Race Vacations Offer Rewards Beyond the Finish Line

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Some people like to kick back on a beach for vacation; others hit a big city for shows and restaurants.

Not Seth Spitz. On his next vacation, the New Yorker and his wife will face fire, mud and barbed wire in Hawaii, where they're participating in the Spartan Race trifecta on Aug. 16-17. About a dozen members of their gym are renting a house in Oahu and making a vacation out of the extreme obstacle course race.

The group is part of a trend of people taking "racecations" — trips built around participation in events ranging from traditional marathons to mud-spattered obstacle courses.

“I think it's a reflection of our society,” says Michele Comeau, communications manager for the Resort Municipality of Whistler, which has hosted Tough Mudder obstacle races since 2012. “People are looking for different ways to spend their time. When they go on vacation, they're looking for something challenging and adventurous.”

About 20,000 people descended on Whistler for the 2014 Tough Mudder, Comeau noted, up from 15,000 in 2012.

“People are looking for different ways to spend their time. When they go on vacation, they're looking for something challenging and adventurous.”

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And Tough Mudders stay the course. The organization says an average of 40 percent of participants spend at least one night at the race location. Races in destination spots, such as Las Vegas, bring competitors from all corners: Up to 35 percent of participants travel more than three hours and 5 percent travel internationally for the opportunity to hurl themselves over obstacles.

Racecations aren't new or limited to obstacle courses. “People have been doing it for Ironman (triathlons) for decades,” says Erin Beresini, author of the upcoming “Off Course: Inside the Mad, Muddy World of Obstacle Course Racing.” But non-traditional races — such as those involving mud, color, foam, electricity or even zombies — now have nearly double the number of finishers as traditional marathons and half-marathons combined and lend themselves especially well to racecations. “The courses are unique ... so that attracts people to travel to check out courses,” says Beresini.

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And the competitors aren't traveling alone.

“It's got to be an experience for friends and family, too,” Beresini says. “When we went to the Spartan in Vermont, the draw for my husband was the proximity of Ben & Jerry's. It was the most amazing weekend.”

Beyond sightseeing, racecations offer a way to become part of the community, Beresini says. “A lot of times, locals are volunteering. It's a unique way to see a town's spirit that you wouldn't see otherwise.”

The trend is global, and for Beresini, it's the best way to meet people when traveling abroad. “You will meet a ton of awesome people … and you automatically have something in common.”

A racecation is a win-win situation, says Gina Utegg, who travels up to 10 times a year for events ranging from triathlons to adventure races. “If you have enough money to travel, and you've been training and want to test yourself out and go with friends, it's a bonding experience,” says the athlete. “Part of my motivation is seeing friends I haven't seen in a long time.”

That sense of community is appealing to Spitz, too. Eleven of his group will stay in the rented house, and he says they might host a luau and barbecue. “My wife and I said, 'When's the next time we're going to just pick up and go to Hawaii?'” Spitz says. Others in their group plan to go island-hopping and snorkeling while in Hawaii.

For Danielle Carlino, a recent convert to marathons, racecations provide a dual motivation. Planning for her first race, she knew she needed something to spur her on. Since she had never been to California, she opted for the 2013 Nike Women's Marathon in San Francisco. She now has five such trips under her belt. “They're just so much more fun. I crossed a bunch of things off my bucket list — I ran a marathon, I put my feet in the Pacific Ocean.”

There's a post-race lure, too.

“It's fun to go out on the town after with your medal and your friends and celebrate.”