The Booming Business of Marathon Travel

I was 12 miles into the race, my lungs were burning, my heart was pounding and I thought I heard a "creek" coming from my knees.

I considered calling it quits. But then I came around the corner to see the beautiful blue sea with a backdrop of snow-covered mountains. It was a stark, but amazing reminder that I wasn't in my hometown of Chicago.

I was in Reykjavik, Iceland, running a marathon.

Friends were both amazed and confused about this plan, to go all the way to Iceland for a race. For many people, the idea of traveling to far destinations on the planet just to pound the pavement doesn't sound like a whole lot of fun, but for runners looking for new adventures, international marathon travel trips are a booming business, despite the faltering economy.

There are companies based in the U.S. and in places like Australia, Israel and Switzerland that have found a way to cash in on amateur athletes who want to see the world, with their feet.

Junior high civics teacher Michael Messerschmidt, 44, estimates he's spent over $20,000 on marathon travel so far. He ran his first international marathon in Florence, Italy in 2007, followed by the Inaugural Outback Marathon in Australia.

"My goal is to run a marathon on every continent" he said. "People who run marathons are very active people and often that includes a love of travel and adventure" said runner/traveler Sheila Bastrick, who's ventured three times to Europe to pound the pavement for 26 miles, even though she calls herself "a junior jock." Now she says, she's "hooked."

For Thom Gilligan, being an athlete who worked at a travel wholesaler was serendipity. It helped him make the leap to create a company called Marathon Tours.

"Runners knew I was in the travel business and started to ask me about traveling to some attractive events" he said. "I put the first trip to paper in June 1977 for the Honolulu Marathon in December. I went, and decided that this idea was a fun and new way to travel."

Marathon Tours now takes runners to places like Berlin, Kenya, Easter Island and Antarctica, on organized excursions that include airfare, hotel and tours of the destination.

The trips draws both elite athletes and rookie runners, but often also includes family members and friends who go along on the vacation package without ever planning to lace up their sneakers.

If sprinting alongside animals in Africa isn't enough of an adventure, Marathon Tours also has "The Seven Continents Club" for "individuals who have accomplished their goal of running a marathon or half-marathon on all seven continents," Gilligan said.

"Running is one of the best ways to take a tour of a city or area," said Mike Norman of Chicago Endurance Sports, who is both an athlete and coach.

"Many times, you go through areas that you wouldn't have thought to visit, and you come away with unique memories of that location. To be honest, it's also a much easier way to justify the trip to myself, 'I'm not just traveling, I'm going to run a marathon!'" he said.

Chicago Endurance Sports is especially popular with runners who want to escape the Windy City winter chill by traveling to a race in a warm destination during the bitter January or February months.

There are those non-athletic types who often ask, "Why would you ruin a great vacation by running a marathon there?"

Coach Jenny Hadfield, of Marathon Expeditions has the answer.

"Why? because it's there, of course!" said Hadfield, who trains competitors for both hometown and destination races. "It's why people climb mountains, golfers play courses and surfers tackle the waves. It's what we enjoy," Hadfield said.

For the more novice sportsmen who still want to earn the medal, Marathon Expeditions organizes less intense trips, where smaller distances are run in places like Tuscany or Alaska, over several days, until the complete marathon length of 26 miles is completed.

It's an option that's drawing a bigger crowd of the somewhat less athletic types, who want to do more than see the world from a giant tour bus.

"There are exotic marathons popping up all over the boomers are a large part of the market and they are re-inventing the meaning of vacation. They don't want to see if from behind a window. They want to explore," Hadfield said.

Athlete Cami Kaplanis was so eager she took three plane hops from Los Angeles to get to Iceland for the Reykjavik marathon. For Kaplanis, a grade school art teacher, it was much more than just a race locale. "It was an awesome adventure," she said. "I saw volcanoes, glaciers, geysers, waterfalls, puffins, and a few trolls... after the marathon, I went snorkeling in between the two tectonic plates, caving in underground lava tubes, hunting for hot springs."

And its good for the economy of the destination city too. The tourism department in Reykjavik readily admits that their marathon each year brings in over a $1 million of much needed cash to their beleaguered economy.

In a much bigger venue, like Chicago or New York, where some 40,000 people sign up for the big race, tens of millions, or sometimes hundreds of millions in cash gets pumped into local coiffures during the event.

But it's the exotic locales that are drawing more and more Americans these days.

Messerschmidt is hoping to cap off his world travels with a trip to Antarctica in 2013.

It's such a popular destination for marathoners, there is a waiting list of more than two years.

I'm signing up.

Ruth Ravve is a Fox News producer and long-time marathon runner.