For Kelly McLay, it was love at first flight.
“For my first race-cation, I traveled with 15 people,” McLay recalls with a smile. “We made a full weekend out of the New York City Marathon and all crammed into a tiny apartment. I remember sleeping on the floor of this place in a sleeping bag, but there was so much excitement with all of us getting ready, it mattered not.”
What McLay remembers most about that trip is not the race itself, but the energy of the weekend. “We were on this journey together, and each part of the weekend meant so much more because we all had this goal,” she says. “The trip united people in a way I almost cannot explain—it was more about the full experience than the actual race.”
That trip turned into another race vacation, which turned into a full-on passion. McLay has visited more than 20 countries for races and finished 58 marathons around the world, including the World Marathon Challenge—seven marathons in seven days on seven continents. Sometimes she travels with people she knows; sometimes she flies solo. But she’s never alone.
“I’ve made so many friends in so many different communities,” McLay says. When she meets someone at a race, there are often plans to meet for another one in another destination. “We use Facebook to set up where the next adventure will be. It gets us excited, thinking about the reunion and the great places we’ll go. Uniting together again in sport and travel is an amazing way to relive those moments and create more memories.”
Intense friendships formed in running and in traveling are well-documented; it makes sense, then, that combining both would create strong bonds in a short amount of time. Undergoing an experience with a person intensifies the emotions associated with that experience, according to a 2014 study published in Psychological Science. These emotions—whether pre-race nerves, the accomplishment of finding our way around a new city or the euphoria of a finish line—cause us to seek out connection with others, even if it’s an unfamiliar face.
The reason we’re so quick to form these friendships is a phenomenon known as “generalized trust,” or a willingness to believe in the goodness of humanity. According to researchers from Northwestern University, the more we travel, the more we trust others. This stems from the realization that even when we come from wildly contrasting backgrounds, human beings are not as different as we think.
Which is, of course, the coolest part, says McLay: “I’ve met so many different runners I’d never encounter otherwise. It’s a melting pot of new friends at every race. But the common denominator that creates the cohesiveness is the race—and all of us can unite around that.”
These friends do more than expand our worldview—they help us hone in on our sense of self. Research has shown that interacting with people outside of our social and cultural bubble strengthens personal identity and increases confidence. In other words, the best way to find yourself is to get lost in the depth and breadth of the human experience.
“There is nothing like a few pints of Guinness in an Irish pub with a singalong or a sundowner over the safari as you watch the sunset and listen to your new friends recap their races over a Tusker and a campfire,” McLay says. “Running the world? It’s pretty amazing.”
Want to connect with other runners on your next race-cation? Here’s how to find your tribe.
Shake it out. Most races offer shakeout runs and course previews, which are a perfect place to loosen up the legs with your soon-to-be BFFs.
Join the (Facebook) club. Facebook groups built around the race are a great way to meet runners from all over the world, swap training advice and get amped for your race. When you finally meet in person, it’ll be like you’re buddies from way back—because technically, you are!
Travel with a tour group, like Fitness International Travel. In addition to dealing with the logistics of your trip, the group offers a built-in crew for shakeout runs and post-race indulgences.
Swipe right—on DASHR, that is. This new, runner-friendly app uses geolocation and your personal preferences to match you with other runners in the area, whether local residents or others in town for the race.
Volunteer at the pre-race expo. In addition to meeting new people, you might snag a sweet discount on your race entry—all the better for buying a post-race round for your new friends.
Get out of your comfort zone! You’re already in a new location—why not try new things? Start by striking up a conversation with the person sitting next to you at the pre-race meeting. If she’s done the race before, pick her brain about the course; if not, ask what she’s most excited about for race day. Soon, you’ll find you have a lot to talk about.