Interview with Thom Gilligan about Destination Marathons

Thom Gilligan is the president and founder of Marathon Tours and is a premier player in the endurance and adventure travel industry. He has been distinguished as the top specialist in running-related travel by Condé Nast Traveler magazine for many years. He has also been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Runner’s World, and made the cover of Travel Agent magazine. He is the former president of the Greater Boston Track Club and has personally run over 60 marathons.

Here are my 5 questions with Thom and his answers:

1) Even though you are considered a top player in endurance travel, you have decided to primarily focus on destination marathons. Why marathons?

I began endurance travel in the late 1970s and a lot has changed since then. The marathon used to be an endurance competition but it has evolved into a lifestyle activity… if not a phenomenon. This evolution/revolution means that, as a lifestyle choice, people now organize their leisure time around marathon training. It has also become a social activity and a very popular way to stay healthy. We tried organizing travel for triathletes in the 80s but ultimately the dynamics weren’t right.

What Marathon Tours does exceptionally well is blend the thrill of destination travel with the fulfillment of marathon racing. In a unique sort of way it inspires people to travel to places they might not otherwise. Intrigued by the face shaped statues and rich mysterious history of Easter Island one might have a yearning to visit, but couple that with a compelling race – The Easter Island Marathon – and now you tie in reason (the event) along with that desire. Or maybe someone has always wanted to go on a safari but needed an event to act as a tipping point to commit – in that instance a race like Safaricom is an excellent choice. Adding a great event to an exotic destination is a powerful motivator. We do our best to ensure that our travelers maximize their experience regarding both the destination and the event, which has helped us with our continued success in this space.

2) Many people come to you with various hopes and dreams. For instance, in 2005 I personally witnessed William Tan try to become the first wheelchair participant to complete the Antarctica Marathon and unfortunately he was unable to finish his goal due to circumstances outside of anyone’s control. In your business acts of nature and other unforeseen circumstances are going to happen, how do you help people cope when circumstances end up foiling long, hard-fought goals?

Most people seek out adventure because risk is part of the attraction. Runners are Type A people for the most part. In the case of Dr. Tan, we knew it would be a tough challenge but he asked us to let him try, and after consideration we let him try. Actually we let him try twice and ultimately the environment in Antarctica is just too prohibitive for wheelchairs (even well-equipped wheelchairs).

The downside is there are no guarantees. That is the risk. Especially with destination races, you never know what conditions you are going to get, what might happen between leaving Point A and getting to Point B, and how your body will react to the new environment. Ironically, that is the appeal as well. Runners like to tell stories and contingencies, acts of nature and other unforeseen circumstances help create the dynamics of their personal story regarding a particular event.

3) Reminiscing on all the fitness adventures you have had and/or orchestrated and made possible, what is your favorite war story?

I’m not sure if it is my favorite story, but certainly the most infamous story is when we had to facilitate the Antarctica Marathon on the deck of a ship. Organizing a race in Antarctica (as you can imagine) brings with it a whole set of unique challenges, which consequently makes it the coolest race on earth. In 2001, we set forth for Antarctica on the Lyubov Orlova, which is important because it is the first time up to that point that we had a ship that had a deck that one could completely jog around. Weather conditions that year made it impossible for us to get Zodiacs over to race on land. We had to get resourceful due to these unforeseen circumstances, so we measured out how many laps it would take to complete a marathon on the ship (it ended up being 422 laps) and over a hundred runners were able to complete the challenge. As a result, they became part of history as the first runners to ever run a marathon on a ship. That year this became part of their particular story.

4) Since you organize and facilitate the marathon experience for so many people you must observe the positive and negative consequences of runner preparation. What is something that you see people do right that helps ensure a positive experience? What is something you see people do (or maybe not do) that is likely to contribute to a negative experience?

When I began running marathons the common goal of most runners was to qualify for Boston. Now the common goal shared by a majority of runners is to finish. Running went through an evolution, but now we are seeing more of a revolution. There is a new class of runner that is not worried about their finish time at all. This is okay. However, I believe the marathon experience can be enhanced by setting a personal time goal. This can be specifically unique to the individual, so I am not suggesting that everyone needs to try and qualify for Boston. The goal should be realistic, and since we have been talking about destination races, it is important to mention that they should be specific to the race itself as well. They should also be realistic given the individual’s skill and conditioning. With all that said, I believe that a realistic time goal adds to the experience of a race.

Again regarding destination races, I see people not honor the fact that travel is a fatigue inducing activity. They will fly to a foreign country less than 24 hours before a race assuming that they do not need to acclimate to a new environment. It takes time to recover from jet lag and it takes time to adjust to new time zones. When people don’t give themselves enough time to settle into new conditions it negatively affects performance, which ultimately will influence the level of satisfaction they experience from a particular event.

5) What are three pieces of good advice you can give to a new marathoner with regards to their first destination marathon?

1) Always carry your race day gear (including your shoes) in your carry-on luggage.
2) Traveling by airplane is dehydrating, so always drink extra water during and after long flights.
3) There are a lot of unknowns when running in a new destination: road conditions, weather and climate, course amenities, etc. Accordingly, temper how you measure your race day satisfaction. In other words, don’t go to the Antarctica Marathon in the hopes of setting a new personal marathon best. Set reasonable expectations, relish the challenges as a part of the process, and give the event your best effort.

Lastly, as a standard rule of thumb regarding any marathon, don’t try and/or test something new on race day. For example, if you want to experiment with local cuisine, perhaps it is best to wait until a day after the race to roll the dice. Race smart and you increase the probability of ensuring yourself an enjoyable experience.