My red, white and blue (and green) marathon

My red, white and blue (and green) marathon

Today was a special day for me. I completed the 34th running of the Marine Corps Marathon, a 26.2-mile run through the streets of Washington and Arlington, Va., with a finish at a famed statue of Iwo Jima known as the Marine Corps War Memorial. I’ve run 17 marathons, but the Marine Corps has a unique place in my heart because it was the first marathon that I ran, back in 1994.

Two things struck me about today’s race. The first is that the MCM made a significant effort to “go green.” Marathons are, inevitably, messy affairs and they generate enormous amounts of trash. An estimated 850,000 (!) paper cups are needed to stock the water and Powerade stops to keep 21,000 runners well hydrated. Add to that 26,000 Clif shots, 25,000 bag of sports beans, 10,000 sliced oranges—well, you get the idea. Lots of garbage, much of it unavoidable.

The MCM says its goal this year was to cut the trash in half, and produce less than a pound of landfill waste per runner. Sponsor Aquafina set up recycling kiosks near the start and finish line. Race waste, including cups, is composted. And, in an experiment, the race bibs given out at a fun run for kids were made of recycled post-consumer and wildflower seeds. The young runners can plant their bibs and enjoy growing Black-Eyed Susans along with the satisfaction of being green. MCM also collected used running shoes at its expos, for donation to people who need them.

While much of this is symbolic, symbols matter. Promoting environmentally-friendly sports events is a nonprofit called the Council for Responsible Sport (ReSport), along with a group called Athletes for a Fit Planet (”greening the world one race at a time”). Cool.

On a more sober note, running in the Marine Corps marathon is always a reminder of the sacrifices so many people make for our country. Many of the volunteers are active-duty Marines, and you won’t be surprised to hear that the organization of the MCM is world-class. More important, many of the runners are military men and women and their families. This year, I saw lots of people running in memory of soldiers who had died in Iraq or Afghanistan—fellow soldiers running in honor of a buddy, young women paying tribute to their dads or brothers, more than a few mothers and fathers running to in memory of their sons and daughters. A good number of injured veterans, many affiliated with the Achilles Track Club, also participated in the race.

By coincidence, I tuned in C-Span in the car on the way to the race and listened to an interview with David Finkel, a Washington Post reporter and author of a book called The Good Soldiers, about an Army battalion sent to Iraq during the surge 2007. I’d read a rave review of the book in The Times, and the interview persuaded me to order it. (I’m also going to make a donation to the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund–saw lots of people running on behalf of that organization.) Both the radio program and the race reminded me of how shielded those of us who live upper-class lives are from the human costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I only know one person who served and, as it happens, I met him in my marathon training group. My daughters are 22 and 25 and I don’t believe any of their friends have served.

Whatever you think about both wars, it’s too easy for many of us to forget about the terrible toll they have taken on thousands of families.


Marc Gunther writes for the Business of Sustainability blog