Vacation on the run: More to marathon tourism than crossing finish line

Racers run down the Champs Elysees below the Arc de Triomphe at the start of the 38th Paris...

Racers run down the Champs Elysees below the Arc de Triomphe at the start of the 38th Paris Marathon April 6, 2014. GONZALO FUENTES/REUTERS

LISA LISLE, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:53 PM ET

Slogging through the 29th kilometre of the Paris Marathon, I look ahead to see another hill.

Okay, so it isn’t really much of a hill, more of a slight incline. But after running for about three hours, it seems like a mountain — a mountain with another 13 km of running on the other side.

Then, in my peripheral vision just past the Seine, I catch a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, which gives me the inspiration — or at least a distraction from the task ahead — to get to the next iconic landmark and finally to the homestretch toward the Arc de Triomphe.

While running a marathon down Yonge St., or along the Rideau Canal, or wherever you call home might have the advantage of familiarity, there’s a fine line between home-field advantage and running-route fatigue.

With more people looking for that runner’s high (there were 541,000 marathon finishers in the United States last year compared to 353,000 in 2000 according to Running USA), marathon tourism is also gaining strides.

“It gets bigger with each running boom,” says Thom Gilligan, who founded Marathon Tours and Travel in 1979.

Gilligan was ahead of the first boom, heading from Boston to New York with a busload of runners for the inaugural trip. Now his company runs 33 trips a year to all seven continents.

“Fun in the sun vacations are becoming passe for a certain segment,” Gilligan says, explaining the shift from people simply having one marathon on their bucket list to having specific and multiple marathons on their list.

Founded in 1995, the Antarctica marathon and the quest to join the Seven Continents Club has become so popular that Marathon Tours and Travel, the event organizer and exclusive tour operator, is booked solid until 2017.

But marathon tourism isn’t just for experienced or ultra-serious long distance runners.

New York City, the world’s largest marathon, attracts not only elite athletes but also thousands of first-timers every year.

“It’s the people’s marathon,” says John Honerkamp, New York Road Runners’ chief coach and senior manager of runner products/services.

The race course stays open beyond the usual six- or seven-hour maximum time limit (last recorded time in 2013 was 10:17:52). About 6% of runners take longer than six hours to complete the race. Whether it takes three or 10 hours to cross the finish line, like in Paris, you pass attractions, run through storied neighbourhoods and cross over landmark bridges into all five boroughs as the marathon takes you into parts of the city not seen in guide books.

“It’s like going through Epcot Center,” Honerkamp says, describing the multiculturalism lining the route.

Each neighbourhood brings out an unbelievable number of spectators with unbridled enthusiasm for each runner. Grateful for the high-fives, pretzels and Kleenex offered along my run last year, I was overwhelmed and emotionally unprepared for the support along First Ave. People were lined up six deep on either side of the road, even by the time I turned off 59th St.

“It’s tough not to speed up there,” Honerkamp says. “Everyone is treated like an athlete.”

The date to sign up for the 2014 New York City Marathon lottery has already past. But signing up with one of the 250 charity partners will guarantee you a spot at the starting line provided you raise the fundraising minimum required by the charity.

Running for charity will get you into most marathons, including ones that sell out fast. But there are other benefits to running for a cause.

“We provide training support throughout the program,” says Fred De Fina, director of community giving for The Canadian Diabetes Association. “We give fundraising support. We do everything to make sure everyone has a great experience.”

And of course, runners give something back. In addition to raising $32 million in the past 13 years, De Fina says runners have also brought a lot of awareness to the program.

Booking with a tour group like Gilligan’s is also good way to secure a spot in popular marathons. But you still have to act fast.

A runner gets a little boost from one of the millions of spectators lining the streets at last fall's NYC marathon. NYRR PHOTO

“London fills up in 48 hours,” Gilligan says. But that’s a guaranteed spot before the lotto even opens.

Tour and charity groups also offer the camaraderie of being part of a team. Not every race is like New York, and it’s more fun to have someone with whom to celebrate the shared experience. And let’s face it, running 42.2 km is daunting enough without having to figure out where you’re going to stay, what you’re going to eat and how you’re getting to the starting line.

“What we do is try to combine the most interesting features of a destination and gear it towards runners” Gilligan says, noting group activities won’t wear you about before the race but will definitely give you the best of the city

“We have a lot of experience in all the destinations,” Gilligan says. “You could do research until the cows come home and you won’t match what our experience has to offer.”


— New York City (50,266 finishers in 2013): It’s not until Nov. 2, but all the 2014 lottery spots are taken. You can still partner with a charity or take your chances in next year’s lottery. At about $381 Canadian, it’s expensive side but worth every penny. See

— Chicago (38,879): Falling on Oct. 14 this year, this race is also sold out. You can enter the lottery next spring for 2015 or raise money for one of the charity spots. The race costs $203 and your hotel will likely be a little less expensive than NYC. See

— Paris (38,690): You will have to wait until 2016 to run through the City of Light. Paris adopted a lottery system for the 2015 event, which is closed. Those lucky enough to have their name drawn will pay about $113-$164. Plan a week or an extra long weekend for the trip. And don’t forget to build in time pre-race to allow your body to adjust to the time change. See

— Berlin (36,474): It’s too late for Sept. 28. Ever since the 2013 race sold out in 3.5 hours, organizers opted for a lottery. You can register for the 2015 lottery a week after this year’s event (about $147). See

— Tokyo (34,832): Tentatively set for Feb. 22, 2015, runners can apply late August. It costs about $127 and a lottery is held only if oversubscribed. You’ll definitely need pre-race time to adjust to the time difference. But the beautiful beaches of Thailand, Bali or Vietnam aren’t far away and can be a great reward for a challenging run. See


1. Choose a race that suits your abilities. If the longest distance you have run is to your fridge, you probably don’t want your first marathon to be more physically demanding than 42.2 km is on its own. Choose a race with extended finish times if you might need longer than six hours to complete. Honolulu has one of the slowest median finish times (about 45% of racers exceed six hours). The race kicks off with fireworks, and when the sun rises the ocean views can’t be beat. See

2. Once you’ve picked a marathon, get to know the course and train accordingly. Marathon web sites usually have a map and an elevation chart. So if you’re expecting hills, train for hills. While you get a virtual understanding of the course from the map, consider a tour before the race. Many marathons offer a pre-race bus tour that allows runners to do a little sightseeing and stay off their feet.

3. Allow time to adjust to different time zones and climates. You definitely don’t want to arrive the day before any race. You’ll go to bed too late or early and it’s tough to know what the weather’s like until you get in a practice run.

4. Don’t go too many days before the race and wear yourself out playing tourist. Instead add a couple days of shopping and sightseeing after race day. If you get to your destination too early, you run the risk of tourist fatigue. Save sightseeing for after you’ve crossed the finish line.

5. Pack running gear in your carry-on bag in case your checked bag goes missing. Do you really want to spend the first few hours of your trip buying new running shoes? And worse, do you want to run a marathon in a new pair of shoes?

6. When in Rome, don’t do as the Romans. Stick to your routine. If you usually eat oatmeal and eggs for breakfast before your morning run, don’t eat pizza before the marathon. Pack your own supplies. Your stomach gets enough trauma during the 42.2 km. Don’t make it worse.