When it comes to world-class distance running, Kenya could be considered the epicentre, Canada the periphery. While we had three marathoners qualify for the 2012 Olympic Games, Kenya had more than 300, with only a slightly higher population than ours, says Rob Reid, race director of the GoodLife Fitness Victoria Marathon and owner of two Victoria running stores.
Some say the advantage is in the altitude, the just-right-for-running body type or the hunger to escape poverty. Others say it's simply that so many Kenyans spend their childhoods running everywhere. "On your morning run you might see hundreds of people out on farm roads, hopping over cattle fences," says John Carson, founder of Canadian not-for-profit Run for Life. "The running vibe is prevalent anywhere you turn."
Either way, given the competition, running in Kenya is good training and great inspiration, which is why so many foreigners – including Hamilton marathoner Reid Coolsaet, who's heading to the London Olympics next month – make a visit to Kenya part of their regimen, says Mr. Reid, who has worked on numerous running-related charity projects.
It was on the way back from a trip to Kenya's Rift Valley in March that Mr. Reid and Mr. Carson came up with the idea of a "running event slash adventure trip" that would give non-elite runners from Canada the chance to meet and run with (or at least behind) Kenyans, while contributing to community development. The first Rift Valley Marathon – a 15-day tour offering participants "an intimate look at what life is like" as well as the chance to run at 7,000 feet – will be held next March.
"Sport tourism is a growing industry," says Mr. Reid. "Running is a destination sport, and what makes it so rich is the fact you're experiencing a new place."
The number of recreational runners has increased exponentially over the years – for instance, last year almost 50,000 runners completed the Vancouver Sun Run, compared to 3,200 in the 1985 inaugural race. And a lot of that growth seems to come from travelling runners.
Mr. Reid says that about 80 per cent of Victoria marathon runners are from off-island, and Lululemon expects out-of-towners to make up about 70 per cent of runners in its brand new SeaWheeze half marathon, to be held in Vancouver on Aug. 11. Jamaica's relatively small Reggae Marathon, to be held this year on Dec. 1, is welcoming a number of come-from-away runners, including Toronto's Marsha Doucette, a personal trainer and Canadian Liver Foundation coordinator who's leading a group of racegoers, raising funds for the organization.
Why travel to run? A lot of it has to do with bringing variety to a sport that's inherently repetitive – and that most of us will never truly compete in, especially as we get older and less likely to beat our own personal records.
"I found I needed to switch it up a little bit and give myself extra incentive to keep running," says Josie Heisig, a Vancouver-based runner who has completed four full marathons and more than 20 halfs, including events in Paris, New York, San Francisco and Toronto, as well as destinations closer to home such as Whistler and the Okanagan Valley. "New York was cool because I did it with friends and we had other friends join us for the weekend," she says. "It became one big celebration in the Big Apple."
As for Paris, the cobblestones and whole bananas at aid stations (complete with accompanying peels), not to mention the runners pulling cigarettes out of their training belts after the finish line, made the race "a very cool way to see the city."
"Running is very portable," says Mr. Carson. "You don't need a special case for your bicycle, or special arrangements." And not only is it a simple sport to integrate into travelling, it's "the ultimate leveller – on the starting line we all wear shoes and shorts and start when the gun goes," he adds.
Part of the impetus for the Rift Valley Marathon – among the first to offer such an experiential itinerary alongside the race itself – will be to demonstrate the commonality between runners as well as to bring economic value to the community.
Capped at 100 participants to keep the experience intimate, the trip rings in at $4,599 (taxes and flight out of Toronto included) and will bring the group not only to live and run with Kenya's Nandi people, but also on a three-day luxury safari in the Masai Mara reserve, plus two decompression days in Amsterdam, making it a running trip that might cross a lot of things off people's bucket lists.
Travellers will be sleeping in a village church, on beds made by local carpenters that will be donated to nearby boarding schools afterward. Elite Kenyan runners will work the aid stations along the course's 10.5-kilometre loop as well as share stories with visitors at dinner.
The trip is for runners "looking for more than a finishing medal," Mr. Carson says. "They're looking to peel back a few layers of the onion and see what the culture is like, see what is this mystique around runners from the region. It could be a life-changing moment."