If keeping fit and travelling sounds like your kind of fun, read on. British expat Alyson O’Brien tells us why she loves running and gives her hints and tips on some of the better and lesser-known regional runs.
I was a runner at school and, apart from the time taken off to have our two girls Darcy and Isabella, I have been a runner ever since. I love running for many reasons. It’s free, it requires so little gear (apart from a good bra and good shoes) and wherever you are in the world you can do it. Running is also good mental therapy; I always feel great after a run.
Our running group, Run Bitches Run, has a Facebook page with more than 100 members. Our weekly email goes out to around 60 ladies, though our weekly runs (depending on school holidays and other commitments) can consist of two to 12 or more people; more usually, there are between six and ten. We run from Kith Café at Robertson Quay every Wednesday at 8.30am, and our long run is at 8.30am every Friday from the American Club. We use the Facebook page to set up spontaneous runs and as a communication tool.
Our regional runs, or runcations, are a great way to travel with fantastic, like-minded ladies and they give us something to aim and train for. We have huge amounts of fun (we party as hard as we train!) and we often travel to countries that we would probably not visit with our children – Bhutan and Myanmar, for example. The time away from our families is precious, and as much as we love our hubbies and kids, some quality “mummy time” is also highly valued by us all.
Penang Bridge (half marathon)
Highlights: We ran this in 2012, the last time that this race was held on the old bridge. We loved staying at the Shangri-La Beach Resort, parasailing, sunbathing and just relaxing.
Pros: Running the whole race with a wonderful friend and watching the sunrise after the race, highlighting the bridge that we’d just raced over.
Cons: Getting up at 1.30am and our coach getting blocked in by cars after the race. As a team, and with a little help from some male runners, we manually lifted the cars out of the way!
Suitable for: Anyone. It’s fairly flat, all road running but not a scenic race and dark for the first two hours. It’s an iconic Southeast Asian run though, and it would be quite nice to go and run on the new bridge.
What else? We stayed for four nights. Other than the race, we visited the Butterfly Farm, Georgetown, the Spice Garden, Penang Hill and the night market.
Next race: 16 November 2014
Bagan Temple Run, Myanmar (half marathon)
Highlights: This is one of my favourite runs, set in one of the most beautiful and seemingly untouched places I’ve ever visited. The people were so friendly and the race with its ever-changing terrain and scenery was a joy from start to finish. This was also the last race that we would run with our old team leader, Kim. Seeing the sunset from the temples and watching the sunrise with the hot air balloons on the morning of the race were definite highlights.
Pros: The smiles, cheers and (sometimes) looks of sheer bewilderment from the locals, particularly the children, along the route.
Cons: Trying to pass a cantankerous old cow, who was tied up on a narrow track and was doing her best to kick everyone as they passed.
Suits: Anyone, but particularly those with a keenness for adventurous travel (our internal prop craft flight from Yangon to Bagan was like a bus – we had two stops before reaching our destination) and a generous budget (this was not a cheap race). It’s mostly trail running, so people who enjoy this discipline would love this run. It’s a very scenic, flat route that passes some of the 2,000 or so pagodas in Bagan.
What else? We stayed for four nights in total. In Yangon we stayed in a small, new boutique hotel called Avenue 64, close to the airport. In Bagan we stayed at the Tharabar Gate Hotel, which was fantastic. We also visited Shwedagon Pagoda, the reclining Buddha, Aung San Suu Kyi’s house, the markets and the Strand Hotel for a delicious dinner and drinks. In Bagan we took a horse and buggy ride at sunset to the temples and pagodas.
Next race: 15 November 2014
Great Wall of China Marathon (half marathon)
Highlights: For me, this race was the iconic Asian race that was on my “must-do” list when I moved to Singapore. It was another early start, leaving Beijing city centre at 3.30am. The highlights were high-fiving the kids along the race route and finishing. The training that we endured for this race was brutal: regularly running laps of Mount Faber, 44-storey condo stair climbs after running five miles, hundreds of squats every week. So to get to the race in the first place and then reach the finish line in a good time and in one piece was a feeling that you cannot explain and one that money cannot buy.
Pros: The atmosphere, the setting and the complete and utter sense of achievement. The celebratory dinner at Nobu wasn’t bad either.
Cons: The early start and the two-hour commute each way to and from the race from Beijing City.
Suits: Anyone willing to train blooming hard for it! I trained for four months, six days a week, and many of our ladies got sick and injured because the training literally ran us into the ground – cross training, stair climbing, hill training, squat challenges, boot camps, not to mention the many miles of running that we all completed.
The first 3.5 miles of the race route are all uphill, mostly a 10- to 14-percent incline, so extremely steep. The wall section requires climbing a lot of huge steps both up and down, which is very challenging for your lower body. Thankfully the second part of the race is off the wall and is mostly flat, road and trail, but if you hadn’t trained hard enough, it could already be all over for you by now. Only the ultra-fit or the crazy do the full marathon, and if you don’t reach the halfway point within the allotted time, they pull you out of the race.
The race is amazingly scenic, great for endurance but not one for beginners. Even if you just wanted to walk this race, it would be hugely challenging. Saying all that, I would run it again in a heartbeat, because the feeling as I crossed the finishing line was worth every bit of the pain and suffering to get there. It was the biggest sense of achievement (after having children) of my life.
What else? We stayed at the Hotel Jinglun in Beijing. This was the three-star hotel included in the race package offered by Raffles Runner. I wouldn’t opt to stay there again, but it was clean, well located and had a good breakfast buffet and a comfy bed.
We stayed for four nights, from Thursday to Monday, and visited the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Da Dong Restaurant, the Silk Market, the hutongs, and of course the Great Wall! We also always shop wherever we are – it’s our all-time favourite pastime, and we can sniff out a shopping opportunity from a mile away.
Next race: May 2015 (to be confirmed). There are two important marathons held on the Great Wall, one along the Huangyaguan Pass in Tianjin, and the other at Jinshanling, Beijing. They are usually held within a month of each other.
Using An Agent
Some races, such as the Great Wall, Bagan Temple Run and Bhutan International Marathon, are all booked through worldwide agents. Raffles Runner is a local agent for the Great Wall and Bagan races, which cannot be booked independently. Buying a race package from an agent ultimately makes it more expensive, but packages include transfers, race entry and hotels.
For most of the overseas races that we compete in, we register in the same way as we would for a race here or in any other country. We then organise our own flights, hotels, transport and tours. We prefer this as we are then much more in control of costs and the standard of our accommodation.
2:09 Events Limited is a UK-based company that organises several overseas races, the May Bhutan race being one of its newest international races. The company head, Mike Gratton, won the 1983 London Marathon in a time of 2 hours and 9 minutes, and he was at the Great Wall race last year. We’ve booked Bhutan through 2:09 and they have been fantastic, very organised. Mike is also travelling to Bhutan to run this year’s race, and we’re all very excited to meet him and tour with his team.
Bhutan is a complete race package including flights from Bangkok, hotel, meals, transfers, tours, race entry and after-party – though, at around $4,000, it’s another expensive race.
There are 21 of us travelling to Bhutan for the Himalayan Kingdom Marathon on 27 May. This is our largest-ever group, and may be our most challenging race yet as it is at altitude, 7,500 feet to be precise. We are attending an altitude training gym in Singapore to help us prepare, along with speed sessions at the NUS Evans Road track, hill training on Mount Faber, running and boot camps. It’s key for us to be as fit as we possibly can be for this one, so fingers crossed we’re successful. I think the Bhutan race will take my number one runcation position!
Raffles Runner (Great Wall)
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