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How to prepare for a successful destination race

I ran the Vodafone Istanbul Marathon this past fall, my third destination race that required a plane to get me there, and one I won’t soon forget. The marathon’s course sees participants running from one continent to another (Asia to Europe) via the famous Bosphorus bridge, and onward toward the finish line through this intricate city, where ancient history co-mingles with cosmopolitan modernity.  

Not surprisingly, travelling to far-flung races entails more planning than your local race weekend. With that in mind, here’s what I’ve learned to avoid a panic-inducing adventure in getting to your destination race’s start line. (The running part is all on you).

RELATED: Ruth Chepngetich runs sub-2:19, breaks course record at Vodafone Istanbul Marathon

The start line. Photo: Dave Carpenter

Register for your race early

Make sure to sign up for your destination race of choice during the earliest–and cheapest–window available, to ensure your spot and save on race fees. Generally, the longer you wait, the more expensive the registration fee.

Travel comfortably if you can

Especially for half-marathons, full marathons and distances beyond, resting as much as you can in the days leading up to race day is key, yet more challenging when travelling by plane to a distant destination. If you can swing it, spend the extra dough or use your frequent-flyer points for an upgrade to business or first class to get a decent sleep, and for more varied meal options. In my case on the way to Istanbul, Turkish Airlines offered fully reclining seats with multiple-custom settings to adjust your head, neck and lower back for optimal comfort and a variety of nutritious meal options, including those for carbo-loading runners. (I chose the gnocchi with roasted red pepper sauce.)

Also, make sure to book your premium flight well in advance for a better price, and if there’s more than one airline that flies to your destination-race location, pick the one that’s most accommodating to your needs in terms of rest and nutrition.

Business Class seating, Turkish Airlines.

Flight carry-on essentials

The last thing you want is to lose any–or all–of your running gear and other essentials when travelling to your destination race by plane, which often involves more than one flight to get there. Leaving anything vital for your race in cargo ups the chances of it getting lost in transit. 

Here are some key items you’ll want to have with you in your carry-on bag:

  • Race-day running gear and apparel: running shoes, top, shorts and running socks
  • Prescription medications, hand sanitizer & vitamins (especially Vitamin C; you’re less immune to colds, flu and other ailments when abroad.  
  • A small roller (or a tennis/lacrosse ball) to keep your muscles loose.
  • Runner-friendly snacks: dried fruits, hard candy and chocolates for quick carbs; electrolyte-rich almonds (if unavailable onboard) in original packaging to avoid seizure when passing through airport security.
  • Decent earplugs and a sleep mask (not always available to all on flights, or of low quality) to aid in a night of more restful sleep. 
  • Travel Itinerary/passport/health card/credit card

Acclimatize in advance

You’ve trained hard for your destination race, but all those running and strength-training sessions only go so far if you live in Saskatoon and your race takes place seven time zones away and 2,000 metres above sea level.  Start resetting your clock at home in the week leading up to the race: go to bed at a time that’s closer to your race’s time zone, if possible, and get to your race’s location at least a few days in advance. Depending on its location, arriving early will also help you acclimatize to reduced oxygen in races located at higher elevations and those held in hot/humid climates.

Topkapi Palace, Istanbul. Photo: Dave Carpenter

Destination race accommodations–aim high

If you plan on staying at a hotel in the days leading up to your destination race, try to book a room on a higher floor to avoid street noise for a better night’s sleep (but don’t count on too much the night before your race). Also, book a hotel or Airbnb as close as possible to the race start line, ideally one you could walk to in under 15 minutes. The last thing you want is to find yourself stuck in a cab, in heavy morning traffic, desperately weaving your way through a byzantine road system with 15 minutes to go before the race starts. Alternatively, if your destination race city has a reliable subway/underground system, consider taking it instead of a taxi.

Race-day morning: the devil’s in the details

Thoroughly review your destination race’s website, and email race representatives if you need clarification on important details such as race-shuttle departures times, bridge closures and transportation options to get back to your hotel afterward if your race is a considerable distance from where you’re staying. Expect most any destination race to have its own eccentricities, and, in non-English speaking countries, the language barrier is another obstacle toward making it to the start line. The last thing you want is to miss your shuttle, so attend the pre-race walk-through at the race’s expo and cover off your list of questions with race organizers and volunteers on hand, in person (generally, there’s always someone who speaks english if need be).

Eat what you normally eat 

If your tummy’s sensitive, pack packaged foods you normally eat at home and hit the local supermarket when you arrive to avoid multiple trips to race route port-a-potties. 

Finally, don’t forget to see the sights… after the race

Running a race held in a city you’ve always wanted to visit anyway kills two birds with one stone. That said, it’s wise to limit your sightseeing on foot until after the race to conserve energy toward crushing your bucket-list overseas race.

The Vodafone Istanbul Marathon 

  • Date: Nov. 8, 2020
  • Race conditions: 16-20°C, possibility of rain
  • Course: Flat, with rolling hills, largely straddles the Bosphorus Strait
  • Race distances offered: Marathon, Half-marathon, 10K
  • Direct Flights from Canada: Turkish Airlines (exclusively)