Have Sport - Will Travel

By Susan Farewell

Photo by Markus Schnitzer


“It’s like Disney Land for grownups,” is how Tom Phillips, a physician from Charlotte, North Carolina (pictured above) described the Vogalonga®, a rowing “competition” that takes place in Venice every spring.

Tom was one of more than 7,200 rowers who participated in this year’s event which includes every kind of rowing boat imaginable (from kayaks to elaborate Chinese dragon boats and of course, all varieties of gondolas). Tom rowed in a touring quad with three other oarsmen (and a coxswain). The “non-competitive” racecourse is a 30-kilometer tour through the Venetian canals.

The Vogalonga® was started in the 70's as a protest against the use of powerboats which were damaging the city’s historic buildings and structures. Today, it continues on as a celebration of Venice’s waters. With participants wearing costumes and singing, some have likened it to Mardi Gras. There’s no pressure to win--each participant gets a medal and a certificate of participation.

Rowing in the regatta was a great athletic highlight for Tom, but at the same time, it was a memorable vacation in Italy for both him and his wife, Lisa.

“We like to travel and be as active as possible,” he explains. Over the years, the couple and their three kids have gone on adventure trips including hiking for five days in Glacier National Park and following the Inca Trail in Peru. Now the kids are grown and they have new reasons to travel. And what better than to combine a passion for your sport with a passion for travel?

Honey, We’re Going to Timbuktu for a Race

Competitive sports are increasingly becoming major influencers as to where people vacation. Sure. Golfers have always traveled to tee off on courses around the world and tennis players often choose to vacation at sunny resorts where clinics, round robins and tennis ladders are the order of the day.

But more and more individuals in other sports (cycling, running, swimming, cross-country skiing) are traveling great distances to compete in athletic events, often planning their vacations around them.

Dorian Kail, a runner from Westport, Connecticut, is one of them. “I like to set it up so my family can have a vacation but I can also run in a marathon," she says. "It’s nice to go someplace where we can all learn something and at the same time, I can run a good race.” The family includes her husband Sam, and three kids (now ages 7, 10 and 13). She has a short list of marathons she has yet to do including Berlin. “Once I run Berlin, I’ll have done all five of the World Majors." The others are New York, Chicago, Boston and London, (in fact, she has run the London Marathon five times).

New Challenges

For most people, traveling for a race or competition provides new challenges that they can’t necessarily find at home. Artour Samsonov, a cyclist (pictured here), traveled from New York to France in 2009 to ride in L'Etape du Tour (an annual race open to riders of all abilities that takes place over one of the stages of that year's Tour de France). That year, the chosen stage was from Montelimar to the top of the legendary (in the cycling community) Mount Ventoux. “It was a brutal experience of riding 172km in a 40C degree heat, and having to climb the last 20km at 7.5% average gradient,” he explains. “While I knew I was never going to win the event (it was won by a French pro bike rider), it was the challenge of finishing the ride that attracted me to it in the first place. I do not think I would have traveled 3,000 miles to ride in an easy race which I had no chance of winning...it had to be a challenge I could not find in my backyard. It had to be epic!”

Often in international events, the field includes professional athletes as well as amateurs, providing the participants with an another level of excitement. It’s not every day one gets to test his or her skills against Olympic and other world-class athletes.

The Spirit of Place

Many events open a window into the local cultures of the countries in which they take place. At the Vasaloppet, a 90-kilometer cross-country ski race in Dalarna, Sweden, skiers drink a Nordic concoction known as blueberry soup (like a tea) to stay warm and energized. In Akureyri, Iceland, golfers participating in the Arctic Open tee off at midnight on the longest day of the year. And at the Rei e Rainha do Mar Desafio (the King and Queen of the Sea Challenge), an open water swim in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the country’s passion for music fills the air with live bands at the start and finish lines.

Lay of the Lands

Many of the events provide competitors with access to parts of the destination they might otherwise never see. All of the cross-country ski races (whether it’s the Lake Placid Loppet, the Vasaloppet USA in Mora, Minnesota or the Birkebeiner in Norway), take skiers deep into the snow-covered forests. Some of the marathons provide a tour of a city’s many neighborhoods, including the New York Marathon, which takes in all five boroughs.

And there are some that offer all-out bragging rights about the part of the country one is not only seeing, but racing in. Swimmers competing in The Bosphorus Cross-Continental Swim in Istanbul can claim they swam between Asia and Europe.

What About Us?

So how do the family members and partners who aren’t competing feel about spending their vacation (or at least a good part of it) at a racecourse?

We spoke to a couple of rowing spouses who could not have been happier about tagging along on the Venice trip for the Vogalonga®. Lisa Phillips (wife of the rower, Tom) tells us that being in Venice for the regatta made her look at the city through different eyes and therefore made the trip more fulfilling. Kathleen L’Hommedieu, who runs a company called Rowgue, which arranges for rowers to row in the Vogalonga, tells us that many spouses accompany their partners on her trips. “Sometimes they’ll do their own thing, like sightseeing and shopping, but we all come together for meals. And we stay in apartments that are authentic so you feel like you’re a local.”

For Dorian Kail’s family (kids pictured here), the vacations planned around marathons are usually a lot of fun. “We go to new restaurants, museums…” The downside, however, is that there’s some stress before any athletic event. “While I’d like to have every vacation around a marathon, I can’t do that to the kids,” she says. “I’m a bit uptight and neurotic the night before a race.”

We did hear from one athlete’s partner who was along for the event, but wound up getting the surprise of her life. “We got engaged at the finish line, on the top of Mount Ventous, with the beautiful Provence countryside all around,” explains Artour Samsonov. He adds, “I carried the ring the whole distance and probably only finished the race because I knew that I had a big proposal to make at the end. I was so exhausted that when I kneeled, she thought I was collapsing and grabbed my arms to pull me back up. The proposal then and there was definitely a surprise for her! ”

An Easier Option

So what about competing in international events but not having to put yourself under so much physical pressure? Afterall, if you’re on vacation with your spouse, kids or friends, you need something left over to enjoy the area’s attractions and food.

Fortunately, there are an increasing number of shorter races such as the New York half marathon in March which attracts many international runners. And in Sweden, the women have their own version of the Vasaloppet—the Tjejvasan which is a 30-kilometer cross-country ski race.

Jessica Kunzer of Salt Lake City, Utah, always likes to set her sights on traveling for half marathons in different parts of the U.S. “I like to go with friends and make it a mini vacation. That way, we not only have fun, but we ‘re doing something healthy and it’s an accomplishment.”

Traveling anywhere to compete is an accomplishment. An accomplishment indeed…made all the sweeter if it can be followed by Bellinis on the patio, overlooking the Venetian canals.

Photo credits:   Rower in Venice by Markus Schnitzer; ski and cycling shots by Nancie Battaglia; golf courtesy of the Arctic Open.

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