In 2012, shortly after crossing the finish line of the Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Half Marathon, Laurel Butterfield filled up on oysters and bloody marys. It was Butterfield’s first out-of-town race — and her first time in the Big Easy — and her strategy was simple: “I’ll commit two hours or less to running around. I’ll get to see interesting parts of the city, and then when I’m done, I will eat everything in the city and have a great time.”
Around the world in 26.2 miles
The communications executive, who relocated to Belgium from Chicago during the pandemic, met friends in Valencia, Spain, last year to run the marathon and has plans to run the Marathon du Médoc in September. During a stint in Japan, Butterfield flew to Seoul to run the marathon and spend a long weekend in South Korea.
Runners who love to travel — and travelers who love to run — have been getting passports stamped and bucket lists checked one race at a time. For many, the destination race serves as an impetus to travel somewhere new and stick with a training regimen.
The first time I ever set foot in Vermont was ostensibly to run the 2012 Mad Half, but even though I somehow placed third in my age group (I credit the small field of participants), I didn’t care so much about my performance in the 13.1 miles as I did about visiting the Green Mountain State.
Though I’ve yet to race internationally, since the Vermont half, I’ve run marathons in Duluth, Minn.; Pittsburgh; Los Angeles; and Corning, N.Y., along with roughly 50 half-marathons around the country. For me, post-race indulgence — local beer is almost always on the menu — and bragging rights (after all, it’s kind of cool to run a marathon outside your hometown) were part of the charm, more so when the BQ (Boston qualifier) I’d been chasing eluded me time and time again.
Alisa Cohen, founder of Luxe Traveler Club, a boutique travel agency, said that most of her marathon-traveling clients are novice runners who like the athletic component such a vacation affords. Planning a trip around a destination race “adds to the whole excitement of marathon training,” and is a great way to see a city and build a trip around it, Cohen said, noting that Paris has become a popular destination in this regard.
Spencer Farrar’s first international race, in Scotland in 2006, hooked him on race travel. (“I had a little interest in bagpipes at the time.”) “A lot of my races are quite honestly determined based upon location,” said Farrar, who works for a private equity firm and splits his time between Hawaii and New York City. More and more, he said, the majority of his travel is running-related.
Farrar’s favorite race destination is South Africa, where he has run the Comrades Marathon (an ultra) nine times and is about to run his 10th later this summer. The itinerary changes with each visit, although Farrar said he’s planning to stay in Cape Town again, one of his favorite cities, which he called a “foodie paradise,” before venturing to wine country.
Two of New York attorney Ruth Gursky’s most memorable race travel experiences took place in Sydney and Amsterdam, respectively. As a participant of the Gay Games, a sports and cultural event on a mission to promote equality, Gursky made these events part of a larger plan to discover different cities. “It’s fun to meet other athletes from other countries and visit new countries. I never would have gotten to Sydney, otherwise. It’s a long trip,” Gursky said.
David Killian, officer of site selection for the Federation of Gay Games, said a lot goes into choosing the Games’ location. In addition to ample city support and the ability to put on the games, Killian said, “having the right destination is an important part of it.” Although the organization is not so concerned about whether the location meets the vacation criteria of participants, Killian said, “it’s been pretty hard to get people from all over the world excited about going to a small city.”
Doug Thurston, race director of Big Sur International Marathon, which draws runners from more than two dozen countries and all 50 states, said “building in running as kind of part of your vacation experience is more popular than ever.” Citing the growth of marathons in Southeast Asia, Thurston said that “now you can build an international travel destination bucket list of nothing but cities and marathons in all these cities.”
Most established big-city marathons — New York, Boston, Houston, Chicago, Berlin, Tokyo, London — take participants on a 26.2-mile tour of the city’s streets. Local restaurants will often rally behind runners, offering special pre- or post-race meals, and the communities tend to be supportive, coming out to cheer and hold signs with phrases such as, “Smile. You paid for this,” and, “This is a lot of work for a free banana,” designed to make runners smile through the miles and, often, the pain.
But it’s not just the world’s biggest cities that runners are flocking to. Some of Big Sur’s participants and their accompanying families treat the race, which takes place every April on Highway 1, as their California vacation, injecting “millions and millions of dollars into tourism,” Thurston said. Houston First’s chief executive, Michael Heckman, echoes this sentiment in speaking about the Chevron Houston Marathon: “Signature events like these provide tremendous value to the city and local economy — particularly for nearby hotels, dining and entertainment establishments along the course, and even car-share drivers.”
One of Alaska’s signature events, the Mayor’s Midnight Sun Marathon, propelled Sally Pont to sign up and start training again. The D.C.-based college counselor’s first 26.2 miles was the Philadelphia Marathon in the early aughts. Pont, who was attending graduate school at Penn State, about three hours away, said the race “wasn’t an excursion per se, but the experience of going through the whole city and then ending at the museum made me realize how the marathon was about so much more than running.”
“If I was going to do another marathon, I was going to do something cool,” Pont said of the 2003 marathon in Anchorage, where she tacked on a few extra days to enjoy a blues festival in Denali National Park and a seaplane ride out to a glacier.
Madeleine Fontillas Ronk, a sea glass artist who lives with her family in the Los Angeles area, similarly jumped at the chance to travel to Cuba in 2017 to participate in the Havana Triathlon. “We just thought we should do it now, because who knows?” Fontillas Ronk said, noting that they used a travel agent to make all of the arrangements, given Cuba’s stringent travel restrictions. While Fontillas Ronk and her daughter focused on the prerace activities and the race itself, Fontillas Ronk’s husband joined other runners’ family members on a tour to museums and art galleries.
Cuba isn’t the only destination where using a travel planner’s expertise can help eliminate the stress of planning to run the distance on foreign soil. Since 1979, Marathon Tours & Travel has been partnering with races around the world and assisting runners with land-based logistics, including race registration.
“It’s really morphed into this great group of motivated individuals who, of course, have the passion not only for running, but traveling and visiting different destinations around the globe,” said Karen Hoch, who’s been on staff for more than seven years.
Butterfield calls the race the appetizer of the trip. “Obviously, you can’t explore every single corner and neighborhood of a city, but the race gives you a map of the city,” she said. The course itself gives the seasoned runner an idea of what she wants to explore in the days following the race. The race, Butterfield said, is “the thing that whets your appetite.”
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.