastic) will not go away. We are churning out this stuff throughout the world every day. There is no ‘away’. It may well be out of sight, but it is always going to be here with us – recycled, reused or not. For centuries to come.

In my view, we should not be producing the stuff in the first place. Running clubs should not be demanding it, buying it and distributing it. Simple. 

As runners, we should be connecting the dots and realising that we can all make a difference. When we sign up for a race, understand that you can make a choice, make a difference, run a different way. We, as runners, can all put pressure on our clubs, demand that events become plastic free, and show up with our hydration packs, belts or hand-held bottles, en masse.”

In 2017, a serious shift finally began to take place.  Although some of the smaller races on the Cape Peninsula (Chappies Challenge, Milkwood 21) had already adopted pioneer Richard Sutton’s refill station (taps and tankers) system, there was reluctance from the likes of Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon to upset their huge field of runners with a change of this nature. But there was, finally, a willingness to workshop the idea. And so Karoline, with her growing group of sachet-free activists firmly behind her, gathered the relevant role players at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, and a mediated session with was conducted. Hanks managed to bring together the OMTOM organisers, managers of various road running clubs, influential runners, environmental experts, race sponsors, Professor Tim Noakes, leading media and even the producer of the dreaded sachets himself. It could have been a slinging match of terrifying proportions, but it was not. It was a turning point, and the world’s most beautiful marathon agreed to introduce refill stations from 2018, with a view to changing the way that hydration stations are managed at their race going forward. When entries for the 2018 OMTOM opened, a new question was presented to runners; “If there were refill stations on the route, would you consider carrying your own hydration?” 50% of the Ultra runners said YES.

Richard Sutton’s refill stations were demonstrated at OMTOM qualifying races; Redhill and Peninsula Marathon. Through Kim Stephens Communication (Sports PR agency), Fuelbelt South Africa came on board as a sponsor and branding partner of these stations, creating visible branding that enabled runners to prepare to refill their various bottles, belts and packs as they approached the stations. The tap system enables a swift 3 second refill per 500ml of water. The end result was vastly reduced litter and water wastage at both events, and a growing number of runners using the Fuelbelt campaign tag #ICarryMyOwn.

With only positive feedback on the viability of the refill stations, OMTOM agreed to 3 refill stations on their 2018 Ultra route, using Sutton’s system, and further agreed to keep the ecologically sensitive section of Chapmans Peak sachet-free. The refill stations on Chappies will have compostable cups in play.

Fuelbelt will be branding the other 3 refill stations, and the race will gather data on how many used bottles, flasks, belts and hydration packs to enable some strategic future planning.

Karoline and her team have taken heat along the way, as a certain road running mentality is notoriously resistant to change. But she, and the mushrooming #ICarryMyOwn team remain resolute as the movement gathers momentum.

“Over the years, I have seen so many positive changes being made as race organisers and clubs come around to this way of thinking. Many local clubs which host shorter distance races have made the decision to go plastic free. Runners simply bring their own and there may be one or two refill stations along the route.

I firmly believe a plastic sachet free future can be achieved. It just requires a mind shift, a change of gear and a big out-the-box rethink. It is just too easy to settle into our comfort zone – of what we have all become used to – and to think it cannot be done cost-effectively and without compromising on the times and performance of the elite runners.”

The trail community welcomes this overdue shift in thinking, and we look forward to a generation of runners, on trail or tar, who are willing to integrate their own goals and aspirations with a fresh way of thinking. Every choice we make, as consumers, has a direct impact on our natural environment.

It simply is time to do better.

Why should you carry your own in road running?

Half of the plastic used in the world today is for single-use disposable items.

Every minute, over one million disposable cups are discarded to landfill.

50% of all sea turtles and 60% of all marine birds have ingested plastic (Chris Wilcox 2015 study).

Over 10 million PET plastic bottles are produced in South Africa every day. 4.5million will end up in the sea. (Wildlands South Africa)

Carrying your own hydration allows you to drink to thirst, which is optimal for both racing and training.