Going the Distance: Pros and Cons of Destination Races

All packed up and ready to go! Running shoes are the first thing to go in the bag.

Yeah, I know everyone’s going back to school, but I’m not ready to give up thoughts of summer vacation. Sleeping in, long days, lazy picnics, and maybe cashing in those frequent flier points. Summer always puts travel on the brain. For me, as a teacher, I like to get far away (usually far, far away) from the places of my daily grind. And as a runner, I’m not a sit-on-the-beach-all-day-with-the-latest-E.L. James-book kind of vacationer. I prefer something much more active. With the summer months being a popular time of year for many races, I’ve gotten into the habit of picking a goal race in an interesting and far-flung place to build a vacation around.

Traveling is one of my favorite things. Top of the list. My answer to the “What would you do if you won the lottery?” question. However, running is pretty high up there too. So why not just put the two things together? Shouldn’t it be the equation for a perfect race experience?

Well, turns out the answer is a little more complicated.

How can you balance the equation of determining if a destination race fits your competitor profile? Read on for some things to consider.

Earlier this summer I posted about a trip to Canada for a 15k, Cardamom just posted about her most recent runcation in Maine, and I just recently got back from a sort of runner’s convention in Poland. (OK, it was a weekend-long hashing event, but we still covered some serious milage!) So, in the jet-lag funk that accompanies any long trip, I’ve been thinking a lot about the return on investment when it comes to destination running events.

The bottom line is everything has trade-offs. I can’t argue with the numbers that show out of the five marathons I’ve run, my slowest times are from the two that were on other continents. Sure, I see traveling for running events as an excellent way to expand my membership in the global running community, but it also means that I invest less time with my local running buddies.

Go ahead and explore somewhere amazing for your next race! In Brazil, I met a fellow runner who took me up one of the surrounding mountains after our marathon. Tiring, but so worth it!
Go ahead and explore somewhere amazing for your next race! In Brazil, I met a fellow runner who took me up one of the surrounding mountains after our marathon. Tiring on sore legs, but so worth it!

I’m perhaps more flexible than most as a single woman with two months off, so each person has to make decisions based on their preferences and existing commitments. Nor am I a professional athlete whose livelihood comes from racing, but I am a competitive person. Therein lies the conundrum: I ideally want to have peak race performance when I travel, but I want to enjoy as much as I can out of a new place.

What I’ve learned is that since I prioritize the second point, I end up sacrificing the former. I won’t say that’s an unfortunate revelation, since there is so much else that is gained from challenging yourself with new places.  For example, you can still learn a lot about yourself and your mental toughness when you are on streets that don’t make sense with names you can’t pronounce, you’re hungry, AND you have to pee. See? Almost like mile 20 of your hometown marathon!

Here is a list of Pros and Cons that I’ve collected while I’ve been mulling over this whole question of “Is it worth it?”

Pros of Destination Races

  • An urban race course usually lets you see a whole lot of a new place in a short amount of time. I like to think of it as a power tour. (Put your sightseeing on steroids, not your body!)
  • Hot summer temps in the northern hemisphere mean cooler, winter temps for our neighbors in the southern hemisphere.
  • Race courses can sometimes be in places you wouldn’t normally visit as a traditional tourist. In my case, that would be the Toronto Islands or the Recreio des Bandeirantes beach outside of Rio de Janeiro.
  • Seeing friends or relatives who you may not get to visit very often.
  • Saving money on accommodations if those friends/family members let you stay with them, which is great if you’ve had to shell out big bucks for travel expenses just to get to your race location.
  • If no friends or relatives live where you’re headed, reach out to local running groups. Chances are someone might be willing to meet up with you or even put you up. Inside information on your destination is so valuable.
  • The chance that, no matter what, your body still knows what to do when the gun goes off. You will still finish the race and will be supported along the way.
  • Local beverages to celebrate with afterwards.
  • A memorable experience new feelings to associate with a spot on the map.
Celebrate your foreign race in local style!
Celebrate your foreign race in local style!

Cons of Destination Races

  • Planning all of your pre-race logistics is extra hard when you’re not on the ground.
  • Travel and time zone changes messing with your body clock and hydration levels. And it’s hard to stay loose when you’re sitting or standing in line for extended periods of time in transit.
  • Being on your feet a lot in general. You didn’t come all this way just to look at the inside of four walls, darnit. But that doesn’t make for good race prep. (I’ve found that scheduling a race towards the beginning of a trip makes for less fatigue strain on my body.)
  • Staying with friends. This is also in the cons list because being with your friend/s might mean that you stay up later than you ought to. (Not to mention that you’ll probably eat and drink more than you ought to also.)
  • If you’re traveling sans companion, there’s the added anxiety of navigating an unfamiliar place alone.

    There are enough challenges getting ready for the big race. Are you sure you want to take this one on as well?
    There are already enough challenges involved in getting ready for your big race. Are you sure you want to take something like this on as well? (Flickr Creative Commons)
  • Not staying in or near one of the big venues for other runners, may mean you miss out the convenience of race shuttles, other info, and, maybe most importantly, runner camaraderie.
  • If you are in a foreign country, you may not always have internet access, which makes planning routes around town more difficult.
  • Traveling back to where you’re staying when you are tired after a big race is always more daunting, especially if the finish line is nowhere near the start.
  • Jumping on a plane, train, or automobile for some long-haul travel soon or right after finishing is bad for recovery.
  • Going back to all the work or family responsibilities you left behind. Because even though you weren’t on a leisure vacation in the strictest sense, you weren’t exactly at a desk writing reports either.

What else would you add to either list? If you’ve never traveled more than a couple of hours for a race, what do you think would be the biggest Pro or Con you’d encounter?

A Minnesota girl living in New York City. I'm a middle school teacher (by choice!), runner, bike commuter, traveler, and general do-er of things. My next goal is to change my finally crush my marathon PR of 4:01 to under 4:00.

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  1. We traveled with our son who ran the Athens Marathon several years ago. We walked night and day around the city, travels to nearby sites, etc. and then race day was upon us and his legs were almost fried! And, he read the race map backwards so the hills were at beginning (or end, it’s been awhile), so tough to get oriented. I was glad to be spectator that day.

  2. Yeah, it’s tough when maximizing your travel experience also includes more than a light jog. I bet it was awesome for both you and him to even be in the storied birthplace of the marathon!

    Also, I keep thinking about Star and her recent Badwater experience. That takes the destination racing idea to a whole new level. Respect, girl!