Interview with Stefan Betzelt, founder of the GlobalLimits Race Series

The GlobalLimits race series is a collection of boutique stage races set in far-flung and culturally rich countries; Cambodia, Bhutan, and Albania.

The series was founded by Stefan Betzelt, an experienced ultra-runner in his own right who realized no-one was organizing the types of races he wanted to run himself.

Having run the Cambodia and (now retired) Sri Lanka GL events myself, I’ve seen first hand how they are a deeply gratifying and extremely well-organized series.

I sat down with Stefan to understand more about GlobalLimits…

An Introduction to GlobalLimits

A typical GL race route will take you through temples and sacred sites, jungles, villages and remote wilderness – across six days and 200 to 220km.

The headcount is kept intentionally small, typically under 50 runners. And unlike self-supported stage races, GL transports your equipment bag between campsites – meaning you simply run with the bare essentials.

In Bhutan, even food is served at all camps.

The races have a strong emphasis on cultural experiences;

in Bhutan, runners sleep in a monastery and have an annual football game with the monks;

Cambodia’s route takes in some of the more remote villages and temples, before finishing inside the Angkor Wat;

Albania includes some rich interactions with local villagers and finishing at the world heritage site of the Butrinti amphitheater in the Ionian sea.

The GlobalLimits races have a high return rate – many runners enjoy the format, so complete each race in the series – or even repeat races several times.

Meet Stefan Betzelt

The GlobalLimits series is the brainchild of Stefan Betzelt; a German ultrarunner who started the series in 2012.   I sat down with Stefan to get some insight into how the idea for GlobalLimits started, how the series has evolved and what advice he has for runners.

Interview with Stefan Betzelt, founder of the GlobalLimits Race Series 1
Stefan giving a stage briefing at one of the Cambodia campsites

Hi Stefan, can you describe your running background a little bit?  How did you discover ultrarunning and stage races?

Well, actually I come from road running, mainly marathons. I run several international city marathons in the 80s and 90s  such as NYC, Berlin, Vienna, Frankfurt etc, with a personal best of 2:46hrs. After a few years break in running competitively I ran my first multi-stage race in 1999, the Marathon des Sables. Without knowing what to expect I finished in  39th position.  I became hooked on the sport and started to participate in other ultra races, i.e. in Namibia, China, South Africa, India, Oman etc.

How did the concept for the GlobalLimits series first manifest itself?

In 2011 I joined a stage race that was so badly organized.  When I came home, I thought, I can do a better job! From this day on the project “GlobalLimits’ started. It took exactly 10 weeks until I selected the first location (Cambodia), checked the course and went online. No plan at that time for more than just one race. After the good reception in terms of registration of the first race, I decided for a second race (Bhutan), even before the first race took place.

Interview with Stefan Betzelt, founder of the GlobalLimits Race Series 2Interview with Stefan Betzelt, founder of the GlobalLimits Race Series 3

How have you identified and selected the host countries you’ve chosen for your races?

Well, when I decided to organize stage races I wanted something different from the conventional concept of an ultra race, so, that is not racing in the desert or i.e. in China.  I want to combine competitive running with some cultural experience and a touch of respect to locals, such interacting with the local population.  Moreover, I want my races to be in untouched locations, which means no other multi-stage races had taken place there before.

Finally, I look for places with an extraordinary and unique finishing line and campsites. It was not an easy task but I  think with Cambodia and a finish inside the UNESCO world heritage site of Angkor Wat, Bhutan with its unique culture and a finish at the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Sri Lanka (2015 and 2016) and finally the totally untouched fantastic Albania with its friendly people and a finish in the amphitheatre of the UNESCO world heritage site of Butrint, I found locations that  fit perfectly into these requirements.

Interview with Stefan Betzelt, founder of the GlobalLimits Race Series 4
Butrint, the finish line of GlobalLimits Albania

Once you’ve selected a host country, how do you then begin to plan a route?

I first have to identify a trusted local partner, who would assist me in local administrative, logistic works and dealing with local authorities for permissions.  I would fly to the country to select and familiarize the course and to ensure the course is safe to run.

Before I go there I already have a very clear understanding where I intend to start the race and finish it. So I simply have to go out and find trails that connects both. Sounds simple but is far more complex.

How would you define the GL ethos, when compared to something like UTMB or Marathon des Sables?

I think my race have different ethos from the others in terms of size and running courses.  However, I am sure as race organizers we all want our runners to enjoy the races, to achieve what the runners expected when signing up for the race and a tough physical challenge through running competitively.

Interview with Stefan Betzelt, founder of the GlobalLimits Race Series 5
The finish line inside Angkor Wat, Cambodia

The GlobalLimits races usually have a strict entry cap of 40 to 50 runners, why did you choose to make the races so exclusive?

It would be easy to send 100 runners out on the course and camp just on an open field but that is not what GlobalLimits stands for. In big groups, we wouldn’t be able to stay in our very special campsites such as monasteries, local village houses, waterfalls, ancient temples, farmhouses etc.

We try to create an exclusive environment for runners to enjoy the local culture and a friendly camp for all.  It is much easier to interact and become friends with others in a small group than in boot camp style race.

What would you say is the minimum fitness requirements for someone looking to enter a GlobalLimits race?

In multi-stage races, it is more about the mental fitness than the physical fitness.  If you want to do it, you can do it. We had many runners that had only completed a half marathon before joining our races.

GlobalLimits races emphases on supporting our participants to complete our races – we have a finisher quote of 90%+, we do not have a cut-off time, our runners run only with a day-pack.

Interview with Stefan Betzelt, founder of the GlobalLimits Race Series 6
The world renowned Tiger’s Nest monastery – the finish line of GlobalLimits Bhutan lies within.

GlobalLimits races attract many returning runners, how have you managed to keep people coming back?

Indeed, we have more than 70% returnee rate.  The high returning ratio could also be our Series Award which you receive when you complete all 3 races organized by GlobalLimits.

I think the high safety standard, perfectly marked course and the spectacular hosting countries combined with the family flair are also part of the attraction.

The GlobalLimits race routes are usually based on interesting cultural and historical sites, which of these would be your favorite?

Hmmm, that is really difficult to answer. All are totally different. In Cambodia, we run through these ancient Khmer temples which brings you back in time.  The course is mostly flat with smiling children cheering us Bhutan, you really can’t compare to anything in the world.

The course is more hilly. It is a privilege to run a multi-stage race in this landlocked kingdom.  It is a surreal experience and the Tiger’s Nest monastery is definitely the most spectacular finish line you can imagine.

Interview with Stefan Betzelt, founder of the GlobalLimits Race Series 7

In Albania, a runner got everything – the mountains and the seas – We started in the UNESCO world heritage site City of thousand windows, Berat and move towards the amphitheater at the ancient city of Butrint.

It is definitely an underrated country in terms of its nature and stunning landscape.  Especially the course is set in the southern part where tourism is not yet in force.  Also, the hospitality of Albanian is unbeatable.

What advice would you give to someone considering running a GlobalLimits race?  Be it Albania, Bhutan or Cambodia?

If you are looking for a race where you can combine the competitive running aspect with a cultural insight to these countries and want to interact with the locals, stay in unique camp sights with spectacular finish lines, then GlobalLimits races are the right one for you.

Interview with Stefan Betzelt, founder of the GlobalLimits Race Series 8

What mistakes are most common to runners entering their first GlobalLimits race?

I wouldn’t say they are making mistakes. They all come with different expectations. Be it to find a competitive race, finding new friends, discover a new country etc. Probably being prepared for the climate in these countries is what is most underestimated. But this is solved after 2 days of acclimatization.

You’ve got the A, B, C of boutique stage races set up – can we look for a ‘D’ next? (the Dominican Republic, perhaps?)

DEUTSCHLAND!!! Hahaha….honestly, this is the most frequently asked question I am getting. All runners that have been in most of my races already are asking: “What is next?”  But sorry, I have no plans at all to host a 4th annual race. I try to focus on what I have on hand and strike for giving the experiences to my runners.  As I told you before, it is not easy to identify a location in terms of GlobalLimits´ standard.

Interview with Stefan Betzelt, founder of the GlobalLimits Race Series 9

All photo credits: GlobalLimits

Visit GlobalLimits online here.

Read my GlobalLimits – Cambodia Race Report 

Read a GlobalLimits – Bhutan Race Report by Colin Harper here.

Thomas Watson

Thomas Watson

Thomas Watson is an ultra-runner, UESCA-certified running coach, and the founder of MarathonHandbook.com. His work has been featured in Runner's World, Livestrong.com, MapMyRun, and many other running publications. He likes running interesting races and good beer. More at his bio.

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