The words “marathon” and “holiday” in the same breath might sound like an oxymoron but pairing a running race with a long weekend away is a win-win scenario: the promise of a short break is strong incentive to get running in the first place, and having a few days off after the event is a great way to celebrate completing a tough physical challenge.
I discovered this when my husband turned 31, and the strange thing that happens to men entering their third decade started happening to him. Pints were traded in for energy gels, Sunday mornings were booked out for running in the countryside instead of nursing hangovers, and eventually some inappropriately snug Lycra slipped into his wardrobe. When he resolved to start running marathons, we also discovered this whole new way of going on holiday.
With the first hints of spring appearing, now is the perfect time to lace up and start planning a marathon mini-break. Whether you fancy treating yourself after the race with as many patisserie you can eat in Paris, chasing adrenaline on the roller coasters of Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, or simply enjoying a tenderly crafted cup of coffee as the sun shimmers over softly rippling waters in Stockholm, there’s a marathon mini-break to suit everybody.
Picking your destination
If you only have a weekend and a few days either side at your disposal, it’s best to plump for a marathon in Europe. Minimising your travel time means you can conserve energy before the race, plus maximise relaxation time afterwards. European city breaks work well because you can see and do plenty within the limited time frame, making the most of the vibrant food scenes and cultural experiences on offer. Don’t discount the more familiar destinations, either: even though Paris was already reasonably well-trodden for my husband and his friends, running the majestic route was a unique chance to see the City of Light from a fresh perspective – and I got the chance to indulge my love of fromage.
Where to stay
Most city marathons start and finish in central locations, and it’s worth trying to find accommodation nearby too. Finishing a marathon can be an emotional thing, and by the time your legs have turned to jelly and layers of sweat have made your skin gritty and chafed, the last thing you need is a long trek across town. A friend once ingeniously booked accommodation right on the doorstep of the Copenhagen marathon finishing line. After the race, he simply hobbled across the road and jumped into the shower, an experience that he described as “literally the best feeling ever.”
When to go
Most runners will be thinking about their pace and the time they’d like to see as they cross the finish line, but it’s also worth thinking about the timing of the mini-break itself. Marathons tend to run on the weekend, so ideally plan to arrive just a day or so before the race, with the bulk of the holiday to come after the run. This structure works better than the reverse: if you arrive too far in advance of the race you might find that pre-race jitters make it harder to enjoy the holiday aspect. You’ll be in a much better position to relish all that your chosen destination has to offer once the marathon is done and dusted – though bear in mind whoever’s running may well need a day to recover before they can face full-on sightseeing.
During training, many runners like to cut alcohol from their diet. The idea of downing an ice-cold beer or relishing a crisp white wine once it’s all over becomes a dangling carrot. In reality, the immediate aftermath of running 26 miles is not always conducive to a cheeky drink. After the Reykjavik marathon, my husband could only stomach water and tea. By late afternoon we were on our way back to our rented apartment for a simple dinner and TV movies until he nodded off in an exhausted heap.
If you’re planning to have a special celebratory drink or meal, try to book it in for the day after the race when runners have sufficiently recuperated and developed ferocious next-day appetites. My husband wouldn’t have fully savoured our terrific three-course lunch at Matur og Drykkur in Reykjavik if we had gone straight after the marathon – I suspect he would’ve ended up face down in the salt-cod croquettes instead.
On average, runners burn 2,600 calories over the course of a marathon. Plan ahead for the post-race hunger pangs by scoping out markets and eateries where you can drop in for a bite. If it’s a salty and starchy hit that you crave, find utopia in the friteries of Brussels where iconic cardboard cones overflow with princely portions of crunchy, fluffy fries and jazzed up mayonnaise. You’ll also be in carbohydrate heaven after running Rome’s race, while the rich and hearty flavours of Madrid are sure to satisfy any ravenous belly. Churros con chocolate, anyone?
Rest, relax and repeat
Unless you’re a glutton for punishment, it’s unlikely that you’ll be up for more physical adventures after the marathon. Give yourself a well-earned rest with memorable, chilled out experiences instead. If you run the Rotterdam race, ranked as one of the fastest and flattest in the world, spend a couple of hours exploring the Markthal: a bustling, horseshoe-shaped food market decorated with eye-popping murals of enormous mangetout, plump raspberries, and supersized sheafs of wheat. Opt for Vienna’s particularly scenic event, and it’s worth setting aside at least half a day to soak up the splendour and history of the sprawling Schönbrunn Palace.
And of course, a spot of post-marathon pampering never hurts. Sinking into the otherworldly, luminous turquoise waters of Iceland’s steamy Blue Lagoon was the ultimate treat for my husband after the Reykjavik run. No sooner had we dried ourselves off that he declared Oslo was next on his to-do list. And herein lies the real magic of marathon mini-breaks: they’re addictive in the best kind of way. With plenty of marathons happening in enchanting locations all year round, you’re bound to find one that suits you. Factor one into your next mini-break and before you know it you too will be hooked on the thrill of seeing the world one race at a time.
Best cities for a marathon mini-break
London: 23 April
Madrid: 23 April
Vienna: 23 April
Prague: 7 May
Copenhagen: 21 May
Stockholm: 3 June
Helsinki: 12 August
Reykjavik: 19 August
Oslo: 16 September
Berlin: 24 September
Brussels: 1 October
Budapest: 15 October
Venice: 22 October
Athens: 12 November
Barcelona: 11 March
Rome: 8 April
Paris: 8 April
Rotterdam: 8 April