Most tourists who visit Jamaica head straight to resorts and stay there, giving Kingston a miss. Recent travel advisories have also been hard on the capital city, warning of violent crime. So when I received an invitation to spend a weekend in Kingston covering the sixth annual Kingston City Run, I was intrigued. A big race that raises money for charity certainly would attract all the good people of Kingston, not the few baddies the travel advisories focus on. And while the Jamaica Tourism Board wants to turn the Kingston City Run into a destination race, it’s still mostly local. Running amongst locals sounded like a much better idea than visiting a country and sequestering myself in a resort.
Running in Jamaica
My visit to Jamaica was a last minute thing planned just a week before the event. Unfortunately, I hadn’t been running for the last few months (not that I ever run more than a couple of miles anyway) due to heel pain. Instead, I’d been going to spinning classes – good for the heart, but not the same thing as running. Still, I wanted to see as much of the race course as possible. So with a choice between a 5K, 10K and half marathon, I chose the 10K. I figured I’d jog half and walk the other half.
Somehow I’d forgotten all about Usain Bolt until I arrived in Jamaica. Driving by a sports complex, my hostess from the tourism department said, “That’s where Usain Bolt trained.” Then proceeded to tell me how Jamaican athletes get recruited to universities all over the world. Athletics are valued not only for health and recreation, but for scholarships to get educations many Jamaicans could not otherwise afford.
Uh oh. Not only was I running my first ever 10K, I was doing it in a country of serious athletes!
Jamaica also has many recreational running clubs. For training runs, they hire their own security to patrol the route and make sure all the runners are safe. The security concern seems partly due to Kingston being a bit rough, and partly due to club members running in the dark, since as soon as the sun comes up it’s too blazing hot for most people to run.
Kingston City Run: Race Day
The day of the run started early. Half marathoners kicked off at 5:45, 10K at 6 and 5K at 6:15. As we walked up to the start of the course, it was still dark. More serious runners passed me, warming up by running before the race.
A fitness instructor led an aerobic warmup on a stage at the start line. I joined in, doing butt kickers, high knees, hip rotations and a little stretching. Then, before I realized what was happening, I heard, “Go!” And we were off.
We 10K participants moved like a slow tide through the start. The fast people found their way to the front. As we ran through the streets of Kingston, we watched the sun come up over walls tumbling with orange, pink and white bougainvillea. The course highlighted Kingston landmarks. We started off running through the grounds of Devon House, the beautifully landscaped acreage of George Stiebel, Jamaica’s first black millionaire, serenaded by the chirps of early morning birds. A couple kilometers later, we passed Bob Marley’s house, now a museum. Half marathoners got all the way to the city’s botanic garden.
Since I’d never run further than a 5K, I didn’t think I’d run the whole way. But coming up to kilometer 4, it looked like a long slow grade to kilometer 5. If I could make it to the turnaround, I’d cruise back on a downhill grade, which should be easy. I started to think maybe I could do my slow jog all the way to the finish line.
Hundreds of people went into making the Kingston City Run happen, some in official capacities like race marshals that pointed the way, others volunteers that distributed water and sweet drinks to runners as we passed by. I especially appreciated the little groups of people standing on corners encouraging us. Even if they were out to support specific friends who were running, I took their encouragement to heart.
By the sixth kilometer, right when I was thinking maybe I should walk, a woman passed me with a shirt that said “Don’t tell me you can’t” written on the back. I thanked her for the motivational message. She turned back for a second and said to me, “Yes, you can do it,” in her soft Jamaican accent. I kept repeating it in my head like a mantra.
Around the eighth kilometer, I somehow caught up to Lisa, my tourist board hostess. She slowed her pace so we could do the last couple of kilometers together. Around the ninth kilometer, I told her I’d never run this far in my life. She looked aghast. “Now you tell me?!” Fortunately, she only had to worry about me collapsing for that last kilometer. I was starting to feel faint and dehydrated. Then we saw the finish line. Lisa ran ahead of me, cheering me on just like they do for each other in her running club, yelling, “Come on, Teresa, give it everything you’ve got!”
I ran over the finish at something like 1:08. Somebody draped a 10K finisher’s medal around my neck. But my eyes were already looking over their head as I dramatically gasped, “Water!” Somebody handed me a bottle of water. I spent a couple of minutes trying to breathe and not collapse. And then I was pretty much back to normal.
Kingston City Run: Celebration
After the race, there’s a big party in Emancipation Park, which is just past the finish line. The park thumped with a deejay playing local and international hits, everybody was drinking water and orange juice and taking group photos with their running clubs. It was hard to believe it was only 7:30 am.
Not only did people feel good about getting up and exercising so early in the day, but the race also raises money for important local charities. These include the Alpha Boys School (which has produced international musical talents, including the Skatalites and Yellowman), Food for the Poor and a couple of homeless shelters. I stayed to watch the awards given out to the winners. Not like I would ever expect to win a race, since I’m not a serious runner and have never been fast, but it still felt good to have been beat out by such badass looking runners. Gorgeous, athletic people received their awards while the crowd cheered and the deejay played a snippet of a different upbeat song for each winner. I was thrilled to be there, seeing the healthy, uplifting and victorious side of Kingston, Jamaica.
If you go
If you want to visit Jamaica and like to participate in organized races, consider planning your trip around the Kingston City Run or one of Jamaica’s other major races. The best known is the Reggae Marathon (also a half marathon and 10K) in Negril which happens this year on December 2.
People coming from somewhere close, like Miami or Atlanta, could pop down for next year’s Kingston City run, combining the race with a long weekend in the capital city. I stayed at the Jamaica Pegasus, which is perfectly situated at the finish line and only a 10-minute walk to the start. A visit to the Bob Marley Museum, a dip in the water at Fort Clarence Beach and a day trip to hike in the nearby Blue Mountains would round out a trip to do the Kingston City Run. If you’re traveling from farther away, consider combining two or three days in Kingston with a resort stay or travels around another part of the island.