Destination runs pick up pace
OUT for a jog one day in the sleepy Laotian town of Luang Prabang, Mr Michael Gilmore got an idea. He had just run a half-marathon at the temple ruins of Angkor Wat in neighbouring Cambodia, so why not set up something similar in Laos?
After months of work to woo sponsors, about 400 runners assembled in a narrow street opposite the royal palace in October for the first half-marathon in Luang Prabang. Proceeds went to charity.
"Destination races are catching on quickly in Asia, as organisers realise it takes just an extra marginal shift to get more people to a new place," said Mr Gilmore, a British national who works in equity sales at HSBC in Singapore.
He plans to hold the second edition of the Luang Prabang race this year on Oct 12.
In recent years, races in other exotic locations in Asia have ranged from the Great Wall Marathon in China to paddy fields in Vietnam to the stark landscapes of northern India.
"Our aim is to make exciting races in areas where the runners would love to run and also visit as tourists," said Mr Steen Albrechtsen, a manager at Adventure Marathon, which organises the Great Wall Race.
Marathons and ultra-marathons in Asia trace their roots to the rise of adventure racing globally in the mid-90s, when teams took on inhospitable terrain by running, swimming and cycling over long distances.
Hong Kong, with large nature parks alongside urban congestion, leads in innovative formats. Besides an annual road-based marathon, it hosts four trail runs of 100km, one of 168km and a mammoth one of 300km.
In a marathon on Sunday, about 64,000 runners in various distance categories hit Hong Kong's usually teeming highways - a big leap from the 1,000 drawn to the first event in 1997.
"I love this race because it offers me an opportunity to run on the busy underground tunnels and roads, which are otherwise off-limits to me," said Mr David Lee, a 30-year-old consultant who did the half-marathon for the third time.
As adventure races become more popular, companies in the United States and Europe sense opportunities, sponsoring local athletes and sometimes flying star runners to Asia.
Salomon, a French firm, has led the rush of running equipment makers, with North Face and Columbia close behind.
"The future is very bright for these kinds of races as you are offering an experience, and the sky is the limit," said Mr Steve White, editor-in-chief of Hong Kong adventure run magazine Action Asia Trail. "It seems like the 100km is the new marathon."