Written by Darren Smith aka @RunnersKnees
As a large number of UKRunChatters are reaching their taper time ahead of the Berlin Marathon I thought I would share a few experiences of running abroad, something that is often overlooked when planning a decent race calendar, I think, given how close we are to Europe, and how many cheap airlines and booking websites have made it easy to go there for a weekend.
With some UK races charging anything up to £50 for entry alone, adding travel and hotel costs for those a little trickier to get to, it could be worth looking to Europe for a weekends racing. For example I considered the Wales Marathon last year in Tenby, but when taking into consideration trains, hotel, food and the race, it would have been a lot cheaper and a hell of a lot quicker to head onto the continent. Also, think of it like this, a 3 day weekend somewhere fun, a City Break if you like, in Prague, Zurich, Seville, Marseille, etc with a few hours running on one of those mornings, can still be a family/couples getaway for the rest of the time.
And consider the marathons. You want to run London but unless in the Good for Age category or one of the lucky souls to get in the ballot, you are being asked to raise thousands for charity for the chance to run. Outside of a few, for most major European marathons there is no ballot, there is no need to clamour for charity places, you can just pay for entry. Now, do not get me wrong about the charity places, as many of you who know me will know I spend an awful lot of my time raising money for Pancreatic Cancer UK, Parkinsons UK, Help for Heroes, the RAF Benevolent fund to name but a few, but sometimes I just want to race.
It is quite simple really; most big cities in the UK have a dozen 10ks, certainly a handful of halves and one, maybe two, marathons each year. European cities are no exception. Now the problem, I guess, is exposure to those race calendars. When looking for races in the UK I go to the Runners World events Section or look at the Running Bug. For further afield you need to take a look at Ahotu or Marathoner Runners Diary for lists. You can Google. I often think about places where I want to visit, and then just Google to see if there is a half marathon there and, if there is, when.
I like to do it that way. I always tend to book a hotel on one site, and a flight on another rather than get a package deal. And booking a race is no different for me. I find a race, book it first, then use Booking.com on a Book Now Pay Later deal to find a decent hotel near to the start, and then cheap flights. You can also get a package and there are plenty of companies happy to book the whole shebang for you such as 2:09 Events which can always be good for races further afield. They also often have deals for those difficult to get into races such a Boston and New York, so check them out if you can.
My personal experience of racing abroad started pretty early in my running life, so that is why I always see it as a calendar option and advocate stretching the legs out in Europe at least to every runner I speak to. An overseas race is fun, and as an experience is something I cannot recommend highly enough.
My first overseas race was the Amsterdam Half Marathon in 2012 and it was superb. Other than when going through Passport Control when the Customs Official asked me why I just landed in Schiphol, to which I replied I was running, to which he asked how long I would take, and when I said about 2 hours as I was just running the half he handed my passport back and, in a tone dripping with disappointment, said “ah, the lazy marathon.”
Going to the EXPO for the race packs as a group, seeing people I knew there and then going out in the city in the build-up was a great experience. Racing through cities in another country is special too. The street signs, the sights, are all foreign to you. Come to think of it so are the foreign language email updates you get and cannot understand, but that all adds to the experience.
Normally the bling is unlike anything already sitting on the rack, or in the drawer, or hanging on the door handle, wherever anyone else keeps their medals. The NC Half had a huge medal that lit up and like the starting lights at NASCAR, Disney was the size of a dinner plate, the Rock and Rolls were all Rock and Roll themed, Paris was nice, Luxembourg was a lovely coat of arms and Amsterdam had a brass oval, although I was not a fan of that particular race starting after lunch. It really did throw my eating off.
That is something to consider too: Time. The Luxembourg Night Marathon, one of my favourite overseas races is, well, at night. It started at 7:30pm I think. When you run the Wine and Dine Half Marathon at the Disney Park in Florida it starts at 10:30pm. Why? Well, it makes sense to them. They do not want to lose the revenue of people at the park, so do it after it has closed. The Disney bling is extraordinary although you will be a little shocked to discover that at the EXPO you can just buy the medals. Much as that is alien to us, the race experience is also out of this world, with photographers every mile standing to capture you with one of the many Disney characters ready to generate even more money for the empire. I say the “empire” because when I ran it was just after Disney obtained the rights to Star Wars and so you would leave Magic Kingdom, or whatever kingdom it was, and there was Darth Vader and a platoon of Stormtroopers ready for race photos with the runners. It is one of the little things you go there for, and something you will never forget.
Not so fun is the insistence of French and Italian races that you have a signed and stamped Doctors letter handed in before you get your bib. And they will not let you race without it. I am sure it is a national requirement to do with insurance claims or something of the like, but when your doctor charges you £40, and it needs to be very specific wording, it can be a pain. The Semi De Paris is kind enough to give you the wording that is required on their site, and you need to just ask your healthcare professional to sign and stamp it. I didn’t make the Roma Ostia or Milan Marathon due to double bookings and other such nonsense, so I did not go as far for them, although it is stipulated on the websites you need a certificate too.
You should also consider special insurance for any incident that you experience from cancellation to, heaven forbid, injury. But that all comes down to how prudent you are.
So where have I run, where would I recommend and where do I plan to run next?
The biggie for me was the Two Oceans marathon weekend in Cape Town. I was lucky enough to be one of the bloggers for that race, and ambassador so ended up meeting the organisers who were all very keen on spreading the word to the rest of the world. This was a superb weekend of runs, including a trail run, a half, kids mini marathon series, fun runs, and an international friendship run (this year taken around by legend Haile Gebreselassie) for all the foreign runners who get to run around the Cape Town waterfront for 5K carrying their national flag, something we don’t get to do every day. Although I ended up running with the Maltese flag, but we won’t go into that. I went to the EXPO two days before and by the time I got back to Fresnaye and the pool I had seen a dozen people in the race tees. It was a really big deal for the city to have all these runners there. Although being in South Africa it wasn’t a weekend away.
I have run in Paris, although the Semi De Paris route is out east and you do not see any of the big tourist sites that you do when you run the marathon. Amsterdam was fun, although the half is after the full so you are running around lunchtime. And how do you plan your eating for that? Luxembourg Night marathon was superb. I loved the Expo, the support was great (a sea of orange with everything sponsored by ING), and the route took in the whole city. It would be the one European race I would recommend above the others. Dublin can be hit and miss depending on the race, I liked the Rock and Roll route although it ends way out of the city but you need to get a packed bus back to your hotel. Edinburgh was mostly out of the city along the seafront and through the parkland between it and the city, so less fun. It was also cancelled due to poor support, but personally I believe it was because they tried to add a 10K and there were not enough people to sign up for both.
Disney. Now that was an experience, although it did feel like I was getting fleeced when you have to pay park entry for your guests at full price, despite most of the park not being open, and next year in September 2016 Disneyland Paris gets its first weekend of races. I say weekend as they milk it, and you have chances of a sweet set of bling for a 5K, 10K, half, full, and fun runs. All of which, as I have mentioned, you can just buy at the EXPO instead. I ran the Wine and Dine race on my second Runcation to the US. On the first I ran two very different races in 6 days, first at the inaugural North Carolina Half Marathon around a NASCAR arena in 5 inches of icy water and hail, and then through the humid streets of New Orleans, where a guy was selling water for $1 a cup, but where beer was offered free. And all of them start with a very solemn rendition of the national anthem, caps off, hands on heart. Again, an experience.
Where next for me?
After Berlin has come and gone I am running the Copenhagen Marathon in the spring and then the Swiss City Marathon in the Autumn (that is a deferral from this year) with the latter being classed as “Europe’s most beautiful marathon.” And will be going back to Cape Town to run the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon, just to one-up Lucerne by being the “World’s most beautiful marathon.” I am seriously considering the Barbados Marathon/Half in December. Who says I can’t run on rum alone? But I am happy to go anywhere.
There is a marathon, for example, along the Great Wall of China. How cool is that? The City to Surf in Sydney is very popular, although not quite so easy for a 3 day weekend away. The Rock and Roll series that I have run three of now (Dublin, Edinburgh, Liverpool) has a race in Lisbon and Madrid, both very easily in reach for a weekender, and both cheap cities to spend time in.
If I had a bucket list of overseas races if would include Comrades, MDS, but also the Fjords Half in Bergen and, if they start holding it again, the Petra Marathon. The Zermatt Marathon is up the mountains of the Swiss Alps. Maui is just stunningly beautiful. And what about the Midnight races in Reykjavik and Tromso? They are all great experiences. https://www.datasport.com/en/ has most of the Euro races. Sign up for their newsletter. It is eye opening.
In summary, running abroad is a great fun, especially done as part of a group, and will not break the bank as much as you think it would, certainly not as much as heading down to London for similar and, if you look now and book in advance, you really can find your ancient city, surf, midnight, fjords, amazing coastline, or whatever it is you want from your race. And the memories will last a lifetime.