As I get ready to leave for another vacation planned around a race, I’m constantly having to explain that yes a Marathon in France is still 26 miles (26.2 miles is 42.2 kilometers in case you were wondering) and answer questions about why I would want to race in the middle of a vacation. My first destination race was also my first half marathon, so it set a precedent for every race that followed. How do you beat running the Strip in Las Vegas at night? Run all over the world of course!
To be fair, most people just traveling for races as permission to eat and drink as much as possible and not gain weight. I wish that was true. Not only do I usually gain weight while training, I also gain weight while traveling, so it’s a double whammy. Runners ask me how I deal with the less than stellar days leading up to a destination race. My answer now is that I’m just used to it; I run more races 1,000 miles or more from home than I do in Seattle each year. Now it is more stressful for me to race near home, because I’m usually running around dealing with life until late the night before instead of cozy in my hotel room at some ridiculously early hour with real life waiting safely at home. But I realize that for most runners, traveling to a race is a new, perhaps once in a lifetime, experience.
For me the most important thing to decide when traveling for a race is what that race will mean for you and your goals. And does that coincide with the realities of the race. Is this a Boston Qualifier that you need to finish strong or is this a race through wine country that offers wine in place of water? I’ve run across people who ran the Marathon du Medoc who skipped all the wine and food, complained about the crowds and lines, and finished slower than expected. I think they missed the point, but it is generally unrealistic to get your best time at a costume or themed race, although it can definitely be done. But generally decide if your destination race will be a fun run or needs more serious preparation, and then try to stay positive when your best laid plans go awry.
It took a few races, but I learned to trust my training and have fun without the stress! There is a ton of advice out there for traveling to a race, but after so many coast-to-coast and international flights for races, a few things have settled in as part of my routine. Hopefully these simple things will help you.
- Arrive a few days early – This gives you time to acclimate to the time zone, weather, and elevation. It also helps avoid last minute flight delays causing panic as the minutes click down to the race. This isn’t always possible, but is more important in races in climates drastically different than yours. If you are accustomed to running in heat, the Seattle Marathon in November might present a chilly challenge. You will perform differently if you aren’t prepared and sometimes that preparation is just as much mental as it is physical, , so a run in the new place will better prepare you for race day. That shake out run doesn’t just shake out the legs from long hours of traveling, but also shakes out some of the mental blocks.
- Stretch on the Plane – The flight between Seattle and Miami is seven hours, sometimes more. Last year, I took that flight eight times back and forth. During races I noticed that I had a slight pain in the butt (literally) and worked on stretching and strengthening my glutes. My leg “felt funny” on each flight, and I complained each time, but was fine while walking and running, so I ignored it until a quick run around Lake Union turned into a miserable two hour walk. Turns out my piriformis and sciatic nerve were fighting back from sitting too long. Recovery was not quick and set back training quite a bit. I now try to book shorter flights if possible, so I can walk around for a bit between flights and get up to stretch at least once or twice per flight. Just some simple side lunges while waiting for the bathroom make a huge difference.
- Wear Compression Socks – Socks is the keyword here. Don’t wear sleeves because swelling can still occur in your ankles and feet, and the as blood can’t flow past the tightest part of the compression sleeve. While this has never happened to me, I know more than one person who swore by sleeves until they got off the plane with insanely swollen feet.
- Rest if you need it – Like most runners, I schedule all of my travel days on rest days so can I get my training in, but sometimes that travel day wipes me out. Most likely you are in a taper week, and it is perfectly fine to take an unscheduled rest day. It won’t kill your training, but it will put you in a better state of mind on race day. Sometimes an easy couple of miles is a perfect shakeout run while still allowing you to rest. Listen to your body. With that said, you probably don’t want to schedule a 10-mile hike or 3-hour walking tour the day before the race. Plan to take it easy a couple days before the race and do your major sightseeing after the race.
- Don’t Eat Anything Strange on Race Day – Picking up breakfast for race morning can be tough depending on your location. Consider bringing your normal food with you if you can or using one of the local grocery delivery services. But whatever you do, don’t pick up something you aren’t sure about. If you normally have a bowl of basic oatmeal, the organic oats and flax instant cereal might add just the amount of fiber that makes your race entirely different. Stick with what you know.
- Register for the Pasta Dinner – Take advantage of the race dinner the night before if it is offered, as depending on the location you don’t want to be roaming the streets looking for your usual bland pasta dinner. That pasta dinner also gives you the chance to meet other runners, ask questions of race officials, and generally get into the groove of the race. I met wonderful people at the pasta dinner in Tromso the night before the Polar Night Half, and I didn’t have to deal with the a city full of restaurants that close early in winter. For me the race dinner isn’t about carb loading as I’ve done that for the entire week, but about being social and embracing the race community.
- Relax – I know this sounds like number four above, but what I’m saying here is chill out, stay calm, and have fun. Whether this is your first race or your 100th, travel will force you to change your usual race routine. Use this as a chance to be less rigid, especially if this is a race on a vacation. Don’t ruin your vacation because you took the race too seriously. This might mean slowing down, stopping for photos, or just enjoying the scenery while zooming past it at your usual pace. And if you’re traveling to a race, planning to PR, trust your training. I can’t repeat this enough. Stressing out because you aren’t in your own bed or are running someplace new won’t do anything but hurt you during the race. You put in the work and it won’t be derailed by a few days out of whack, so just relax….
Now go and book those flights and have fun!