More than three decades ago, Thom Gilligan was working for a travel agency and just getting into marathon running.
When his running buddies started asking if he could help plan their trips to races, Gilligan had his a-ha moment: Why not create a travel business that caters to runners?
In 1979 Gilligan founded Marathon Tours, now the world’s oldest company dedicated to bringing people to running events, he says. In the beginning, his company led trips to only a few races. Today, it offers lodging, race and activity packages to 44 running events around the world.
“If anyone had told me that running would become the lifestyle activity it is today, I wouldn’t haven’t believed it,” Gilligan says. “Back then it was the loneliness of the long distance runner.”
Running is no longer a solitary hobby, but a social experience that involves family, friends and post-competition festivities.
People are also blending running events with vacations, known as a “racecation” or “runcation,” a trip that includes running, sightseeing and relaxation. And with more destination race choices than ever, it’s no wonder that some runners want help with travel planning.
In 2014, there were more than 1,200 competitive marathons in the United States, a 300 percent increase from 15 years ago, according to Running USA. Half marathons are also growing, with an estimated 2,200 in the U.S. in 2014.
Internationally, the growth is noticeable, too. For example, organizers in Japan have introduced several new marathons in recent years, and Japan now hosts five of the world’s 15 largest marathons.
The Benefits of a Racecation Planner
Anthony Copeland-Parker, 60, has been to more than a dozen races around the world with Marathon Tours since 2012. He and his girlfriend like traveling with a group and not worrying about complicated logistics.
“With some of these marathons, it’s much easier to have someone who has been there to work to get you to the start, to the expo, some place to eat,” he said. “You have all that background taken care of, and then they find a first-class tour guide to make sure you see all the highlights. They provide that sense of security and make sure you have a good experience.”
Just narrowing down destination choices can be difficult, says Kyle Bacon, a marathoner and experienced traveler. Outside of his full-time job as an accountant, the 25-year-old has his own trip-planning business for runners.
“People look for help because it’s a little overwhelming,” he says, adding that it can be especially challenging if a runner is unfamiliar with international travel.
He discusses trip budget with his running clients, and finds out what marathon size and type of course they prefer.
In addition to creating itineraries, he shares airline booking and race tips he has picked up from his own travels.
“I’ll always recommend to run the marathon the second day of wherever you are,” he says. “It works well to do one at the beginning of the vacation and then have time to relax and take in the place.”
He also recommends booking a hotel near the race course, if possible, because you don’t know how your legs or stomach will feel after the run.
New Kinds of Businesses
Some travel planners create their own running events as part of their business.
Ziyad Rahim, a veteran adventure racer, founded Z Adventures this year. Rahim organizes unique running challenges and then leads groups of runners to them.
Rahim and 10 runners recently took a week-long Carnival cruise from Miami to the Western Caribbean, where Rahim had mapped out marathon courses at each of the five places they docked.
“There is a lot of work that is required in planning such an adventure,” he says in an email. “This starts from choosing the right cruise where we have enough time on each island to complete the marathon.”
To ensure no one gets lost or misses the ship’s departure, all the courses were out-and-back loops near the cruise terminal, he says. Five runners completed all five marathons, while the others did various distances in each place. Rahim has another Caribbean cruise and marathon challenge planned for January with 40 runners.
Last year Heather Miller launched Runfari, an online resource guide for runners who are planning their own racecations. The site has a list of races in the U.S. and Canada with accompanying information about things to do, lodging and eateries.
“Sometimes you don’t want to do things in a group,” says Miller, 30. “This gives you the flexibility to do what you want on your schedule. This is for the traveler who likes to have more control and is comfortable taking care of the logistics themselves.”
Runfari also provides details that runners tend to appreciate, like which hotels offer complimentary breakfast. Runners who sign up for a free subscription get access to restaurant, hotel and activity deals from vendors that have partnered with the site.
Some entrepreneurs are approaching the runcation business from a different angle.
Salem Stanley, 34, started Vacation Races in 2012 to draw runners to U.S. national parks. The half marathon and 5K series has grown to eight races that center around parks such as Zion, Yosemite, Yellowstone and Grand Teton.
The scenic runs, which are cup-less and require runners to use hydration packs to reduce the environmental impact, are kept to a maximum of 2,000 to 2,500 participants. He doesn’t currently offer lodging and race packages, but hopes to eventually create a designated campground at some events for race participants.
After the race, runners are encouraged to explore the park with hiking challenges. Those who finish the official hikes and take photos as proof get discounts on future events.
“They are signing up for the whole experience,” Stanley says. “It’s not just a race.”