British Columbia

Come for the marathon, stay for the holiday: International runners boost lagging attendance at events

Vancouver can't compete at the same level as major marathons, but organizers say it offers a unique experience for amateur runners who prefer to travel with a purpose. 

Scenic venue of Vancouver BMO Marathon draws athletes seeking #runcation

The BMO Vancouver Marathon offers five different races, which start between 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. on Sunday May 5. (BMO Vancouver Marathon/RUN VAN)

Thousands of runners will hit Vancouver's streets, parks and seawall for the BMO Marathon this Sunday, and among them will be a record number of people from abroad.

Race director Eric Chene says the international participants are part of a growing trend the Vancouver marathon is taking advantage of — amateur runners who travel the world to participate in events like his, and make a holiday of it.

"Our vision as a not-for-profit is to be one of the top destination marathons in the world," Chene said over the phone from a busy warehouse in East Vancouver on Thursday, where volunteers were getting ready for the weekend. 

According to the Vancouver marathon's website, the number of international runners has grown by 25 per cent in the past two years. Most of them take part in the marathon, and not the event's shorter races like the half marathon or the 8K. 

Travel with a purpose

Chene said his event is nowhere near the same level as the six majors — Boston, New York, Tokyo, London, Berlin and Chicago, which each attract up to 40,000 of the world's most elite marathoners.

The Vancouver marathon only draws about 5,500 marathoners, and a total of more than 17,000 runners for all races. But what Vancouver and other destination marathons have to offer, Chene said, is a unique experience for amateur runners who prefer to make a holiday out of the run.

"People like to travel with a purpose," he said. "They'll build their travel right around our weekend."   

The course of the BMO Vancouver Marathon has garnered critical acclaim as one of the world's top destination runs. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

Chene says the beauty of the Vancouver course, which starts at Queen Elizabeth Park and meanders through the University of British Columbia Endowment Lands to make its way along the city's famed seaside seawall, is a huge draw, as is the fact that it's one-way.

Those aspects have landed the Vancouver marathon on the top-10 race lists of media organizations like Forbes and CNN. And Chene said the region also offers travellers other sought-after destinations like Whistler and Victoria.

Branding the #runcation

The increase of international running travel has also been noted at marathons across the U.S. 

Rich Harshbarger with Running USA, an association that promotes long-distance running events in America, says it first popped up as the social media hashtag #runcation. 

"We've begun to see quite a few events begin to market themselves using that hashtag," Harshbarger said.

One reason for the marketing push in the U.S. and Canada is that participation in the sport of running plateaued there a few years ago, Harshbarger said, but continues to grow in markets like China, Mexico and Brazil. 

Economic impact

For marathons like Vancouver's, growing attendance is about more than prestige — it's also about money.

Chene said research shows that most of the international runners who come to Vancouver travel with friends or family and stay for a few days, creating a $55.75 million economic impact in the province. 

That's a number that has caught the eye of government officials. Last year the province supported the event with $168,000 in funding.

And Chene said the marathon also gets money from travel industry-led Crown corporation Destination B.C. to support its marketing activities.

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