La Rochelle : climate talk and a marathon

I was arriving at La Rochelle train station just after midday when I saw Fanny from the window as the train took seconds that dragged on like minutes to stop. We’d last seen each other just over a year ago in Trier and after winning a place at the marathon in her new city, the occasion for a visit (and a run) fell into place.

After the Nice marathon, I ummed and arred about whether I wanted to continue participating in such an un-ecofriendly activity but haven been given the opportunity to run in La Rochelle, I decided to go and make my presence there as carbon neutral and unwastefil and unpolluting as possible.

So an overnight bus and a train via Paris for the way there and an overnight bus and train to Frankfurt on the way back is the uncostly price I’ll pay for the tremendous luxury of travel. It takes a bit more time and is less convenient than a one hour flight but it’s worth it for a clean conscience and a cleaner world.

After the marathon we visited the Climat Océan exhibition at the maritime museum and here it became clear to me that the Atlantic-bordering city of La Rochelle cherishes an intimate relationship with the ocean and I perceived the city to be particularly environmentally conscious. The old port is scattered with rentable bikes, the original vélib (vélo – libre), and with adorable solar powered navettes that shuttle passersby from one side of the port to the other.

The afternoon I arrived, we went to pick up my race number. The first thing you can do as a zero waste runner is turn down anything you don’t need such as the plastic bag full of flyers offered to me with the bib nummer. If the marathon relies on its sponsors, they can send these flyers in an email. And just so you don’t think I’m having a whinge, I already shared this thought with the event organisers during un table ronde (an informal discussion) with several marathon organisers across France and volunteers.

The organisers of the marathon had written in the Facebook group La Rochelle zéro déchets that they were looking for a zero waste runner to take part in this discussion. It was the perfect opportunity to give them a runner’s perspective, although most of them are also athletes and well aware of the environmental catastrophe that the marathon presents.

They asked me to introduce myself and my mission. I told them that I’ve been running in races for about ten years now and that during this time I’ve seen a lot of behaviour that has upset me and a great deal that has impressed me.

Let’s start with the positives. In Luxembourg 2017, runners came equipped with little cups that could be refilled at food and drink stands. Half way up what I’ll call a mountain during the 32km trail run, my cup was filled not with water or some sort of energy drink but a homemade soup from a luxembourgeois couple who stood beaming with wholsamness in front of me.

In Nice, 2018, I met Rima, also known as Tyre Lady. I would like to add the prefix kiss ass to that for she is a remarkable person. Rima travels from marathon to marathon, often on bike as it is the ecofriendliest way, and runs marathons pulling a tyre behind her. It’s a symbol for all the rubbish that litters our forests, fields and oceans. Alongside the run, she gains pledges from marathon organisers to dedicate to doing away with one-way plastics and the enemrous amounts of rubbish that ends up in nature. And on coastline cities like Nice and La Rochelle? Well, plastic gel pouches, bottle lids and cups fly from under your feet, before your eyes, into the sea.

The La Rochelle marathon is on the right track. The sponsors are organic labels and markets; instead of rubbish bins there are recycled nets that catch more of what comes flying in their general direction; organic waste such as banana and orange peels is composted and the toilets on the course are also compost loos which saves a huge amount of water. But the course is still littered with plastic cups, clothing and sweet wrappers.

If I had it my way, which the organisers agreed could be a bit radical, each runner would have to bring his or her own supplies. Like travel, it is a luxurious past-time to be able to spend a Sunday running around La Rochelle. However, food and drink stands every 5km is a legal requirement for marathons in France. In the hot marathon months of late spring and early summer, severe dehydration is a major risk so I can understand the need to supply water and food. So how about a compromise and replace bottles with water fountains? One organiser said they tried this but the quality of the water in one fountain was fine and in another terrible. Here it’s up to event managers and the council that supplies water to communicate and cooperate clearly.

“And what role do you play in this?”, they asked, allowing me to explain my ideal of the responsible runner. Take your rubbish with you, it doesn’t belong on the ground or in the sea. It’s not someone else’s job to pick it up. And better yet? Don’t produce any. I brought my own mini bottle which contained a herbal tea, some sugar and a pinch of salt, a homemade electrolyte drink if you will, and instead of plastic wrapped energy pouches I chose orange and banana slices (and at the end a bit of cake).

Sometimes it’s hard to say no. At the end of the marathon, a goody bag was handed to me and I took it. Now it’s my responsibility to use the things in there the best I can. I gifted the rose and the oysters to my host, I devoured the snacks immediately and the medal and t-shirt will join the collection.

The highlight of the weekend was absolutely the time spent with Fanny. Both climate conscious, we had ideas and experiences to explain and share. She took me under her wing and along with her to meet her friends, drink local organic beer and attend a climate talk on carbon neutrality in Denmark looking at the significant role of civilian participation. We engaged in discussions and I managed to scrub up my ropey French to share my experiences of civilian action in Marburg and Germany in general.

The final point on our climate agenda was a locally sourced dinner : moules frites at du vin de La Rochelle. Afterwards we hobbled (ok, I hobbled and Fanny glided like an elegant French swan) to the station and aboard the flixbus I went.

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