I was sitting in the gate area for my flight out of Newark Airport, flipping through paperwork for that weekend's marathon, when I realized I had made a BIG GIANT MISTAKE.
The year was 2005, in the era BC (before child) and BSP (before smart phone).
I was on my way to Lincoln, Nebraska, to meet my big sister, Leslie, her boyfriend, Pat, and my dear friend and running pal Jodi. Leslie and Jodi were doing the 50 States—that is, a marathon in each of the United States—and because this was the era BC AND I had recently joined the staff of Runner’s World, I thought maybe I’d do the 50 States too. Hence the Lincoln Marathon.
[Full disclosure: Though I was on staff at RW at the time, I did all of the races mentioned herein—with one noted exception—on my own time and dime, meaning I paid for travel, accommodations, food, and race-entry fees.]
And man, was I organized! As I sat there waiting for the announcement for my flight to begin boarding, I paged through all the documents I had printed out (because this was the era BSP): Hotel reservation, car-rental reservation, menus from several vegetarian-friendly pre-race-dinner restaurant possibilities, driving directions from the airport to the expo, from the expo to the hotel, from the hotel to the starting line. Check, check, check, check.
There was only one thing missing.
I HAD FORGOTTEN TO SIGN UP FOR THE RACE.
“Flight 426 is now ready for boarding at gate A43. Please proceed to the boarding area.”
I don’t have to tell you that they provide a perfect reason and motivation to travel, a unique way to experience a location (see the sites on foot—literally!), and are especially fun if you get to go with like-minded friends.
Racing away from home also provides its own unique challenges.
(And yes, destination races are also EXPENSIVE endeavors. Once my baby girl came into my life, I dropped the idea of doing the 50 States. My sister—who is both older than me and started her family earlier than I did, meaning her kids are all grown up—went on to finish her 50th state in 2015. Jodi finished her 50 State tour in 2011. Yay!)
My destination races are all marathons because that’s how I started traveling to events, and I’m stubborn.
Yours can be a half-marathon, or a 5K for that matter. Or just go on vacation! I'm sure you need one!
FIVE GREAT DESTINATION RACES + BONUS PRO TIPS
Big Sur Marathon, Carmel, California
“What’s the most fun marathon you ever did?” my friend Rick recently asked.
FUN?? Marathons are hard.
“Well, the most SCENIC marathon I ever did was Big Sur,” I said. (Rick gets so annoyed with me for never answering a question directly.)
Dramatic, sweeping Pacific Ocean vistas. The famous Highway 1 closed to cars. Hurricane Point. A classical pianist playing on the Bixby Bridge. Ripe strawberries at mile 23.
Big Sur is also HARD. Many years ago a friend warned me to expect to add at least 20 minutes to my usual marathon time. Which is why I postponed going until I worked it for RW. (And yes, working at the Big Sur Marathon is definitely an honor and a privilege but also an exhausting challenge. BEFORE you get to the start line! I am not Bart Yasso!)
With its steep hills and potentially howling headwinds, you have to set aside hopes of a fast time or a PR—even set aside your Garmin, if you can stand it—and just revel in the experience. You’re in Big Sur! What’s the rush?
There are probably people who run fast times when they travel to races (raise your hand, please), but that person isn’t me. I need my own bed, time zone, food stuffs.
PRO TIP: Leave your hopes of setting a world record at home. Enjoy the journey!
2. Two Oceans Marathon, Cape Town, South Africa
“But wait,” said Rick. “Are you saying Big Sur is more scenic than Two Oceans Marathon?”
Oh! But Two Oceans isn’t a marathon. It’s actually 56 kilometers (or 35-ish miles).
“But they call it a marathon,” said Rick. Those crazy South Africans!
Two Oceans is actually similar to Big Sur. See dramatic ocean vistas and many steep hills. Organizers bill it as "The World's Most Beautiful Marathon." See also a 7-hour cutoff time, which works out to a 12:30 pace, which isn’t that “slow” when you’re talking 35-ish miles!
Two Oceans was on my friend Jodi’s bucket list, and when I saw that it lined up with Spring Break last year, I signed on too. (Again I must note that I did it on my own time and dime, though I was also employed, which meant the expense wasn’t quite as scary.)
Bonus: I found a three-day hiking safari in Kruger National Park to do in the first half of our trip—which I wanted my then-12-year-old to experience and I knew passionate photographer Rick would enjoy. (The race was at the end, which was perfect for adjusting to the change in time zones and diets.)
PRO TIP: Plan fun non-race-related activities to reward your traveling companions.
Speaking of scenic, St. George is run against a gorgeous, stark red-rock backdrop. It starts at 6:45 a.m., so you see the sun rise and light up the mesa in brilliant shades of red, orange and yellow with high-contrast shadows. AND it’s practically all downhill, so if you’re determined to run a fast destination marathon, this could be your best bet. In fact, this was the one marathon in my sister’s 50 states where she broke 4 hours.
Downhills punish your quads and calf muscles: Yes, I ran a Boston-qualifying time, but could barely limp a 2-mile walk around Zion National Park the next day.
Important caveat: I lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at the time, so I was traveling DOWN in altitude.
PRO TIP: If your race is at a higher altitude than where you live, manage your pace expectations (that is, SLOW DOWN) and pay particular attention to hydration.
Okay, Rick, this was probably the most “fun” marathon.
The Bordeaux Marathon runs through 23 vineyards in France, and wine is served ON THE COURSE.
Surely that is hyperbolic overstatement, I thought. No one would actually drink WINE in a marathon.
At the first aid station around the 5K mark, the ENTIRE RACE stopped at the tables to sip not Gatorade but RED WINE. In a real glass! Those crazy French runners!
Runners dress in costume. Endless bottles of red and white wine are plunked down on the tables of the pre-race dinner at Chateau Marquis de Terme in Margaux, which also features dancing till the wee hours—the night before the marathon! Sacre bleu!
PRO TIP: If you drink red wine before, during, and after a marathon, and dance until the wee hours the night before the race, after which you have a hard time finding your hotel, and as a consequence don’t get enough sleep, don’t be surprised if you set a Slowest Time Ever. Fun!
Oh, wait. I haven't actually done this one yet!
The Paris Marathon lines up with next year’s Spring Break.
It falls at the beginning of our Spring Break week, which my friends Susan and Julie, both of whom ran it last year, claim is perfect: You get the run over with early and then don’t have to feel guilty about eating all the croissants and drinking all the wine afterward.
I have my hesitations—namely, I no longer have a JOB. (Hello, diminishing bank account.)
On the other hand, my daughter will be in ninth grade, and in her last remaining pre-college years (good-bye bank account), I’d love to share EXPERIENCES with her.
On podcast 307, Sarah talked dreamily of the Paris Marathon.
Of course, couldn’t we just go to Paris without running a marathon?
Nah, said the stubborn runner.
PRO TIP: International mid-race aid stations are NOT the same as the ones in the U.S. Everything is different: sports drink, gels, even the water. Prepare your mind for that reality. Plan accordingly.
BONUS PRO TIP: Remember to sign up for the race BEFORE your flight.
How about you?
WHAT DESTINATION RACE IS ON YOUR BUCKET (OR FANTASY) LIST?