By Matt Villano, on December 24, 2014

The art of destination racing

One of my favorite ways to see the world is on foot—while running. Whether I’m traveling for business or pleasure, I usually check in with the hotel concierge for a map and make a point of familiarizing myself with a new destination over the course of a long run. Sometimes, I even plan an itinerary around potential running routes. And on rare occasions, I’ll plan an entire trip around my participation in a big road race.

Technically, this is known as “destination racing,” and it’s becoming increasingly popular among the running set. Hard-core runners (that is, runners who are far more serious about running than I) will sign up for races in faraway places a full year or two in advance and build vacations around them.

Personally, I usually book my destination races six months out, and I usually run one or two a year.

Sometimes, I do these races solo. Other times I squeeze them into family trips. On rare occasions—including the most recent one, in Seattle—I escape with my wife and take a romantic/athletic getaway.

When I travel for a destination race, I live it up—pampering myself with a room at a swanky hotel, resting way more than usual (for me), and soaking up the culture of the destination by (lounging and people-watching and) hydrating at local coffee shops or bars. Of course I also make a point of scoping out respective courses and going on short runs leading up to the day of the big run. There are many ways to “do” a destination race. Here’s a rundown on my experiences over the last few years.

Seattle Marathon

My most recent destination race was the Amica Insurance Seattle Marathon in late November 2014. The race was a homecoming of sorts; I lived in Seattle for a few years right after the turn of the millennium (and, of course, I write and edit for Expedia, which is based in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue). It was the second full-length marathon I’ve ever run.

The author, after finishing the Seattle Marathon

My wife and I left our kids at home with my parents and made a long weekend out of the race. Before the contest the two of us spent three luxurious days at the Four Seasons Hotel Seattle. I relaxed on the comfy bed. I stayed loose in the hot tub. I carbed-up with room-service pasta.

We even managed to get in a little sightseeing and catch the latest installment of The Hunger Games. (NOTE: Pre-race hydration and long movies don’t mix unless you’re sitting close to a bathroom.)

On the day of the race—a Sunday—the concierge helped me procure my typical pre-race breakfast (double espresso and a plain bagel), and a bellhop helped me hail a cab to the starting line. Later that day, the same folks helped direct my wife to a good vantage point from which to watch, and called her a car service to take her to that spot. (The car service waited for her while she cheered me on, then delivered her to the finish line.)

The race itself was FREEZING; with the wind chill, I’m not sure the temperatures ever broke 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Nevertheless, it was the centerpiece of a relaxing and fulfilling weekend with my bride—the main event on a kid-free immersion in the culture of a great city.

Napa and Sonoma half-marathons

Between May and October every year, I also regularly participate regularly in destination races in Napa and Sonoma, the counties that comprise California’s Wine Country. Technically, because I live in Healdsburg, in northern Sonoma, these are not destination races for me. For others, however, they are—many of my fellow runners fly in from all over the world to run in my proverbial backyard.

Viewfinder Tip: Hydration is key when you travel to run a race. Yes, you can indulge in cocktails and beer or wine. Just make sure you keep drinking water.

Most of these races are half-marathons; my favorites are the ones that comprise the Run Wine Country series (credit Run Wine Country with the tile and header photos). All of these races feature courses that wind through vineyards, finish-line parties that include wine-tasting, and supportive spectator groups (some of which pour wine for runners DURING the race).

Of course the races also take place during fun weekends in Wine Country, enabling participants to spend the rest of their visits exploring and eating amazing local food.

Other destination races

Across the country (and around the world, for that matter), there are dozens of other runs—both full marathons and halves—that are popular to experience as destination races. The Bank of America Chicago Marathon, in October, is a common favorite, as is the Sarasota Music Half-Marathon, held every February in Sarasota, Florida.

Also on the list: the Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas Half-Marathon, held every November; the Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Marathon, held in January; and a host of other events that are highlighted by live bands playing live music at various points along each course.

Last on my list: the Kona Half-Marathon, which is held on Hawaii Island in June.

In truth, just about any competitive running event in a city you’d like to visit can serve as a destination race. If you like to run and you like to travel, consider mixing the two for your next trip.

If you could run a race in any city on Earth, where would it be and why?