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  • Foto van schrijverShana Hepping

How sustainable is participating in a marathon?

Since 1993, the renowned Jungfrau Marathon takes place in Interlaten (CH) every september. Together with some 4000 other runners, I am crazy enough to bolt through the city and scramble up a mountain. The trail takes us to an unusual finish line: the Eiger Glacier railway station. Looking at the breathtaking landscape, I couldn't help to wonder whether a marathon full of sports gels, sweat and stomping sprinters doesn't do more damage than is good.

View on the magnificent Jungfrau, October 2021

The Jungfrau Marathon is, according to the organisation itself, the most beautiful marathon in the world (source: Jungfrau Marathon). But for me, it not just a walk in the park. With its 42.195 kilometers of distance and roughly 1800 meter of elevation, this spectacle attracts thousands of people: the 4000 runners plus many spectators (source: World's Marathons).

Running itself has little environmental impact. Basically, I just need my running shoes, some sports clothes and I'm ready to go. However, when many people come together for a race, this could negatively impact the natural environment. Below, I listed 3 major environmental problems that could arise.

1: littering 0f sport nutrition packaging

The longer the run, the more the runner needs. On long runs, people use energy gels to keep going. These gels are concentrated energy-providing goo, usually in a whole palette of artificial flavouring. It's a necessary evil as it provides essential quick carbohydrates, vitamins and often caffeine. Energy gels come in a 70 gram package and are enjoyed while running, so runners have little time and room to put the empty packaging away. Consequently, packaging may end up in nature. What's more, runners rely on single-use plastic bottles for hydration during the run.

As a solution, I try to carry everything I eat or drink myself and reserve a pocket for empty packaging. I also make my own energy gel. I use reusable containers and add natural flavouring - such as Flevosap. I followed this recipe. And I hope other runners do so as well!

2: transport to the race

While running does not emit any greenhouse gases, transportation to the race does. So travelling from your own location all the way to the Jungfrau region in Switzerland, can be the most harmful to the environment. Participating is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but its environmental impact can be minimised by off-setting CO2, carpooling with other runners or taking public transportation.

To minimise my personal impact of participating in this race, we planned the date of departure of our journey to include the marathon. As such, I don't have to travel back and forth to participate and we have a supercool event that marks the beginning of our journey. Moreover, the Jungfrau-Marathon organisation offers all participants free train fare to the starting point in Interlaken from within Switzerland.

3: disrupting nature

As the marathon parcours climbs, we'll leave the asphalt behind and run more and more over hiking trails. The city gives way to nature and we enter a whole new ecosystem of plants and animals. One that is not designed for hosting so many people at once. The biggest pressure on the local biodiversity is created when the runners run off the path. A first effect is the disruption of animals. When leaving the paths, people enter the domains of birds and other animals, leaving them to flee their nests and retreat further into the wilderness to find food and shelter. Soil damage and erosion are other negative consequences of running off the paths.

Another form of littering is bodily waste. Runners and hikers will know the feeling: you're a few kilometers in and holding your bladder feels like an impossible task! Although it's better biodegradable than plastic packaging, adding anything to an ecosystem can cause disruption. Especially to local water bodies. To avoid damage, it's best to try and hold it and use the nearest public toilet. When that's not possible, avoid going too close to water, like rivers or lakes.

Being mindful about participation

To wrap up, running a marathon poses additional threats to the natural environment. But when being aware of these threats, there are ways of minimising your impact. By not littering, using the organisation's facilities and staying on the paths, you can enjoy participation in a more sustainable way. The Jungfrau-Marathon organisation also makes an extensive effort to promote climate protection by compensating 136.45 ton of CO2 with myclimate. I hope the organisation also has a post-run clean up service, leaving no trace after the event. Hopefully, all of us together make the experience as positive as possible for ourselves and the environment.

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