From Pyongyang to Antarctica: how marathon-running holidays have taken off

Growing numbers of runners are organising their holidays to include a race, and the list of exotic destinations grows ever longer – a sign of the changing status of running, as it becomes more of a lifestyle than simply a sport

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 April, 2017, 7:33am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 November, 2017, 10:49am

It was about 10 kilometres into the Pyongyang Marathon when the realisation hit me: running on the wide, empty Sungri Street past Kim Il-sung Square in the heart of the North Korean capital, I was the freest I had been on our three-day tour of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

There were no guides anywhere in sight to tell me what to do and where to go, or to constantly monitor my actions. Instead, the streets were fully closed to traffic and lined by friendly locals cheering on race participants. I could finally take in the city sights at my own pace, like a tourist would in most places.

Without a doubt the marathon experience was the icing on the cake of our DPRK holiday – and arguably for the some 1,100 other tourists who took part in the race too.

Why running the Pyongyang Marathon is more about bucket lists than politics for some foreign adventure seeker

“I love running in different places and I was always very curious about North Korea, so this was the perfect excuse for me to combine my two passions,” says Lorena Compean, a Mexican living in Hong Kong who ran the half-marathon. “The absolute highlight was the race with so many people around giving high-fives and waving hands. It was a very different ambience than any other race, and I felt like an Olympic athlete starting and finishing in a full stadium of 50,000 people.”

There is something about running a marathon as part of a holiday that makes travel much more memorable and magical. Last November, we tied the Queenstown International Marathon into a two-week family holiday on New Zealand’s South Island, and the year before we ran the Angkor Wat Half-Marathon in the middle of a few days in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

How Hongkonger Trilby White overcame TB and took part in women-only race in Tehran

Marathon holidays have received rising interest in recent years, say travel agents specialising in these packages. At Flight Centre in Hong Kong, for example, marathon holiday bookings have increased by more than 250 per cent since 2015, says Callum Brown, general manager of Flight Centre Greater China.

Flight Centre began offering marathon holiday packages in 2014, and its menu now spans a diverse range of destinations, including Guam, Jordan, Cape Town, Paris and New York.

“Increased interest in marathon holiday packages also reflects the active travel trend,” says Brown, a marathon runner himself. “Beyond the typical sightseeing tour, people crave experiential travel. People increasingly want to spend their money on once-in-a-lifetime experiences instead of material things. Running a marathon is a truly interactive and inspiring way to immerse yourself in a place and meet people.”

Fran Seton and her husband Dave Cundy started their Australia-based international business RunFun Travel in 2012. Seton says the growth of their business has been “exponential”, citing the New York City Marathon as an example: in 2016, the company took 75 runners there, three times more than in 2015. “This pattern has been repeated across many of the events we promote,” Seton says.

While big city races, such as the six Marathon Majors (NYC, Chicago, Boston, Berlin, London and Tokyo), always attract runners, Seton says lesser known “adventure” marathons, in such places as Kilimanjaro, Budapest, Belgrade and Bhutan, have become very popular.

“Another big factor is that runners often like to travel as part of a group and share the camaraderie of being with other runners,” says Seton. “It really enhances their trip and it often occurs that they meet new friends.”

That unique camaraderie is a key reason why Singaporean runner David Tay enjoys marathon travel. He’s a member of the special club of runners who have completed all six Marathon Majors. In 2013, together with a business partner, Tay launched Singapore-based Athletes’ Journey. “I think the rise in marathon tourism is because runners live an active lifestyle; even if they do go for a holiday, they like to include a run or race in it, and vice versa.”

Thom Gilligan, CEO and founder of Boston-based Marathon Tours & Travel, started his business in 1979 and attributes increasing marathon tourism to the latest phase of the running boom. “In the ’70s and ’80s, the boom was for runners to be competitive in events,” says Gilligan. “In the ’90s, the boom focused on participation and was not as competitive. After 2000, running has become a lifestyle activity that centres around people’s social lives. Travel to events is now just part of the runner’s lifestyle. It is very common for runners to travel to one or two international events every year.”

And, as all the above-mentioned travel agents agree, booking a marathon holiday package through them has its advantages, the main one being that everything – from race entry to transfers to accommodation to sightseeing – is taken care of. “Many runners are time poor and are very happy to know that we will organise everything for them and they don’t have to think about it,” says Seton.

Boston Marathon is a highlight on running tourist’s calendar

Some other advantages include guaranteed entry into extremely popular events, such as the NYC Marathon, which Brown says had more than 98,000 applications this year but only about 16,000 runners accepted. For the Pyongyang Marathon, buying a tour package is the only way in.

Simon Cockerell, general manager of Koryo Tours, the Pyongyang Marathon’s official travel partners, says interest in the race has grown since DPRK authorities opened up the event to tourists in 2014. Also known as the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon, this year’s race on April 9 had about 1,100 foreign runners, compared to about 300 in 2014.

“Tourism in the DPRK is well known to be quite tightly controlled, with no options to wander at will and so on, but what Koryo Tours specialises in is engagement opportunities and the chance to mingle with local people, and the marathon is simply the best time to do this,” says Cockerell. “Run in the streets, no guides, be greeted by curious locals, a lot of high-fiving and handshaking, share a drink in the kiosk area outside the stadium afterwards. It is a great chance to do something that you otherwise couldn’t do.”

Andrea Goh, a Singaporean who has done the Tokyo, Chicago and NYC marathons, says marathon holidays provide extra motivation to finish the 42.195km. “You go there not only to race but to also enjoy a vacation, and it’s like a reward for completing it,” says Goh.

Running enthusiast Wai Yen Jas Wong has taken marathon holidays to Venice, Amiens in France, Dili, Phuket and the Great Wall of China. “I like to tell people these marathon holidays are akin to destination weddings,” she says. “You find a nice place to travel to, but you also want it to be special; to have an event to anchor to, to bring out the trip in a different dimension. The race adds depth to the experience.”

Looking for an unforgettable marathon holiday? Here are five for the list

Thunder Dragon Marathon, Bhutan

When: May 28, 2017

Why: If the high-altitude marathon doesn’t take your breath away, the scenery through the Paro Valley will.

Who: Athletes’ Journey,

Victoria Falls Marathon, Zimbabwe

When: June 18, 2017

Why: A true adventure run alongside the mighty Zambezi river, past Victoria Falls and through Zambezi National Park.

Who: RunFun Travel,

Bagan Temple Marathon, Myanmar

When: November 25, 2017

Why: Run amid hundreds of sacred pagodas and beautiful temples scattered across a mystical landscape.

Who: Flight Centre,

Antarctica Marathon

When: March 16, 2018

Why: Only 200 lucky people get to run the race every year – and the race gets sold out three years in advance.

Who: Marathon Tours & Travel,

Pyongyang Marathon, North Korea

When: April 2018

Why: Your chance to experience the DPRK with utter freedom (at least for a few hours).

Who: Koryo Tours,