Marathons, triathlons, ironman competitions – these might not seem like events around which to build a family holiday. But they can actually make for a different, fun and educational way to travel with kids says Mike Pizel, dad to Alex (9), Sean (7) and Joshua (4). Mike has competed in multiple competitive races with his wife, Jo, all over the world and they’ve taken their kids to many of them. He tells suitcases&strollers how to get ready, set, go! and exercise while travelling by doing fun runs with kids.

How long have you been entering fun runs and athletic competitions?

Jo and I have been training and racing in triathlons and running events for about 5 years. We’re not competing for a spot on the podium. Just out there trying to stay healthy and have fun.

How often do you participate in a race?

We generally do about 2 overseas races per year but, of course, some races are more family-friendly than others. The boys come to most of our races and are looked after by either Jo, myself or Chyril [our helper], depending on who’s racing.

When did you first decide to attend a fun run with the kids?

The first race for both Jo and myself was the Bintan Triathlon in 2008. We had Alex and Sean at the time and they both came along to that race. Jo and I were both racing so our helper, Chyril, looked after them.

Which are some of the more family-friendly races you’ve attended?

A few good ones were the Bintan TriathonVietnam Triathlon and Phuket Triathlon. All of these races started and finished near our resort so the boys could watch as much or as little of the race as they liked. The day is really fun for them – they generally watch the swim and after we head out on the bike they return to the resort. In Bintan they can even watch the race from the pool and then a few hours later they’ll walk down to the finish area.

They came to the Philippines half ironman race when it was at Camarines Sur too, but that one wasn’t so convenient. The race area was difficult to get to so the boys stayed in our hotel until close to the finishing time. They came over to watch the last hour or so. I’ve heard the race has been moved to Cebu so I’d say it’s a better family race now.

Occasionally, we have left the boys at home with the grandparents. We need to rest for a day or two prior to a long race and that’s difficult to manage on a holiday with three boys. Race day itself is not particularly fun for them either. An ironman day starts before sunrise and finishing late at night (when you are as slow as us) and the long races normally head far out of town so there are few opportunities for them to see us.

We raced at the Tokyo Marathon too but, again, we decided to leave the boys at home. In a point-to-point marathon there’s usually only one chance for them to see us racing and the logistics of trying to keep them all entertained and safe in a big city with only a brief glimpse of mummy or daddy is not really worth it.

I went to Hawaii Ironman 70.3 alone because I spent the week prior to the race at a triathlon training camp and it’s also a little difficult to get to from Singapore. However, if you can manage the flights then Kona is a beautiful holiday destination. From climbing into the crater of a volcano to swimming with manta rays, it’s all amazing. You also get to race on the Ironman World Championship course and experience what Chris “Macca” McCormack and Craig “Crowie” Alexander go through cycling in the strong Hawaiian winds and climbing up to Hawi. Race day is easy to manage; it’s hosted by a resort so the kids can escape the heat and swim in the pool while mum or dad are out killing themselves on the course.

Which is your favourite race you've taken the kids to?

For a family holiday from Singapore [where we live] you really can’t go past the Vietnam Triathlon and Phuket Triathlon. Both have direct flights from Singapore so getting there is easy and you have beautiful accommodation right at the start and finish lines. The athlete experience is wonderful too with great support from the kids in the local villages to cheer you on.

Which is has been the kids' favourite race to attend?

I think the boys enjoyed the Phuket Triathlon the most. They thought the baby elephant handing out finisher medals to the pros was the coolest thing ever.

How did you juggle the schedule with competition, training and kids?

Competing is not so much of a problem because I tend to race a lot more than Jo. She always brings the boys along to cheer me on. Training is probably the most difficult since we both love to exercise. It’s a constant part of our daily lives. Our solution is for Jo to train early morning and I’ll train in the evening.

We do enjoy training together a couple of times a week though. That’s where Chyril really helps. She often looks after the kids while we are out on a long Saturday ride or run.

Is it possible to both attend and participate in race events with kids but without or extra help?

No, we’ve always had one adult that isn’t racing. If that wasn’t Jo or myself then we would bring Chyril along. I guess this will become easier as the boys get older. Eventually, Alex will be able to look after his brothers. But then again...I’d prefer if he’d race with us instead.

Why do you bring your kids with you on these kinds of trips rather than leaving them at home? What do they gain out of the experience?

Of course, we prefer when they come along. It’s great to have their support but I think it’s also a good experience for them. I want them to see exercise and competition as a normal part of life and at these events they see people of all shapes, sizes and speeds trying their hardest to get to that finish line. They see those people struggling on, long after the race is won. This is a good lesson. When we first started racing, the boys were always asking about winning and losing, but pretty soon they realised that competing for most of us has very little to do with these things.

Are there races for kids to participate and race themselves?

None of my boys have done any races yet and I’m wary about pushing them into it. Endurance sports are always tough and you really need to be self motivated to enjoy it. Alex and Sean have just started coming to the running track with me once a week though, so I’m expecting they’ll ask to do a running race soon. If they want to do a triathlon I’ll definitely take them to the Bintan Triathlon which has a youth and a kids race and also the Fun Duo Challenge. This is a team race where a parent can team up with a child and do a short run and swim followed by a piggy back finish. It looks like lots of fun.

[For more travel tips about fun runs for kids in Asia and Australia, see the suitcases&strollers story here.]

Which races do you want to take the family to in the future?

All of the Challenge series races have a good family-friendly reputation. We didn’t take the boys to Challenge Roth, in Germany, but I noticed they did a great job of getting the spectators involved. There were 220,000 people at a 15-hour ironman event. That doesn’t happen unless you make it fun. Challenge Taiwan may be the next one we try.

Despite what I said earlier I still want to take the boys to a big city marathon, like New York or London. It’s such a fantastic spectacle to see tens of thousands of athletes running in an event and now that the boys are little older it won’t be so difficult to look after them in a big crowd. I’ll need to set some rules for the itinerary though, no long hikes though Central Park the day before race day. Daddy needs to taper.

This one’s not a race but I’d love to go to Thanyapura in Phuket, Thailand. It’s a triathlete training camp combined with a great family resort. Many of the swim, cycle and run sessions throughout the day are led by ironman legend Jurgen Zack using the resort’s private facilities or through the Phuket villages. They also have a kids club and a spa for the adults who want a break from training.

Now that the boys are a little older I think we could travel a little further and get to the Wildflower Triathlon in California, USA. I’ve heard this described as the “Woodstock” of triathlons where the family camp out under the stars, listen to live music and race in the beautiful San Antonio Recreational Park. However, if we were to go to the US the boys have another race suggestion for me...Walt Disney Marathon

What are some of the things to look out for that will make a race more family-friendly? 

·  Try to pick a race hosted by a resort.

·  Pick a race that’s easy to get to. Two flights, a train and ferry ride is difficult enough for the family without dragging a couple of bike boxes along too.

·  If you are the only one racing then get your spouse involved in the decision. The best race in the world won’t be fun if your family aren’t interested in the destination.

·  Check out the food options at the race venue. Races out in remote locations are great fun but some may not have many food options for the spectators.

·  Look through the race website to see what entertainment they have available for spectators. All races are focused on the athletes but some organisers spend that little bit extra to make sure the spectators have a good time too. Many have things specifically for the kids like face painting, bouncy castles and equipment for painting your own cheer sign.

Don’t forget that it’s not just about picking a family-friendly race. A little bit of planning can really help to make the day fun for everyone. Pack lots of snacks and drinks and some activities. A few small musical instruments and masks will make cheering fun and always gets a great reaction from the athletes. The more the kids can engage with the athletes the more fun everyone has. Also, plan to get them away from the long races for awhile to break up the time.

For more ideas about ways of incorporating exercise into family holidays read the suitcases&strollers story Cycling With Kids, Tennis Camps For Kids and Yoga Retreats with Babies.

To read more about the Pizel family holidays, see the suitcases&strollers interview with 11-year-old Alex Pizel here