ORLANDO — It was 3 a.m. and pitch dark when Mike Thompson climbed aboard the bus to the staging area of the half marathon in which he planned to compete.
Thompson, 50, a utility worker from Westfield, had paid $600 in registration fees, driven to Florida through a snowstorm and already run a 5K and a 10K. His trip would culminate in a full marathon the next day at an equally early hour.
And he couldn’t have been happier.
“I’d go crazy” if he continued to be stuck doing running events virtually at home, as happened at the height of the pandemic, Thompson said. “I can’t stand sitting around.”
Neither could the other 30,000 or so enthusiastic visitors who, like him, descended on Walt Disney World for the resort’s annual marathon weekend, the in-person version of which had been canceled the year before — or active vacationers elsewhere who like to combine travel with a destination running or cycling event or a triathlon.
“There’s this pent-up demand for vacation and to have a place of escape, but at the same time for people to do something they love, which is running,” said Faron Kelley, a Disney vice president who oversees the company’s runDisney division.
The signature marathon weekend sold out almost immediately — much faster than in earlier years — as have many of runDisney’s upcoming events, including a new collection of distances planned for the first week of April.
“There’s a real grab-onto-life type of thing going on,” said Kelley, in which people have decided to no longer put off their bucket-list aspirations. “They’re thinking, ‘Now is the time I’m going to do that and make it happen.’ "
And not just at Walt Disney World. Other destination athletic events report big spikes in interest. RAGBRAI, which stands for Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa — the largest bike-touring event in the country — reports registrations up 20 percent from pre-pandemic levels. UK-based Sports Tours International, which handles travel arrangements for major marathons worldwide, expects all of them to quickly fill, based on early indications, a spokeswoman said.
“This momentum’s going to carry for a while,” Kelley said. “People spent a lot of time at home, and the ability to combine the vacation with a race — that’s going to continue to be a big trend.”
Runners are particularly eager to get back on the road. Twenty percent, in a survey by the running events industry association RunningUSA, said they were likely to run in more races after the pandemic than they did before it. Sixty percent said the frustration of COVID cancellations made them excited for future events. And 29 percent said they are choosing events that are in places they want to visit.
There are reasons travel and competing in person in athletic events are among the things people particularly missed during the pandemic.
“Physical activity has positive psychological benefits. So you’re getting that psychological benefit and you’re also getting a social benefit,” said Edson Filho, who teaches sport and exercise psychology at Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education & Human Development.
Carl Bonvini of Dedham, an avid cyclist, traveled to a four-day cycling event through the South Carolina low country called FestiVelo.
“Going to an event where I didn’t know anybody kind of rejuvenated my love for being outdoors after almost two years that we missed,” Bonvini said.
“I was finding myself wanting that community of cyclists,” Bonvini said. “The beautiful thing about being in the cycling community is that it only takes five miles and everybody’s best friends. Everyone was excited to talk to people again. It gave me hope that there’s still life out there beyond the bounds of the bubble.”
Jay and Tricia Feenan of Jackson, N.H., boarded a plane for the first time since the start of the pandemic when they flew to Disney World so he and their son could run during the marathon weekend. For them, the weekend is a family affair — one they’ve done eight times before, but that was interrupted last year when it went virtual.
They expect to see more people doing this, the Feenans said under the Florida sun after picking up their race numbers at the busy runners’ expo. “People who didn’t normally do things outdoors are doing a lot more outdoors-y things,” Jay Feenan said.
Organizers say that’s also helping fuel the increased interest in destination competitions.
“A lot of people took up running during the pandemic. It was something they could go out and do after they had to give up, for example, their gym memberships,” said Christine Bowen, vice president for programming, operations, and partnerships at Running USA. “Now they’re looking to travel and combine those opportunities.”
After all, seeing the world is different on a run or a ride or during a triathlon, said Salem Stanley, founder and CEO of Vacation Races, which organizes running and cycling events in national parks. Stanley quotes the author and environmentalist Edward Abbey, who said, “A man on foot, on horseback, or a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourist can in 100 miles.”
Vacation Races saw an uptick in business last year and advance reservations are up for this year, Stanley said.
“There’s something about athletics that thrives in the face of trauma,” he said. “It’s a way to just get disconnected — almost a form of meditation — along with a sense of accomplishment.”
For some travelers to places such as national parks, he said, “The race becomes the catalyst. They have a weeklong trip centered around the race.”
That’s also financially important to the destinations athletes go, something that became acutely evident during the last two years. A new Endurance Sports Coalition, combining running and triathlon organizers, obstacle races and others, has formed to lobby for streamlined permits and approvals to resume.
Linda Hanson, finance and operations director for Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minn., was manning a booth at the Disney runners’ expo to attract people to that classic run, which was canceled in 2020 but resumed last year.
“We’re introducing our race to people who might not think about Lake Superior as a running destination,” Hanson said, gesturing at the video of the race that was looping on a flat-screen behind her. “The community wraps its arms around everybody that comes to town.”
At RAGBRAI, too, “What we lost in 2020 was a human connection – a face-to-face, human connection,” spokeswoman Anne Lawrie said.
When the race resumed last summer, even in a scaled-down form, she said, many of the riders were first-timers.
“It was a bucket list item and now they were just going to do it,” Lawrie said. “And that’s just growing. People are just so excited to be out there again, and together.”
Jon Marcus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.