Since I started running six years ago, my race goals have become less about pace and personal bests. Instead it has become more about the experience of the race. I hardly run the same race twice, because with so many events in so many incredible locations, why repeat myself? For years, I’ve wanted to do an international marathon. My wallet, however, had other ideas and begged me to stay within driving distance.
Then a last minute gift graced my inbox—an all-expenses paid trip to run and cover the Jerusalem Marathon in March of 2015. I said “Yes!” But immediately I began to wonder how running internationally would differ from running in the U.S. Sure, the details and logistics would depend on the host country, but what might be some overall contrasts? Moreover, how would I pack and prepare for a race that was nearly 7,000 miles away?
Now that the Jerusalem Marathon has come and gone and I am back at my desk in Colorado, here are my best tips for preparing for and running your first race abroad. (Yes, one international race makes me a pro.) I’ll also include some differences that I observed between racing stateside and in a foreign country.
Don’t expect an international marathon to be a PR race. You are likely to use the race as a day of sightseeing. Bring your camera along and meet people on the course from different countries. It is all part of the experience. I wore a SPIbelt to carry my camera and gels.
Although you might be anal about your pre-race eating rituals, be prepared to relax a bit. You are in a foreign country that has new and exciting foods. While you might not want to sample the spiciest and richest dishes available, don’t overly deprive yourself.
Keep drinking water. By nature, traveling dehydrates you. Make a special effort to carry water with you and keep guzzling. Check online for information about the safety of drinking the tap water in the country you are visiting.
On the flight over and back, get up and stretch as much as you can. Wear compression socks to keep your blood flowing. Traveling can sometimes cause major constipation (or the opposite!). Bring along your Tums, Maalox or whatever gets you through this type of thing.
Finally, do your research. Most marathons have websites showing elevation profiles, average temperatures, aid stations and other details. If you don’t want to experiment with what is available at “foreign” aid stations, bring your own fuel and hydration.
Some Differences to Keep in Mind
Your race outfit might be a bit different from others. In Jerusalem, for example, I was the only person I saw in a running skirt. Most women wore tights or shorts. Men wore very short shorts. There were few of the knee length, basketball style ones we see in the states. There were only a handful of women running in sports bras with no shirts. They were continually gawked at.
Do your research to find out what is available at the aid stations. In Jerusalem, the description of the aid stations boasted “isotonic” drink and gels. I did some research and found out “isotonic” was basically another way of describing an electrolyte drink. At the expo, I found out the gel on the course would be GU. What I did not anticipate were aid stations with hummus, raw veggies, pickles and coffee urns.
Another difference was the popularity of the race shirt. Nearly half of the runners wore their race shirts during the marathon. I have not found this to be true in the U.S. The website for the marathon encouraged runners to do this to promote unity amongst the athletes.
Porta-potties were in short supply. People at the start were finding bushes and even squatting right on the road. Along the route, there were signs pointing to public restrooms.
And what about mile markers? Well, there were none because they were all in kilometers! This should have been obvious, but was something that didn’t register with me until I was on the course. I was glad I had my Garmin to keep track of actual miles because my brain cannot do math while I run.
While I’ve highlighted some of the differences here, the overall experience did not feel at all foreign, and there were certainly more similarities than contrasts. Running is an incredible unifier of people regardless of age, ethnicity, culture, gender or race. We all feel fatigue, joy, thirst, frustration and triumph. And in the end, we all travel the same route and get the race done.