Atlantic Cities

The World's Messiest 5K Race

The World's Messiest 5K Race
Alex Briseño/Flickr

In what's been dubbed the "Happiest 5K on the Planet," participants start with white t-shirts and finish looking like a rainbow. Running is entirely optional, but charging through thousands of pounds of colored powder is a must.

This is the Color Run, an un-timed 5-kilometer "race" that began in 2012, has since taken place in over 130 cities, and is now rapidly expanding into Europe and Asia. There are plenty of reasons for cities to embrace it. Each run averages about 10,000 participants, and can serve as a valuable platform to boost local business and promote active lifestyles.

But for host cities, part of the Color Run's "magic" is also a promise by organizers to leave behind no trace after a race that looks like this:


A scene from the Color Run in Singapore this past August. (Edgar Su/Reuters)

With an average registration fee of $50 per person, the for-profit company Color Run pays all the costs of producing each event (which, including venue and material costs, off-duty police officers, emergency medical technicians, and a cleaning crew, can be in the six-figures) and then donates a small percentage of its proceeds to each race's local charity partner (the size of that donation has not gone without controversy).

Typically, each kilometer of the race is associated with a designated color. As runners pass through these "Color Zones," they’re doused head to toe in powder by volunteer "color throwers." At the finish line is a wild "Finish Festival," where participants collectively explode their own packs of colored powder, creating the massive color "clouds" the race is known for.

After the race, streets are left topped with a thick layer of colored dust. While the powder is just dyed cornstarch, it nevertheless leaves behind a challenging combination of dry dust (which pedestrians and traffic kick up), and wet dust (which stains pavements and gutters). The clean-up job after a 2012 race in Atlanta took 25 workers and four pressure washers.


A scene from the aftermath of a Color Run race in Atlanta in 2012. (Courtesy of AC Sweepers & Maintenance Inc.)

And sometimes, that's still not enough.

In September, a Color Run in Bogotá, Colombia, sparked social media outrage for the mess it left behind — colored powder could still be seen more than 24 hours after the race. According to El Espectador, which published telling photos of the race's aftermath, the cleaning company hired for the job grossly underestimated the scale of the mess. It had to dispatch an additional 22 workers after its initial crew of 8. 

Later that same month, a Color Run race and an earlier event by competitor Color Me Rad were both held in the same riverside park in Taipei, Taiwan. The races turned problematic after Color Run organizers were found sweeping colored powder directly into the Keelung River. Images depicting the improper clean-up gained attention online and in local media


Aftermath of the Color Me Rad race (top two images) and Color Run race (third image) in Taipei. (Images courtesy accreteart.) 

As a result, Taipei’s Department of Environmental Protection fined the Color Run's Taiwan organizer NT$70,000 (roughly $2,400) for causing river pollution. Concerned about runoff into the river, Environmental Protection Administration Minister Stephen Sheng said the agency will work with the local government to regulate similar events in the future.

Both the Bogotá and Taipei races were organized by local groups under licensee agreements. A Color Run spokesperson says the company plans to work more closely with licensees to ensure future events meet their standards. According to the Bogotá race organizer, poor coordination with the local government also hindered clean-up efforts.

Color Runs in the U.S. haven't had these particular problems, though there are occasional complaints of the clean-up process taking too long or the colored powder staining private property. For U.S. cities, many of which already have strong marathon and "fun run" cultures, the bigger headache is accommodating the rise of so many themed, for-profit races.
 
Events like the Electric Run, Blacklight Run, and Glow Run are all expanding across the country. In Raleigh, North Carolina, the proliferation of such runs is forcing the city to rethink its approach toward road races.
 
A resident recently emailed city Councilman Russ Stephenson, asking why the Rock 'n’ Roll Run (a for-profit event held in nearly 30 U.S. cities) will get a more prominent route than a longstanding, local marathon. Stephenson says that concern is becoming more common. After some complaints about a recent Color Run in Raleigh, the City Council is debating whether to put City Hall in charge of reviewing road race applications, instead of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, a nonprofit that plans events downtown.


"The concern is that their perspective is not as broad as it needs to be in analyzing the pros and cons of hosting the events," Stephenson says. New road races, like food trucks, are all part of the city’s growing pains and will require extensive coordination among everyone involved.

"You can't predict one set of rules that will take care of any new idea," he says.
 
Top image by Alex Briseño on Flickr

Jenny Xie is a fellow at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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