Now is the time runners are beginning to plan their calendars for 2014, and so-called "destination races" get plenty of consideration. Globetrotting to a race seems so romantic. Just imagine the Facebook posts, and the possibilities.
I did, and days later I was toeing the line at a boutique half-marathon, the Llao Llao 21K in Bariloche, Argentina, a small adventure-oriented city in the foothills of the Southern Andes. Llao Llao is part of the four-race National Parks Marathon Series. For more information, go to www.runargentina.com.
Known for its chocolate industry, Bariloche is surrounded by the kinds of places travel writers keep to themselves. It's smack-dab in the middle Patagonia, where broad rivers lumber by snow-capped pyramids, spilling into ocean-like lakes, and December means the start of summer, not winter. An escape from winter alone could justify the trip.
The Llao Llao hotel, which is the race's base of operations and start/finish, couild also make it worth the trip. A "World’s Best" resort and spa, it has the riddle of refinement solved: it's five-star and unpretentious. Running shoes are welcome and Vibram-soled trekkers a norm.
And it's all about the environment. The Llao Llao occupies a peninsula hilltop in Nahuel Huapi National Park, which is comprised of nearly two million acres of calving glaciers, "monkey puzzle" trees, and an alpine trail system (complete with huts, or refugios) that's ripe for running.
Race day was is warm and breezy. Idyllic and spring-like at the 11:00 a.m. start. Local heavies from rival provinces Rio Negro and Chubut front one big wave of runners, and the celebratory mood at the back borders on a dance party. Sleep deprivation adds to the euphoria.
We're off, and a while later the finish-line banner seems to be held taut by some sort of dream. I was a winner that day, because it was the single-best running experience of my life.
However, it takes more than dumb luck and a wad of pesos to guarantee a great destination-race experience. Here's what I learned in Argentina, essential tips for destination runners no matter where they're headed:
Start with the destination
This is critical. Start by choosing a place you've always wanted to go, then schedule your vacation around, not for, the race.
Don’t make it an "A" race
Planes, trains, and automobiles -- not to mention jet lag -- don't make for fast running. Best to think of this as a simple run, and plan it during your offseason or as a training (tempo) run leading up to a goal race. Your ability to let go and to run for fun is directly related to how far you should or shouldn't travel.
By racing toward the beginning of your trip, you'll have your only "obligation" out of the way. You'll be able to eat and have the option to drink your way through the rest of your vacation, and you'll have time to act on advice from your new runner friends and locals with similar interests.
Running an unfamiliar course makes every turn a discovery and every view a surprise. It also encourages running at a sustainable pace; when you don’t know if a climb continues for 200 meters or two miles, you're more likely to stay within your limits and enjoy every aspect of the experience.
Wear the race t-shirt
Unlike American runners who slip on their tried-and-true race kits, runners in many other countries wear the race shirt during the race. The camaraderie resulting from this simple gesture is surprising.
Don the race tee, and barriers like language and nationality crumble; you’re united by a common goal. But, plan accordingly. Pulling on an unworn, unwashed tech tee just before a race can end badly. Pack an anti-friction cream or give your nips the courtesy of a Band-Aid.
Make it a family affair ...
In this life, you either grow together or you grow apart, and few memories compare to those of family travel. Many events offer races of different distances, so there's something for everyone. At Llao Llao, runners can choose from the half-marathon (21K), 15K or 9K. Traveling with kids? Childcare is a new idea for most race organizers, and it's not offered at every hotel.
... Or don't
Bringing sand to the beach isn’t always a good idea. And, depending on the destination, it can be a disaster that will haunt you for the rest of your years. Running is a great way to meet people, and by taking part in an event you're initiated, no longer a tourist. The smaller, more intimate and remote the event, the more likely you are to get to know your fellow runners.
Do more than race
It seems obvious, but the days leading up to and including the event should make up only a third of your stay. If you've done it right, the memory of the race will be just one of many souvenirs to bring home.