The Reggae Marathon
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The Reggae Marathon

The Reggae Marathon

by Lizzie Wann

In the darkness of the early Jamaica morning, a hush fell over the crowd gathered at the starting line. Suddenly, the drum circle that had assembled by torchlight near the starting line began pounding out a cadence, giving sound to the intangible force that pulses incessantly in this beautiful place. Then the distinctive sounds of Bob Marley's "Jammin'" rose up. The runners let out an impulsive yell as the gun went off and the first annual Reggae Marathon was on. The sound of their feet on the pavement added another beat to the infectious rhythm.

Think of everything you imagine Jamaica to be - and you'll find it in Negril. Known as the "capital of casual," it's a seven-mile stretch of resorts on the western edge of the island, with white sand beaches, clear, warm water and a mellow, irie style that comes naturally to Jamaican-born people. You can't help but feel connected to a rhythm that is simply part of everything here. It's in the delicious food and the exquisite Blue Mountain coffee, it's in the tropical breezes and the rain, it's in all the people you meet who never have a song or a smile far from their lips. And you definitely feel it when you run.

But if you're going to run the Reggae Marathon in Negril, Jamaica, know this: it's hot. It's hot at 9 a.m. and it's hot at 9 p.m. It's hot when you toe the line at 5:30 a.m. on race day.

You get your first taste of the heat when you get off your flight and step onto the tarmac in Montego Bay or Kingston. The perilous drive from the airport to Negril is hot, humid and dusty. That December, they were building a new road from Montego Bay to Negril, which added an extra dimension of construction detours and traffic to the breakneck ride. The driver dodged heavy equipment, citizens on foot and in cars, uniformed children on their way to school and assorted livestock, as well as an incredible variety of ruts and potholes.

If all this heat and adventure sounds like the challenge you've been searching for, then hydrate yourself well and book your flight. Jamaica is waiting for you.

In Negril, you basically have two running choices: on the road or along the beach. For scenery and safety, choose the beach. The water is clear and warm and you get a chance to see many of the resorts, from the lavish Hedonism to the more understated and elegant Negril Cabins. Each resort has a guard on the beach side, usually friendly and helpful but making sure the tourists are protected. You can make your way along the hard-packed sand near the water or the looser stuff farther up the shore, with only an occasional rocky outcropping to navigate over or around at high tide.

To become familiar with the marathon course, stick to the road. It's only a two-lane boulevard, so stay alert. The cars are small and the drivers are fast. Be sure to carry plenty of water with you - it's not as easy to get into the resorts from roadside, and there are very few places where you can get a drink or fill your water bottle outside of the hotels.

Start at Negril Beach Park and head south about 2.5 miles to the Negril roundabout. You can stop here to rest and browse the native shops by the river, or head back to the park. If you want a longer run, Sandals resort to the roundabout and back is about eight miles.

The entire marathon course is a lopsided figure-eight loop, heading south from the park to the roundabout and back along the main road, then north toward Montego Bay for a little over ten miles before turning back. The road is closed for the early part of the race and monitored closely during the afternoon and evening to ensure the safety of the slower runners.

The Reggae Marathon is the brainchild of the Jamdammers Running Club, and they didn't stop with the race. It's a whole weekend of fun, in funky, happy Jamaican style. There are lots of parties and lots of food, music and dancing.

The Jamdammers organized themselves in 1996. Most are professionals living in Kingston, where they train along the Mona Reservoir. Many of the members began to travel to marathons all over the world, and they developed a desire to bring the world back to Jamaica with them. They wanted to share their island, and conceived an event that combined music, running and the essence of Jamaica itself. When they pulled it off, it attracted top racers from Russia, Kenya and the U.S. More, the inaugural race in 2001 appealed to veteran runners looking for a new experience and newbies who were excited about running in an exotic locale to raise money for stroke research through the American Stroke Association.

The beauty of running a marathon in Jamaica is that, well, you're in Jamaica! It's impossible, especially in Negril, to let anything really bother you. There's a kick-off-your-shoes, shrug-off-your-blues atmosphere that is difficult to resist. But there is plenty to keep you busy, entertained and happy when you're not lazing about, soaking up the local color and making new friends to lime (that's Caribbean dialect for "get together and chat" or "hang out"). Negril is Jamaica's water-sport capital, so you can try an assortment of wave-playing fun like diving, snorkeling, sailing, parasailing, waterskiing, jet-skiing or kayaking. If you're a landlubber, there's horseback riding on the beach or cycling as well as golf and tennis.

At the end of the day, it's time to stop, sip a cool drink and simply watch nature's spectacular display at any number of nightspots. A favorite of locals and tourists alike is Rick's Cafe. On the south end of town at the edge of the sea, Rick's is known for breathtaking sunsets and cliff diving. Patrons are invited (don't drink and dive) to jump off a small platform at the edge of the cliff. It's 44 feet to the crystal clear waters of the tiny cove below - enough to be daring, not enough to be suicidal. Onlookers cheer and whistle and take pictures. It's great entertainment, even if you only watch.

Running a marathon is a major undertaking by any standard, and finishing one can be life-changing. The heat and humidity of the Reggae Marathon add a huge dimension to the challenge - and the accomplishment. Whether you walk or run, whether you finish in three hours or ten, it's the sweetest finish line you'll ever cross, with those white sand beaches and warm Caribbean waters waiting just the other side.

It's irie. It's Jamaica, mon.

For information, visit The Reggae Marathon.

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