Dreaming Big

“Ah, but a man’s reach must exceed his grasp or what is a heaven for?”

-Robert Browning

Growing up, I would often hear my elders say, “Mangangarap ka na rin lang, taasan mo na.” (i.e., if you’re going to dream, might as well dream big.”) It is by no means original as there are variants of this compelling advice  in Norman Vincent Peale’s “Shoot for the moon. If you miss it, you will still land among the stars.” Back in the 70s, I remember being fascinated by the implication of that iconic Air Force bumper sticker  that read: “Aim High.”

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The ultimate blessing a runner could ever ask for

For most Filipinos who get hooked by the sport of running, the preceding easily translates to completing one’s first 5km race and ultimately, one’s first 42.195 km full marathon. Beyond these exhilarating milestones, the proverbial prospect of completing more marathons within one’s lifetime beckons. In this regard, an avid runner could not ask for a better benediction than classic rocker Neil Young’s “Long may you run.”  Of course, there is always the triathlon for those who are intrigued to find out how far the endurance that marathons facilitate could take them. Further beyond lies the ultramarathon. But what is perhaps in the bucket list of most Filipino runners who have completed their share of marathons locally would be the prospect of finishing the 6 World Marathons: Berlin, London, Tokyo, Boston, Chicago, and New York.

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Bucket List Classic (Photo courtesy of the NYRR)

The New York City  Marathon is quite possibly the most popular and the biggest international marathon event today. Organized by the New York Road Runners (NYRR) and sponsored by the Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), The New York City Marathon is more accurately known globally as the TCS New York City Marathon. Until 2014, it used to be known as the ING New York City Marathon. This annual marathon event which passes through the five boroughs of New York City currently attracts over 50,000 runners every year. It is precisely due to its popularity that participation is largely determined by a lottery system.

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Our local version of the NYC Marathon (Photo owned by Condura Skyway Marathon)

It is interesting to note that locally, this event was what gave birth to the now-famous Condura Skyway Marathon. Life-long marathoner and Condura Skyway organizer Patrick Concepcion shares that “I remember being so overwhelmed with pride and joy, a feeling that I wanted to share with people back home. Telling them about my experience was not good enough; they had to experience it for themselves. So on that cold autumn afternoon in Central Park I got the idea to have a Philippine version of the New York Marathon and thus was born the Condura Run.” (“Run, Tycoon, Run” by Tanya T. Lara, Philippine Star, March 29, 2009)

Thanks to the global phenomenon of budget fares, flying to the different parts of the globe is no longer beyond the reach of average Filipinos. Various budget fare promos by local airlines now allow middle-class Pinoys to save up for travel to North America and Europe, New York City included.

In the main, the more challenging part of getting into the New York City Marathon is the lottery system. How exactly does one join this lottery given that one is based in the Philippines? Further compounding the problem is the question: what are the chances of actually winning a slot in the NYC Marathon?

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Athletes’ Journey call to action

Thankfully, there is a company called Athletes’ Journey which could solve this problem for local Filipino marathoners aspiring to join the NYC Marathon. Founded by marathoner, Iron Man triathlete and sports and life coach David Tay of Singapore who is ably assisted by his business partner Sven Hobbie, Athletes’ Journey specializes in facilitating guaranteed entry into the NYC Marathon. More to the point, this company actually provides a complete tour package as an official International Tour Partner (ITP) of the NYC Marathon. The tour package comes “complete with the race entry, accommodation, marathon eve pasta dinner, transport to the start line and on-site host(s) to advise and guide you on all matters with regard to the marathon.”

It is noteworthy that the Philippines has no ITP for the NYC Marathon. Hence, Athletes’ Journey which services Singapore-based runners is allowed to market and sell their packages here given the growing demand from runners in the Philippines. They are also the official ITP in Singapore for the Berlin Marathon which has a 6-hour 30-minute finisher’s cut-off time and the Tokyo Marathon which has a 7- hour finisher’s cut-off time. The cut-off time for the NYC Marathon is 7 hours 30 minutes.

They recently flew in to Manila to meet their Filipino clients and they were gracious enough to accommodate this aspiring marathoner’s request for an interview. Highlights of the interview follow.

1. Why and when did you put up your company?

My partner Sven was the initiator of this concept as he noticed that there was no company in Singapore that was providing such a service (i.e., tour packages to the marathon majors overseas) for the runners here, so he approached me to see if I was keen on setting up a company with him to serve this niche market. Intuitively, I felt it was something I would love to do as I have always been keen on organizing trips and camps for people overseas. In fact, I was already arranging such trips for my friends and for the athletes I’m coaching. And since it felt right, I jumped in without hesitation.

We registered the company in June 2012, and applied for the travel agent license by the end of the year. From 2013 onwards we were operational as a legal entity for these customized tours.

We started small with a couple of marathon majors (i.e., Berlin and Chicago in 2013), and like most start-ups, we incurred losses with Chicago and hardly broke even with Berlin. However, we were determined to make it work even if we were doing this on the side as we have our other work commitments. We stayed focused, despite the challenges we faced.

2. How many NYC marathoners have you assisted thus far to complete their races internationally? How many from the Philippines?

Starting with our 2014 maiden journey to the NYC Marathon to date around 60 runners. Though the numbers may be smaller compared to the more established and larger companies in other bigger countries, we intend to grow over the years. In the meantime, our focus is to ensure our runners have a great time with us on these journeys, and at the same time, discover more of themselves and life through these experiences overseas.

Last year, we did not have any runners from the Philippines but this year there are about 10 of them going with us to New York City for the marathon.

The people in the photos I’m sharing with you are going to the Berlin Marathon while another group is going to the New York City Marathon. Note that not everyone who already confirmed are in the pictures.

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With some of their Manila-based clients

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Taken in late August 2015

3. What keeps you going? What drives your team?

I would say passion would be one of the key factors that keeps us going. We aspire not just to be another travel agency. Rather, we seek to be known as a team of individuals who share a similar interest in this sport (and other adventure races), fellow runners who are sincere about sharing such experiences with our clients. Personally, I have completed 27 full marathons including the 6 marathon majors in Boston, New York, Chicago, London, Berlin and Tokyo. Sven has done more than 10 marathons himself. Also, meeting more people in the running community (regionally and internationally) and making new friends are definite pluses.

Besides the excitement and enjoyment that the runners will get from these experiences, we believe that these tours/trips are also learning journeys for them to discover more of themselves and life itself.

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Athletes’ Journey runners from the Philippines and Singapore at the Berlin Marathon

4. What are the usual challenges faced by those traveling to the NYC marathon for the first time? How does your company handle such?

For first-timers to the NYC Marathon, the key challenges are usually adapting to a different time zone and shaking off the jet lag after the long hours of travel – especially so for all our runners who live in Southeast Asia. The other factor is the weather as we come from a mostly tropical climate, and the NYC Marathon is held during autumn with a temperature range of 3-4 degrees Celsius to 12-15 degrees Celsius. Last year, the temperature dropped to about 1-2 degrees because of the cold winds at the start.

As we have done the NYC Marathon a few times, we are familiar with the weather conditions and though we can never be certain what the actual weather will be like, we spend the time with our runners prior to the trip to prepare them psychologically for the race. Also, the NYC Marathon race course is quite challenging due to the undulating terrain (i.e., bridges and hills.) So we will advise them to include runs on hills during their preparations.

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Ultimate Runner Destination (Photo courtesy of the NYRR)

These face-to-face briefings and gatherings are organized to give our runners a better feel of what to expect during the trip. Though we can always provide the information via emails, we feel that this way of doing it (i.e., being present and providing a face to all the correspondences and sales/marketing), makes the trip extra special for them as they will know that they will not be traveling with an unknown agent but with someone whom they can trust for advice and guidance during these trips.

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“If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere. New York, New York!” (Photo courtesy of the NYRR)

5. What is a realistic amount to save up for the whole experience inclusive of air fare? Is $ 3,000 an accurate figure?

For the NYC Marathon, we do not include flights as many of our runners prefer to choose their own airlines and travel according to their own schedule; the most basic package for a 4D3N for a runner is Sin$3,400/pax (single occupancy) and Sin$2,500/pax (twin share room – either with another runner or with a non-runner companion.) However, as NYC is quite a distance away and we will probably be on the plane for more than 22-24 hours, we would usually suggest that the runner give himself at least 3 nights prior to the marathon to adjust to the time zone and to shake off the jet lag. So for runners from Southeast Asia, I would say that the best option is the 5D4N or 6D5N packages.

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