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Race Swag Gets a Redesign with Earth Runs

UK-based runner Natasha Acres has just won $100K to expand her eco-friendly virtual race platform.

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In late March, Saucony-sponsored road, track, and trail runner Grayson Murphy threw out a hot-take on Twitter about race swag that garnered over 250 responses and over 100 re-tweets. “Maybe an unpopular opinion but I would LOVE to see races get rid of finisher medals and TShirts,” she wrote. 

In the comments runners offered opinions in agreement and disagreement, examples of race swag they’ve won and actually enjoyed, and wishful alternatives. It even got some friendly debate stirring in our virtual office (some of us really love a free t-shirt, while others are more than OK never having to hold on to another for some requisite period of time before it makes it to Goodwill). 

That sort of friendly debate sits just fine with Natasha “Tash” Acres, founder of Earth Runs, a virtual racing platform that plants trees when you complete a race and provides completely biodegradable medals as their swag. Even though her organization aims to be as eco-friendly as possible, she still thinks people shouldn’t feel ashamed if they’re drawn to traditional race swag.

“I get why they want to run for a medal. I’ve done it,” she says, proud of her medal from the London Marathon. “But there’s so many other races now. Can we find an alternative, can we, can we look for a better solution?”

While the environmental impact of every race is different, when you’re swept up in the fun of it all it can be easy to overlook all of the pieces that make it upall with their own individual cost. We’re talking about everything. Like transportation to get to the race, the amount of water needed to produce the cotton t-shirt in your race swag bag, the plastic cups and wrappers at the aid stations, medals with plastic ribbons that can’t be recycled, or even the extra shower you take after it’s over. A 2021 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health estimated that one person competing in one marathon (and all of the preparation leading up to it) accounts for 0.7 tons of CO2 equivalent. That would account for about four percent of the average American’s yearly carbon footprintwhich is already much higher than many other countries. 

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Acres hopes Earth Runs can be a positive change in the racing trend, even if that change might seem small. Along with the biodegradable medals (made with seed paper that can be planted and grown into flowers), Earth Runs rewards runners by planting trees as they complete races. 

“I’m a strong believer that if you change one little thing, but lots of people do it, we’ve got a much better chance,” she says. 

Acres was just awarded $100,000 from Brooks Running as a winner of its Run Funda grant created to help runners expand the innovations they dreamed up while running. We caught up with Acres on how she hopes the money will make a difference in the running community and for the planet.

Women’s Running: You came up with the concept for Earth Runs while running?

Tash Acres: The last 15 years I’ve run, I don’t think I’m a good runner. I just float along happily, you know, do the odd event here and there, but I do it mostly for health and mental health as much as anything. I need that space to just run. 

I just started training for a half marathon and I had also been looking at what was coming up, before the pandemic, at the new year when everyone was sort of thinking about challenges and stuff like that. And I’d seen a few people do online challenges. And when I looked into it, it was like, you pay some money and you get a little medal. But I didn’t really want a little medal like that, you know? When I did the half marathon, it was like, OK, I’ve got another medal. But once you’ve done it, that’s it. And for whatever reason, I had this meandering thought of, wow, wouldn’t it be good if we could do medals that didn’t damage the earth? And then on that same run, I was like, wouldn’t it be good if you could actually do something with your miles? And that was it. But it was just on a run one day.

WR: What do you plan on doing with the grant money?

TA: The next plan with this money is to actually take it into schools and youth organizations, because I think it’s something that through the pandemic, a lot of people, a lot of kids have really struggled with their mental health. And I get so much out of running for the support of my mental health, but trying to encourage a teenager or a youngster to move forward, they’re fed up. They don’t think there’s any hope in the world at the moment. You know, all they hear is that the world is burning up and climate change this, and there’s no jobs, and there’s this. So if we can get them moving that helps their mental health, but if they then can see that actually has an impact, they’ve actually done something.

WR: What was the inspiration for the plantable medals?

TA: I had literally just thrown away however many medals that my daughter had got through her gymnastics. She’s now a teenager and doesn’t want them. There’s no way to recycle them because they’re mixed metals and plastic bits and there’s nothing I can do with them. But I knew that runners do like to feel something, they like something tangible. It’s nice to know that you’ve planted trees, but they like something tangible as well. So I was looking around and I did a lot of searching to see if there were any other options. And the only other thing I found were a few people that make medals out of wood, and that didn’t really sit well with what we’re trying to do. We’re going to plant a tree, but then we’re going to chop some down and make medals. So I thought it needs to be something that has a circle where it actually doesn’t create any waste. I came up with the idea of using mulched down, recycled paper. And then it just made sense. I think someone had sent me a birthday card, which had seeds in it and those particle things. And I just thought surely there must be a way of being able to do that. 

WR: What drives your passion for protecting the environment?

TA: I think watching my kids grow up. And over here, David Attenborough, he’s like a God. Him and the queen. When they die, we’re in real trouble, let’s put it that way. But I think watching our kids and that whole Greta Thunberg thing, my teenage daughter went on a couple of the school protests. And I can see that they’re getting really sad. I watched a program about plastic in the sea. I watched that with my son and he was 11, I think, at the time and he was crying about it because that’s his future.

I think I just wanted to have some hope or do something different—give a bit of hope. 

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