When Fitness Meets Adventure: 3 Crazy Races to Feed Your Travel Soul

Jun 7, 2019

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My name is Johnny Ward, an average Irish guy who managed to visit every country in the world, and welcome to my monthly column at The Points Guy UK. I left home at 18 with a dream of making a life that showed people you don’t need to come from a wealthy background to live an awesome life and to see the world.

Off I went, teaching English in Thailand and Korea, hopping and skipping from one country to another. It was a cycle: run out of money, teach again, repeat. Sleeping in bus stations, skimming McDonald’s free Wi-Fi codes is fine when you’re in your 20s, but it isn’t so romantic when you’ve reached your 30s.

I soon started blogging at OneStep4Ward, documenting my attempt to become the first Irishman to visit every country in the world. And 18 months ago, after 11 years of full-time travel, my goal was complete. 197/197 countries done and dusted. So what was next?

I started my GiveBackGiveAway foundation to help ‘give back’ to the countries that I visited, leveraging my social media and blogging for something positive rather than pics in bikinis and endless beaches.

Then I set a goal to to be the first person to visit every country, North Pole, South Pole and climb the ‘7 Summits’ — the highest mountain on each continent. I’m certainly no mountaineer — and, in fact, I hate the cold — and my body isn’t particularly built for any sport. But hey, we’ve made it this far so let’s give it a crack.

The point of my column is to showcase the epic trips that you can take around the world — trips a little further afield than Marbella and Ibiza. And hopefully give you the inspiration needed to learn how to use your points and miles to lie-flat and drink Champagne once in a while.

Without further ado, let’s get into three fitness adventurers that will feed your travel soul. Everyone loves to travel. But then again there’s traveling, and there’s ‘travelling’. So if another two weeks in Turkey or a package holiday in Tunisia just doesn’t cut it anymore, then it’s time to take it up a notch. That was my mentality as I visited Norway, my final country, last March. It was time to push the boundaries a little further.

The North Pole Marathon

I’ve always dreamed of going to the North Pole but previously, the only way to access it was by expedition. And with costs touted at up to £40,000+ per expedition, it was too rich for my blood, so I put it on the back-burner.

That’s when I stumbled across the North Pole Marathon. Running a marathon should be on everyone’s bucket list. All you need is a pair of trainers and the dedication to wake up and run for an hour or so a day. The reward is achieving something truly worthwhile. I knew that, but my beer belly was growing by the day and I was still in celebration mode after reaching country No. 197, Norway. So, I thought two bucket list items in one — North Pole and marathon.

This still doesn’t come cheap, unfortunately. You can pay in installments up to a year, and it cost me about £13,000. Believe it or not, it’s the cheapest way to get to the North Pole and you get to run a marathon, too. That’s serious bragging rights.

So how does it work? For everyone with a goal of reaching the North Pole, the first port of call is the gorgeous Norwegian island of Svalbard, an island off the northernmost tip of Europe and the northernmost permanently inhabited spot on the planet. All North Pole trips start here.

You meet all the North Pole marathon competitors on the island, have a briefing, sleep in a hotel for the last time and before long, you’re in a military charter flight north. The plane isn’t built for comfort, it’s built for hardcore landings on ice. The North Pole isn’t a continent in the way Antarctica is, as there’s no land below the ice. It’s just ice.

The runway is carved out of the ice undulations by Russian paratroopers, who then set-up a basic camp. A few tents, basic toilets and, in true Russian style, a bar. By the time the runners fly in, there are armed guards positioned strategically throughout the course to warn off polar bears from attacking the competitors.

The race kicks off just before midnight, but the sun doesn’t set, so it’s light all night. Because there’s just 2 metres of ice between you and deathly cold water, the 42-kilometre marathon is divided into 10 4.2-kilometre laps of snow and ice.

Somewhere between three and 15 hours later, you’re done. Running for hours in minus 40 degrees, thermals, big coat and covering your face to protect those delicate cheekbones from frostbite isn’t easy. A couple of quick pit stops to refuel and reheat aside, it’s a long, chilly slog. From there, it’s another night in the expedition tents, a couple of celebratory beers and soon you’re back to Svalbard and connecting on to Oslo.

So if you’re thinking of the best way to reach the North Pole — and the cheapest — get your running shoes on and run it.

Marathon Des Sables

Ever been to the Sahara desert? Gorgeous, right? Imagine running 200+ kilometres across it. That’s the Marathon Des Sables.

The MDS is perhaps the world’s most difficult ultramarathon — six marathons in six days (with a double marathon on day four for good measure) through the Moroccan Sahara. And if that wasn’t enough, it’s a self-sufficient race, which means you have to carry all your gear, all your food and all your sleeping stuff on your back as you run.

I had visited the Sahara in Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco before, but last month I undertook the MDS, and it was a very different Saharan experience altogether.

The race has been going for 34 years since a Frenchman went for a wander for two weeks in the Sahara. He got a little lost but felt enriched by the experience. Alas, the MDS was born. Now, each year more than 1,000 people attempt the race, with the majority of the competitors coming from the UK, Ireland and France. The race is held in April, and spots are limited so I signed up the year prior through Marathon Des Sables UK. It cost £4,250 and was payable in installments — thankfully.

My training plan got away from me, and I soon found myself in London’s Gatwick Airport, surrounded by people who were much better prepared than me. I then flew to Ouarzazate, Morocco, took a five-hour transfer to the desert and found six strangers with which to share a Bivouac (a kind of nomadic tent where you sleep shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers each night).

First day, you marathon and limp to the medical tent to get those pesky blisters seen to by the angelic nurses and then limp back to the tent. Cook, sleep, wake-up and repeat. Day two, you marathon again — this time with sand dunes. Day three, you wake up and run another marathon. By this point, the blisters are probably bleeding and your back is aching from carrying 10 kilogrammes through the desert. Day four, there is just the small matter of a double marathon.

The ‘long day’ as it’s affectionately known can take anywhere from eight hours for the top 10, to 30+ hours for the slowest. Day 5 is a rest day before one final marathon on day six. And then you’re done.

This is why we travel, why we push ourselves. To experience the highs and lows life can offer, and the MDS offers both — in abundance. You did it. No more marathons the next day. No more painkillers. Just that dull pain in your body reminding you of what you got through. Tomorrow, you’ll have your first shower in over a week.

World Marathon Challenge

The third and final travel and fitness adventure is one I’ve yet to do. It’s expensive, it’s difficult and it’s crazy.

The same organisation that runs the North Pole Marathon also runs a seven-day marathon trek — each day, a marathon on a different continent. You start in Antarctica on day 1 and then proceed to Cape Town (Africa), Perth (Australia), Dubai (Asia), Madrid (Europe), Santiago (South America) and Miami (North America). Runners spend about 52.5 hours in the air from the start point in Antarctica to the finish line in Miami.

How do the runners manage it? The organisation charters a converted plane, which only features 80 business-class seats. You run the marathon, transfer to the airport, hop on the plane and sleep for 6-10 hours. Once the plane lands, you warm-up, run another marathon, hop back on the plane, recline, sleep again. And repeat.

The thing that’s holding me — and many others back — is the cost. Priced at more than 39,000 euro, it’s really a crazy price. Most of the competitors do it for charity, so they spend a year aiming to raise money for the charity of their choice. That’s a noble quest, and something I certainly consider doing too.

Bottom Line

Travel is a great way to be able to see the world. If you’re looking for more than a few days on the beach, extreme fitness is a great way to do just that. Having ticked two of these races off my list, I’m hoping to someday get to the third.

Have you ever tried one of these fitness adventures?

All photos by Johnny Ward.

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