Running Abroad – Our Travel Tradition

Running Abroad
Finishing a half-marathon at the top of the world.

I’m late to the starting line. I’m cold. I’m disoriented from a trip that started yesterday – kind of – in Phoenix and left me 220 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

The pack for the Midnight Sun Run 10K left without me moments ago. I have the road through Tromsø, Norway, all to myself. This is my initial glimpse into the country, a barometer of its personality.

I’m the first to say that I’m not really a runner. I’ve coaxed myself through several half-marathons, plus sundry shorter races. Yet 10K races have become my way of tapping into the countries I visit. This is my third race abroad; they each leave me with a medal – and plenty of thoughts.

Running Abroad: Travel Tradition for the Active

One morning in New Zealand, I slept in while my wife, Sarah, went for a run. Her path intersected with a local race. She didn’t have a number plate or a timing chip, but she followed its route for awhile. And she decided on our new travel tradition – we’re going to race wherever we travel.

A half-marathon is barely enough time for Sarah to warm up at home. But during a vacation, that or a 10K is a good distance. We pile the miles on when we travel, taking in multiple hikes that stretch as long as 15 miles. We walk as much as possible in every city. For me, a 10k is a good challenge … especially to keep my time at less than 50 minutes.

Running Abroad
One of these days, I’ll be photogenic in a racing photo.

We got the plan rolling during a trip to Iceland. We found the Miðnæturhlaup, or Midnight Run. It’s a nice cruise through Reykjavik. The course passes a zoo, athletic fields, churches. Best of all, it ends at a city-run geothermally heated pool called Laugardalslaug.

By the time we ran the race, Sarah and I had embraced Iceland’s love for its hot tubs. We saw families and friends lounging in tubs, which they usually followed with an ice cream bar.

The Miðnæturhlaup also reinforces our impression of Icelanders as cool and laid-back, more so than people we encountered in recent trips. They weren’t likely to strike up conversations like Kiwis or Aussies. They wouldn’t tell you all the insider spots to visit, unprompted, like a Costa Rican.

And don’t expect them to "woo-hoo!" like Americans do at passing runners. Sure, running races prompt wacky spectacle in Americans. Some racers revel in outrageous outfits and costumes. The spectators love screaming at passing runners. If you go running abroad in Iceland, you’ll find the inhabitants are are made of cooler stuff. I heard an occasional golf clap, but that’s it. Later, Sarah told me she waved her hands in the air at spectators and gave a yell, which seemed to boggle their minds.

The racers themselves are matter-of-fact. They get on with their run, and save the grins for the pool afterward. When it’s time to run, run. When it’s time to hot tub, get communal.

A Party with a Run in the Middle

I figured out what happened in Iceland: It exported its love for race hooplah to South Korea.

The Hi Seoul races started off with cowboy boot-clad cheerleaders leading the entire pack in warmup stretches. A news camera crew milled about, noticed me, then shot footage of my entire stretching routine.

Running abroad Hi Seoul 10K Run w/Walter!
Happy runners at the Hi Seoul race

And in South Korea, it’s never too early or too bright for fireworks. A brace of rockets whistled into the air, and the boom echoed among the tall buildings. The theme to Star Trek: Voyager followed, and the 10k was underway. So if you want commotion when you’re running abroad, this is your race.

The race passed workaday portions of Seoul, far from the palaces, the souvenir shops of Insadong and the carts selling boiled silkworm larvae. It connected to the Han River, and ended in a public park.

As we ran, spectators yelled "Ite!" I can only guess it means "go" or something like it. The race, the runners, the spectators added up to a lively and outgoing experience. At this point, I had been in South Korea for more than a week. It confirmed my impression that South Korea is happy to see you and wants you to have fun -- even if the population wonders why you’re here instead of in Japan.

At the finish line, I collected my second foreign race medal – plus a technical t-shirt and a can of spicy chicken. Perfect for post-race recovery!

Racing at the Top of the World

The Midnight Sun Run is the first time I’ve ever run a race the day after arrival. The previous races came mid-trip, after we’d had a chance to mingle, to form impressions. We slept through most of our first day here; we woke at 3 p.m., which doesn’t look much different from 3 a.m. at this latitude.

running abroad
Here’s where you can run a 10k race 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

So, what is Tromsø, Norway, all about? As I start reeling in stragglers, I notice lots of revelers in skimpy dresses. A desert dweller like me wonders how they handle the cold.

The cityscape changes from businesses to homes. The residents line the course, cheering the runners as they pass: "Heja, heja, heja!" They wave, they smile, they clap.

The course drops to the shore. Even in June, snow covers many of the surrounding mountains. I forget that I’m even running, that I slept my day away in a tent, that my timing chip might not even work since I started so far behind.

I cross the finish line, get a finishers medal and settle in to wait for Sarah’s half-marathon to start. Her race is a far bigger event, with runners carrying their home countries’ flags – quite a few people are running abroad. The Norwegian spectators cheer the foreign visitors, sometimes throwing out a phrase of Spanish or Italian.

And once again, I experience the connection that brings runners together at races. And I look forward to my next race in a foreign country, wherever that happens to be.

My next adventure running abroad will be the Song Hong 10K in Hanoi, Vietnam.

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Hi Seoul 10K Race – A Running Adventure Abroad

Seoul - a really cool place for a good marathon, half-marathon or 10K.

Being a large Caucasian guy in South Korea is a weird experience. As I warm up for the Hi Seoul 10K run, a TV news crew fixates on me. The camera sweeps over me. Records every move. Captures every lunge, backbend, hamstring stretch.

It’s been like this since I stepped off the bus from Incheon to Seoul. I’ve caught so many glances from the corner of someone’s eye. The Koreans have been discrete. And no look has been hostile. Just -- curious.

The 10k race (and the marathon and half-marathon) brings out the few other Caucasian types – ex-pats who make their living as a English teachers. They stick together in their own cluster before the race.

I’m by myself, though. Sarah went to line up with the half-marathon crew. At 6’2 with a long mop of hair, it’s no wonder the camera hovers inches from a lone white guy like me.

If the TV crew expected me to be fast, they were mistaken. The gun goes off to start the 10K race. I thread my way through the crowd. As the theme from Star Trek Voyager plays, I’m penned into the pack. After about a mile, I can finally reach a natural stride.

The 6-mile route takes me to parts of workaday Seoul. I move to pass someone -- and discover that I’m about to plow over a lad who comes up to my solar plexus. His dad notices that I’ve revved up to pass, and pulls him out of the way.

"Who is this long-haired guy, and what is he doing here?"

Soon, I’m at the finish line. I paw through my race goodie bag -- I find canned spicy chicken and chopsticks. My sweat and the morning breeze make me shiver.

I wait for Sarah to finish her 13.1 miles – and just enjoy being an oddity in Seoul.

From Penis Museums to 10K Races – a Few Days in Iceland

whale penis, husavik, iceland
Specimens from whales on display

One false move, and I could wind up impaled on a taxidermied whale penis. The walls bristle with them. All species. All sizes.

There are also clear acrylic capsules filled with them. Floating in preservative, maintaining their original glory.

Yes, whale penises are the centerpieces of the Iceland Phallological Mueseum in Husavik. It’s Husavik’s star attraction, and rising in fame internationally. (Bad news for Husavik – the museum has moved to Reykjavik since my visit. Too bad. It’s a beautiful town, and you should go there anyway.)

You’ve come to the right place.

The building is crammed with penis specimens. Field mice, cetaceans – just about everything under the sun.

Human? Yes, it’s on its way. You may have seen news reports of the recently deceased Icelandic man who pledged his manhood to the museum upon death. I guess he beat out the guy pictured at the museum: an American, sitting on a stool. Wearing nothing but a smile. I’m guessing the room was chilly.

Ready for a whale of a time?

Iceland, by the way, is also crazy for team handball. You can see casts made from the members of the members of the Icelandic team after winning silver at a recent team handball World Cup.

When you enter, the curator gives you a thick binder and a “how to tell what sort of wang you’re looking at” primer.

This attraction is definitely worth ejecting a few krona. The lighting could be better for photography. And it should open earlier (we had a flight to catch in Akureyri in a few hours).

Iceland, Husavik
Husavik – a pleasant town in the far north.

We started our day in Reykjahliđ, our base for nearly three days of tromping around Myvatn. We broke our camp at Vogar and headed west in our Suzuki Jimney. We headed in the back way to Husavik, up Road 87. The Jimney gamely cruised along, even after the road turned to dirt.

We saw few cars. The scenery was green, but not exactly lush. No surprise there: Less than one percent of Iceland’s land is arable. Yet there was still the occasional farmstead and meandering herd of sheep.

Husavik, Iceland, horse
A horse grazes near Husavik.

You have to be careful on unpaved roads, so it’s best to keep the speed down. Especially in the successor to the Suzuki Samurai! After a few hours, we arrived in Husavik.

30 Miles from the Arctic Circle

This is as far north as I’ve ever been. A chilly wind blew in from the water. Husavik is a very beautiful town, though. Since the Phallus Museum isn’t ready for action until 11 a.m., we had some time to kill. We roamed the town, had coffee, petted horses.

Grazing, horse, Iceland, Husavik
More horses!

It’s very tranquil. Groups of kids going to and from soccer practice roamed around. It’s the sort of place where people probably don’t lock their doors – ever. Some rolling hills, beautiful views of the ocean, snow-capped mountains not too far distant.

We also hit a bakery for a few snacks while we waited.

Racing to the Airport

Husavik, Harbor, Iceland
The harbor at Husavik.

I drove the Jimney for all it was worth. We pulled into Akureyri with time to spare, long enough to grab a falafel. We turned in our Jimney, boarded the plane and headed back to Reykjavik.

We checked back into Guesthouse Isafold, our reliable Reyjkavik base. And then we finally rested. Because our day isn’t over: Tonight, we’re running the midnaeturhlaup, a 10k race that starts at 10 p.m. The name means Midnight Run.

It’s perhaps the most pleasant 10k ever: Two laps through the zoo/botanical garden area, followed by a nice free soak at the Laugardalslaug swimming pool we’ve come to love. All in nearly full sunlight, by the way. The clouds broke and we had beautiful temperatures in the 50s. With sun and sweat, that was perfect. And the hot tubs were crammed with our fellow runners and their families. Good times!

How’d I do? First American finisher! You can read my full post about it.

An American Runs Iceland – Reykjavik Midnight Run 10K

One of these days, I'll be photogenic in a racing photo.
One of these days, I'll be photogenic in a racing photo.

I can now say that I’m officially a world-class athlete: I was the first American finisher in a race abroad.

I admit it’s a stretch of the definition, but here’s why: Back in June, I was the first American finisher in the MiÄ‘næturhlaup. That’s a 10K race in Reykjavik, Iceland, that starts at 10 p.m. The word means “Midnight Run.”

My time was less-than-spectacular at just a touch more than 54 minutes. I guess the previous 10 days of stomping around Iceland with a backpack and logging an average of six miles a day took their toll on my legs.

But still! I owe it all to the fact that:

  • There were few Americans. My wife and I might’ve been the only Americans racing. I checked the results carefully and came up blank.
  • The race was too short for my wife to warm up. I can usually take her in a 10K, but I am no match in a half-marathon. Had this race been another two miles longer, she would’ve just been stretching into full power and would’ve blown past me like she was on roller skates. Yay, short races!

This is one of the coolest things I’ve done while traveling abroad. The course included two three-mile loops that took us past a sports complex, the Reykjavik Zoo and a botanical area. It was incredibly pleasant, with a perfect running temperature.

It was also a great way to mingle with Icelanders and other Europeans – including a wonderfully friendly (and fast!) couple from England. They were kind enough to say that us being from Arizona actually sounds “glamourous.” And yes, they used the extra u!

The race also started and ended at the Laugardalslaug swimming pool Sarah and I came to love so much on our first day. So it was back into the hot tubs to hang with the other racers.

And I now have a shiny medal with some really cool Icelandic characters on it hanging in the dining room.

I should also add that our entry into the race is a testament to the innate friendliness of Icelanders. Sarah wanted to find us a race, so she got on the Web to find us one. Few sites were in English, so she took a shot in the dark at e-mailing a running club. A club member by the name of Torfi wrote her back and helped us find the Midnight Run and get all registered. He also gave us some travel tips.

Want to Meet Women? Lace Up Your Running Shoes

A friend on Twitter linked to this Marie Claire article about where women can meet men. And I just cannot let this opportunity go by, even though it’s going to throw a monkey wrench into my editorial schedule.

Obviously, if Marie Claire is telling you about these places to meet women, you’d do well to heed their advice. But they left something out: the footrace.

You might not expect this, but from the middle of the pack back, a 10K race or half-marathon is ripe with opportunity for both genders. See, 5ks are no good. They’re over before you know it. A 10K or half-marathon lets you settle into a groove. You can troop along at a comfortable pace where you can actually talk as you run along.

Guys might expect that women are feeling to sweaty and gross to talk. But I haven’t experienced that – in fact, they seem more aggressive than men. I never ran a single foot race before getting into a long-term relationship with a marathoner who eventually turned triathlete. That means she takes me to the cleaners during most races, and I’m left on my own. Every single time I’ve run a 10K or half-marathon, I’ve gotten chatted up by a lone female runner.

I’d guess this is because mid-pack runners in these distances are feeling good about themselves, and they’re not overly concerned with snagging a winner’s medal. Their confidence is up, they feel less vulnerable because the guys aren’t trying to ply them with alcohol like they would at a bar. It makes all us guys seem less creepy (and man, most of us could use the help). It’s a very positive environment for everyone.

What? You don’t run? Well, start. What can you possibly lose from giving this a try? A few pounds?