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Dec 23, 2015 03:10PM

'Driftless Dirt': Dubuque running group creates fun, sustainable races

By Sara Clifton
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Driftless Dirt, a loose-knit group of people who organize trail races at Dubuque's Mines of Spain, has been organizing races that greatly limit trash output. Pictured are race organizers Will Hoyer, Danielle Stowell and Rob Williams, all of Dubuque, and Josh Sun, of Davenport.
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The Mines of Spain recreation area in Dubuque is home to Driftless Dirt, a loose-knit group of people who love trail running. The group is working to "green" its races and others like it. After its third annual Mines of Spain Trail Races event last year, more than 200 runners produced only one small grocery bag of waste.
When the weather is nice — and sometimes, even when it isn't — you can find road races, 5Ks and other running events nearly every weekend throughout the Radish region. Many race organizers may not truly consider how much trash is produced during races, or what could be done to reduce the carbon footprint they leave behind.

But a group in Dubuque has been going green with an annual event for three years now. The Mines of Spain recreation area is home to Driftless Dirt, a loose-knit group of people who love trail running and recently experienced great success with its third annual Mines of Spain Trail Races.

Last summer, three main races and a Mini Mines kids' race were held at the Mines of Spain, organized by Will Hoyer, Rob Williams and Danielle Stowell, of Dubuque; and Joshua Sun, of Davenport. The group is very proud of what it has created.

From the start, Hoyer says the group wanted to make its race as sustainable as possible, and it does a number of things to minimize the impact on the environment. For instance, there are recycling and compost bins at the events, and participants are encouraged to use them.

"Last year we had over 200 people hanging out after the race, eating food and drinking beer, and the total garbage generated fit into one small grocery bag," Hoyer says.

To cut back on waste, organizers have skipped the disposable cups and instead encourage racers to carry their own water bottle or hydration pack. For post-race festivities, the group purchased reusable plates and forks, and Hoyer collected and washed more than 200 sets to use again.

"Did I really want to spend a few hours washing all those plates and forks? ... No, but I think it's important that we're not throwing away something that's only used for 20 minutes (or less)," he says. "Do runners give up a little convenience by having to carry their own water instead of being able to grab a disposable cup at each aid station? Yes, but nobody has complained."

Beer bottles aren't an issue after the races, either. The post-race beer kegs were supplied locally, and all of the finishers were given pint glasses to drink from and take home.

Additionally, the swag that racers receive is sustainable. Participants received organic cotton bandannas the first year of the race; T-shirts with a 50/50 blend of organic cotton and recycled synthetic fibers the second; and socks made by an American company the third.

The group also strives to have local food at its post-race gatherings. Most of the food comes from the Dubuque Food Co-op, with pulled-pork sandwiches and baked beans catered from a food truck called the Lunch Bus out of Platteville, Wis., which uses locally sourced products.

Area farmers' market vendors contributed door prizes including local wine, maple
syrup and honey.

Even the race bibs are recyclable. They are from Recycle Racing, a small outfit in Portland, Ore.

"We could get free (or almost free) bibs from various sources," Hoyer says, "but we want the bibs to be recyclable and to support a company that is doing good things."

Food scraps also were collected at the end of last year's races, and Hoyer says the group planned to compost them, but they realized they were an hour, round-trip, away from the large-scale composting facility.

"We tossed them because nobody wanted to make the drive, and we assumed that the impact of driving that far would largely cut into the benefits of composting," Hoyer says. "I'd love to find a solution to this for (this year's race)."

From the beginning, the group's goal has not been to raise money for any particular organization or cause, Hoyer says, though the group has donated more than $4,000.

"Instead, we've simply tried to put on the best event we could; an event that is run the way we think races should be. We've made sure it's affordable, fun, well-organized, challenging and sustainable, and people have responded."

Last summer, the event sold out more than two months before the race. This year, Hoyer expects it will sell out even faster. Not including the kids' races, participation has grown from 140 people to 250.

"I think one of the unique things about the race is the geographic distribution," Hoyer says. He estimates that about a fourth of the runners are from the Dubuque area, with several coming from the Quad-Cities, and slightly fewer from Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, Waterloo and Cedar Falls.

"This year, we got more participation from Des Moines and Madison, too," Hoyer says. "I think we've had runners from eight states, and this year, we had someone from Florida come up for the race."

In the first year of the race, the group received a small grant from the city of Dubuque to put together a guide to help other organizations make their races more sustainable, too, though Hoyer is unsure whether it has been used. "I have fielded questions from other area RDs (race directors) about some of the things we've done sustainability-wise, so some people are paying attention," he says.

Fees to participate in the race may be a bit higher than other races, but it's because finding a sustainable way of doing things can sometimes cost a little more.

"I think people who are involved in trail running tend to be people who support what we are trying to do," with sustainability efforts and beyond, Hoyer says. "And, that's one reason our race has become so popular. We've gotten a lot of really positive feedback, and we keep tweaking the race to try to make it better every year."

Driftless Dirt will continue its tradition with the fourth annual Mines of Spain Race in August. For more information, visit driftlessdirt.blogspot.com/p/mines-of-spain-trail-races.html.

Sara Clifton is a frequent Radish contributor.


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