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The Joys (and Pains) of Traveling as a Runner

by Turner Wright Oct 4, 2017

Have you ever narrowly avoided death by dashing in and out of traffic on a dusty street filled with outdated vehicles, while suffering from altitude sickness, just because you didn’t want your heartrate to slow? If you’re a runner who keeps up his training in other countries, you probably have. Other travelers have enough sense to take an alternative route or use the crosswalk.

Whenever I’m asked to describe myself in three words, it’s: writer, runner, wanderer. Running has influenced my travels in more ways than I thought possible, from finishing the Boston Marathon and then dashing over to Japan, to taking on meditation runs in New Zealand, to finding decent places to jog in the Peruvian Andes.

Choosing where to travel based on the trails

The worst possible thing you can do to a runner is stick her on a plane for 12 hours and expect her legs to cooperate. The second worst is to send her someplace where it is literally impossible to stretch her legs as far as she wants.

I learned this the hard way a few years ago when teaching during the winter holidays in South Korea. The snow that hit Gangneung that season was so intense the city didn’t have the trucks to move it anywhere. So, the roads were cleared and snow was stacked two meters high on the footpaths. And it was not an option to use a treadmill: the roof to the gym had collapsed.

Since this period of confinement, I’ve been very particular about where and when I travel. I decided against a week on Gili Air because if the beach wasn’t flat enough, or if it was too crowded, I would have nowhere to run for days. I also started judging countries based on how runner-friendly they were. China, so far is the worst. I had more luck getting around in Colombo and Phnom Penh than in Shanghai or Beijing. Even in the early morning, it’s dangerous navigating the mess of cars and bicycles in Chinese cities. There are tracks in exercise areas, but these are extremely crowded.

Seeing other countries as a runner

I believe that you haven’t truly experienced another country until you’ve seen a Japanese middle school band belting out Eye of the Tiger along a half marathon course. The US has some pretty crazy themes to its races — I may or may not have eaten cake during Beat The Blerch — but every country tries to one-up themselves.

The original marathon course in Greece still stands and goes from Athens to Marathon. Travelers to Peru can run along the ancient Incan trail all the way to Macchu Picchu with Andes Adventures. There’s even a company organizing marathons in Antarctica for those who want to run on all seven continents.

Finding high energy foods

Being in a place good for running means very little if you don’t have the energy to pull it off. Although Arequipa wasn’t the worst location for jogs outside the city, the Peruvian diet left me sick and drained half the time. On the other hand, Nasi goreng on Bali was good fuel. Japanese energy snacks are usually jelly-based and easy to absorb for long distance runs.

As a traveling runner, I know I have to have some flexibility when it comes to my diet; I’m not always going to be able to find a carb-loaded Italian dinner on demand. Even with imported food and foreign restaurants more commonplace across the globe, access isn’t always easy for a traveler. I can’t order Clif Bars on Amazon if I’m only going to be in a country for a few days — and I can’t get to the Chinese restaurant across town in time without a car.

I’ve had to turn down a few offers for adventure when I knew my long run was scheduled during that time and I needed my meals to be healthy. Sometimes you can push through it, but other times the results are unpleasant. For example, I ate a lot of spicy food in Thailand, headed out on a 10K, and was forced to turn back and sit on the toilet for an hour.

Traveling as a runner in training means accepting some limitations. You may be ready and willing to jog up those temple steps, but if it will ruin your workout scheduled later that afternoon, you might have to settle for a museum. Just as your background and language can influence how you see the world, so too can hitting the running trails abroad. For some of us, it’s better to run through the world than walk.

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