Marathon cruise — ride the boat, love the food, run 42 km.

Anyone who has ever been on a cruise can tell you that one of the best things about cruising is all the great food onboard the ship.

Neil Harker waves on his leg through the running trail in Juneau

Neil Harker waves on his leg through the running trail in Juneau

Anyone who has ever been on a cruise can tell you that one of the best things about cruising is all the great food onboard the ship. With buffets, fine dining, and delicious dessert choices at every meal, it can be difficult to enjoy a cruise vacation without putting on weight.

Recently, Neil and Patti Harker of Lacombe enjoyed a seven-day Alaskan cruise with author John “the Penguin” Bingham and his wife “Coach” Jenny Hadfield — but the emphasis was on running a marathon.

With runs offered in each of the ports of call, the cruise provided the opportunity for the couple to experience a side of Alaska that most tourists never see. Each day brought with it new terrain and new racing experiences — and by the end of the week they had run the full marathon distance of 42 km (26.2 miles). Even better, Patti found at the end of the week she had not put on any weight. Neil wouldn’t reveal his numbers, but said he was pretty sure he hadn’t gained as much as he would have if he hadn’t been participating in a marathon running cruise.

“The running was spectacular,” Neil said. “At each port we were met by the local running club, who had mapped out a trail for us. We’d spend the early part of the day participating in our run and the afternoon exploring the sites. It was a great way to see Alaska.”

Patti appreciated the fact that the running portion of the cruise was designed for athletes of all ages and skill levels.

“John Bingham is one of my favourite authors and he has written several books on adult-onset athletes,” she said. “One of his central philosophies is that it doesn’t matter how fast you run, just that you have the courage to try. There were runners and walkers of all ages on the cruise from their early teens to their late 70s. I don’t think I would have enjoyed the experience if it was designed primarily for elite athletes.”

About 115 people participated in the marathon running cruise and enjoyed special receptions, running classes, technical shirts, vests, gym bags, prizes and organized events.

The marathon distance was divided into four legs and the top prize at the end of the entire race went not to the person who finished with the fastest time, but to the person who came closest to their previously predicted time for all four runs.

The first event was a three-mile (4.8-km) run onboard the ship that was used by runners to estimate their best pace and predict their final running time for the marathon distance.

The second event took place in Juneau and involved a 10-mile (16-km) run along Perseverance Trail.

“Basically, we ran up and down a mountain,” explained Patti. “Some people completed the run in under an hour, but the average time was around two hours. The scenery was amazing. We crossed eight or nine bridges and passed many waterfalls. I even saw a black bear on my way back down the trail.”

After completing their first big run, the pair explored Juneau on foot before making their way back to the ship to relax before dinner.

“We really enjoyed the time we spent onboard,” said Neil. “We loved the library, the shows and the food. The Pinnacle Grill was a wonderful place to eat, but I also enjoyed the buffet breakfasts on the Lido deck. There seemed to be no shortage of things to do.”

The next day of the cruise was spent onboard enjoying running seminars and seeing the Hubbard Glacier up close. They were fortunate to be at the glacier as it calved.

“The Hubbard Glacier is the largest tidewater glacier in Alaska — stretching for 122 km from Canada to Alaska,” said Neil.

“The calving face of the glacier is more than 10-km wide and as our ship was stopped in front of it, an enormous chunk of ice calved off the face of the glacier. It went on for about a minute and you could hear the sound of the ice groaning as it broke away from the glacier face. The crew onboard said it was largest they had seen this year. It was spectacular to watch.”

The next port of call and the next race took place in Sitka.

The 6.2-mile (10-km) race was set up in an Amazing Race format where runners were given a map to follow and a face card at each checkpoint along the route. The runner with the best poker hand at the end of that leg won a yellow hat and bragging rights.

The trail was beautiful — winding its way through a temperate rainforest.

“The Amazing Race format of the Sitka run was a lot of fun and Sitka was definitely the highlight of the ports of call,” Patti said. “Since large cruise ships can’t dock there (we were tendered to shore in lifeboats), they have less cruise traffic than the other ports and it seems less touristy. We saw lots of wildlife — bears, seals and bald eagles.”

The final port and the final leg of the marathon was in Ketchikan and the pair both described this as their favourite running day.

“We took a bus from the port up to Ward Lake and we ran on a lovely trail that loops the lake,” said Patti. “This was my favourite run of the trip, partially because this was the last leg and when I finished I knew that I had run the full marathon distance and reached my goal.

“As I completed the run, I took off my shoes and socks and waded out in the cold lake. It felt great just to be there. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.”

If you go:

• Two runners’ cruises are offered by John “The Penguin” Bingham, author of The Courage to Start and other running books, and his wife Jenny Hadfield. The Great Alaskan Marathon Cruise includes runs in different Alaskan ports, while the Caribbean Islands Marathon Cruise is a similar idea, but visits ports in Turk and Caicos, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The running part of the trip is designed for runners and walkers of all ages and abilities.

• Rates for the Alaskan running cruise start at US$1,646 per person based on double occupancy for an inside cabin. The rates include gratuities, taxes and port fees, but there is an additional US$195 fee for the running program. This fee includes onboard training programs, port runs, technical shirts, gear and prizes. For more information, visit

Marathon vacations

Running vacations are becoming a popular trend in travel. Some runners choose to co-ordinate their vacation with a destination marathon, while others focus their entire trip on running. Here are just a few of the unique marathon holidays available.

• Disneyworld Marathon —

• Disneyland Half Marathon —

• Rock ’n’ Roll Half Marathon —

• Mardi Gras Marathon —

• Honolulu Marathon —

• Maui Marathon —

• The Great Wall Marathon —

• North Pole Marathon —

• Antarctic Ice Marathon —

• Great Alaskan Marathon Cruise —

Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.

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