The rising trend of extreme endurance travel to exotic locations


They Cayman Islands are about more than lounging on sandbars; photo by Courtney Baird.

Most people think of the Cayman Islands as the perfect spot for outdoor naps, salty breezes, and white sand beaches.

But a growing group of people actually views the Cayman Islands as the perfect spot to suffer through a humid, hot marathon. In fact, each year, more and more people are getting their butts out of their comfy hotel-room beds for the 5:00 a.m. start time of the Intertrust Cayman Islands Marathon and Half Marathon, which is usually held in December.

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Christiansted, St. Croix, the site of the popular Ironman St. Croix triathlon, which draws participants from all over the world. Photo by Courtney Baird

"We have seen a consistent increase in visitors every year since we started [ten years ago]," said Rhonda Kelly, the marathon's co-race director. "…Many of the visitors have our event on their vacation calendars, and we know many couples who come and run the event and stay a week or even longer for vacation afterwards."

Out of the race's 1,200 participants last year, 320 of them were foreign, a 20 percent increase from the year before, Kelly says. And she estimates that these 320 visitors brought another 300 to 700 visitors with them to the islands, making the race a significant tourism event for the country.

The marathon's growth is indicative of the rising phenomenon of extreme endurance travel, where runners, cyclists, triathletes, and other endurance athletes spend thousands of dollars to travel thousands of miles to brutalize themselves under harsh conditions.

Yes, harsh conditions—because while the Cayman Islands may be gorgeous, running in their humidity is no easy task, especially when there's so much incentive to just skip the race and go snorkeling in the peacefully warm water outside your room.

But people do it because of the sense of accomplishment they feel afterward, the bonding experience they get with the friends and family they travel and run with—and because, perhaps counterintuitively, the race allows them to enjoy their vacation more than they would otherwise, as it prevents them from feeling guilty about eating that extra piece of key lime pie or lounging around for five or six days without so much as taking a real shower.

Other popular extreme destination races include the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon, which saw such ferocious wind and heat in 2011 that nearly half its professional men failed to finish. Despite the conditions, the race has experienced explosive growth, nearly tripling its amateur participants in four years to 2,000 this year, according to race statistics.

But extreme climates aren't the only draw to endurance athletes—they're also drawn to high-profile events such as big, overseas marathons. And they're willing to pay large sums of money to travel to these marathons just so they can do what they can easily do at home: run.

"There has been a significant increase in travel to overseas marathons during the past five years," said Thom Gilligan, the president of Boston-based Marathon Tours & Travel, which specializes in travel packages to marathons (both high-profile and exotic) around the world. "… The Berlin Marathon filled up online for the 2013 in 3½ hours. They filled for the 2012 event in 2 ½ months. This is a worldwide phenomenon."

So the next time you're planning a trip to some exotic locale, double check to see if it hosts an endurance event—it might just make the trip one of the most memorable of your life.

Follow Courtney Baird on Twitter.

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Participants of the annual Abu Dhabi International Triathlon get to explore the exclusive Emirates Palace hotel when they’re not suffering by biking and running under the excoriating Arabian sun. Photo by Courtney Baird