In the past six months I’ve had the privilege of participating in two renowned international trail races – the Sierre-Zinal, a 31km race in the Valais Alps in the west of Switzerland, and the Grand Raid de la Réunion, a 170km race crossing the island of Réunion, also known as the Diagonale des Fous (The Madman’s Diagonal or Diagonal of Fools).
Both races had fields in excess of 2,000 runners and were located in national parks, the majority of Réunion in fact having UNESCO World Heritage status. Each involving altitudes above 2,400m, the scenery in both of these races was extraordinarily beautiful – the Alps are rocky, snow-capped and magnificent, while Réunion boasts one of the world’s most active volcanoes (which, unfortunately, was inactive when I was there) and three volcanic calderas.
But for me the most striking thing I noticed during each of these races was, surprisingly, the astonishing amount of litter dropped by the runners. During the Sierre-Zinal I found fruit juice bottles, energy bar wrappers and gel sachets strewn along the pristine path. In Réunion, the problem seemed to get worse further into the race; presumably the more exhausted the runners became, the less they cared about not leaving their mark on the environment – ziplock bags, tin foil, discarded gel tubes (I presume there’s a popular gel available in Europe that comes in small plastic tubes) and used tissues / wet wipes were dropped everywhere along the trail.
In both of these races I had the impression that, generally speaking, European runners seem to think that it’s fine to drop their litter on the trails… presumably they expect someone goes along after the event, picking up everyone’s discarded rubbish!
At first, seeing the mess made me mad. What are these people thinking when they toss their stuff around? Of course, that’s just it: they’re not thinking at all.
But then, as I ran, I thought about it (and on a 100 miler, there’s a LOT of time to think) and I changed my view on the litter from mad, to glad. Not glad it was there at all, but glad that we in South Africa are not like that.
South Africa’s trail runners, adventure racers, mountain bikers, hikers, multisport enthusiasts and all others playing on our beautiful country’s trails tend to make an effort to keep to the ‘leave only footprints, take only memories’ mantra – they think when they unwrap their energy bars, and instead of simply tossing the wrapper over their shoulder, they tuck it into their backpack or pocket.
(Note: Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for road runners, as anyone along the route of Two Oceans or Comrades will testify, seeing the number of discarded water sachets, gel sachets and anti-inflammatory tablet packets scattered along the tar during those races…)
Whenever I’ve run a trail race in South Africa, I’ve felt pretty damn proud that we’re not like trail runners in Europe (I can’t speak for elsewhere, sorry) and that we make an effort to keep our trails pristine.
I think leaving only footprints is a pretty cool way in which we can give back to the trails that give us so very, very much.
Don’t forget your poo bag
OK, before you have visions of being expected to carry away what-it-is-you-need-to-do-in-the-bushes-during-a-pitstop, it’s not what you’re picturing! Simply take along a little plastic lunch bag for your used tissues/loo paper. Don’t even think of leaving used tissues or loo paper under a bush, log or rock – it’s littering. Instead, pop them into your bag and take them away with you. Easy
Originally published in the January/February 2013 issue.