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Marathon travel should be less taxing than the race

The Chicago Marathon often hits its limit of 45,000 runners six months before race day. The Chicago Marathon often hits its limit of 45,000 runners six months before race day. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / September 13, 2009

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For John Mansoor, an elite US distance runner, the 1985 Manila International Marathon promised adventure. He eagerly accepted an invitation from Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, and recruited other top American marathoners for the race. Upon arrival, however, Mansoor quickly learned a fundamental rule of marathon travel: Never race 26.2 miles in a country going through a revolution.

“Driving from the airport to our hotel, the army was on every street corner with weapons,’’ Mansoor said. “The hotel next to ours was completely bombed. We wanted to leave right away, but we were told we couldn’t leave until after the marathon. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out if you’re having a revolution it’s difficult to maintain security for a marathon.’’

And it doesn’t take a revolution to wreak havoc with marathon trips. As race director of the California International Marathon in Sacramento, Mansoor realizes traveling to races can be a chaotic, nerve-racking experience. The combination of flights, unfamiliar cities, and the race doesn’t lend itself to easy logistics and peak performance.

For noncharity runners, the Boston Marathon requires that entrants meet certain age-graded time standards in other qualifying marathons. Since the qualifying window opens about 18 months before race day and closes when the field reaches capacity, runners often travel to fall and early winter marathons.

With proper preparation, these races can produce fast times and fun weekend getaways. Mansoor advises “doing your political homework’’ in foreign countries hosting marathons. (In Manila, Mansoor and his fellow Americans dropped out at 20 miles, headed straight to the airport, and narrowly escaped the clutches of an angry race director backed by armed troops.) From far less harrowing stateside experiences with rented cars and late registration, I’ve learned to take a well-researched, long-term approach.

Start planning early. Make hotel and flight reservations well in advance. Follow advice from marathon organizers. Successful marathoners carefully devise training schedules months ahead of big races, remaining flexible when injuries or other issues arise. The same philosophy should apply to marathon travel.

Choose wisely. While all marathons race the same distance, the similarities end there. Topography, field size, organization, accommodations, community support, and other event features vary from race to race. Do crowded starting areas bother you? Which races produce fast times? Do you prefer courses that start and finish in the same place? Does a big city atmosphere excite you? How much do travel time and cost matter? Do you want a pace team to help reach your goal time? Answering questions like these will narrow options.

With links to individual race websites and runner reviews, www.marathonguide.com can be a valuable resource. Other runners often have the most valuable insights.

“The best barometer of whether a race is well managed is to speak to your peers who have run it before and ask them,’’ said Dave McGillivray, Boston Marathon race director. “I do believe that the better-managed races give the participants a better opportunity to perform well.’’

Year after year, the Hartford (Oct. 10), Chicago (Oct. 11), Philadelphia (Nov. 22), California International (Dec. 6), and Walt Disney World (Jan. 10) marathons qualify a significant percentage of entrants for Boston.

It is too late to consider Chicago this year and Philadelphia reached capacity last Wednesday. But the California International boasts a fast course with Napa and San Francisco nearby for post-race celebrations. Disney World gives runners a behind-the-scenes look at its famed theme parks. Meanwhile, Hartford offers the kind of convenience few other marathons can match with no need to worry about flights, long drives, or expensive hotel rooms.

“It’s very easy to run Hartford,’’ said Beth Shluger, race director. “It’s inexpensive to get here. It’s economical to stay. The start and finish are in the same place. A lot of [personal records] are set on this course and a lot of people qualify for Boston.’’

Plan around the race. Race directors and travel specialists offer obvious advice: Register for the race. Pack your running shoes in carry-on luggage. In other words, don’t forget why you planned the trip in the first place. The marathon is the main attraction. Touring the area is a bonus.

“You’d be amazed at how many people buy their airline tickets, book their hotels, plan all their travel, and they forget to enter,’’ said Thom Gilligan, president of Marathon Tours and Travel. “We get calls like that all the time. Or, they just don’t realize how difficult it is to get an entry to some of these events because they fill up so quickly.’’

As marathons become more popular, they reach capacity more quickly, sometimes months before. Regardless, many close registration well before race day. McGillivray raised the possibility of Boston reaching capacity in December, so keep that in mind when selecting qualifying races. He also emphasized the importance of running races certified by USA Track & Field or similar foreign organizations.

Oftentimes, travel agencies that specialize in arranging trips for marathoners have special agreements with races that allow them to offer guaranteed entry after online registration closes. Marathon Tours enjoys such agreements with the Chicago, Berlin, Paris, and Disney World marathons. But Gilligan and his staff are not miracle workers. He said it is too late to gain special entry to Chicago. He can, however, work some magic for a while with always-popular Disney. The race is almost 80 percent full and could reach capacity in the coming weeks.

When registering online or printing out entry forms, it is easy to view course maps and find convenient hotels. Race directors recommend booking hotels close to start-finish areas or within easy reach of official race transportation stops. While there may be more up-front costs, a conveniently located hotel will save time, money, and energy in the long run.

“When you’re making your hotel reservation, I’d recommend you try to stay at the headquarter hotel, which is the most convenient,’’ said Monsoor. “But it also sells out the quickest.’’

Mansoor added that a small, manageable city like Sacramento poses fewer issues for runners trying to get from point A to point B. The same is true of Hartford, where almost every downtown hotel stands within walking distance of the start-finish area in Bushnell Park. With careful planning, visitors to Philadelphia and Chicago can find hotels within walking distance of each race’s respective start-finish area. Walt Disney race director Jon Hughes encourages marathoners to take advantage of the vast Disney transportation system and stay at “monorail hotels,’’ offering a fun, easy, less-crowded alternative to the race-day buses.

Let the marathon work for you. Before dawn, bleary-eyed marathoners file onto school buses for transportation to the California International starting line. Been there, done that on a chilly morning when temperatures hovered close to 40 degrees.

The buses bypassed traffic and stopped yards from the Folsom starting line. Then they idled with heaters running, making dozens of runners happier than they should have been with a race looming.

Whether big or small, city loops or rural roads, established marathons are generally well-organized. Avid distance runners are often race directors and organizers, overseeing everything from official transportation to fluid-station placement to post-race recovery areas. They know what runners need and want. They listen to feedback. They aim to improve year after year.

“Relax on race day,’’ said Gilligan. “Don’t try to build a better mousetrap. Go with the flow. It’s all in place. Don’t try to beat the system because it might backfire on you.’’

Official race websites should provide useful information about the course layout, city attractions, local hotels, travel discounts, and ground transportation options.

“Familiarize yourself with the race,’’ said Carey Pinkowski, Chicago Marathon race director. “We have a very concise confirmation brochure that just about answers every question. Please read it.’’

Enjoy VIP treatment. Running through all four Walt Disney World theme parks - Epcot, the Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios - the Disney marathon seems like a backstage pass. This year, the marathon will offer a pre-race pasta dinner at Epcot and a nighttime, post-race party at Hollywood Studios for all marathon weekend participants, family, and friends.

“It’s a fun way to uniquely celebrate your achievement with fellow runners,’’ said Kecia Christiansen, senior sales manager for Disney endurance events. “It’s almost like a private party that families can buy into. The attractions are open; some shows are open; and there are character meet and greets.’’

The Philadelphia Marathon passes many of the city’s most famous historic and scenic sites. At the pre-race health and fitness expo, visitors can pick up a free “fan pass.’’ The card entitles holders to discounts of 10 to 20 percent at participating stores, restaurants, and attractions. “It’s meant to introduce people to all the things we have for shopping and dining and provide a little incentive to try something that they wouldn’t necessarily,’’ said Margaret Hughes, Philadelphia Marathon marketing director and deputy city representative.

Meanwhile, next month’s Hartford Marathon aims to show off fall foliage as well as New England runners. In an effort to attract the region’s top runners, the marathon doubles the prize money for top finishers who are selected members of the New England’s Finest program.

“We are really highlighting and rewarding the top runners in New England, as opposed to going out internationally,’’ said Shluger.

Under the best circumstances, marathon trips are exhausting. It helps ease the way when runners are welcomed by Mickey Mouse, not armed guards; when organizers celebrate revolutionary history, not make it, and encourage participants to stay longer, not leave early.

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.

If You Go

ING Hartford Marathon

Oct. 10

Registration deadline: Oct. 9

www.inghartfordmarathon.com

Percentage of 2008 finishers who qualified for Boston: 18.9 (358 runners)

Bank of America Chicago Marathon

Oct. 11

Registration closed for 2009

www.chicagomarathon.com

6.7 percent (2,110)

Philadelphia Marathon

Nov. 22

Registration is closed for 2009.

www.philadelphiamarathon.com

17.2 percent (1,241)

California International Marathon

Dec. 6

Registration deadline: Nov. 1 or until 7,000 runner cap reached

www.runcim.org

27.8 percent (1,445)

Disney World Marathon

Jan. 10

Registration deadline: Jan. 9 or until runner cap reached; currently almost 80 percent full

www.http://disneyworldsports.disney.go.com/dwws/en_US/events/eventDetail/detail?name=WdwMarathonDetailPage.org

2.8 percent (364)

Information

www.marathonguide.com

Month-by-month race calendars, marathon website links, and race and course information.

www.baa.org

Boston Marathon website with qualifying times and standards.