Competitive runners are a breed apart… Aside from the fact that they think long distance running is fun, they are willing to travel great distances for the pleasure of doing so. I do not run, not even to cross the road, but Iâ€™ve always been partial to a good walk.
Walking is gaining popularity among fitness fanatics. Itâ€™s proven to be an effective way to lose and maintain weight and it offers all the health benefits of running without the wear and tear on knees, ankles and hips. In fact, itâ€™s getting so popular that long distance walkers have joined runners to swell the ranks of â€œathletic tourismâ€.
Athletic tourism is different to sports tourism. Generally, sports tourism refers to people who travel to different countries to attend sports events, like world cups, the Olympics, tennis tournaments, grand prix, and golf championships. Athletic tourism refers to people who travel to different countries to take part in sports events.
So, when your uncle Bernie flies to the UK to take part in the London Marathon, heâ€™s an athletic tourist. He doesnâ€™t usually arrive the day before the run and leave the day after. Heâ€™ll stay for at least a week to spend some money and see some sites.
Now, typically marathons are for runners only, but with the rise in the walking phenomenon, many prestigious international marathons are making provision for walkers. This yearâ€™s New York City Marathon, for instance, was a huge hit with walkers.
There is something you should know before you think you can get up off your dent in the couch, don your high school trainers and waltz across the Nairobi Marathon finish line: walking isnâ€™t for wussies.
You need to be fit to walk 42km (26 miles). Even half marathons are challenging at 21km (13 miles). You need a proper training programme and good shoes. The best way to start is to begin with short walks and slowly increase your distance and speed. Ideally, you should join a club like Run Walk for Life (a South African organisation). Youâ€™ll gradually build up your fitness and learn how to pace yourself as you go.
When you have half marathons and marathons waxed, you might want to consider walking some ultra marathons. You can take your pick of races around the world, depending on whether you want a road run, trail run, mountain run or desert run.
The Comrades is one of the most popular ultra marathons in the world. The 90 km (56 mile) race is between Durban and Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal. The start and finish alternate every year. This year (2011) was an up run, which means it was from Durban to Pietermaritzburg. Next year it will be a down run, from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. You can also give the Two Oceanâ€™s ultra marathon a go. This one is in Cape Town, so you can experience some of the best beaches, mountains, gardens, restaurants and accommodation South Africa has to offer.
Otherwise you can try the Mountain Masochistic Trail Run (50 miles) through the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are part of the USAâ€™s Appalachian Mountains. You can test your endurance with the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon in South Africa. Itâ€™s a seven-day 250km race through the Kalahari Desert with temperatures varying between -5Â°C and 40Â°C. Or there is the Jungle Ultra Marathon through the Amazon forests of Peru. It is 230km of hard going with competitors having to carry their own food, water, bedding and clothes.
You want to see the world and stay fit at the same time? You could do worse than become an athletic tourist.
Sandy writes for a number of different blogs, including those on South Africa accommodation and other African adventures.