The rise of the running holiday

    4 April 2019

    Holidays are meant to be relaxing. No higher authority than the European Court of Justice told us so when, in ruling that employees could reclaim sick days while on holiday, they stated that “leave is to enable the worker to rest and enjoy a period of relaxation” (fans of Calvin & Hobbes will recognize this as an interesting case of politics following parody). But why then are increasing numbers of people opting to spend their hard-earned time-off in some most un-relaxing ways?

    Each year tens of thousands of willing participants choose to run for days across inhospitable places. The ‘running holiday’ is not a new phenomenon; people, particularly Brits, have been devising ingenious ways to spend money being uncomfortable for centuries. However, the popularity of endurance-based holidays has been rising precipitously in recent decades.

    Richard Bull, who organises mountain races in both Nepal and Switzerland, has seen demand more than double in the past five years, an experience corroborated by several other Race Directors. Some participants in his 170km Ultra Tour of Monta Rosa (UTMR) even sign up for additional four-day training camps in preparation and many are repeat customers. Popular websites like ITRA and RunUltra list thousands of events globally. And specialist equipment manufacturers, from shoes to nipple tape, have emerged to service the growing market.

    The Mustang Mountain Race

    Not only are the numbers increasing but so too is the breadth of the appeal. “The traditional stereotype is the middle age man going through his mid-life crisis but this could not be more wrong now.” explains Sam Heward, founder of Ultra X who host annual races in Jordan, Mexico, Bolivia, Sri Lanka and the Azores. “We’ve had everything from CEOs to bus drivers, men and women alike.”

    My first introduction to this phenomenon was the Marathon des Sables (MdS) – a six-day 250km race across the Moroccan Sahara and an early pioneer of the multi-day format. As I lay in a sweaty, sand-filled tent on the unforgiving desert floor massaging my blistered feet, licking the crumbs out of a dehydrated meal bag and being bossed around by officious stewards, I reflected on my decision. It was difficult to rationalise spending good money and precious time on an experience not dissimilar to joining the French Foreign Legion. But the race has succeeded in becoming a staple bucket list item for unimaginative London bankers with something to prove.

    The  proliferation of races means that there is now an option to suite all tastes – from far-flung jungles to rugged Welsh hills, from intense competitions to collaborative team efforts, from one-day battles to week-long marches. Almost all, however, share a few common features: they require considerable sacrifices of time and money and leave their victims bruised and broken.

    Perhaps the most plausible explanation for the appeal of these ‘breaks’ lies in the changing nature of work. In the early 20thcentury holidays were an opportunity for manual labourers to a break from hard labour and allow their bodies to recover. One hundred years later, few jobs in the developed world involve anything more physically taxing than unjamming a printer and it is our stupefied minds that are in need of recuperation.

    With the exception of the proverbial busman one can infer much about the missing ingredients in someone’s life from their choice of holiday. What better way to interrupt the tedium, sedentariness and constant connectedness of modern life than self-inflicted deprivation in a remote, exotic location?

    Heward believes that switching off is a core part of the appeal of many of his regulars. “There are no emails, no social media and no phone signal. Many funnily enough find it relaxing, it helps clear the mind and people leave with different perspectives on life.”

    As for the ECJ, I look forward to seeing how far their ruling will stretch: the next time I have to pull out of a race with an injury I shall certainly be claiming the holiday entitlement back from my employer on the grounds that I was deprived of my right to adequate R&R.

    The Gaoligong race by UTMB in China, Credit: Alexis Berg

    Try one yourself:

    • The Mustang Trail Race, Nepal –  eight days of comparatively gentle running (walking is also an option) across the ancient Kingdom of Mustang, a unique and stunning region of the Nepali Himalayas:
    • Pilgrims Challenge, UK – not all events require long flights or big budgets; taking place over two days on the North Downs Way the Pilgrims Challenge has become increasingly popular as picturesque, well-organised test of endurance.
    • Ultra Tour of Monta Rosa, Switzerland – few races can boost scenery as impressive as UTMR. Over 170km participants are able to admire the mountain from every possible angle and can choose the single-stage or four day option –
    • Wadi Rum Ultra-X, Jordan  – one of several of a new global series of events, this race takes participants on a five-day journey through the mythical landscapes of Wadi Rum in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia.
    • Gaoligong by UTMB, China – nowhere has seen the rise the popularity of running been more extreme than China. Several thousand participant now descend on this mountainous region close to the Burmese border each year for a series of epic races ranging from 55km-162km –