Mega Events

The Chicago Marathon Plays the Long Game on Climate


More than 45,500 runners competed in the 2019 Bank of America Chicago Marathon on October 13, making it the largest field in the 42-year-old race’s history.

Mike Nishi, the event’s General Manager, has helped lead a multi-year environmental effort that has resulted in the event earning Evergreen Inspire certification from the Council for Responsible Sport.

GreenSportsBlog spoke with Nishi before this year’s race about the genesis of the sustainability program, how climate change fits in and more.


Saying that Mike Nishi has had an almost lifelong love affair with the Bank of America Chicago Marathon is not hyperbole.

“I ran the Chicago Marathon in 1979 when I was 13 years old,” the event’s GM shared. “This was before there were age limits. I ran it in 4:25.”

Nishi worked as an intern throughout high school before becoming a full time employee in 1989.


Michael Nishi (Photo credit: Bank of America Chicago Marathon)


In the early 90s, Nishi along with Carey Pinkowski, the executive race director of the event, helped to attract additional revenue into the event by selling event sponsorships and media rights. That led LaSalle Bank to sign on as title sponsor in 1994 — Bank of America became the Chicago Marathon’s title sponsor when it acquired LaSalle Bank in 2007. Moves like these were key to placing the race on a steady and positive trajectory.

“The 2018 Bank of America Chicago Marathon had 44,600 runners,” Nishi noted. “We are now one of the largest marathons in the world.”

The event’s environmental initiatives began more than a decade ago, a natural outgrowth of its mission to create unforgettable experiences while inspiring people to give back to the Chicagoland region. Nishi and his team teamed up with the Council for Responsible Sport to deliver a closed loop sustainability program that goes far beyond Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

What does closed loop actually mean? An “open loop” is linear consumption, producing waste for which there is no use. By diverting waste from the landfill and turning the waste into materials and products that can be used in a new capacity, we are creating a “closed loop”.

“Let’s look at our compostable cups program, which started in 2016 as an example” suggested Nishi. “We brought the cups and other organic waste to Nature’s Little Recyclers, a local commercial worm farm. The finished compost was donated to Chicago-area parks and gardens. In 2018, we donated one metric tonne of enriched compost. And then 20 of our team members volunteered with the community gardens to add the compost to the soil.”

Heatsheets — the LDPE (low density polyethylene) blankets in which marathoners encase themselves after crossing the finish line in Grant Park — provided another opportunity to close the loop.

Trex, an alternative decking material company, recycles Heatsheets through its innovative Blankets to Boards program,” Nishi said. “They combine the sheets with sawdust to make decking, benches and other products that they then sell to contractors. We bought benches and donated them to community partners.”


Heatsheets used at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon will be upcycled into decking and benches through the “Blankets to Boards” program (Photo credit: Bank of America Chicago Marathon)


The many thousands of water bottles that are distributed at the finish line are not merely recycled. Instead, through closed loop magic, they become the raw materials for Bottles to Fabric. The Zero waste station tents and signage used throughout Grant Park are made from 100 percent recycled plastic bottles.

Despite earning the Council for Responsible Sport’s highest certification level — Evergreen Inspire— in 2018, the ex-marathoner who always strove to improve his time is far from satisfied.

“We are always looking for ways to better educate our runners on our sustainability initiatives,” said Nishi. “Our goal has always been to make our event more sustainable, but also provide our stakeholders with information and tools that they can bring back into their own communities.”

With that goal in mind, this year’s Abbott Health & Fitness Expo featured an interactive activation, encouraging the public to learn more about the marathon’s sustainability initiatives. Race week communications encouraged volunteers to bring their own water bottle and use the event-provided water filling stations.


Shelley Villalobos (r) of the Council For Responsible Sport at the sustainability booth at the Abbott Health & Fitness Expo in advance of the Bank of America Chicago Marathon (Photo credit: Bank of America Chicago Marathon)


The marathon is also upping its game on climate change this year. As an early signatory to the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework, it is committed to driving climate awareness and action among global citizens.

“Runners will soon be able to purchase carbon offsets as part of registration,” Nishi said. “Our goal for the future is to bring a ‘closed loop’ approach to our offset initiative by linking them to a tree planting program.”


GSB’s Take: The Bank of America Chicago Marathon’s closed loop approach to environmental initiatives is certainly exemplary. But it was Mike Nishi’s desire to do better on communicating the event’s greenness to as broad an audience as possible and to go bigger on climate that got my attention.

This shows that the Chicago Marathon has made the pivot from Green-Sports 1.0 — recycling, unused food donation, etc. — to Green-Sports 2.0 — engaging fans and, in this case, runners, on environmental issues, including climate change.

Adding a voluntary carbon offset purchase to the registration process next year will be a great step. But Nishi can up their offset game even further.

Here, free of charge, are some ideas from GSB:

  1. Fund an offset purchase for every runner.
  2. Provide discounted or free registration to runners if they get commitments for offset buys from their friends and family at an agreed upon dollar level
  3. Encourage Chicago Marathon viewers and attendees to purchase offsets via a PSA campaign in the run-up to the event and during the race broadcast.

And because getting Green-Sports stories to fans who don’t go to the events is massively important, GSB envisions a Marathon for the Planet Telethon hosted by Chicago luminaries as well 2019 winners, Kenya’s Lawrence Cherono and new women’s world record holder Brigid Kosgei.



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