Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Fri, 14 Feb 2003 08:35:39 -0500

Garbage Miles


(rerun from February 1998 RW)

A few runners lead, and the rest of us follow them. For a short while early in my running life, I was a leader in some small-time races. Now I'm a follower, from ever-wider distances as age moves me back through the pack.

Slowing has its advantages. It puts me with a bigger and more varied group of runners than I once saw while trying to distance myself from all followers.

But following more and more people also has its down side. It shows me what everyone ahead left behind while passing this way earlier. The leaders never see the gloves and garbage bags that overdressed runners discard in the early miles, never wade through the drifts of paper cups at aid stations, never -- and here's our latest environmental insult -- find an energy-food wrapper glued to their shoes.

Runners like to think of ourselves as environmentalists. We want our air untainted and our ground uncluttered. The casual messing up of our surroundings disgusts us. We get worked up over the bad breath of traffic and the smokers who toss aside their smoldering butts.

Environmental activists grow like weeds in the area where I now live, the Pacific Northwest. I don't often join their chorus, but seeing evidence of the slob problem on my running routes does make me see red.

Once I found a discarded plastic bag alongside a forest path. Inside were the culprit's name and address. I stuffed some of the garbage inside one of his own envelopes and mailed it to him with a note: "Don't trash our trail!"

Oddly, these sensitivities too often shut down when runners line up for races. Suddenly we seem to expect Mom or someone to clean up after us.

Runners who would glare or shout at drinkers who litter the roadsides with beer cans become litterers themselves at races. The latest and most insidious culprit among the marathoners that I follow is PowerBar and PowerGel packaging.

Please don't think I'm picking on the products themselves. I mention these two by name because they are the leaders in their class of energy boosters.

I applaud Brian Maxwell for all he has done at PowerFood Inc. He's one of us, a former marathoner and a good one, who has built a healthy business around the leathery bars and gooey gels.

I'm a latecomer to using them after spending too many years running hungry. The bars, which I adopted for races and long runs in 1994, worked well to reduce late-miles energy crises. The gels, which I started using later, work even better if only because they go down easier.

The longer the run, the more effective these products are. Marathoners in particular swear by them -- and marathon directors swear AT them, because of the resulting litter.

One director pleaded with me recently, "Can you write something that makes runners aware of this growing problem?" Happy to.

The problem isn't with the products, whose manufacturers have to package them in something inedible and want to see it disposed of cleanly. No, we're the problem. Runners who couldn't imagine tossing a candy wrapper out their car window think nothing of dropping our gel or bar packaging along a race course.

But we drop our cups at drink stations, you might say. What's the difference?

Big difference: Aid stations come at prescribed locations and are staffed with volunteers who clean up cups from the next hundred yards or so. They rake or kick the cups into a pile for quick collection.

Runners can rip into bars or squeeze down gels anywhere along the course. Then too many of us leave the wrappings behind -- usually with no official workers stationed nearby. Even near drink stops, the sticky packets glue themselves to the road and defy easy pickup.

The solution couldn't be simpler. We carried these energy products this far, in a fanny pack or (in my case) a sandwich baggy. How tough is it to stuff our garbage back where it came from?

UPDATE. Races have grown since 1998, along with the array of products to consume while racing. This has added to the course-trashing problem.

The most baffling part of this problem is clothing discarded along the route. You'd think that anyone who has trained for a race would know exactly how much to wear in it.

A hopeful sign: runners carrying their own drinks and gels in plastic squeeze bottles instead of using gulp-and-toss cups and packets.


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