Where do you plan to be on October 12? Here's a suggestion: How about joining the Luang Prabang charity half-marathon in Laos? It's not only rated among the top destination running races in Asia, you can also take in a U.N. World Heritage Site without being jostled by someone aiming for a personal-best time. And better still, you get to do some good.
The brainchild of Michael Gilmore, a former banker who lives in Singapore, the Luang Prabang run last year drew about 250 participants from across the world and raised more than $125,000 for a vocational training center.
This wasn't your typical pasta-party-energy-drink kind of marathon. From a traditional Laotian baci ceremony and drinks by the pool at the luxury Amantaka Hotel the evening before, to a route that wound past temples and the Mekong river, passing saffron-clad monks on their alms rounds and featuring cake and juice stops, it was a completely different running experience. This year it will raise money for a specialist children's hospital.
“From the first time I ran in Luang Prabang, I felt like it should have a race,” said Gilmore, who has competed in marathons in Asia for eight years. “With a run, we can get people to come here, make a holiday of it and also benefit the community. It can be the loveliest run in the world if we do it right.”
If you can't make it to Luang Prabang, don't fret; you're spoiled for choice in Asia. You may have to contend with a scarcity of hotels, fewer paved roads and slow flight connections. But any inconvenience is more than made up for by the sheer atmosphere and attitude, with a healthy dose of altruism thrown in.
Consider the Mount Bromo Marathon in Indonesia, which raised money for a school library last year. Or the Da Nang run in Vietnam, which helped fund a cancer hospital. Or the Bali Marathon, or the Yoma-Yangon and Bagan marathons in Myanmar and the Auroville marathon in South India. Expect to be serenaded by gamelan musicians and young legong dancers in Bali, wave at monks in Myanmar, pause to take pictures of temple ruins in Siem Reap, and be treated to a hearty cooked breakfast at Auroville.
If it's a personal-best timing you're keen on, you're probably better off at one of the bigger races in Singapore, Bangkok or Tokyo, where tens of thousands compete every year; some of these smaller runs don't have timing chips or prize money, and your only reward may be a handmade elephant key-ring or a soapstone medallion.
“I did the Yangon run because I'd never been to Myanmar and I wanted to run the first marathon there and see the country,” said Rajesh Misra, who lives in Hong Kong. He ran the Yangon marathon last year. “It was difficult finding a hotel room, but the atmosphere was fabulous. It was more satisfying than the bigger runs; everyone was having fun, so it didn't feel as competitive or stressful.”
It was a similar scene at the inaugural Mount Bromo run last September, which drew more than 900 runners, nearly a third of them from around 30 countries outside Indonesia. They got to run along a volcanic crater and side peaks in East Java, and hang out with villagers in homestays.
The run was organized by Shane Butler, a former U.S. Peace Corps volunteer who taught English in the Tengger Highlands in East Java and believes races such as this one must be kept small. The run this year is slated for Sept. 7 and caps entries across categories at 1,500.
“The atmosphere with close-knit runners is more enjoyable – there is a smaller, more intimate vibe,” said Butler, a California native. “This is a tough place to get to, so people have to be really committed to get here and run. Several people made a holiday of it, going to other parts of Indonesia.”
That’s another benefit to these runs: They bring in valuable foreign exchange and visitors to countries that desperately need them, and tend to tie up with local businesses rather than with big-name sponsors. As a runner, you are probably more ecologically-aware and high-spending than say, the average football fan.
These small runs also tend to be less damaging to the environment. Gilmore would prefer to keep it that way. He’s not in favor of a full 42-kilometer course. “As a distance, it's a little anti-social, and a big part of organizing this race is to have a great party,” he said.
Gilmore, like Butler, is keen to get the local community more involved. They hope that locals eventually will take over the organization of the marathon, while keeping the friendly vibe and making sure it stays eco-friendly and charitable.
Given how popular some runs can get, it's a challenge. The Angkor Wat half-marathon, now in its 18th edition with an unbeatable route through the World Heritage Site temple complex, drew more than 15,000 runners last year, raising questions about just how sustainable and enjoyable it is.
They could look to Auroville for inspiration. Introduced in 2008 for the residents of the township near the former French colony of Pondicherry, made famous by the book and Oscar-winning film Life of Pi, Auroville has retained its small-run philosophy even as more runners have showed up. The ground rules: no corporate sponsors, no goodie bags, no timing chips. Markings are made on cardboard or spray painted on the trail, with race times recorded manually at the finish line. Volunteers from the community hand out water, a homemade energy drink, bananas and peanut candy. Kids standing on chairs cheerfully spritz runners with water, and a hot South Indian breakfast is served at the finish.
“The Auroville marathon believes that all those who participate and finish the distance are winners,” the website declares. “Run for the joy of running.” That’s the grand prize.