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Environment & Science

'I was born The Runnin' Kind': How a Lehigh Valley business puts on carbon-zero races, raises awareness about sustainable sports events

Aimee Kohler
Em Kohler
Aimee Kohler, of Nazareth, in 2022 founded The Running Kind, a business that focuses on sustainable running events.

NAZARETH, Pa. — The biggest challenge with organizing a sustainable running event, Aimee Kohler says, is what happens before racers even get to the starting line.

“The nature of an event will never be sustainable just because people are traveling to get there,” Kohler said.

“The main carbon emitter for any event is usually the transportation of people coming to and from, as well as the event staff and volunteers, and that's kind of our biggest chunk, event to event.”

Kohler is founder of The Running Kind, a sustainable Lehigh Valley-based business launched in November 2022 focused on zero-carbon racing events for amateurs and professionals.

While large sporting events, including running, often draw participants and spectators from far distances, driving up carbon emissions and exacerbating climate change, Kohler has found a workable solution.

By staying local, cutting down on single-use items and using racer fees to purchase carbon offsets, her events have become carbon-neutral.

“The intent is to put on zero-carbon events in the trail running space and bring awareness to that community,” Kohler said. “We can choose to run sustainable events and host sustainable events.

“We’re also trying to create a community that is passionate and interested in sustainability individually in sport and then you know, also kind of try to educate people on how we can make different choices to impact our individual carbon footprints.”
Aimee Kohler

“We’re also trying to create a community that is passionate and interested in sustainability individually in sport and then you know, also kind of try to educate people on how we can make different choices to impact our individual carbon footprints.”

Em Kohler
Launched in Nov. 2022, The Running Kind is a sustainable Lehigh Valley-based business focused on zero-carbon racing events for both amateurs and professionals.

‘Find balance’

Increased carbon emissions, as well as other greenhouse gasses, have worsened climate change, researchers argue.

In 2021, carbon dioxide, or CO2, accounted for 79% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA says human activities are altering the carbon cycle — both by adding more CO2 to the atmosphere and by influencing the ability of natural sinks, like forests and soils, to remove and store CO2 from the atmosphere.

“While CO2 emissions come from a variety of natural sources, human-related emissions are responsible for the increase that has occurred in the atmosphere since the industrial revolution,” it says.

All sporting events — not just running — have for the last few years been under more scrutiny for the amount of carbon emissions athletes and spectators may produce.

“From grass pitches for football and cricket, snow and ice for winter games, to water for sailing or surfing, sport is fundamentally linked to the environment,” according to the UK’s Carbon Literacy Project.

“Correspondingly, the sector also greatly impacts the environment due to its sheer volume and reach.

“Considering the global sports industry is estimated to be worth around $600 billion and is responsible for approximately 350 million tons of CO2e, it’s worth examining what’s behind the staggering footprint of the industry.”

Often, the bulk of the emissions come from travel to get to and from the event.

For example, a government report for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa estimated that "the tournament generated 2.7 million tCO2e (tons of CO2-equivalent), with 67% of the footprint consisting of international travel … the same as the yearly footprint of Malta, a country of 400,000 people."

In the United States, the Super Bowl often is cited as among the most watched, but also highest emission-creating, events.

Advertising alone — not including travel, food waste or other variables — for Super Bowl LV in 2021 produced as much carbon dioxide as 100,000 Americans — or about 2 million tons of CO2, according to data from iSpot.tv.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but running events can cause increased carbon emissions from a number of sources: runners and spectators traveling to and from the event, disposable water cups and bibs, food waste, litter and more.

“Despite the health benefits of running, the people involved with sports often engage in practices that produce large amounts of CO2 emission,” according to a 2021 study on the New York City Marathon published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

“The estimated quantity of CO2 emissions from sports practices such as transportation, the construction of sports facilities, and the production of sporting goods and services are a significant threat to the quality of the natural environment.

“Modes of transportation used by spectators and the athletes are believed to be the bulk of CO2 emissions.”

Researchers stress the need for running officials to find balance between the health benefits and the emissions associated with events.

They say there’s been increased interest to modify equipment, infrastructure and materials toward a more sustainable model.

“A typical marathon runner can decrease his carbon footprint by 80% by choosing to take part in a local marathon event and avoiding a transatlantic flight,” according to the iSpot.tv study.

“We need to reduce many other impacts, especially electronics purchases, energy consumption, and the distance traveled.

“Marathon event organizers must reconsider the dynamics surrounding attracting international participants if they genuinely want to lower the carbon footprint of their events.”

‘I was born the runnin' kind’

A few nights before a race, Kohler said, she works on a spreadsheet and equations. After calculating how far runners are traveling to get to the event, she determines the amount of carbon emissions each racer is creating by participating.

“Our events are fairly small; they're typically under 100 people,” Kohler said. “In terms of waste, it's very minimal, as well as our general footprint, because it's really just me running the business.”

Recently, the business officially was certified as carbon-neutral through the Change Climate Project, a nonprofit aimed at eliminating carbon emissions.

“Essentially, these offset projects and companies fund these larger methane capture and carbon sequestering projects that actually take carbon out of the atmosphere,” she said.

“So, it's not ideal, but you're paying to participate in that project. There's not really another way, right now, that you're able to reduce your carbon footprint for those emissions that are things like transportation that have to be happening and you can't necessarily eliminate.”

Part of each racer’s registration fee goes to buying carbon offsets.

So far, there are five races scheduled for this year. “The Long Run,” a five-mile loop, is set for April 7 at Jacobsburg State Park. You can register at Ultrasigup.com.

Asked whether she was a fan of Merle Haggard, a country musician who in the 1970s released the song, “The Running Kind,” Kohler said she heard Johnny Cash’s 2003 cover with Tom Petty.

She said she found inspiration from a friend, whose business is called “Born to Run,” a nod to Bruce Springsteen.

“I thought, ‘There's gotta be other stellar song names out there that would make sense with what I'm doing,’” she said. “I had a few different name options, but once I found The Running Kind, I was like, ‘This feels pretty, pretty perfect.’”

Lyrics include: “I was born the runnin' kind / With leavin' always on my mind / Home was never home to me at any time / Every front door found me hopin' / I would find the back door open / There just had to be an exit / For the runnin' kind.”

The Running Kind
Devon Walker
Launched in Nov. 2022, The Running Kind is a sustainable Lehigh Valley-based business focused on zero-carbon racing events for both amateurs and professionals.

But while the lyrics depict a person running away, Kohler found herself running back home, and sharing her passion for sustainability with the community.

“I traveled all over the place thinking I would find somewhere better and I have ended up right where it started, and I'm enjoying it,” Kohler said.

“The mountains out here are small but they are gnarly — for my personal training and trail running goals they do quite well.”