Going Cupless: A Grassroots Change Takes Hold
Where and how to find sustainable running races
This summer I toed the line for two races—at the end of July I paced a friend for 30 miles during the High Lonesome 100, then a week later, I raced my own course in the Ultra Dirty 60k around Silverton, Colorado’s epic peaks. Both races came with mandatory gear lists that detailed what all participants had to carry during the race—an emergency bivvy system, rain layers, a hat—a response, in part, to the tragic weather that struck China’s ultra-running community earlier this summer, resulting in the death of 21 runners.
But there was another, non-survival item on the High Lonesome 100’s mandatory gear list: a reusable cup.
In long-distance races, aid stations are spread every 5-10 miles throughout the course to help resupply runners’ food and drinks. During my first ultra in 2018, I was shocked at what the Leadville 100’s aid stations provided: steaming pots of mashed potatoes, bacon hot off the grill, bowls of multicolored candy, pretzels, pickles, and what I quickly learned was one of the most coveted ultra-running beverages of all, Coca Cola. The sugary drink’s stomach-settling and caffeinating properties make Coke a go-to cure-all for many runners—me included. I couldn’t wait to get to the aid stations for each refuel. They’d pour me a cup, I’d down it, toss it, then keep running.
Now, the Leadville 100 is one of the largest and longest corporate races in North America. With as many as 700 runners in a given year and 11 aid stations (including the start/finish), you can do the math: that’s thousands of disposable cups that need to be trashed at the end of the race.
Facing the reality of this trash nightmare, many race directors across the country have been examining ways to reduce the environmental impact of racing. Cups have become the beginning focal point for many. As the race operations company Single Track Running puts it: “Reusable cups are small, are no problem to carry along while running and will save thousands of paper cups from being used, trashed, and possibly blown away littering our beautiful trail.”
I can attest to this—tucking a collapsible, reusable plastic cup in my running vest during my pacing duties on the High Lonesome 100 didn’t weigh me or my runner down, nor did it detract from our aid station experiences. At the Silverton Ultra Dirty 60k, they didn’t make us carry our own reusable cups; instead, they had plastic coffee mugs at each aid station they washed and reused between batches of runners.
Just this year, Leadville’s race directors updated their 2021 handbook: “In an effort to continue to be environmentally sustainable...each athlete will be provided a reusable cup at check-in that can be repurposed throughout your entire race day experience and at future events.” According to Ultrarunning.com, Leadville’s race director wanted to “go cupless” much sooner, but had to seek approval from its parent company, Lifetime. It will likely make a big difference in trash generated during the race, but how much? According to Nuun, asking runners to carry their own cups will save a 1,000-participant race like the Bay Bridge Half Marathon an estimated 20,000 paper cups.
Going cupless has been slowly growing in popularity among races across the country, but some, like Single Track Running, are wary of simply giving away reusable cups at every race, likening it to the issue of amassing too many reusable grocery store bags and therefore negating the action’s environmental savings. (There’s an impact threshold with reusable grocery bags: they’re more resource intensive and take longer to decompose than single-use plastic bags, so unless you exclusively use a small number of them, you may be adding to your carbon footprint). Single Track Running writes: “Think of the collapsible cup as a grocery bag, and think of the running event as your grocery store. We have all ended up with more plastic bags at home that we will ever need.”
All in all, replacing disposable cups with reusable ones is a grassroots change that started among the smaller, scrappier races and has since grown to reach the giants like Leadville, Western States, Javelina Jundred, and many more. It’s a poignant reminder that making a difference in an industry as decentralized as running can feel daunting, but doing the right thing eventually catches on.
Looking for a sustainability-forward race? While by no means an exhaustive list, check out the following cupless events the next time you’re ready to sign up for a race.
Cupless Event Series (Click the links for calendars of events!)
- Desert Dash Events
- Aravaipa Running
- Endurance Race Series
- Runner’s Edge Events
- Orca Running Races
- Inside Trail Racing
- Single Track Running Races
- North Face Endurance Challenge
- RF Events Serious Series
- Ragnar Relay Series
- Vacation Races
Need race gear? Many of the items you need we have right here on Geartrade UnNew, gently-used, and ready for you.
Emma Athena is an award-winning journalist and fresh-air lover. She writes about adventure and the environment, where humans and nature intersect at their most impactful moments. When she’s not glued to her keyboard or curled up with a book, she’s running in the mountains with her dog or camping with people she loves. To read more of her work and get in contact, visit emmaathena.com.
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