Matt Flaherty’s Guide to Trail Running Travel
(UTA 100K Photo: Lyndon Marceau : Marceau Photography)
In the fall of 2014, I raced my first international ultramarathon at the Patagonian International Marathon 63K. I was nervous about racing after the lengthy trip to the race’s remote location, but I managed it fairly well, racing to a victory and course record. After the race, I stayed in the area for another week, touring the stunning Torres del Paine National Park with fellow Territory Run Co. Wilders Yassine Diboun and Willie McBride. We stayed in mountain huts while hiking, climbing, and fastpacking our way around the park.
Racing for the first time in a foreign country was a new and exciting experience for me. I encountered mountains unlike any I’d seen in the U.S. and was fortunate to have the time and opportunity to explore them. And unlike most tourists, I had an immediate connection to the area through the running community—a common thread that brought us all together across geographic and linguistic barriers. Between the race organization and local Chilean runners, we Americans found adventuring smooth and facile. We were given tips on where to go and what to see, as well as a community to share parts of the journey with.
Ultramarathons are often run in some of the world’s most beautiful areas. This alone is reason enough to pursue destination races, but it’s the local trail and mountain communities that seal the deal. To experience the culture of another country through its running community is a unique opportunity offered to us as ultrarunners.
Since that trip to Patagonia, I’ve raced internationally another ten times or so. Over the course of these adventures, I’ve developed a handful of guidelines to help me to both race well and get the most out of my trip. I’ve outlined these below, using my most recent international race, the Ultra-Trail Australia 100K (UTA), by way of example on execution.
(Fastpacking with Willie McBride and Yassine Diboun in 2014, cruising towards Grey Glacier in Torres del Paine)
The Art of Long Distance Travel
Taking Care of Your Body: When you race abroad, odds are you’ll be flying, often for quite a while. For UTA, I actually had two lengthy flights—13 hours from Chicago to Tokyo, a short layover, then 8 hours from Tokyo to Sydney. Your first priority during lengthy bouts of travel should be to take care of your body. I always wear compression socks on long flights to help with blood flow and to minimize feet and ankle swelling. I also make sure to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water and refilling my bottle regularly. This means I make a number of trips to the restroom of course—for this reason, I make sure to always book an aisle seat. Every time I get up to refill my water bottle or use the restroom, I also take several minutes away from my seat to move my legs and further get blood moving with some light stretching, calf raises, etc. All of this goes a long way toward feeling better in the days following travel.
Packing Essentials: Another pro tip for international travel (and really, this goes for anytime you fly to a race) is to make sure all your race essentials are in your carryon luggage—shoes, kit, race fuel, and anything else you need. Checked bags can get lost or delayed, and you want to make sure you’re able to compete with your regular gear in the race you’re traveling so far to run.
Sleeping Where You Can: If you can sleep on a plane, count yourself among the lucky ones. A nap or two can go a long way in helping you adjust to a new time zone. If not (I’m not among those lucky ones), consider sleeping during a layover. On my way to UTA, I caught an hour-long nap on the floor of the Tokyo airport while waiting for my second flight (being able to lie down fully was helpful!). I used my carryon as a pillow and set an alarm on my phone to wake me up. With earplugs and a sleep mask, this was relatively easy. In fact, when traveling to a new place where your sleeping situation may be unknown and varied, traveling with both of these items can be a lifesaver. Another “must” for my packing list.
Snacking: Make sure to pack plenty of healthy snacks, so you don’t have to rely on expensive and often unhealthy airport food. I’m generally fine with the in-flight meal service, but I usually find I want to supplement it with food of my own along the way.
The Art of Embracing a New Culture (and Time Zone)
Adjusting to Local Time: First thing’s first, the more time zones you cross, the harder it will be to get your body to adjust to local time. I recommend napping as needed once you arrive, but limiting it enough so that you’ll be able to go to sleep at night. For instance, a 2-hour late morning nap to get you through your first day is probably fine. But a 5-hour mid-day nap might leave you unable to sleep at night and thus struggling to adjust. If you can simply push through your first day until an evening bed time, that is OK too. One final caveat: if you’re really struggling to adjust and get any sleep at night, of course getting some good sleep is better than none. Since ultramarathons often start at odd or early hours anyway, sleeping from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. for example may not be the worst thing.
Meeting the Locals: Everyone’s a bit different, but in general, I think a degree or sociability and engagement with local culture is a good thing pre-race. You’ve traveled to run your best, but also to learn about and experience a new place. Races often have pre-race pasta parties, film festivals, speakers, and of course race expos. By attending these things and making connections with locals and other runners, you might also hear of worthy post-race things to do or see. At UTA, for instance, when I told others that I was spending a few days in Sydney, they told me that the Royal Coastal Walk across the world’s second-oldest national park was a must. Thanks to this insider advice, I had an awesome hiking/running adventure along stunning sea cliffs post-raceEnjoying Local Cuisine: Part of the fun of traveling abroad is enjoying a new eating, drinking, and social culture. It’s fine to be a bit adventurous in this regard, but if any of the local culinary specialties give you pause, saving them for post-race is probably a wise choice.
The Art of Racing Abroad
Preparing for the Terrain: Getting beta on the trails for the race might be more difficult when racing abroad, but past competitors’ race reports can be useful in learning about what conditions to expect. Additionally, course elevation profiles will let you know what kind of climbing and descending to expect—from total vertical change to length and grade. If it’s hard to gather this information from a course profile or map, consulting past competitors’ Strava files (and any Strava segments on the course) can help fill the gaps. Preparing for the specific terrain demands of an ultra is probably the number one thing you can do to increase your chances for success.
Dialing Your Kit: When putting together your racing kit, make sure you have adequately considered what weather you may encounter. What will temperatures be during the hours you’re racing? Is it likely to be rainy? What are ground conditions likely to be like? You may want to bring several racing shoe options. Additionally, races abroad often have mandatory gear requirements that U.S. races often eschew. For instance, at UTA, runners needed to carry several extra pounds of gear, ranging from emergency safety vests, to full body thermal wear, to a backup head lamp and waterproof matches. These items were even subject to random checks on course. This meant that racing with a vest (as opposed to a handheld water bottle) was essentially mandated. Make sure you are well aware of any items you’ll need to carry, ideally practicing with this kit in training.
Aid Station Novelties: For a foreign race, it’s worth paying a little more attention to aid station fare. Things you might consider normal and count on in the U.S. may be, well, foreign when racing abroad. If your stomach is fickle or you need specific nutrition items to thrive, you may need to bring your own. (In conjunction with the above tip to pack all racing needs in a carryon, I’ve never had a gel or any other race nutrition not make it through airport security. You should be fine on that front.) Alternatively, if you race goes sideways, as mind once did at the Grand Trail des Templiers 76K in southern France, it can be fun to partake of the exotic fare. In that particular case, it was cave-aged cheese, soup, and beer. (I did eventually find my way to the finish line.)
(Racing at the Ultra-Trail Australia 100K PHOTO: Lyndon Marceau - Marceau Photography)
The Art of Recovery
The Perfect Time to Travel: For serious runners, vacationing can present a challenge. Trying to sightsee in the middle of a training block usually compromises both the sightseeing and the training (the former often to the chagrin of family and significant others). However, there’s no better time to kick back and indulge in a guilt-free holiday than post-ultramarathon. You’ll need to take a good week or two off of running (or at least very easy), and this is a perfect opportunity to adventure. Diving into local cuisine and beverage culture, meandering around cities, or hiking in the mountains all make for perfect active recovery. When I race abroad, I make sure to arrive just early enough to acclimate pre-race and then stay as long as I can post-race to enjoy the surrounding area.Going Home: For your flight back home, I’d give the same advice as your flight to the race. While you won’t be worried about race performance, taking care of yourself on the lengthy trip will still go a long way in speeding recovery. Once back in your own bed, be sure to take at least a few days easy to fully recover from the trip and the jetlag before jumping back into training. Take some time to reflect on the trip and experience. I like to either journal or blog about the places I went and the people I met, which is especially fun to look back on years later.
Following Up: Make sure to reach out and say thanks to the people you met who helped to make your trip a success. And pay it forward whenever you get the chance. Through international racing, I’ve now developed a global network of sorts in the ultrarunning community. We follow each other’s racing and lives via social media and sometimes find ways to meet up again. Just this month, I’ll be seeing and staying with friends in Switzerland whom I first met at a race in Sweden two years ago. And that’s pretty cool.
(Royal National Park, Australia )