Zero Plastic Ultra Distance at the Pan Celtic Race

Taylor Doyle (she/her) is an ultra racer and founder of the Ultra Distance Scholarship, an initiative increasing diversity and representation within ultra distance cycling and racing. She is a self-proclaimed ‘make-things-happen’ person at the socially conscious bike-builder Stayer Cycles, and always riding her beloved UG. Taylor is passionate about sharing the joys of ultra distance cycling with as many folks as humanly possible and is particularly invested in encouraging and supporting more women/non-binary folks and people of colour to try the sport. Taylor is a Canadian writer and photographer currently loose in the UK, living nomadically and turning up at most UK-based bikepacking events and happenings. After getting frustrated by the amount of single-use plastic she was generating during her first ultra race, she decided to come back the following year and try things differently…

Waste and Haste

I don’t need to take too much time to say how amazing the ultra cycling community is.

It was only last year that I completed my first-ever ultra race. I love acknowledging this, especially to folks who are just getting into ultra distance and think I am more experienced than I am. It was the hardest thing I have ever done. It was amazing, life-changing, body crumbling, and gave me a confidence boost that permeated other areas of my life.

I learnt stuff about myself that I didn’t even know I needed to learn.

It was unforgettable, and undoubtedly helped me find my way to this present moment, and as you can tell I am certainly enthusiastic about that journey and those folk who have accompanied it. The ultra community is a weird and wonderful place, where all of the misfits hang out, and I couldn’t be happier to have found what feels like family there.

I’ll stop being sentimental now,* because…

I want to talk about food

and Ultra Distance.


and buying shit,

and waste,

and haste.

And what moving through a landscape as quickly as possible means in this context.


In short, last year, while riding the 2021 Pan Celtic Race – a 2,000 km ultra race through celtic nations – I was seriously troubled by the sheer mountains of trash I was generating at every gas station or grocery store refuel stop, like, multiple times a day. In the thick of it, I promised myself I would do something about this if I ever decided to do anything like it again.

Yes, yes, yes, I know. One consumer cannot change a broken system and we can’t live under crippling eco-guilt on our individual shoulders.

But the copious amounts of single-use plastic I was generating while racing did make me ask myself what it was about riding a bicycle as far and as fast as I could that all of a sudden made me an unconscious consumer, in a way that I wouldn’t be if I wasn’t in race mode.

Racing a bicycle – a super special object that could truly and viably save the world – in what could be described as a potentially unconscious and at times positively delirious way i.e. as quickly as possible, at all costs – got me thinking about the ultra community, and care; ultimately for each other and by extension our environments and the spaces that we love to roll our wheels through.

And so a year later I decided to attempt to ride the 2022 Pan Celtic Race again (the route changes every year), but this time single-use plastic free. What follows are notes from my experience. The shortcomings, and lessons, from the idea, turned experiment, planted in my head a year ago, while throwing out armfulls of trash at a roadside gas station somewhere in Wales.

Planning and Rules

I knew that I had to lay out some rules for myself. I had multiple friends joke about the prospect of me carrying my own $h!t whenever I referred to the idea as ‘zero-waste’. Thanks guys. Of course, this wasn’t wholly zero-waste, like, would that mean no band-aids or toilet paper? I needed to refine my language, and narrow in on what the goal was. I arrived at the goal of being food-based and all about single-use plastic.

Here were my basic rules:

– No buying food or drink products which would result in me needing to dispose of any single-use plastic.
– ‘Recyclable’ single-use plastic is also not allowed.
– No buying plastic water bottles, obviously.
– Aluminum cans are allowed as long as they are properly recycled or carried until proper recycling can be ensured.
– Paper is allowed
– Restaurant and pub food stops are allowed but again, no personally generated plastic waste ie: ketchup packets, plastic cutlery, etc.
– Any accidental or otherwise unavoidable plastic waste generated must be carried in the ‘shame bin’ to the finish line.


I took 32 bars and 32 nut butter sachets from the cool people at Outdoor Provisions. This made for 2.4 kg of OP snackage alone. Other very reputable nut butters are of course available but I chose OP as their packaging is 100% home-compostable so I would carry the empty carcasses to the end and compost them properly at home. After a trip to my local zero-waste refill shop, other snacks included about 1 kg of DIY trail mixes involving cashews, almonds, peanuts, dates, figs, raisins, and vegan chocolate, and about 300 grams of gummy candy, all stored in various reused plastic bags that I already had saved in my house from things like gluten-free bread and bags from past bikepacking gear product deliveries.

The big experiment for me was that I decided to jump head-first into the world of home dehydration. This seemed to be the only way to guarantee not to generate plastic waste with every meal. I borrowed a dehydrator from a friend and the week before the start of the race I turned my kitchen into a small factory ending up with 17 meals worth of dry, nuggety niblets weighing in at 3.1 kg. I had three different tasty vegan meals, one rice-based, one quinoa, and one lentil. This, plus the 1 kg of fruits and nuts made for two completely stuffed fork packs just for food, and not including bars or butters. My plan was stoveless rehydration. I first experimented with this while riding the HT550 race back in June and found it to be a success. I used a classic Stanley food jar and would cover one meal portion with water in the morning and it would be ready in time for lunch. I would repeat the same at lunch and it would be waiting for me at dinner. Really you only need an hour or two of rehydration time before you are ready to dig in so it was pretty flexible. It’s a process I have tried, tested and gotten used to, and more to the point, think is an effective ultra distance food strategy and recommend you give it a go. Think of it as eating some yummy leftovers straight from the fridge.

Now for water. People are always interested in this topic. To be perfectly honest, and to some of my bikepacking buds’ annoyance, I made a rule for myself a long time ago to never buy water unless you are in an area where it is advised to do so. I’ve been adhering to it since I was 16. This means that I always ride a bike this way, and find it really easy. You get used to it, and if finding water from a tap is, as a rule, how you obtain water, then generally you figure it out. The way I see it, pretty much anywhere that sells water will most likely have a toilet with a sink where you can fill up. I’ve also gotten really good at scouting the sides of buildings, village halls, community centers, libraries, churches, gas stations, and grocery stores for taps from a distance. Most pubs in the UK will happily fill up your bottles for you, and most churchyards and graveyards have water taps somewhere on the grounds for watering purposes. I’ve also asked folks who happen to be out watering their gardens if they could turn their hose pipe to my bottles. When out in more wild pastures, there is generally an abundance of streams, lakes, rivers, ponds, or puddles in most parts of the UK which can be filtered from. And so, for water I carried a 0.6 L Katadyn BeFree water filter bottle and 2.5 L of additional water in the form of one Nalgene bottle and two 750 ml bottles.

Day-to-day Realties; Are You Like, Allergic?

“Are you like, allergic?” the nice woman behind the ice cream counter asked in her charming Irish accent. “Haha! Oh I’m sorry, no, I’m just doing this stupid project, don’t worry” I managed to say, after gracelessly asking a series of disjointed questions through heat exhaustion and sleep deprivation, about what their blended milkshakes were served in, if they had lids, whether they were plastic, and if they normally came with a plastic spoon, trying to communicate that I just couldn’t have plastic and had my own spork.

This was one of many clunky interactions I had with shopkeepers and cashiers. It’s bad enough to be that person being difficult, when there is a line, and it’s busy, but it is even worse when you have a half working brain. I walked back out into the hot parking lot to enjoy some ice cream. I looked down into my treat and saw a plastic spoon after all of that trouble. Damn. They had definitely stuck it in there by accident and probably just from muscle memory. It was my first addition to the shame bin, and I’d have to carry it to the finish. I wondered what else would end up in there.

I originally thought I’d be really cool and use The Zero Waste Directory of Ireland to dictate my stops and refill on goods. But this is where the reality of the ultra distance race kicks in. Perhaps I couldn’t be arsed, as my British pals would say but I must admit, I either found myself feeling like I didn’t have time or I wasn’t quite organized enough and there were other solutions available. Honestly it didn’t fit into my race and the point of this endeavor was to go plastic-free but still race and so therefore the directory as excellent a resource as it is was ignored and bananas, avocados, and bread, all more widely available than zero-waste shopping locations, became staples. I would carry my naked loaf of bread, or whatever, to the shop counter to pay and then bundle it in a beeswax wrap to go straight into my rear pack. And since I had an obnoxious amount of peanut butter sachets, PB and banana sandwiches became a regular breakfast. Between my rehydrated delicacies, I munched countless OP bars and had copious amounts of Coke and Red Bull. Crushed aluminum cans quickly filled up my bags, rattling around and reminding me that I needed to find a legit recycling bin. I would lose track of where I had stuffed many of them, and a significant pile ended up being carried right to the finish. I also had occasional cafe and pub stops, pausing for a good coffee, a pint or two of soda and lime, or a giant plate of food.

Unconscious Bag ‘o Chips

I let out a huge and sincere gasp. “Oh no!” I whispered under my breath, definitely louder than I thought as heads turned to see what the matter was. I instantly laughed at myself, palm to face, exposing my unhinged state. I had just bought a bag of chips (crisps!) at this cafe, along with a long awaited flat white in a ceramic cup and a plate of cake. Without any thought, and completely forgetting my initiative for a moment, I picked up a bag of salt and vinegar chips from a basket beside the till, salivating at the thought of savory goodness. It was that easy to add to the shame bin, and became shame bin item #2.

News travels fast in this niche corner of the cycling world. Most riders I encountered throughout the route had already heard about my zero-plastic racing strategy. “Oh, it’s you doing that! That’s crazy!” was more or less the standard comment. It was mostly the extra weight that astounded people. That, and the voluntary limitations on food options. I kept joking that actually there was a psychological and physical advantage because I knew I was only getting lighter the more I consumed and the further I traveled. By the end of the race and as my stores depleted, I was riding with nearly empty fork packs, which were one stuffed to the brim. In reality, the 2022 Pan Celtic Race was roughly 500 kms longer than last year’s route, and I finished it only an hour and a half later. What I’m saying is this way of riding didn’t really hold me back. It was also the way in which I wanted to be riding. If anything it massively reduced my stopping time because I already had what I needed, ready to eat. I was absolutely still ‘racing’ and ended up coming joint second place in the women’s field alongside one of my best friends and competitors, Tamzin Dewar (we held hands to cross the finish line, it was pretty cute).

In the End

It was the conversations I had along the way which at the time made this project the most fulfilling for me. I told people the honest truth: that it was easier than I thought. Yes there were times when a shop had such little selection that all that was available to me there were cans of pop. In these moments I had backup options and it was really only for variety that I had wanted to stop. Yes there were times of exhausted grumpiness in which I bemoaned the project and wished it away, but this would have happened no matter what circumstance I found myself in. I’m pretty good at eating the same thing over and over again, but one thing that I did run out of was candy. I eat a lot of candy on ultra races so this was to some degree an inconvenience. I came across a couple ‘pick ‘n mix’ bulk candy stations along the way though, and at these I excitedly filled whatever containers I had. My candy stores refreshed and ready to supply vital sugar hits. In the end, I have decided that I will continue to race ultras in this way, and ended up buying the borrowed dehydrator off of my friend.

The Shame Bin

So, here it is. The shame bin revealed. What you are looking at is:

– 1 bag of chips (crisps!) – purchased by accident
– 1 plastic spoon – acquired by accident
– 1 plastic lid – acquired by accident with an English breakfast served in a paper bowl
– 2 plastic wrappers – unexpectedly housing candy bought in a paper box

Since finishing the race, I have realized that there should have been a few additions to this in the form of having some cups of coffee and ice creams in paper cups which I thought were okay but I now know are lined with a very thin layer of plastic (making up to 5% of the cup).

This is Possible

Ultra racing is one of the more all-consuming sports out there. Most people who begin an ultra race have had it in their calendar for the last year. It is all about planning. Planning your strategy, your time, your fuel, sleep, and riding patterns day in and day out, and into the night. I’ve seen the most detailed, laminated, backup maps, with all refuel supply points listed, shelters, accommodations, and bail-out points researched and included, neatly tucked away into a handlebar bag on many a start line. I certainly do not race to this level of planning and organization, but many do. Even a more spontaneous and ‘follow your nose’ approach to ultra (definitely more my vibe) still requires a boat load of time and attention, travel scheduling, work arrangements, gear sorting and acquisition, financial commitment, and an acute awareness of the essentials; food and water levels, and where you can go next for more. Adding a dedicated recognition of our environment, and what we are leaving behind as we do all of these things, is totally possible, and it doesn’t have to be perfect. I raced this way as an exercise for myself – to see if I could. To satisfy the racer I was last year, frustrated by my consumption and preoccupation with racing over things I cared about. Ultimately, and if nothing else, caring feels good. It is also by going through these motions in real life, not only in theory, that you learn about how they actually work, how they feel, and what comes up when navigating a beloved sport with these issues in mind. The logistics of riding plastic-free are so much more imaginable in my head now. If I made even one person who came across the project think differently about the realities of ultra racing and waste, it was even more worth it.

Shortly after I finished, Paul Wainright, the overall winner of this year’s race, a father, and a bloody strong rider, pulled me aside for a chat (you can read an intimate recount of his impressive race here). He said that he had been thinking about my project while on the road, and judging by his heartfelt words, I could feel his genuineness. He said that early on in his race he too became conscious of the plastic he was buying just to fill his bottles – so he stopped. He told me he even reused plastic bottles he had purchased on day one for extra water for the rest of the race, and was happy to report he was never refused water anywhere he asked. This may seem like a small thing, but this modest conversation, especially from such a focused and serious racer was enough for me. Thanks Paul :)



The 2022 Pan Celtic Race film, The Clan, premieres online today and features Taylor and her zero plastic attempt!