Image: Great Wall of China marathon
Patrice Malloy
Runners conquer the steep steps of The Great Wall Marathon in May 2010.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/1/2011 3:16:45 PM ET 2011-03-01T20:16:45

Many of us look forward to spring as a time when we can shed our winter coats and don those long-forgotten sunglasses once again.

But for runners like Anne Halaby of New York, spring is just the start of another race season.

Halaby, part of PowerBar Team Elite, has completed more than 35 marathons and participated in races in 20 different states. This April, she will travel to Paris with more than 40,000 others to participate in the Marathon de Paris, a 26-mile race through the heart of the city.

And lie under the Eiffel Tower at night.

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Halaby and thousands of runners like her are combining a vacation with a destination race in a scenic locale.

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According to Ryan Lamppa, media director for RunningUSA.org, “In 2010 there were more than 500,000 finishers and more than 600 marathons,” which is the largest increase in U.S. marathoners in more than 25 years. And of these estimated 500,000 finishers, “17.8 percent participated for the promise of a unique event,” such as a destination race.

The allure
“If it’s a true destination race, you’re not going there just to run a marathon,” said Bart Yasso, chief running officer for Runner’s World Magazine. “The allure brings you there.”

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From running the highest marathon in the world — the Everest Marathon — to braving the July heat of the Badwater Ultramarathon in California’s Death Valley, Yasso has run the gamut.

Destination races are sometimes less about competition, Yasso said, and more about the location. “It’s fun to do the big race, to live off of that energy from the crowds along the New York City streets, but there is a very nice feeling to running through a smaller-scale, off-the-beaten path destination, too.”

Kelly Allen of Marathon Tours and Travel, a Boston travel agency specializing in travel to destination marathons, agreed. “The marathon is the catalyst, but it’s about the travel and the experience in the place or the country, so the runner can customize the trip around the marathon,” she said.

Among the races highlighted on MarathonTours.com are the Great Wall Marathon in China and the Safaricom Marathon in Kenya, where participants run through an African game park alongside hundreds of local Kenyan runners and within close proximity to wild animals.

The actual race also can serve as a tour of a destination. “The Rome Marathon really ties in the city so well,” said Yasso. “When else can you run through the streets of Rome, through the piazzas, past the Trevi Fountain and the Vatican, without huge crowds of tourists?”

Vote: Would you participate in a destination race? (on this page)

Tips for transporting gear
A destination race can be a good opportunity to combine a competition and a family vacation, said triathlete Robert Stefanik of New York. But the experience sometimes comes at a high cost.

“During the weeks of marathons or triathlons, in smaller, less-traveled cities like Lake Placid, hotels may require that you book four- or five-day minimums at increased rates,” said Stefanik.

And for triathletes, especially, extra costs can easily add up.

When traveling with large equipment such bikes, triathletes must accommodate their gear. Stefanik and Halaby agree that checking your bike on the plane is the most cost-effective means of transport for long distances, but prices are increasing substantially.

“When I traveled to San Francisco, the airline raised the rates to $75 each way for oversized luggage,” said Stefanik. He also had to take apart the bike for the trip and reassemble it for the race, which can add unneeded stress before an event.

To avoid problems, companies such as TriBike Transport provide hassle-free shipping, with round-trip rates starting at $290. But depending on distance, this can get pricey. Yasso recommends paying to ship the bike directly to a nearby bike store, where it can be reassembled by store employees. “Extra costs are definitely worth it. I choose to ship by mail. It’s less hassle and they are in the business of handling freight, whereas on a plane it may get thrown around,” said Yasso.

Top 10 spring marathons

Don’t forget your shoes!
When preparing for a race vacation, be sure to pack everything you need — or carry essential items on the plane with you.

“Always make sure you wear your running sneakers on the plane or put them in your carry-on,” said Allen of Marathon Tours and Travel. If luggage gets lost, especially when traveling internationally, replacing sneakers or any other gear can be very difficult.

She also recommends bringing Gatorade powder mix on the plane — to avoid carrying liquids onboard — and any other food that you like to eat before a race.

If you’re traveling internationally or have a long flight before the race, it also helps to move around on the plane as much as possible and stay hydrated.

As for Halaby, what does she plan to do in Paris other than run 26 miles?

"After the race, I plan on seeing some sights,” she said. “Tops on my list is laying under the Eiffel Tower at night, visiting the Spanish Quarter, maybe taking a train ride to Versailles, and hitting a few flea markets before I leave."

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Vote: Would you participate in a destination race?