What’s the worst time to ask someone to do something? When their physical and cognitive load can’t abide another decision. Midway through a marathon is very likely one such time. Which is why the task of designing more sustainable races can fall to the wayside. A wasted paper cup or two is a non-starter when you’re 20 kilometres in. But increasingly, runners and race directors are realizing that our races need to be lighter on the planet. And the time to think about designing a better race is anytime but during the race itself. Don’t Waste A Race! is a research collaboration between Pilot PMR and Canada’s running magazine, iRun. Through interviews with runners, readers, and race directors, our goal is to get a sense of public attitudes towards greening our races. To this effect, we have partnered with Pollara Strategic Insights to launch a survey that will help inform current attitudes toward sustainable racing. You can fill it out here.
Designing for greener choices
At Pilot we believe engineering for sustainability is very much a design challenge. A depleted runner can’t be expected to chase down a recycling bin. Instead, we must design the race for reduced waste, so that behaviour change will follow. Our research and interviews revealed much could be done to design for more sustainable runs, especially from a behavioural perspective. It’s our goal to test some of the ideas throughout the course of this design research project.
Make it relevant: The Bank of America Chicago Marathon is one of the largest and most sustainable races in the world. A lot of this comes down to playing back their successes, and telling the story of their work. For example, event food scraps are composted, turned into soil, and brought back to the Chicago District Parks for use. Narrative bias means we’ll remember that story, and by proxy, the sustainability work of the Chicago Marathon.
Make it normal: When 30,000 other sweaty runners are tossing their cups, odds are more than likely that you’ll toss your cup, too. We’re normative creatures. We look to others to see how things are done. Making bringing your own water cup a new norm may seem impossible, but remember when people used to smoke on planes?
Other norms like the current trend of giving away massive medals can be changed in an instant – what if the best races started giving away less resource-intensive swaggery, like badges or ribbons? Instant norm change.
Make it clear: We see people dropping those extra layers at the starting line, and take a cue to join in. But this is just another norm that adds cost to the race, and isn’t actually of much use to charities. No one wants our old t-shirts. A little starting line signage, and pre-race information, could go a long way towards dispelling this pervasive practice.
Make it ahead of time: Appeal to runners before the cognitive and physical load of the race is upon them. Sending advance reminders asking them to bring their own water bottles, and not to bring excessive clothing, could help alleviate the race day mental load, and reduce waste.
Make it fresh: Runners are people and people like routine, so it can be hard to change course when you have a long-running race. But, if you’re launching a new race, you’re setting the terms from the get go, so going zero-waste or making the race as sustainable as possible is normative.
Make it cheap: ““People say, I don’t want a T-shirt and I want a $20 discount,” says Scotiabank Calgary Marathon Executive Director Kirsten-Ellen Fleming. “That’s not realistic, so all of us—race directors and runners—are still trying to figure out the new math.”
The anchor price for your race sets the terms. Which explains why offering discounts for people who opt-out of t-shirts can have negligible effect. T-shirts often cost significantly less than runners expect, and so getting a $7 discount does little to dissuade them from shirts and medals. Instead, beginning with a base price for a no frills race sets the anchor. Everything on top of that feels like a frill, or worse, a tax.
Default to victory: Another tool to get runners off their swag is to make not getting a medal the default if it’s not your first race. It’s the first one that counts, everything else is gravy. Do runners eat gravy? No.
Make it minimal: “We’re not having those additional supplies that are going to sit in someone’s drawer at the end of the day,” says Caitlin Brown, outreach coordinator at Mountain Equipment Co-op, which runs a series of no frills races.
Make it end on a high: People judge experiences based on how they feel at its most intense period (the wall!) and the end (post-race party), so races would do well to think about what kind of sustainable experience they are providing at the finish line. Are compost bins and recycling stations easy to find? Are the sponsors providing overly-packaged swag or good quality snacks and drinks? Depleted runners will remember the ending, so finish strong for a personal best.
Of course, at the end of the day, runners have to be with us on this journey. We look forward to sharing the results of our survey and research with you in the coming months. We’ll use this data to design a behaviorally-informed strategy for taking the waste out of your race.