So far, Aileen Ho has taken part in more than 114 marathons… even though she doesn’t like running.
Said Aileen, 39, a lecturer, “I’ve I never enjoyed running, but it was a way for me to test my limit and to measure my level of fitness. I went on to conquer my first full marathon in 2004 purely out of curiosity, as I had already conquered the 5km, 10km and 21km distances.”
Seeing the world through marathon running
And now, Aileen’s main reason for running, is to see the world, through the marathons. She said, “I was taken aback when I realised that I had gained weight after my backpacking trip, to Europe and USA in 2007. So running overseas has also provided me with an avenue to exercise and allowed me to indulge in my favourite food without feeling guilty or the fear of gaining weight.”
Another reason why she runs overseas, is make new friends from other cultures. Aileen added, “Winning a trip to the 2008 Shonan 10km race via an online contest changed my life. Back then, I was an avid water sports person who was into wake boarding, scuba diving and sailing.”
She continued, “The Shonan race had opened up my world as I got to befriend many passionate runners from other countries. I was overwhelmed by the positive experience and exposure, which got me hooked onto running overseas.”
Since then she has been hooked by the travelling and running bug, and has been to marathons taking place in cities from all over the world, ranging from Cebu in the Philippines to Taiwan, Samcheok in Korea, to big city marathons in New York City in the USA and Tokyo in Japan.
Said Aileen, “All of these places are equally unique to me and none of them in particular caught my eye over the other – you really need to travel and experience these places personally.”
Challenges of travelling overseas to run
Running and travelling overseas does not come without its challenges though, especially considering Aileen’s tendency to push her limits in both travelling and running.
She said “I have the tendency to push my limits when it comes to travelling and exploring different ways to travel. One of my most challenging trips was having to travel to various cities within a single trip, to complete three marathons in different parts of Europe in 17 days.”
She has a tendency too, to visit places based purely on the instructions of her local friends there. Said Aileen, “I have absolute trust in my friend that I just follow the instructions without much research done. Most of the time, I would not know where I had been until I returned to Singapore to look up more information about the place.”
But as a frequent traveller, Aileen also points out that it is important for her to spend her cash wisely. She said “To find a fine balance between comfort and affordability has proven to be challenging at times.”
Also matching of flight times to fit into her schedule can also be quite difficult too. She said, “I need to do some rather extensive research, at least six months in advance. This can be quite challenging too.”
She continued, “So I usually plan my next marathon travel trips at least six to nine months prior to the trip – but sometimes I may alter the itinerary if I chance upon some places which appear to be more interesting and worth exploring.”
She plans her trips in advance
Planning her trips in advance too, Aileen pointed out, can also help her to snag a good deal on air tickets, which is typically the most expensive part of any overseas trip.
She added, “But as a frequent traveller, I will also use the mile points that I have accumulated over the years to redeem some of my air tickets.”
For accommodation, Aileen tries to find a place that is near to the start line of her races. But she said, “There were times when we were misled by the information given to us though. Once, I heard that the hotel or hostel was within walking distance to the start line, but turned out that we had to take the subway or taxi to the start line of the marathon.”
She added, “The costs for the accommodation is usually not a big issue though, because the bulk of the payment is usually made upon arrival. So that gives me some buffer period to save up for it.”
Travel running mishaps
Besides challenges, Aileen pointed out that travelling and running marathons can be unpredictable – she has experienced several mishaps and nasty surprises on her trips.
Said Aileen, “Getting lost is quite common – as I usually travel without a map, so getting lost is part and parcel of my adventures. It encourages me to communicate with the locals and ask them for directions. My travel mates who have accompanied me several times would be immune to getting lost in a city or nature, while others may be feeling frustrated.”
But things have gotten more serious at times though, as Aileen has faced a couple of near-death scenarios in the past.
She said “The most vivid was during my diving trip to Cebu in 2011. My friends and I headed for a dive trip before our Cebu Marathon During the dive, my friend unintentionally pulled off my diving mask as he mistook me for a sea creature. What made matters worse was the bad weather. Thank goodness I managed to resurface.”
Also in 2014, Aileen was almost hit by a car during a marathon. She said, “At the Hsinyi Grapes Marathon in 2014, I was going downhill in the last 12km on the road. There were no road closures and it was a sharp turn around the corner, so I could not see cars coming up the hill.”
She continued, “I tripped on a bump. During that split second, a car was speeding up. I managed to balance myself and it shocked the male runner behind me. If I did not manage to regain my balance on time, I would have been hit by a car.”
Food poisoning has also happened to her, just before she ran in the Samcheok Marathon in Korea. Said Aileen, “I had a bad bout of food poisoning two days before my race and my condition did not improve. But I refused to opt out of the race due to one of my running principles.”
She continued, “So I went ahead and it was a horrible experience. To avoid making my condition worse, I dared not consume any food during this race and I kept reminding myself not to collapse as we were in a foreign country and it would disrupt my friends’ travel plans – and this thought kept me going. Despite being escorted by the police car during the last part of the race, I was determined to finish, and I did.”
Has a few regular running buddies who accompany her
Aileen has a few regular buddies who usually accompany her on her trips. These include her friends Vincent Yeo, Kevin and Suki Ko. She tries to get her parents and brother, Ryan Ho, on her running trips sometimes too.
But she has also had her fair share of solo travel. Said Aileen, “One of the more memorable trips was in September 2009 when I completed three marathons in three weeks. It was during my trip to Europe where I had backpacked to Berlin, Oslo and Brussels. As I had friends in Europe, I thought it would be ideal to visit them and experience couch surfing.”
She added, “I have always enjoyed backpacking, just that this time around, I included marathons as part of my itinerary. This trip had garnered interest from my friends and it also captured Vincent and Kevin’s attention to travel and compete in races overseas.”
Marathons on her bucket list
However, despite all of her travel and running adventures there are still some races on Aileen’s bucket list. These include the Athens Marathon in Greece, the Swiss City Marathon and the rest of the World Marathon Majors.
Said Aileen, “Greece is the birthplace of the marathon and I would love to see the Swiss Alps in Switzerland.”
Tips for overseas runners
As a frequent traveller and runner, what tips does Aileen have to share, for those who are thinking of travelling overseas for a marathon?
She said “It is important to check the registration date and mode of payment early so that you can secure your marathon slot. The slots for the popular marathons would usually get sold out very fast, such as the Hong Kong Marathon, Bali Marathon and Guangzhou Marathon. Major world marathons will require balloting, such as Tokyo Marathon, Osaka Marathon, Nagoya Women’s Marathon and the Kobe Marathon.”
But Aileen points out that the planning stages for an overseas marathon, is much more than simply being about the marathon itself.
She said “It is important to know the directions to your accommodation or marathon site. It can be rather frustrating when the marathon is not located near any accommodation. Sometimes the accommodation located near the marathon site may also not be ideal, as it may not have the necessary amenities or entertainment within its vicinity. There are also places where food is not readily available and it is unsafe to walk around in the evenings.”
Connect with a local person or the race organiser
Aileen also points out that connecting with a local person or the race organiser is useful, in the country you are going. She said, “Inform them that you are coming so that you have someone to look out for you if you need assistance. Alternatively, you can ask your friends to connect you with a local if they know any.”
Bring extra set of running clothes on your trip
She added, “Also if you are running more than two marathons in one trip, then bring two pairs of shoes. For me, bringing along an extra set of running clothes is my way of protecting myself against inclement weather. Sometimes it may pour heavily or there may be a drop in the temperature. Thus you will need to keep yourself warm.”
Pack extra running gear in your hand luggage
Aileen also pointed out that though this is not common, your luggage may get lost or delayed – this it has happened to her before. So she advises runners to pack a set of running clothes into their hand luggage. She said, “It happened to me when I came back from Copenhagen Marathon in 2009. Thank goodness I had some running gear with me, thus my Sundown Marathon race went on as per normal.”
She continued, “Another incident was where my flight from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur was delayed for six hours. As a result, I missed my next flight from Kuala Lumpur to Melbourne. My luggage did not arrive with me and I had a race the following day. The wait was making me feel anxious as I did not have any racing gear on me. I even mentally prepared myself to head to the city to buy a new set of gear in case my luggage did not reach me in time. Thankfully it did!”