(Don’t Want) a Lotta Bottle(s) at the London Marathon

London Marathon bottle belt trial

Lots of running events are focusing on their environmental impact and trying to address a number of these points. The London Marathon is one of the flagship events for the country and therefore it is no surprise that they have been looking at ways to reduce the impact of the event (see https://www.virginmoneylondonmarathon.com/en-gb/event-info/sustainability/).

One of the initiatives at this year’s race was the bottle belt trial. I was one of around 700 runners who were given a branded bottle belt that could take a small 250ml Buxton water bottle (the size given out at the race) as well as a small pouch on the belt. In addition, we were given a wristband with tear off numbers from one to ten to monitor our bottle use. The belts were then collected at the finish to be reused and the number of bottles used was noted from our wristbands.

The initial feedback from the London Marathon has been positive, however the team at the London Marathon are carrying out a detailed evaluation over the coming months, including surveying the runners involved.

Having done an ultra trail race plus some smaller running events that have become completely cupless, the idea appealed to me. I am interested in trying to reduce my own waste that goes to landfill – for example I don’t buy bottled water and always have a commuter mug with me for tea or coffee rather than buying single use cups – but I probably fall down in a number of other areas (driving, flying etc).

Cupless races are, as the description says, races where there are jugs of water or energy drink to fill your own bottle or collapsible cup. Coupled with an absence of information flyers, paper entry forms etc the physical waste from these smaller events will be significantly reduced to say nothing of the time and energy of (usually) volunteers to pick up the litter. Yes, I know that there are other waste products like gel sachets that need to be disposed of, but plastic bottles and cups will surely constitute a large volume of the waste from a smaller event. However, the events will need to consider the logistics of a vast number of runners (like the London Marathon) having to stop and refill their own bottles along the course. I haven’t yet thought of a way to manage that for 42,000+ runners……

My own experience of using the bottle belt was a good one. I often do long training runs with a bottle belt or an ultra-vest that has pockets for bottles, so carrying full bottles isn’t an issue for me. There was also the subliminal ‘nudge’ factor of having to monitor my own water bottle usage and therefore not waste a drop. I took my own reusable sports bottle with a drink in my kit bag which I could also use at the end and therefore didn’t need to take a bottle from the offerings in the start area. As I trotted over the line my wristband still had numbers one to ten intact.

Having run at London on many previous occasions I knew that this year they had reduced the overall number of drink stations from 26 to 19 which seemed pretty sensible to me. To be honest, I’m not even sure anyone needs 19 aid stations in a marathon and maybe the aim is that on average, people will use alternate ones, thus spreading the load on the volunteers, rather than 42,000+ runners visiting all of the five or six drinks stations along the way. With the temperatures much lower than in 2018 (see my previous article on this) I would also expect that the number of bottles used per person would have been fewer this year. Even if the number of aid stations were changed to 13/14 it would still be enough for most people and again I would imagine this would significantly reduce the waste.

With the focus on not using too many bottles, I had only used two up to the half way point (maybe that was why I had a bad patch between miles 15 and 19?). For the second half of the race, I used another six bottles including half a bottle that was with me as I crossed the line. From that total of just under two litres, a small amount was used by the friend I was running with, but I found being part of the trial I was much more careful about using every drop from a bottle before throwing it into the recycling bins. With the temperature being much cooler I also didn’t need to use any water to cool myself down but there were showers to run through around the course which would have done the trick if needed.

You may also have seen in the London Marathon announcements that they trialled the Ooho pouches filled with Lucozade sport. These are little capsules made from seaweed and other plant material that degrade naturally. You either bite a corner and squeeze the liquid into your mouth or pop the whole thing in and just eat / swallow the packaging. I tried them and eat / swallowed the whole thing – the packaging couldn’t be tasted and it was so easy to use.

I know some other races have trialled these and you can see how it could become a game changer on this issue. Some of the Lucozade Sport stations also used compostable cups rather than bottles. I started doing distance running in 1982 and was well used to drinks being in cups so it was no problem for me. The cups probably only had 100-150ml of the drink in there, so you didn’t have the waste of someone taking one of the 380ml bottles, having one slurp and then ditching the rest in a plastic bottle. I know that when you run at a faster pace (which I don’t) that the bottle may be easier to drink from but maybe cup drinking will be a skill we have to relearn?

I have no doubt that there will be many people who say these steps are just too small and are not instigating radical change to tackle the issue. This article isn’t designed to argue the point one way or another but just to give my experiences of being a competitor in the event. I do think that people taking part in events will look to the organisers to give the runners opportunity to lessen the impact when taking part. And I have no doubt that we all have our part to play – do we need to take the extra flyers at the expo, can we take our own refillable bottle for pre and post race etc etc. Keep your eyes out for more such initiatives from races of all sizes and then see how you can play your part.

Enjoy your running!