Racing for the Green

Known for their grossly wasteful ways, triathlons gradually embrace a respect for sustainability


On July 20, Sarah Trejo joined 2,000 other athletes to race the Vineman 70.3 Half Ironman Triathlon starting in Guerneville. Though Trejo only had to drive eight miles from Santa Rosa, many of the other athletes and 10,000 spectators traveled farther by car, plane and even a few by foot and bike.

In Guerneville, Trejo lined up behind the world-class professionals to swim 1.2 miles through the Russian River. She then biked 56 miles to Windsor, where she began the 13.1-mile run to finish at the high school.

In the fields of Windsor High School is a giant fenced-off transition area, where the racers leave their bikes and pick up their running shoes. The night before the race, Trejo had to drive to registration to pick up her race packet and number, her T-shirt and goodie bag, then drive to the transition area to drop off her running shoes.

“I could have biked,” she concedes, “but I didn’t really want to do about 16 miles of riding before my big day.”

A similar transition area is set up at Johnson’s Beach in Guerneville, where Trejo left her wetsuit and picked up her bike. She loaded her wetsuit and whatever else she had at the start into a plastic bag, which was transported by truck back to the giant finish area at Windsor High School.

Every one of the 2,000 racers has specific drinks and food for the race, which they supplement with sports drinks and water at one of the aid stations along the bike or the run. As they speed along, the athletes rip open their power bars, discard the wrapper, slam down drinks and toss the bottles. Simply put, a triathlon route is a mess.

“By the time I was on the run, the road was completely littered with cups. This is nothing new for a race—and the volunteers dutifully clean it all up,” Trejo says.

This is all typical of a large triathlon.

Ben Collins, a first-year professional triathlete who lives one-third of his year in Tiburon, raced this June in Escape from Alcatraz, one of the most popular triathlons in the country. To compete, he had to fly from Seattle, drive to San Francisco, ride a bus with the other athletes to the ferry and then take a ferry out to Alcatraz Island.

While Escape from Alcatraz has unique circumstances, the race bags—carriers stuffed with freebies—can be a burden. They typically contain coupons (which Collins admits he’d probably forget on the way to the store), a visor (which he intends to donate), a race belt (which he gives away) and various samples.

“I’m not a big fan of race bags,” Collins shrugs. “They haunt me for months as I try to get rid of it all without feeling like I’m wasting something.”

While triathlons are meant to celebrate human fitness and endurance, they’ve so far lacked a commitment to the environment. A recent study of the upstate New York-based Musselman Triathlon estimates that last year, the roughly 1,400 participants produced 3,240 pounds of trash in just one day of racing. But as going green gets cooler, local triathlons are leading the eco-charge.

Large amounts of waste may be standard for a big race, but what is not standard (yet) are the recycling bins that the Vineman race provided for the swim caps that the athletes would otherwise throw away and recycling bins for plastic and bottles. The bags the racers get at registration were reusable and the race numbers recyclable, as were all the napkins and utensils in the food tent. The composting behind the food tent was also different from other races. And all the generators at the expo and finish line were powered by a local solar company.

Still, while Trejo appreciated the steps that had been taken, she feels that goodie bags “filled with advertisements” are “hypocritical.” “I just wish there was a way, in general, to cut down on so much waste,” she says.

Growing Pains

Triathlon is one of the fastest growing sports in the country. No longer the domain of eccentric die-hards, there are now over 100,000 members registered with USA Triathlon (USAT), the sport’s governing body, and many more who buy one-day memberships to race in USAT-sanctioned races.

Five years ago, there were just over a thousand races registered and sanctioned by USAT of varying lengths. In 2007, there were 2,340 events. There are local, small, nonsanctioned races constantly hosted by different groups; even Jennifer Lopez is training for a triathlon.

In 1998, there was just one Ironman race in the continental United States; this year, there are six full Ironman events and more half-distance (70.3) events. For a sport that started with 15 competitors in Hawaii in 1978, this kind of growth brings with it unexpected side effects as serious racers fly across the country or around the world for races and own multiple bikes, wheels, shoes and clothes.

“You can’t have the sport of triathlon if you don’t have clean water, clean air and clean venues,” says Jeff Henderson of the Council for Responsible Sport (CRS), who explains that bacteria and pollution levels affect where races can be held. “Already, that’s becoming a problem.”

Kathy Matejka, event services director for USAT, echoes this sentiment. “Without taking care of the environment, we won’t have places to pursue the multisport lifestyle.”

Both Matejka and Henderson serve on the USAT Sustainability Task Force, which was convened over just such concerns. The task force recently submitted a resolution to its board of directors that would create a strategic plan with short- and long-term goals and the likelihood of USAT sanctioning official “green” races.

Triathlon is one of the few governing sports bodies beginning to address environmental and sustainability issues.

“Organized sport, in general, is slow to embrace the solutions and practices to further environmental and social responsibility,” Matejka says.

The initiative to take on these growing environmental challenges has fallen so far on individuals’ shoulders.

Leading by Example

Chris Lieto, a professional triathlete from Danville, has become a poster boy for environmentally conscious training and racing. Lieto has been a pro for six years, has won some of the sport’s top races and placed sixth in last year’s Ironman World Championships. And he’s using his visibility to launch a new challenge, the Green Athlete.

“I don’t want it to just be a wasteful time. I want it to have some purpose, to leave it better in some way,” Lieto says of his sport.

Lieto’s sustainability initiative is focused on bringing together different environmental programs and bringing more attention to the issue. Many of his sponsors already have their own programs, such as Trek’s One World, Two Wheels bike-riding project and the Soles4Souls shoe recycling venture. By working with his sponsors, with other athletes and with local races, Lieto is spreading the word about simple things triathletes can do, such as commuting to races, buying in bulk and with less packaging, and using reusable bottles and water filters.

As more and more professional athletes express interest in getting involved, and more and more races want to make an attempt at going green, Lieto’s biggest focus has been his website (, where he gives tips and advice, and his biodiesel van, which he drives to those races he can.

“Miami’s a little far,” he says. But when Lieto had to fly to Miami for a race, he looked up the carbon impact of flying. “It was crazy,” he exclaims. “Sometimes I have to [fly]; it’s my occupation,” Lieto says, but he recommends focusing on local races or planning vacations around destination races, so it’s not a wasted trip or wasted carbon.

Lieto’s biodiesel van features four beds, a flatscreen TV, a PlayStation, a fridge and water filter. When driving it to races, he opens it up to amateur racers, encouraging them to think about doing local races or using a water filter instead of disposable water bottles.

“It’s not about me being the prefect green example, but about striving, encouraging people,” Lieto says. “Anyone can limit what they’re using.”

Pulling Out All the Stops

Mark Liebert, who is directing the first annual Marin County sustainable triathlon, echoes Lieto’s idea of leading by example.

“It’s not like we’re going to change the world, but we can bring attention. If we can do this large event sustainably, then one family, maybe, will take away one thing they learned,” Liebert says.

The Marin County Triathlon, slated for Oct. 26, will not only be Marin’s first large-scale triathlon race, but it will also be an all-sustainable event.

With about 90 percent of large race events in the country not even recycling, there are a lot of steps that can be taken in making an event green.

“There is a lot of low-hanging fruit,” says the CRS’ Henderson.

Bruce Raynor of Athletes for a Fit Planet is working closely with Liebert on the Marin County Triathlon, as well as with a number of other races and events across the country.

“Most of them start from ground zero,” Raynor says. He attempts to create a long-term plan with each of the races, which usually starts with the simple three R’s—reduce, reuse, recycle—and becomes more complex from there. “But [Liebert] is pulling out all the stops,” Raynor praises.

As Liebert started planning his race, which was inspired as he ran the Marin trails, he realized he could do things very differently. He needed shuttle buses—why not make them biodiesel? Similarly, the lead vehicle is a hybrid. Instead of plastic water bottles, athletes will use stainless steel. Instead of plastic trophies, racers will get awards made from recycled bike parts. The T-shirts will be organic with nontoxic ink. All race information is distributed by email. Perhaps most importantly, the race is focused on local athletes, with no national advertising, and carbon offsets will be bought for all athletes traveling from outside the Bay Area.

“I love Google,” Liebert, who has researched all these aspects of the race himself with the help of Henderson and Raynor, enthuses. “Most of it’s pretty common sense.”

Is It Enough?

But to suggest that becoming environmentally friendly is solely common sense isn’t giving credit to how difficult some of the obstacles are to overcome.

Sometimes, the biggest obstacle is how things have always been done. On Lieto’s website, naysayers have left negative comments about the selfishness of triathlon in general and of Lieto in specific. For years, triathletes have expected to get more from their registration fees: more goodies, more coupons, more water bottles, more aid stations with more paper cups, more events in more places. They expect transport around the events and they want the newest equipment all the time. This means buying more carbon wheels and fancier bikes. If “reduce” is the first adage of sustainability, it is also the hardest for most competitive triathletes.

“We think we’re being green just by riding our bikes everywhere,” Collins says, “but that’s not true. Triathletes tend to buy huge SUVs that don’t really hold bikes any better than the trunk of a sedan or a roof rack, and even though it’s nice to have a little extra leg room for tired muscles, that alone probably counteracts the good of riding to work three times a week.”

Collins also points out that working out a lot means eating more, and, besides the fact that energy bar wrappers are difficult to recycle right now, a lot of the food we eat comes from far away and is not always grown in the best conditions.

“How many apples were shipped from New Zealand to feed triathletes last year?” he asks.

And it’s not just the way individual racers think, but the way event producers themselves approach their races. Most race companies are for-profit, and the main—if not the only—concern is the bottom line.

“The biggest challenge is rethinking the way events are produced,” Henderson says.

“But it’s easy to get corporate sponsors to jump on the green bandwagon, so if cost is an issue, it’s most likely just a matter of knowing the right person,” Collins says.

The biggest issue remains travel to races.

According to the Council for Responsible Sport, just over 1,700 athletes flew 18 million miles round-trip to participate in the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, last year.

Collins, in his first year of traveling around to professional races, flew 5,500 miles to South Korea for an International Triathlon Union race.

“It was a long, long trip for three days,” he says.

Last year, North America Sports, the company that runs the Ironman and Ironman 70.3 events, introduced a policy that gives preference in registration to those who register in person at the event the year before. This policy is meant to stem some of the registration issues at the extremely popular events that sell out immediately, but it also effectively means a person might travel all the way to an event one year just to register, and then travel back the following year to compete. Obviously, the number of people who do this is few. But the policy has still come under attack.

How Could People Not Support Us?

More and more events are becoming environmentally conscious, because the athletes are demanding it. The Ironman events are attempting to go green too, focusing on reducing waste at the recent Coeur d’Alene event by 25 percent this year and working with the Recycling Foundation.

USA Triathlon conducted a poll of its members and 44 percent said that the best way to be environmentally responsible is to support “green” events.

“Right now, a lot of race directors are thinking, ‘I want to do something, what can I do?'” says Raynor, who is working with 10 different events, including marathons and triathlons.

But after the basics, where do race directors turn? How do they know what is and isn’t good for the environment?

With partner Jonathan Eng, Henderson’s CRS is hoping to answer that question by working on a process for events to become third-party-certified green at different levels. This year, their nonprofit initiated a pilot program of 15 events that cover a cross-section of geography, sport and type (long-established or more recent). The Marin County Triathlon is one of the pilot programs and the only first-year event in the program.

Each of the events works with CRS to establish what criteria they will attempt to achieve. There are up to 40 “credits” that races can go after, including categories for waste, climate, equipment, community and health. Some 21 credits are required to obtain certification as a green event, and more credits achieve higher certification levels. Credits are obtained through things like recycling, composting, using local food, offsetting participant travel and sharing or borrowing equipment.

The organization then verifies the event and writes up a case study. They are attempting to document what problems events encounter, what criteria are realistic and create a cohesive process for all events to go through.

“Lots of things are difficult to quantify,” Henderson says, citing as an example the identifying of food sources for a race.

The final report will be released in November and races will be able to obtain official certification next year. There have already been a number of inquiries for next year and there were more than 35 applications just to participate in the pilot program this year. Because Henderson also works closely with USAT and serves on its task force, there is the likely possibility of having up to 300 USAT-sanctioned, certified green events in the next few years.

An important part of the certification process includes not just being environmentally responsible, but also socially responsible. Credits can be earned for outreach to under-represented minorities, health education or giving some of the profits to local charities.

This is also an important aspect of the Marin County Triathlon, which instead of awarding a purse to the athletes, is focusing its awards on three specific charities.

“I don’t need the money,” Liebert says. “Business is fine, my life is good. I decided to give it all away.”

This may well be the future of the sport.

“How could people not support us?” Liebert asks simply.

NorCal Races to Look For

Triathlon is expensive and resource-intensive, with few minority participants and many chances for excess. But it is also a sport that offers its athletes a chance to appreciate the outdoors that they will have to make an effort to save.

Trejo has two more large races on her calendar: Santa Barbara Long Course and LA Triathlon. These will both involve lots of travel from Santa Rosa, but this time she’ll be carpooling with other friends doing the races. They plan to make a fun trip out of it. “The one goal I always have is to have fun,” Trejo says.

Aug. 10: Santa Cruz Sprint Triathlon, Santa Cruz

Aug. 16: Tri for Fun #3 Sprint Triathlon, Pleasanton

Aug. 24: Escape from the Rock, San Francisco; Luna Bar Women’s Triathlon, Sacramento

Sept. 7: *Folsom International Triathlon, Folsom; Big Kahuna Half Ironman, Santa Cruz

Sept. 13: *Triathlon at Pacific Grove, Pacific Grove

Sept. 21: Tri for Real, Pleasanton; Sentinel Triathlon, Santa Cruz

Sept. 27: See Jane Tri, Pleasanton

Oct. 11: Tri Girl Tri, Napa

Oct. 26: *Marin County Triathlon, San Rafael

Nov. 8: *San Francisco Triathlon at Treasure Island, Treasure Island

*Denotes prize purse offered to professionals