Marathon tourism proves just the ticket
The Great Wall in China is probably the hardest and Beaujolais the easiest – with former war zones in between
Hitting the Wall yet? Runners compete in the Great Wall marathon at Huangyaguan (Yellow Cliff Pass) Great Wall of China in Tianjin. The race is regarded as one of the most challenging marathons in the world. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images
Had you so wished, you could have run a marathon through the Gaza Strip which, at 41km long, is almost perfectly marathon-proportioned. That was until Hamas decided they didn’t like the sexes running together and banned . . . you guessed it . . . women. Organisers at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency were forced to pull the plug on the event in 2013.
It seems that whatever your interest, whatever random place you would like to visit, there is probably a marathon event for you.
Some 48,000 run the vastly over-subscribed New York City marathon where, like the great city itself, every nation on earth is represented. The Paris Marathon draws 40,000 for a spectacular route that snakes along the banks of the Seine, down the Champs Elysees, past the Eiffel Tower to finish near the Arc de Triomphe.
Runners looking for unique experiences are also amply catered for. Fancy running through a former war zone? Check out the Rwandan International Peace Marathon. How about running in the footsteps of Jesus? Try the Tiberias marathon.
China hosts what is considered the world’s most onerous marathon that careens up steep sections of the Great Wall.
For one day of the year tourists are evicted from Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, giving runners an unimpeded route around the 12th-century Wonder of the World.
There is a marathon across the dazzling white plains of the Antarctic, a night run in Norway where the Northern Lights lick the skies above you and the “Big Five” marathon/safari in South Africa where you had better be light on your feet around the lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo on whose turf you are running.
There is no greater training target than having a marathon trip to look forward to – the perfect motivation to push you out the door on those soggy evenings.
Martin Joyce is managing director of Sports Travel International which has been organising package marathon holidays for 25 years and on the day we speak, he has the happy, if vaguely hassled, tone of a very busy man.
Applications for the London marathon have just closed and New York was opening the following day. He was also co-ordinating a field of runners to fly to the Tokyo marathon last weekend.
Later in the year, he will accompany 400 Irish runners to New York, a marathon he describes with evident admiration.
“New York is the world’s number one marathon, no doubt about that. It is everybody’s dream. Two million spectators come out to view it, the start is spectacular, you run the five boroughs and finish in Central Park. It’s the sheer atmosphere in the city, it takes over for the weekend.”
It is one of six annual world running events that make up the World Marathon Majors, “a bit like the Golf Classics of running”, he says. Also included are London, Boston, Chicago, Tokyo and Berlin. They are wildly popularity.
“The Tokyo marathon had 337,000 applications for 35,000 places. London and New York are huge mass marathons, major cities with major draw. Boston is the oldest marathon in the world, it started in 1897 and has run every year since,” says Joyce. His clientele has mixed motivations.
“Some people want to set a PB [personal best], so they might go to Berlin, which is a very flat course where the world record is set. Others want to say they have done all six and pick them off year by year. Others get fond of one and keep doing it. We have one guy who has just done his seventh straight New York marathon with us.”
Emma Long used to be one of those people “who thought joggers were weirdos”, but for the past three years, this mother of two young children from Sandymount gets up at 6am several times a week to train.
Despite her kids doing a marvellous job of keeping her ego in check by innocently asking why she never wins any of the races she runs, she uses foreign marathons as a training bull’s eye.
“I’m just looking for a fun place to go, where there is a good atmosphere, a nice race to do and camaraderie. With a race in Dublin, people do the race and go home straight afterwards whereas where people travel, they hang around for the whole weekend so there is a good buzz.”
She has done the French Beaujolais marathon twice, an annual wine run in the South of France where runners can do a 12k, half or full marathon. It is not, however, a place where many people run their personal best, as she goes on to explain.
From water stop to wine stop
“Usually in a race you have a water stop every 5k but with the Beaujolais marathon every 3k there is a wine stop because it is organised to celebrate the new wine harvest,” says Long with relish.
“You can eat your way round the course as well. There is bread and cheese everywhere, apricots, chocolate, charcuterie. People invite you into their front garden for glasses of the local wine. I did my slowest race ever. By a long shot.”
She also ran the Paris marathon in 2013 and her next trip is to the Brighton marathon in April.
“It is a reward to yourself. You don’t get fit by accident, you have to constantly make a decision that you are going to put the time in. There are plenty of times you are tired, it is raining, you might have a sniffle but you put on the gear and get out the front door. It is a carrot but it is the best kind of carrot there is.”