It was 5:15am on Saturday 1st December. The steelpans pounded rhythmically and we danced like we were at a carnival, not at a race start line. The air was humid and the atmosphere electric. The gun went off and we took off into the darkness, following a path illuminated by torches held by cheering volunteers. I was running my third half-marathon, and I was doing it in the land of my heritage.
Negril, Jamaica was the location and Reggae Marathon was the race. I decided to fly out here (I’m still on the sunshine island as I write this) to end our Cool Runnings series.
This year we’ve documented our trainer-clad steps into running and fitness a fair amount on Yin&Yang, with Yin striving for his Personal Best, Candie, Derek and I ‘versing’ CTR in Nike’s British 10K, and our Cool Runnings crew achieving individually with Candie running an ultra-marathon, Derek killing his first half-mara at Run To The Beat and me causing Amsterdamage to myself in the Amsterdam half marathon with the Run Dem Crew. Of course, journeying to Jamaica for the Reggae Marathon was a perfectly apt nod towards our fitness crew name, Cool Runnings.
As you’d imagine, there’s something just a little different about running in Jamaica. The marriage of winter heat, white sands and rolling crisp blue sea, the loudness, the colourfulness, and the island spirit produces an atmosphere that’s foreign to runners who have experienced races in different parts of the world.
My friend (and photographer for the day) Charisma and I took off with the crowd. After the first 500 metres we heard a familiar reggae song drifting down our path – the course was peppered with car-come-sound systems. I’d made a playlist, but I realised quickly that there was no need for it. This would be the first race I’d done where I didn’t use my own music to fuel me on.
Tourists and locals lined the path as we ran, cheering us as we moved. It wasn’t long before we were doing the cheering – the elite runners begun charging back on the opposite side of the 10K split, heading back towards the finish line.
When Charisma and I hit 5K we commented on how much our fitness had progressed since we took on 10K in 2011’s Reggae Marathon, “last year this time we were run-walking,” Charisma noted. “The sky was lighter than this when we were at this point last year!” I added. We sung along to our favourite Bob Marley songs as they blasted from the speakers, giggling that we couldn’t run and talk a year ago, let alone run and sing.
Hitting mile 6, Charisma and I split paths – I had more than half to go while she headed towards the finish line. She was completing 10K and then taking on photographer duties, while I challenged myself to a half-marathon (13.1 miles). So I padded on alone, but I didn’t get a chance to miss the company before I started chatting to other participants on the course.
A relatively small race, only 3000 participants are allowed to take part each year. While the numbers are small, the crowd of competitors was diverse. People travelled not just from all over the island to compete; visitors flew in from 36 different countries. Competitors ranged from school kids from the local athletic teams to OAPs. Some ran their chosen distance, some walked it.
There was a general feeling that we were all taking part for the experience rather than purely for personal competition. This, along with the intimacy contributed to the runner camaraderie on the course. Runners actually spoke to each other on the path!
The course took a gentle uphill incline on mile 7, and funny ‘motivational’ running quotes lined the path. “Reasons to Run: Have you seen the price of gas lately?”
It was laughing at these signs that led me to connect with Marie, the Jamaican-American runner who was on her 8th half-marathon. She was running on a serious injury and was due for surgery the following week, so her doctor dissuaded her from entering the race. Promising the doctor she’d take it easy, she went after her medal with a gentle run-walk routine. We journeyed together for a few miles, and were never far from each other on the rest of the course.
Mile 10 brought my first walk-break. By now the sound systems had thinned out and the crowds had become sparser – most of the hotels are located on the 10K portion of the race so the course became a little bland. And, now it was hot! Pre-sunrise, the morning was perfectly cool with just a touch of humidity but as the sun came up it brought all of its heat with it.
In what seems to be a pattern for me, the last three miles were the most challenging. However, I was easily distracted by any discomfort by my surroundings.
“Can I run with you?” a cute local who was volunteering at a water station asked me cheekily as I ran by.
“Go on then!” I called his bluff. Laughing, he ran along with me and we had a chat.
“Uhh, I can’t run much further than this you know?” he said as he got out of breath (and realised I wasn’t giving him a phone number). With a cackle, I thanked him for the company and ran on.
Before I knew it I was at Mile 12, called Bob’s Mile. I ran downhill as motivational quotes from Bob Marley lined the path. The finish line was soon in sight. Marie, my running partner for much of the race caught up to me and we held hands, charging across the finish line.
Armed with my race bling and a celebratory coconut, I settled by the finish line – snapping shots of triumphant participants coming through. As the morning got later (and the sun got hotter), full-marathoners begun charging through the finish. I found the heat barely bearable towards the end of the race, so I wondered how participants running 26.2 miles made their endings look so graceful.
Amongst the 67 women completing the full was fellow Run Dem Crew runner Elle who ran with effortless swag, and Charisma and I’s lovely hotel neighbour, Jetola. Born in South London, bred in Jamaica and residing in Texas (a member of Texas’ Black Girls Run group), Jetola made the miles look easy when she passed me on the course.
The race ended with a celebration, with runners either receiving complimentary sports massages, running straight into the sea or dancing to the entertainment while drinking coconut water straight from the fruit. I celebrated the end of a year of Cool Runnings. You probably won’t be hearing too much about my running journey in 2013 on Y&Y, but I will let you know I’m eyeing up Reggae Marathon 2013 and implore you to do so too.
I ran to raise money for the ACLT – you can still donate until 1st March 2013. Please support here.
Special thanks to the Reggae Marathon. For more information on the race click here.