Why Running Competitively Is the Best Way to See the World
My breath was ragged. Sweat stains had spread like Rorschach blots across my sports bra. My socks were full of sand. It was almost noon, and the sun beat down so hard as I shuffled along the oceanfront path, I swore I could hear my skin cells screaming. If I had been home in Miami, I would have returned from my usual Saturday long run ages ago.
But I was a little ways up the coast, in Sunny Isles Beach, competing in the Reebok Ragnar Florida Sprint, a daylong relay race covering almost 60 miles divided between me and five "runbuds." About 300 other six-person teams from across the country took part.
Though I didn't have to travel far to participate this time, over the past eight years I've hopped on planes to run all kinds of races, from 5Ks to marathons, toeing the start line in Antigua and Atlanta and Australia. And I'm convinced that there's no better way to see and appreciate a destination than by running through it.
My first "runcation" — the Rock "n" Roll Half Marathon in Las Vegas in 2011 — began inauspiciously. The evening event literally started without me. The shuttle buses booked to transport runners from our hotel never showed up. Some runners hopped into cabs, but I sprinted a panicked mile down the Strip's congested sidewalk to Mandalay Bay, where the start line was already being dismantled. I ran anyway, trailing the pack of 44,000 other runners by 20 minutes. The Strip was closed to cars, and it was a surreal experience trundling along the asphalt of the almost-deserted road, marveling at the constellation of neon and LED lights shining as if for me alone. When I staggered to the finish, 13.1 miles and more than two hours later, medics diagnosed me with a mild case of altitude sickness. I'd caught the runcation bug, too.
After shedding more than 70 pounds that year, I knew I had a faster finish in me than my disappointing 2:41 half-marathon time in Vegas. So I signed up for my hometown's marquee running event, the Miami Marathon and Half Marathon, three weeks later. As I zoomed over the Venetian Causeway, I felt redeemed, knowing I was on track to finish in under two and a half hours, but also inspired by the out-of-town runners around me, who oohed and aahed at the sunrise over Biscayne Bay. That view was something I'd witnessed a million times, but in that moment I recognized that I'd never truly appreciated it. I realized running could be so much more than just a way to stave off the pounds. It could also help me see — really see — the world.
Two years later I ran the mother of all destination races, the New York City Marathon, hopping the Staten Island Ferry (a first, despite decades of visits) to reach the starting line of my 26.2-mile trek through the city's five boroughs. That day my Newton running shoes took me through Williamsburg and Long Island City; past the dreaded "wall" every runner must overcome, which I encountered at mile 20 in the Bronx; and finally uphill to the finish line in Central Park, concluding what was as much a tour of New York City as an endurance event.
I probably never would have visited Vancouver if I hadn't signed up for Lululemon's SeaWheeze, an eight-year-old half-marathon the company says it created as a "love letter to Vancouver." And as I consider running it for the fifth time, I think that I'm just as smitten by the gems I've discovered during my visits — like sea-salt gelato from Bella Gelateria and tamago ramen at Marutama Ra-men — as by the route, which winds from downtown to Kitsilano and along Stanley Park's seawall into Coal Harbour. The first year, my post-race splurge was a seaplane flight over parts of the race route. The second, I saw more of British Columbia, booking a day trip to Whistler, where I posed for photos on the Olympic podium and felt as proud as a gold medalist.
Standing in line for our race numbers at SeaWheeze, I met Anna, an Australian runner. We kept in touch, and two years later, when I flew to her hometown for the Blackmores Sydney Running Festival, she not only ran the Harbour Bridge 10K with me (albeit in about half the time) but also introduced me to the ins and out of her city. Would I know about the yummy vegan eats at the Ovolo Woolloomooloo's Alibi bar or Dinosaur Designs' sculptural resin jewelry if a race hadn't brought me and my Aussie guide together?
Beyond the friendships formed, sights seen, and memories made, my runcations have yielded another reward: racks of medals. One, from Antigua's Run in Paradise, is almost as big as my head. Another, in the shape of an ocean liner, commemorates my Run for Fun Caribbean cruise, when I raced in St. Thomas and St. Maarten.
I remember the places as fondly as the races: bounding by Rihanna Drive in Barbados, crossing through the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney. Racing around the world has shown me these things and even helped me discover some personal truths (Truth No. 1: hills and humidity are my kryptonite). So I'll continue to fly to places I've never been to run distances most sane people would drive. While getting there is half the fun, running when you get there is the other half.