ST: Why runners run … away

This article was first published on the Sunday Times on 22 July 2018

BEN MOREAU – Racing abroad is both inevitable, and invaluable, for an elite runner – you aspire to compete in international championships and, once there, let your best performance shine through and take center stage.

For serious recreational runners, these overseas races represent opportunities to seek out races that will (hopefully) have the right conditions, at the right point of a training cycle, and the right company of runners looking to achieve a similar goal.

Whatever your level of athleticism, you can learn a lot from racing in other countries and the experience gained will come in extremely handy in making you a better athlete by enhancing your race-day experience and confidence.

While penning this article, I decided to ‘interview’ my fellow ONEathlete(s) and three of Singapore’s fastest marathoners, to understand their perspectives (from a local viewpoint) on overseas races. Throughout my running career, I’ve also been extremely fortunate to have raced in over 20 countries across almost every continent. These experiences and perspectives have helped shape and frame my sharing below.  

Strengthens mental capabilities

First and foremost, you will gain huge psychological flexibility and resilience in terms of race preparation when you race abroad. Different countries have different approaches towards race organization, which then affects how athletes prepare themselves leading up to race day.

Indeed, things will be different to what you are used to in a local race, especially in the final 24-48 hours before the start. Even seemingly innocuous details can throw you off your game – the race start time, how you get to the start, the drinks out on the course. What I came to realize was also how I was overly concerned with every single detail of my pre-race routine and there were just a few things that I had to focus on to get it right.

Ashley Liew, who had just completed his 5th Gold Coast Marathon

National marathoner, Ashley Liew, who had just completed his 5th Gold Coast Marathon, agrees that “overseas runs take you out of your comfort zone and forces you to adapt to different climates and environments. This challenge is essential as part of any runner’s development and is what you should be striving for besides lowering your personal best”. Going through this ‘rites of passage’ also gives you the confidence to get the best out of yourself even when conditions change – hugely valuable in any race when events don’t pan out the way you expect, as they inevitably will.

Improves race tactics

After 2 decades of racing overseas, I also learned that my ‘racing brain’ and performance has improved. Learning to deal with the different racing conditions and race tactics can help make you a better, and more versatile, runner. Be it the Japanese races that only have 500 runners  who go out at breakneck pace, Sydney’s City to Surf with the incredible crowd atmosphere, or the physical challenge of the deep mud in an English cross-country race, what these races offer are opportunities for you to discover and learn  about yourself as an athlete – knowledge that will be greatly helpful for you in future races. I find that while runners train regularly and frequently, they often race less than they should, and that is why many often begrudge that they didn’t get the best out of themselves on race day.

SA 2017
Evan Chee raised at Bangkok Midnight Marathon and Berlin Marathon in 2017 to reduce his personal best times!

Having finished 3rd at Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon 2017, and as top Asian at Bangkok Midnight Marathon 2017, Evan Chee looked back at the races he’s participated in overseas, and felt that the myriad of race experience, along with the opportunity to run with world-class professional athletes, has sharpened his technical ability to race tactically, and broadened his mind as to what his body is capable of.

“I got carried away and went out too hard” or “I didn’t know how the hills would affect me” are common post-race complaints. Races abroad can throw up ‘curveballs’ situations that can, and will, help you discover yourself and your limits. Eventually, this knowledge will go a long way in guiding you to avoid ‘beginner’ mistakes and make better decisions in future races.

Offers unique experiences

As far as possible, you should also ensure the race fits into your training schedule  – it could be the pinnacle of a training program, or perhaps a stepping stone to something bigger. Whichever the case, make sure the distance and race conditions fit into your training needs and experiences you sought for.

Mok Ying Ren
Mok Ying Ren running on Davidson Mesa, Colorado, USA

Two-time SEA Games Gold medalist and winner of Christchurch Marathon 2011, Mok Ying Ren, had this to add: ‘it is important to be well informed about race details, such as being familiar with race route, terrain, and conditions, so as to maximize overseas race experience. You wouldn’t want to be forced to drop out of the race due to poor preparation, and waste your efforts, as well as race and travel fees!”

Depending on your race objectives, Mok recommends a fast and flat course (such as the Gold Coast Marathon) if your aim is to lower your personal best or choose one of the 6 World Marathon Majors if the allure of its exclusivity appeals to you. For young families looking for both fun and run, look for events such as the Walt Disney World Marathon.

Pick a race in a country that you’ve always wanted to visit, and use the opportunity to immerse in a new culture, experience the countryside, or meet new people.

Sharpens foresight and planning

Knowing that you can gain a lot from the experience, the next logical question is how you can prepare for a race abroad if you haven’t done many (or any!).

For starters, I would suggest you modify your training and preparation to mimic race-day conditions as far as possible. Otherwise, try switching up your usual training routine by adding in new elements – different routes, run at different times of the day, or start faster than normal. This will afford you the confidence to perform even when conditions are out-of-the-norm for you. That said, I will advise runners who are preparing for an overseas race to stick to snacks and drinks that they are used to – the last thing anyone wants is the last minute dietary issue before a much-awaited overseas race!

While it’s not always possible to personally check out the course before race day, you can search out this information on blogs and forums. Leverage on lessons gleaned from others’ mistakes to avoid having to go through the learning pains yourself. For me, I will always try and recee the hardest parts of the course, the likely race-day weather conditions, how well organized the race is as well as any tips for race kit.

BSAL0005-20x30 (2)
Ben Moreau running the Sydney Blackmores Marathon when he was based in Australia. He has run in more than 20 countries. Photo credits: ONEATHLETE / MOREAU

Presents a memorable opportunity to relax

As a parting note, I would strongly encourage you to just go out there and enjoy the experience! I have so many fond memories of races abroad that I wouldn’t trade for anything – running through mills in Milan, around golf courses in Algeria, or up and down mountains in Hong Kong. When you run anywhere for the first time, it is normal to feel the nerves – but, try and remember that feeling because when you look back it will be a memorable experience for times’ sake. This isn’t always easy to do when racing overseas but I will strongly encourage you to give it a try!

Please also ensure you recover well afterward. Often the nerves and stresses of traveling can be more draining than you realize and it’s very common to feel lethargic or even under the weather for up to a week after an overseas “race-cation” – ease back into training slowly. If you can work this recovery for a few days to slowly enjoy your overseas travel by being a tourist  – all the better!

Ben Moreau IMG_2455
Ben Moreau is a Commonwealth Games athlete from England, and has raced in more than 20 countries. His marathon personal best is 2:15:52 (2013 Fukuoka, Japan), and is managed by ONEathlete. He is currently the Innovation Director of an MNC based in Singapore.

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