Sometimes a race is not enough. Sometimes a runner just wants to go . . . further.
That’s what happened to Dennis Martin and Brooke Sydnor Curran.
Martin, 68, from New York City, took up running after his first wife died of breast cancer. Curran, 46, a philanthropist from Alexandria, started running to get out of the house and collect her thoughts. Both she and Martin, a retired NYPD detective, got good at running but felt the desire to do more.
“The more I trained, the better I got,” Curran said, “but I would cross the finish line with no sense of accomplishment.”
Eventually, they worked up to running marathons (and longer races) in other countries, on other continents. Now both have achieved a notable — and increasingly less rare — milestone: running the 26.2-mile race on all seven continents.
They are part of a phenomenon that has grown out of the running culture in the past two decades, at the intersection of athleticism and leisure: “runcations,” which combine distance running with travel to exotic locales. These trips, as expensive as they are physically challenging, are a growing and competitive niche market in the travel industry.
“In the beginning, running was enough,” said Steen Albrechtsen, press manager with Denmark-based Albatros Adventure. “The classic marathon was the ultimate goal, then came the mega-marathons, like London and New York. But when 90,000 people a year can take that challenge, it is no longer exciting and adventurous. Hence, the search for new adventures began.”
“No one could ever have imagined that running would become the lifestyle activity that it is today,” said Thom Gilligan, founder and president of Boston-based Marathon Tours and Travel. Gilligan, who has been in business since 1979, is partly responsible for the seven-continents phenomenon.
It started with an offhand quip to an interviewer about his company offering trips to every continent except Antarctica. “Within two days of the article hitting the streets, I got a call from the owner of a shipping company that offered polar excursions using Russian ships,” Gilligan said. “I told him, ‘I don’t know much about it, but let me get back to you and take a look.’ ”
In 1995, Marathon Tours hosted its first Antarctica Marathon on King George Island, off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula: 160 runners got to the starting line of a dirt- and ice-trail route via a Russian icebreaker through the Drake Passage.
After the race, Gilligan said, four runners announced that they had now completed a marathon on each continent. Others wanted in. “They were on the ship and saying, ‘Where are we going next? This is a great idea.’ ’’
Thus began the Seven Continents Club, what Gilligan calls a “VIP travelers club” that verifies runners who achieve the goal. As of publication, 507 are on the list.
Other operators have since sponsored races in Antarctica. Minnesota-based Marathon Adventures, owned by Steve Hibbs, holds the White Continent Marathon, while Irishman Richard Donovan hosts the Antarctic Ice Marathon and the Antarctic 100K.
Yes, that last race is about 62 miles, running on the icy Antarctic shelf.
For the record, relations between race operators aren’t entirely congenial. Hibbs began his White Continent Marathon after what he deemed a negative experience with Marathon Tours’ version; he started Marathon Adventures to offer his own packages. Donovan, who also directs the North Pole Marathon, Chile’s Volcano Marathon and the World Marathon Challenge — a race on each continent all in seven days — hosts his Antarctica marathon in the continent’s interior. Donovan argues that his company’s marathon is the only one truly on the landmass, while Hibbs and Gilligan counter that King George Island is still part of the continent.
Their disagreements extend to the verification of runners who have officially raced on all seven continents; each has set up clubs that match their own standards. While Gilligan has his Seven Continents Club, Donovan created the 7 Continents Marathon Club, the Intercontinental Marathon Club and the North Pole Marathon Grand Slam Club, and Hibbs owns the Official 7 Continents Marathon, Half Marathon and Ultramarathon clubs.
The three are currently embroiled in litigation over who owns the rights to the term “Seven Continents Club.”
Though races are the centerpieces of running travel packages, tour operators are trading on the allure of life-changing experiences in far-flung locales. The companies organizing the events “understand they are in the entertainment business,” Gilligan said. “It used to be purely competition, but that has gone through the full evolution.”
“People I talk to are just curious people that love to travel, so they’re going to tie it all in,” said Bart Yasso, the chief running officer for Runner’s World magazine. “They want to go to Tanzania and climb Mount Kilimanjaro, so they’ll do the Mount Kilimanjaro Marathon. They go to South Africa and do the Comrades Marathon and make themselves an African vacation out of it.”
The combination has proved popular. Last year, about 9,000 runners went on one of the 46 trips offered by Gilligan’s Marathon Tours and Travel. Hibbs said that 164 people signed up for Marathon Adventures’ four race packages the same year. Donovan, who limits his pricey World Marathon Challenge to 18 runners at a time for logistical reasons, does not want for participants, either.
Many of these travel deals offer perks to runners. For example, Marathon Adventures offers those participating in the Victoria Falls Marathon the “Adrenaline Package,” which includes zip-lining, gorge-swinging, safaris and an elephant ride. Albatros offers what it calls adventure marathons, such as the Polar Circle Marathon and a new race among the Bagan Temples in Myanmar. The company’s Great Wall Marathon — regarded by many as one of the most arduous races in the world — comes in a package that includes excursions to Shanghai and to see the Terra-Cotta Army in Xi’an.
Albrechtsen said one of the toughest parts of race organizing is finding the sweet spot between hard and too hard. Albatros’s races are “for the adventurists who are runners, not extreme runners who do the 100K races,” he said. Even though the Great Wall Marathon is known for its difficulty, only a third of it is run on the Wall itself. Otherwise, he said, completing it would be too arduous.
Inverting the premise, some traditional vacation destinations are adding races to their roster of attractions. As part of the Disney World Marathon Weekend, RunDisney offers the Dopey Challenge: a 5K, 10K, half-marathon and full marathon, all in one weekend. Officials say 8,000 runners were up to it in 2014.
Disney theme parks may seem like improbable settings for competitive races, but 209,000 people, officials say, registered to run in events at DisneyWorld and Disneyland in 2014, including the new Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon and Star Wars Half Marathon.
Both sold out within two hours.
One incentive to purchase travel packages is guaranteed entry to very popular international races, such as the World Marathon Majors (the six top races in the world that offer prize money), Virgin Money London Marathon, the BMW Berlin Marathon and the Tokyo Marathon. Their organizers make arrangements with U.S.-based travel providers to allocate a certain amount of spots. Marathon Tours also offers guaranteed entries to the TCS New York City Marathon and the Marine Corps Marathon.
Other races, including the Great Wall Marathon and the Antarctica trips, require that runners purchase a travel package in order to participate.
Runners may choose to tackle some of the continents alone. Curran and her husband traveled to Accra, Ghana, so she could run in Africa and complete the seven-continents cycle. The Accra International Marathon was small when Curran ran it in 2013, and she said the atmosphere was a bit out of the ordinary. “It was a Sunday morning, with church and chores, and here’s all these people and they were thinking, ‘Who are these people who clearly are not from here?’ ”
Curran became the 115th female member of Marathon Tours’ Seven Continents Club this year and is pursuing her goal of running 100 marathons — which she’s on pace to reach by summer 2016, given her current rate of one a month. (Curran runs to raise support for RunningBrooke, her nonprofit organization.)
A seven-continents aspirant myself, I traveled to Buenos Aires with my father in 2013 for the Buenos Aires Marathon, my first. We didn’t use an agency — we booked an apartment in Palermo Soho through Airbnb, rode the Subte (subway) to most places and used rudimentary Spanish and awkward smiles to converse with locals. The race is the largest in South America, with close to 9,000 participants. I was proud to be one that day, even though only a serendipitous encounter with a Brazilian couple on race-day morning enabled me to get a taxi to the starting line. My father rode his bike the final miles of the race, both of us asking volunteers to cheer us on in English.
It was after that race that I decided to run around the world. I’ve conquered the Americas with marathons in Toronto, Los Angeles and here in Washington, D.C., and I will head to South Africa for the Comrades at the end of May.
After the world, what’s left for runners to conquer?
Running travel agencies and tour operators are hoping to make many of the adventure races more communal affairs. Marathon Tours, for one, aims to offer more halfs. Gilligan and others hope the shorter distance will attract more people and foster a less competitive vibe.
Albatros will offer running tours as part of a week-long excursion through Tuscany, Italy, in May. Such trips reflect the effort to incorporate an element of sociability into running itineraries.
“It’s the social aspect that’s the main focus, and we don’t have starts and finishes, we don’t measure or take time. We have the chance to extend runs for the experienced and make shortcuts for the beginner, but we are traveling together,” Albrechtsen said.
Dennis Martin, the retired police detective (who’s now remarried), became the 86th member of Marathon Tours’ Seven Continents Club when he completed the Vina del Mar Marathon in Chile in 2003.
He is just one race in Asia away from completing the seven-continents cycle a second time, but he’s reluctant to make the long journey just to check the accomplishment off — again. “There are places you want to go, but they have to be what you can afford and will be enjoyable,” Martin said. “All those pieces have to fit.”
When all the pieces fit, there’s plenty of ground in the world for runners to traverse. And when that runs out, Donovan is prepared.
“I own the Web domain name for the Lunar Marathon.”
If there’s a continent, it has a marathon. By either traveling on your own or with a tour operator, you can join those wanting to see the world on their way to the finish line.
Marathon Tours and Travel has been in business since 1979 and offers travel packages for 46 races around the world, including guaranteed entry into the London, Berlin and Tokyo marathons. In addition, they host the Antarctica Marathon, run on King George Island, on the tip of the continent’s peninsula. Their race is sold out for 2016 and 2017, although hopefuls can get on a wait list for any open slots.
Marathon Adventures offers six races: the White Continent Marathon in Antarctica, the Punta Arenas Marathon in Chile, Victoria Falls Marathon in Zimbabwe, the Autumn Great Wall Marathon in China, as well as the Titanium Quest (which won’t take place this year, but returns in 2016) and the Triple 7 Quest, both of which feature multiple races on several continents. Also coordinates entry to the Berlin and Sydney marathons.
Polar Running Adventures, operated by Richard Donovan, hosts the North Pole Marathon, the Antarctic Ice Marathon and Antarctic 100K. It also hosts the Volcano Marathon in the Atacama Desert, in Chile, and the World Marathon Challenge, limited to 18 individuals at a time.
Albatros Adventure, based in Denmark, offers 18 destination trips, including adventure marathons in China, Myanmar, Jordan, South Africa and Greenland.
These races highlighted in the article are currently accepting runners.
Sydney Marathon, Sept. 20, 2015. Tour package through Marathon Adventures runs from Sept. 11-21, 2015, and is limited to 30 travelers: www.marathon-adventures.com/Sydney2015.html
Accra International Marathon, Accra, Ghana. Sept. 27, 2015: www.aimghana.com
Buenos Aires Marathon, Buenos Aires, Oct. 11, 2015: maratondebuenosaires.org
Victoria Falls Marathon, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, June 28, 2015: www.vicfallsmarathon.com
Vina del Mar Marathon, Vina del Mar, Chile Oct. 12, 2015: www.maratonvina.cl
The Great Wall Marathon, May 16, 2015, May 21, 2016. Registration open. U.S. travelers must purchase a travel package through Albatros Adventures or participating travel agency: great-wall-marathon.com