Traveling to foreign destinations is a big trend among runners right now, both to run races overseas and to plan trail running adventures. Races like the Tokyo Marathon, Great Wall of China Marathon, Jamaica’s Reggae Half Marathon and any of the events during the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc trail running festival in Chamonix, France, are events that runners plan vacations around so they can check them off their bucket list. We caught up with elite runners Mike Wardian and Darcy Piecu, who often race overseas, to get their best advice for traveling runners.
Once he knows where he’s going, Wardian tries to gather a bit of basic information about the place, including the time zone (and how many hours away from his home), if he needs to get any vaccinations, a basic understanding local transportation once he arrives in country and a few simple sentences of the local language. “In most cases, you don’t need to know the language to get by, but you should know a few phrases,” he says. “I typically try to learn how to say or ask things like: ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’ and ‘How much does it cost?’ and ‘Where is the bathroom?’ and maybe just generally ‘Where?’ so you can point or gesture to a map or a photo. Those basic phrases will go a long way in helping you get by.”
Wardian typically packs a pair of road running shoes and a pair of trail running shoes on every trip, no matter if he has a road race or trail race planned. You can always use road shoes for a pre-race shakeout run from your hotel, he says, and adds that he’s always eager to find local trails to run in the new places he visits. But, he says, always make sure your shoes are clean when entering a country, as customs officer will sometimes prohibit their entry into the destination country if they’re muddy. Lastly, Wardian always leaves his running shoes behind so a race director or running club can donate them to someone in need. “A pair of shoes that might costs us $150 in the U.S. might cost the equivalent of $300 in some countries,” Wardian says. “It’s a pain to bring them back anyway, but the better part of that is you’re really helping someone out. Even though the shoes have been worn, it’s such a big deal for runners to get a free pair of shoes.”
It’s always important to know what the climate and typical weather patterns are in your destination, but it’s more than just understanding what the expected temperature will be when you get there. It’s about knowing how humid or dry it is, when it might be windy and what time of day it typically rains. “Knowing all that will help you prepare for the specific time you’re running your race,” Wardian says. “You should always bring rain gear no matter where you go, but if you really know the weather you might not even need to pack it if your race is in the morning and it only rains in the afternoons.”
When you’re traveling to a race in a remote destination, Wardian packs his race apparel, running-specific travel gear and shoes in his carryon bag, just in case his checked bag arrives late or never arrives. He also packs a lot of energy bars that match his vegan dietary needs, a move that can allow him to skip the airline meal entirely if he chooses. Making sure your electronic devices are charged ahead of time is a must. Insider tips: If you need to communicate with someone back home while you’re on the plane, use the Facetime Audio app or make calls through Facebook (direct to another Facebook account, similar to how Skype works).
“I always get a little bit of the local currency before I leave the U.S., but it’s easy to get money in most countries from your ATM card at a good or better rate,” Wardian says. “You can always get cash from a currency exchange at your arrival airport, but that’s often a higher exchange rate. If you get in a bind, you can usually get exchange cash from the concierge at your hotel.” But perhaps just as important is understanding what things cost at your destination, he says. “I typically find out what a Coke or a cup of coffee costs,” Wardian says. “So then if I know it costs 10,000 units of whatever the currency is, I can gauge what other things might cost relative to that.”
There are a few perils of long flights for runners, including dehydration, excessive swelling of the feet, ankles and lower legs and jet lag. On longer flights, Piecu suggests drinking water continually, avoiding alcohol and getting up to stretch every hour or so. Once you land in your destination, try to adapt to the new time zone by staying awake, eating meals according to the new time zone and going for a run, if possible, Piecu says. “One of my favorite things to do when I travel is, if I am able, going out for a run the late morning or afternoon I arrive and get the lay of the land,” she says. “I can do that better on foot than I can in a car, and it helps with jet lag a lot.” Studies have shown that both recovery from jet lag and performance in both individual and team sports is measurably better when flying westward than eastward. When Piecu flew to a race in Italy recently, she arrived three days before the race and on race day felt horribly sluggish and fatigued. “That was a lesson learned,” she says. “Next time I’ll either arrive earlier to give myself more time to adjust or I’ll fly in the day before.”
The two most important things you’ll be carrying in a foreign land are your passport and your money. Wardian suggests taking a clear photo of your passport and then saving it among the “Favorites” folder on your phone and emailing it to yourself for easy access. He also makes sure to never leave money behind at the hotel, unless it’s in a safe in his room. When he’s out walking around, he carries a small amount of cash in his front pocket and the rest stashed in an Eagle Creek money belt with his passport. During a race, he’ll typically carry his cash and passport with him in a trail running pack or a running belt.
While there is a definitive universal language of running, it’s slightly different everywhere, Piecu says. Runners dress differently in different places and the nuances of interactions between runners can be challenging, she says. “For example, there is different etiquette out on the trails, especially in Europe,” Piecu says. “It’s not super common for a female to be passing a guy, and sometimes it feels the men don’t want you to pass, so it can be awkward.” Part of the challenge, Piecu says, is the language barrier. “It can definitely feel a little bit lonelier out there if you can’t speak the language,” she says. “You could be running with someone and yet you can’t really communicate for hours at a time.” In those situations, as best possible, she tries to be overly polite, use hand gestures and smile a lot, she says.
We all like to buy souvenirs for friends and family back home, but there are smarter times and places to buy those T-shirts and trinkets. Wardian learned his lesson when he traveled to a race in South Africa by making the mistake of buying a soccer ball for his kids on the second day of a weeklong trip and then had to carry it along with him for six days—only to get it home and have it permanently deflate. “Don’t buy anything the first day anywhere,” he says. “You can usually find things cheaper, but more importantly you don’t know what anything costs in the country yet and you definitely don’t want to carry stuff around for your whole trip. Don’t know what anything really costs. I typically wait until the last day or two—or even at the airport before I depart—to buy anything.”
By Brian Metzler. Metzler has raced just about every distance from 50 meters to 100 miles, is a three-time Ironman finisher and has been involved in the quirky sport of pack burro racing for more than a decade. He is the founding editor of Trail Runner magazine, the former editor of Competitor and the co-author of "Run Like a Champion: An Olympian's Approach for Every Runner."