As running becomes more popular here, more locals are going on ‘runcations’, combining participation in marathons with holidays abroad. By Bryna Singh
Going for overseas marathons – and taking a holiday at the same time – is becoming a thing. Photo: maridav / 123rf.com
The last few kilometres of a marathon are often a blur of pain and even the final few hundred metres can feel like forever to an exhausted runner.
Running into a stadium filled with some 50,000 spectators cheering one on, though? That might give a person the much-needed push to the finish line.
Such a hero’s reception greeted Ms Jeanette Wang, 35, in April this year, when she participated in the Pyongyang Marathon.
Taking place once a year, usually in April, it is a popular race in the marathon holidays market because it combines a visit to closely- guarded North Korea with a run that starts and finishes in Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Stadium.
Ms Wang, who is senior digital content manager in an investment firm, says: “For those few hours of that race, I felt like an Olympic athlete.”
Everything else on the trip was as much of a highlight, as the tour itinerary saw her visit one of the most popular malls there, have drinks at a local bar and visit the demilitarised zone, or DMZ. “It was a chance to observe this closed nation with my own eyes,” she says.
Other than Pyongyang, she has run marathons in cities such as Perth in Australia, Boston and San Francisco in the United States and Queenstown in New Zealand.
She has also done ultra-marathons – anything longer than the traditional marathon length of 42km – in places such as Mount Fuji in Japan and the Alpine village of Verbier in Switzerland.
She is among a growing number of Singaporeans who go on “run-cations” alone, with friends or with family members.
To them, the benefits are obvious: the novelty of running in a different climate or a chance to explore new destinations or experience familiar cities in a different light.
Travel experts say this trend has picked up steam in the last few years, in tandem with the burgeoning running scene here.
The 2XU Compression Run here has grown from 9,000 participants in 2011 to 30,000 participants in its edition in April this year. Meanwhile, the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon has grown from 6,000 runners in its first edition in 2002 to an average of about 50,000 runners a year in recent years.
Mr Geoff Meyer, 48, managing director of Ironman Asia, which organises the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon, says running is one of the most popular sports here and he has seen Singaporeans travelling “more and more for run-cations” in recent years.
Travel agency Flight Centre Singapore started promoting marathon holiday packages in 2015.
A spokesman says bookings for these packages have doubled since the trips went on the market.
At least three other local tour companies have started offering marathon holiday packages in recent years too.
Usually, agencies help settle pre-race logistics such as race registration, accommodation and transport. Where they differ is in the marathon destinations and types.
Some offer trips to the six World Marathon Majors – in the cities of New York, Chicago, Boston, Berlin, London and Tokyo.
Others offer non-standard races that take runners through Unesco World Heritage Sites and across scenic routes, challenging terrains, mountains and deserts. (Also read: This Dog Did a Half Marathon… And Came in Seventh)
Flight Centre, for example, offers packages for the Great Wall Marathon in China, the Angkor Wat Marathon in Cambodia and the Petra Desert Marathon in Jordan.
Local sports tour agency Athletes’ Journey organises tours to four out of the six World Marathon Majors, as well as to non-standard marathons, such as the Thunder Dragon Marathon in Bhutan, which allows runners to take in the natural scenery and run past iconic landmarks.
Athletes’ Journey co-founder David Tay, 58, says he usually organises sell-out tours to the Marathon Majors held in Tokyo, Berlin and London. The agency will be adding more sports tours next year.
Local travel agency Travel Wander, which was set up last August, started offering “running holidays” this year, which its co-founder Sheryl Lim, 40, says are “soft adventures”.
Besides the usual marathons, her company also takes people to more exotic locations, including packages to the Athens Classic Marathon in Greece, the Sun Moon Lake Marathon in Taiwan and the DaNang International Marathon in Vietnam.
Internationally, various governments are tapping marathons to boost tourism, says Ms Alicia Seah, 53, travel agency Dynasty Travel’s director of marketing communications.
Since 2014, Dynasty Travel has been the exclusive travel agent for the Korea Tourism Organisation to promote four of South Korea’s marathons – held in Seoul, Gyeongju, Chuncheon and Jeju.
Since last year, the agency has also been working with the Macao Government Tourism Office to organise marathon packages.
This year, Dynasty Travel also launched a package to coincide with the Gold Coast Airport Marathon in Australia.
Ms Seah says that friends and family members of runners are starting to tag along for such trips for “family bonding and friendship building”.
Public servant Yim Pui Fun, 57, went on one of Dynasty Travel’s marathon holiday packages to South Korea with three female friends last year. She ran the full course of the Gyeongju Cherry Blossom Marathon, while her three friends did the 5km course.
Although this was her 36th marathon, it was the first time she was doing it as part of a holiday package.
“It was so convenient. Dynasty Travel did all the arrangements for me. I didn’t have to do anything except turn up,” she says.
“It was also very exciting that my friends took part. They usually say no when I encourage them to join. They prefer to just wait at the finish line to cheer for me and then we head off to shop and eat together.”
Here are five marathon holiday destinations to consider.
ATHENS CLASSIC MARATHON IN GREECE
This marathon is steeped in history because it is based on the ancient tale of a military courier’s fateful run to Athens, the capital of Greece. According to legend, the messenger, Pheidippides, ran from the town of Marathon to Athens in 490BC to announce the news that the Greeks had defeated the Persian invaders. He then collapsed and died. This marathon’s course covers the same ground that he ran and ends in Athens’ Panathenaic Stadium, where the first modern Olympic Games was held in 1896.
After the marathon, runners can stay in the capital for sightseeing or treat themselves to a Greek island getaway.
Local tour agency Travel Wander has packages to this marathon.
PETRA DESERT MARATHON IN JORDAN
Petra Desert marathon in Jordan. PHOTO: FLIGHT CENTRE
Set in the ancient city of Petra, a Unesco World Heritage Site, this marathon offers stunning views across a desert landscape.
Runners will be able to see mountainside carvings, incredible rock formations, caves and historic tombs.
At one point, the route goes uphill to a mountain ridge for a 5km stretch. At the height of this ascent, runners will get a view of the race route.
After the marathon, runners can extend their trip to explore Jordan, do a Bible land tour or take a dip in the Dead Sea.
Tour agency Flight Centre Singapore offers packages to this marathon.
GREAT WALL MARATHON IN CHINA
Great Wall marathon in China. PHOTO: FLIGHT CENTRE
Rough paths, sloping trails and 5,000 gruelling steps up and down the Great Wall make this race one of the world’s most challenging. Adding to the difficulty are uneven steps. Some are tiny and some are so high, you have to jump.
Thankfully, there are less arduous stretches that pass through villages, fields and farmland.
The run begins and ends in Tianjin province, at the Yin and Yang Square at the fortress at the Huangyaguan section of the Great Wall.
Tour agency Flight Centre Singapore offers packages to this marathon.
THUNDER DRAGON MARATHON IN BHUTAN
The Thunder Dragon Marathon in Bhutan takes runners along a scenic route and past iconic landmarks. PHOTO: THUNDER DRAGON MARATHON
Participating in this marathon is the perfect way to enter the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan and rub shoulders with the happiest people on earth.
The high-altitude route takes in the beautiful Paro Valley and iconic landmarks such as the spectacular Tiger’s Nest monastery perched on a cliff edge.
The race begins and ends at Zhiwa Ling, a luxury hotel in Bhutan.
After the race, runners can continue with their guided tours to soak in the country’s unspoilt beauty. Local sports tour agency Athletes’ Journey organises packages to this marathon.
VICTORIA FALLS MARATHON IN ZIMBABWE
Victoria Falls marathon in Zimbabwe. PHOTO: VICTORIA FALLS MARATHON
Combining breathtaking scenery with adventure, this route winds along the mighty Zambezi river, across bridges with spectacular views of Victoria Falls, and goes into Zambezi National Park, where runners may be able to see wildlife such as zebras and elephants. Post marathon, runners can explore Victoria Falls, which is known as the adventure centre of Africa. Travel packages can include rafting, game viewing, safaris and bungee jumping.
For details, go to www.vicfallsmarathon.com.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 25, 2017, with the headline ‘Running to a holiday’.