Racing off the Map

Writer Steve White | May 9, 2018

Many of today’s travellers are in an ever-widening search for the road less travelled. This is especially true of active outdoor types: hikers, trail runners, bikers and others who want to view novel places through the lens of their chosen pursuit. Often they want to bring family and friends along too.

In this they are being helped by the rise of so-called ‘destination racing’, where an outdoors event is the impetus for a longer trip. Organisers around the world are drawing increasingly international fields to their races, knowing that the finish line is set to be merely a waypoint in a wider experience.

The beginnings of this can perhaps be traced to the marathoners of the 1980s and 1990s, circling the planet collecting finisher’s medals from the likes of London, New York, Boston and Tokyo, and to cyclists emulating their heroes by riding the routes of Grand Tour stage events such as the Tour De France.

Since then, endurance events have multiplied and diversified significantly. The recent surge of interest in trail running has seen endurance runs stretched out to so-called ultramarathons of 100km and more. Some are stage races, held across several days, traversing terrain often selected for its beauty and varied challenges. Biking too – on road and trail – has exploded in popularity in the last decade, with hundreds of competitive and non-competitive events all around the world.

Compete and Cruise

Martin Williams is a cyclist and runner based in Hong Kong who has travelled across the world to race, and travel. He says, “I look for something that could be considered iconic. Often these are in places that are worth staying longer to enjoy the scenery and culture.”

One such iconic event is the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), held in Chamonix, France, and viewed as the unofficial world championships of trail running. It began in 2003 with a field of 700 and today it is the centrepiece of a week-long festival of mountain running with close to 10,000 taking part. Several hundred of those come from Asia, seeing the UTMB as a gateway to discovery of the region and beyond.

Desert ultramarathons are another style of event that offer athletic challenge in places far from crowded tourism hotspots. Samantha Fanshawe is CEO of the 4 Deserts series – ultramarathons held in the Gobi, Sahara, Atacama and the Antarctic – for RacingThePlanet. She says, “RacingThePlanet started as way to show people unique cultures before they disappeared. The best way to see these places and people is by going there on foot to really experience them and keep them as special memories. The challenge comes as part of the process.”

Fanshawe describes them as holidays of a different type where racers can free their mind, fill their imagination, push their body and see places that are not usually possible or known to normal tourists. She says, “It is the specific location that generally catches the interest of first-timers, that also enables them to entice their families or friends to join the race with them or meet them at the finish line and then continue to travel in the country or area. It is not uncommon for a group of friends to reunite at a RacingThePlanet or 4 Deserts Race to spend a week together in the wilderness – sharing a tent but being able to move at their own pace on the course. Some who want to share the experience will apply to volunteer at the race that their friend or family member is running. About 50 per cent of people come to a race with a friend or family member, or meet them at the finish line.”

Not everyone is as mad keen as one family, originally from Western Australia, now scattered around the world who seem to use the races as an excuse for a family reunion. Fanshawe says, “It is very rare to see just one Prendiville at a RacingThePlanet  or 4 Deserts Race. The peak was in RacingThePlanet: Australia 2010 when there were a total 14 Prendivilles competing or volunteering.  More recently at RacingThePlanet: Patagonia there were four and another six girlfriends, friends and nee-Prendivilles.”

It also helps if the finish line is a noteworthy destination in its own right. Fanshawe says, “The desert oasis of San Pedro de Atacama is the host town for the Atacama Crossing. This town is a blissful mix of good food, luxury accommodation, unique sights including hot springs, volcanoes, sandboarding, horse riding, cycling and stargazing. There is rarely any problem convincing family to meet competitors at the finish line in San Pedro Square in the centre of this small town.”

All in the Family

Martyn Sawyer has taken part in many RacingThePlanet and other events. He says, “The races are completely off the beaten track and we have a wonderful opportunity to engage with local villages, tribes and people living off the land. Any other reason to undertake these races would be best explained by a psychiatrist!”

Since Sawyer started racing in 2006, he and his wife have visited volcanoes and geysers, pyramids and icebergs on the back of their race experiences. He says, “When I compete, my wife joins as a race volunteer so we have a similar yet very different experience at the same time, and then we head off the day after the race into the country.”

Michael Maddess of Action Asia Events has organised events across the region for more than 15 years. He has watched as the competitive elite are outnumbered by those just happy to complete the course alongside friends and/or family. He says, “Some couples look to leave the kids at home and have quality time. Others have proposed bringing their babysitters – we are still sitting on the fence on how far we want to push families versus couples.”

Hong Kong-born Sarah Bailey has done Action Asia Events’ three-day, 100km Mongolia race twice, as well as many events across the US where she now lives. She says, “I definitely see destination races as a family affair. I did Mongolia with my sister Debbie, who is based in Hong Kong. In the US, my husband is generally with me, and we see this as an opportunity to travel somewhere amazing together, compete in an event and also tie this in with checking out the surrounding area.

“Many of these races are out of the way and may be the only time for us to get to see the area. Mongolia was a great example of this. A unique destination to start with, then we drive out to the middle of nowhere. When I choose races, I am first attracted by the location, the terrain and scenery of the course, but I also take into account what the surrounding region has to offer,” says Bailey. “My sister and I added five extra days to see more of Mongolia after we returned to Ulaanbaatar after the race. We thought Mongolia would be a fantastic place to visit but, had there not been an event, I am not sure we would have visited. In the case of the Lean Horse 100 in August, we also visited the Badlands, Mt Rushmore, the Black Hills and Deadwood. Again, the event led me there.”

Williams points out that along with the location, the structure of an event can be crucial in convincing others to accompany you. He says, “Cycling is often multi-day, which heavily affects family participation in the holiday. Cycling, when not race-based, can lend itself to family with the organised rides in the morning and family activities the rest of the day.”

That assumes plenty to do within a short distance of the course. Other times the holidaying can only come at the conclusion of an event. Williams says, “My partner does not share my interest so would tag along for support if it was short enough but would want to do the holiday activities around the event – like safari after Comrades (an 87km run from Durban to Pietermartizburg, South Africa).”

Wiliams’ favourite international race experience was in New Zealand, where he did the Queenstown Marathon in between drives on both islands and he has his eye on a return to the country for his next challenge. “The Kepler Challenge (a 60km mountain run) should combine a race and travel nicely,” he says.