While regular running routes serve as havens that help maintain sanity, they are just that: routine, something that you don’t necessarily remember, the way you don’t recall brushing your teeth.
Transporting the activity of running to an exotic destination adds motivation and creates indelible impressions, especially if you wrap the trip around a particular running event. It converts what may be an ordinary endeavor into an extraordinary experience. Besides, after being cooped up from an overseas flight, your body will yearn to run long and hard. Long-haul travel is the perfect taper.
Malaysia and Israel are two countries runners don’t necessarily conjure up when it comes to places to practice their sport but, fortunately, both are fertile ground for it and offer events that make running all the more alluring. The two nations also stand in stark contrast to one another, with the jungle versus desert being the obvious extremes, although there are some subtle similarities between these small nations, too.
Malaysia’s verdant climate greets you as soon as you walk out from whatever air-conditioned port of entry you choose, kissing – or smacking – you in the face with warm, humid air. It takes some adjustment and the closer you are to the sea, the softer that kiss or slap.
Arriving in Kuala Lumpur, the nation’s capital and center of commerce abuzz with moto traffic, you may be content to keep your training indoors, as running in the city is not very safe, healthy or desirable. KL is, however, a great way to get your feet on terra firma after overseas flights and a stay at the Majestic in downtown will transport you back in time to Malaysia’s Colonial era with the grand hotel’s restored architecture, accoutrement, menus, and musical offerings.
From there, you may want to consider a half-day’s drive to Malaysia’s east coast for a visit to Tanjong Jara, a fishing-based community featuring white beaches contrasting green-blue sea and a traditional, slower pace. The Tanjong Jara resort is built in ancient Malay custom to harken back to the gardens and architecture of a 17th century palace. The grounds are fragrant with tropical flowers and the exotic birds and monkeys fill the air with their calls, just as the fish and coral enliven the clear sea with their vibrant colors.
The running on the area’s trails and dirt and paved roads and the snorkeling and diving in the warm salt water are sure to build an appetite, one that you will rejoice in feeding with the plentiful offerings of food. Thankfully, the Malaysian diet is generally light and healthy, so you can feel better about the fact that eating is an almost constant occurrence.
For a unique running (and swimming) experience in Malaysia, head to the west coast and take a boat ride to visit Pangkor Laut, a 300-acre private island resort paradise that hosts an adventure called the Chapman’s Challenge. The resort was built with deep respect for the island’s natural surroundings and only a small fraction was developed. The preservationist effort has served well to keep it prime habitat for bats, monitor lizards and wild boars. When you aren’t running, the tropical island is inviting for stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking, sailing, tennis, gym, cardio equipment, and swimming pools.
But the real attraction stems from what occurred more than seven decades ago, when a British soldier, Freddy Spencer Chapman, a resistance fighter during World War II stationed in Malaysia to fight the Japanese occupation, was caught behind enemy lines for nearly four years after the Allied Forces retreated. Chapman lived and survived as a commando in the Straits of Malacca and, eventually on Pangkor Laut. The Chapman Challenge celebrates his eventual escape by running through the jungle and swimming a course designed to simulate his meet-up with the British submarine, the HMS Statesman, in the island’s western inlet of Emerald Bay.
The race begins on the island’s jetty with a 6.2-mile run around the grounds, including 2.4 miles of technical trail that winds through and over a two-million-year-old rainforest, ending at Emerald Bay, where competitors swim 1k and run 30 meters to the finish line at Chapman’s Bar, named after Chapman, who was decorated as a colonel after the war. There is also a non-swimming option.
With the new influx of run/swim races like the Ottillo in Sweden and other part of the world, the Chapman’s Challenge is on par, only with two unique twists: the historic nature and the exotic venue that combines road and trail running and incredible Malaysian hospitality, such as the beach-side foot massages offered to finishers. The Second Annual Chapman’s Challenge will be held on May 13, 2017.
When people hear of traveling to Israel for the Jerusalem Marathon, they typically react by asking whether it is safe. An appropriate answer is, “It is quite safe there. The hills that are packed into that route, however, that should give you cause for concern.”
One reason for feeling so safe is because the race is promoted by the Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Markat, a classic, rugged Israeli, past-soldier who has personally stopped a terrorist with his own hands and run many marathons. He is a mover and shaker and don’t be surprised if he becomes prime minister of Israel someday soon. Markat hosted a pre-race gathering where he told the audience that his Holy City’s “unique topography”—the euphemism he used to promote the “athletically challenging,” breathtaking route—would take runners through the site-packed course, including plenty of hills.
The Jerusalem community comes out in large numbers to cheer the runners. Between the marathon, half, 10 and 5k races, there would be approximately 25,000 participants, many of whom run in memory of soldiers lost in recent conflicts. And on the sidelines are hosts of cultures that make up of a diverse mosaic of pilgrims and immigrants that are part of Jerusalem’s tossed salad of cultures, histories, religions and peoples. Running this marathon and half takes tourism to a whole new level, which explains why 2,500 runners come from outside Israel.
Security is taken extremely seriously in Israel. For the marathon, the entire city is shut down from 5am of the Friday race day until past noon, with most of Jerusalem’s thruways completely blocked to traffic. Some residents celebrate the stoppage, coming out to cheer as whole families or to play music with bands.
The race is most certainly a challenging course, although the half cuts out some of the more challenging climbs and descents that are part of the marathon. The route of both races takes the field through many of Jerusalem’s neighborhoods, including an exciting half mile that twists through the Old City on its cobble-stoned corridors. There’s nothing like centuries of history to make you feel like you are moving quickly.
The marathon is scheduled during an exciting time in Jerusalem’s action-packed year of culture and heritage events. Beyond the obvious visits to the Holy City’s religious and historic attractions, there is the ubiquitous pastime of eating, an activity Israelis do very well and in a healthful manner, courtesy of the nation’s fresh produce and the rich Mediterranean influence. Can you say hummus? Markets in both the Old City and Jerusalem’s modern areas thrive and, even if you don’t want to buy anything, they still offer the exciting entertainment of tremendous human beehives, including entertainment at night, when a budding café culture comes to life.
Jerusalem features more museums and other cultural establishments per capita here than any other place on earth. And, if that weren’t enough, its music and light festivals overlap with the marathon.
Being a small country, it is easy to travel from Jerusalem to historic and geographic attractions like Masada or the thriving Mediterranean metropolis of Tel Aviv, which boasts a Barcelona-like beat. Another option is to take a breathtaking mountain bike ride through the Judean Desert at the edge of the Dead Sea, where the landscape is somewhat similar to that of Zion, Bryce and Moab, except the colors were chalky white instead of pastel red.
A wonderful way to recover from the marathon is to take a soak in or, rather, on the Dead Sea and its mineral-rich waters that are sadly but rapidly shrinking and may hold a fate similar to many of the world’s glaciers. The Dead Sea, the lowest point in the world, features a small monument displaying a rock from Everest, honoring the world’s highest point and a kinship with Nepal.