10 Things that Could Make or Break your Marathon Abroad

Taking part in a marathon abroad can be an incredible experience. You may get to take in amazing scenery and enjoy electric atmospheres, but only if you can avoid a number of pitfalls. From the experiences I've had, I've learnt not to underestimate just how much planning is needed for this kind of running event.  As the saying goes, 'it's the little things that count', and which can really make or break an international marathon. In this article I will go through a few things that you should take care of to ensure you have the best race possible.

Racing abroad

1. Plan ahead

Some races require you to have completed a marathon in a GFA (good for age) or a Championship time, like Boston for instance. If you know you are well inside the qualifying time, it is best to book everything before the confirmation date as everyone will be booking rooms after this. It is important to book a good number of days off work either side of the event. You need time to acclimatise pre-race and it is best to rest and recuperate for a day or two before travelling especially if it is a long flight home. 

2. Train for the terrain

When choosing a marathon to take part in, you should always think about how you will be able to train for the event. I am all for runners pushing themselves to their limits and taking on new challenges but it will be a much more enjoyable experience if you can train over a similar terrain or in similar temperatures to the country you'll be visiting.

 Marathon abroad training for the terrain

3. Do your homework

Do your homework on the race. Having been caught out a couple of times myself I know it’s a good idea to have a close look at the route map, elevation profile and to read up on what the terrain is like. Previously, I have looked at elevation profiles and thought “oh great, there’s quite a few flat runnable sections” (not knowing we’d be running through a gorge with massive boulders to clamber over). 

Furthermore, I would invest in or print off some maps that include the expo and points of interest for sightseeing, prior to travelling. I would also recommend researching which restaurants are nearby and what food they offer. If you are part of a running club, or a running group on social media, it may be worth asking the running community whether they have taken part in the marathon before and seeing if they have recommendations on where to stay and where to eat. 

4. Pack Sensibly

Here are some of the ‘go-to’ things I recommend taking with you for the trip:

  • Race day kit – one of the oldest running sayings goes “nothing new on race day”. Take your trusty running trainers and comfiest race day attire to avoid chafing and blisters. It may be a good idea to take your running stuff in your hand luggage just in case your luggage does a runner. Fingers crossed it won’t!
  • Warm clothes for before and after the race – I recommend taking an old race finishers t-shirt or something alike to keep warm before the race start. It’s not much fun standing in the cold in a race singlet and split shorts! Also leave a warm hoodie and tights or tracksuit bottoms in the bag drop to get warm post-race.
  • Sun cream & sunglasses and/or waterproofs depending on the marathon – the last thing you want to do is get badly sunburnt in the lead up to the race. It is extremely painful especially if you are taking part in a mountain marathon and need to carry a bag (I learnt the hard way). 
  • Accessories and nutrition – take everything you normally use and wear on a long training run. Going back to the 'nothing new on race day' rule, use the gels and wear the race belt that have been good in training. I’d also recommend taking a travel foam roller and compression socks or tights if you normally use them. 
  • Food – If you are used to having certain food before races, take some with you. This may mean packing a sachet of porridge for your pre-race breakfast or if you have a certain type of tea or coffee, or biscuits. 
  • Don’t forget your passport & flight tickets! Also some races require medical certificates so make sure you know if you need one.

 Packing for a marathon abroad

5. Relax... and be wary of the expo!

Once you’ve arrived try to not think about the marathon too much. Take the time to find your bearings, do some sightseeing, eye up local shops for things like bottled water (in some places the tap water can be dodgy) and find some restaurant options. Try not to spend too much time on your feet, maybe go on a sightseeing bus tour; do a bit of swimming or sunbathe with a book (remember the sun-cream and sunglasses). I'd recommend checking out where the start and finish areas are and if you have friends and/or family supporting arrange where you'll see them and meet them after the race. Seeing a familiar face whilst running a marathon can be a massive boost so try to find good spots. 

Be wary of the expo! Due to so much going on it’s very easy to get sucked in, one minute you’re trying every flavour of Clif bar and the next minute you’re sprinting up and down a fake track to see how high you can get on the leader-board. That sounds fun now I’ve written that, but don’t do too much. In the lead up to Brighton Marathon, I travelled down the day before. Due to being there for the first time I walked along the seaside and spent ages in the massive expo. The next day I felt tired and my legs were heavy. It’s not worth it; prioritise your race day experience.  

 Marathon abroad expo

6. Eat smart

I’ve touched on food a little already; basically don’t try anything new or exotic. If you know that chicken and chips or pizza or pasta works, try to find a restaurant that offers as close to your perfect pre-race dish as possible. If you are in a very remote place and there aren’t many options hopefully you can rely on your pre-planning and rustle up something that you packed. I would recommend leaving the alcoholic beverages until after the race. Make sure you keep well hydrated throughout the whole trip, including on the plane or train when making the journey.

7. Plan transportation to the race

Before traveling to your race destination I would recommend researching the best way to get to the race village. In some cases traveling by bus may be the best option, there may be park and rides or shuttle buses put on by the organisers. On the other hand taking a taxi could be a good option as they will be able to use their local knowledge to get you straight to the start area. When I book accommodation I always make sure we are going to be staying near the start so I don't have to deal with the stress of getting up really early and rushing around. When I took part in the Paris and Cologne Marathons last year the hotel was within one kilometre of the race village, this was perfect.

Marathon abroad sightseeing

8. Stay somewhere convenient

Once you have found a suitable marathon you will want to book your accommodation and flights as soon as possible.  In some cases, booking ahead could actually save you a huge amount of money.

I normally opt to stay in hotels when traveling abroad to take part in a marathon. If you spend a good amount of time searching AirBnB you can find some nice places to stay however the cleaning services and breakfasts provided by hotels is convenient and minimises the small things to worry about. At the end of the day you want to be as comfortable as possible leading up to race day. The last thing you want is a rock solid bed to sleep on the night before tackling a marathon.

9. Check you’ve got the right travel documents

Once you've signed up for an international marathon you will want to see if you require a specific visa for traveling. My next marathon abroad is in Boston so I require an ESTA for my trip to America, you can apply for this online and it is an easy procedure to go through.

10. Adjust well to the new time zone

Once you have made the journey you will want to take it easy and make sure you are nice and relaxed ahead of the big challenge.  You will need to adapt your sleep pattern to the new time zone.  Obviously the further you have traveled the harder this will be.  You may feel really lethargic/tired after the flight but try not to take a nap, it is best to sleep at a normal time and get into a good routine in the few days leading up to the race.  On the last couple of occasions I have opted to stay awake, and have found that I get into a routine pretty quickly, sleeping well the night before the race.  

Before heading to bed ahead of race day, you may want to lay all of your kit out and have your race number pinned on ready to go. This can be useful if the race start is early and it can ease your mind. If you struggle with sleep before a race try reading a book (probably best if it’s not running related) or listen to some relaxing music. 

Marathon abroad race

I hope you will have found some of my tips useful and that you have a great experience if you are tackling an international marathon soon.

Written by: Steve Skinner, #TeamIffley ambassador, follow him @StephenSkinner6 for more of his thoughts on running.