/Cool running: Jamaicas Kingston marathon

Cool running: Jamaicas Kingston marathon

If you’re looking for a challenge to really fire up your new year fitness regime, you may want to consider taking on a spring marathon. While many of the world’s biggest races, such as London and Boston, will have filled up long ago, one marathon still with places is the Kingston City Marathon in Jamaica, to be held on 15 March 2020.

Jamaica is not exactly renowned for its long-distance running – it’s more interested in sprinting and cricket – but the Kingston City Run has grown year on year, and in 2019 it added a full marathon to the bill for the first time. Together with a half marathon, 10K and 5K, the races host around 5,000 runners from across the world. Taking part in the non-profit event means helping the local community, with the 2019 edition raising funds for local charities, in particular those tackling homelessness in the city.

The races all start, conveniently, right outside the Courtleigh Hotel, which is where I was staying to run it last year. I even had time to dash back to my room for a last-minute bathroom visit. Less convenient was the 4.30am start time, which was designed to give us a chance to finish – or at least get close to finishing – before the sun really got going at around 7.30am.

‘The early start means we have a chance to finish before the sun really gets going’: Adharanand Finn during the race.

‘The early start means we have a chance to finish before the sun really gets going’: Adharanand Finn during the race. Photograph: Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon

With only 45 runners braving the new full marathon distance, it didn’t take long for the field to spread out as we made our way up through some of Kingston’s more wealthy suburbs, along quiet, empty streets, where dogs barked at us from houses hidden behind high walls.

At the top of the hill, we stumbled along in the dark as we made our way around the city’s botanical gardens, before heading back down into the city. Then we did it all again for a second lap, back up and down. It’s an undulating course with not many points of interest along the way, save for the 19th-century Devon House – the former home of Jamaica’s first black millionaire, George Stiebel, and now home of the famous Devon House ice-cream. As we ran up its palm-lined drive and past the mansion’s elegant facade, a lone singer played us on our way from the top of the front steps.

On the second lap, the hills seemed to grow steeper, as the day dawned over the Blue Mountains that rise up around the city. I was grabbing more and more to drink from the aid stops in an effort to keep myself moving, as the heat began to prickle my skin. The small size of the field meant I was in contention for a top 10 finish if I could just keep grinding along.

‘A veritable paradise’: peaceful Kanopi House, above the Blue Lagoon three hours north of Kingston.

‘A veritable paradise’: peaceful Kanopi House, above the Blue Lagoon three hours north of Kingston. Photograph: Alty Benjamin Jr/Jamaica Tourist Board

The occasional spectators out on the route did their best to cheer us, but a lot of the time I found myself running alone, with the city’s sleepy suburbs largely to myself. Race marshals, tired from the pre-dawn start, did their best to stop any traffic from driving on to the course, but the cars mostly drove around them, the drivers staring at us, seemingly perplexed by the strange sight of people running up and down their street.

The noise grew as we returned to downtown Kingston for the second time and approached the finish area, where the competitors from the shorter races had already completed their runs. I managed to muster a sprint for the crowds, with a few high fives thrown in for good measure. I finish 10th in a time of 3 hours 33 minutes. It’s not the easiest marathon in the world, but that just makes finishing all the sweeter.

While Kingston may still be getting its head around marathon running – and I’m sure this race will continue to grow – what it lacks in the actual race experience, it more than makes up for in the pre-race relaxation and post-race recovery stakes.

Wild at heart: a hummingbird in flight.

Wild at heart: a hummingbird in flight. Photograph: Alamy

Before the race, I spent a blissful few days at Kanopi House, a collection of luxurious wooden chalets perched among the trees rising up from the Blue Lagoon in Port Antonio, about a three-hour drive north from Kingston.

After the bustle of the city, it was wonderfully peaceful – helped by the lack of wifi. The smell of warmth and foliage following the afternoon rains was overwhelming, and sitting on the veranda overlooking the blue waters, with brilliant green hummingbirds bursting between the palms, it was a veritable paradise. Amazingly, there were no mosquitos, and so it was a pleasure to sleep each night with the veranda doors wide open to the sounds and smells of the forest.

The still, warm waters of the Blue Lagoon were a short walk down from my chalet and perfect for a morning dip. For those not lucky enough to be staying so close, the best and most common way to get there is on a bamboo raft from further up the Rio Grande.

I took a motor boat ride one day along the coast, passing by Dragon Bay beach, where the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail was filmed, and stopped for an hour at the uninhabited Pellew Island, known locally as Monkey Island, where I sat on white sand in splendid isolation soaking up the sun and the beauty of it all.

Away from the coast, I managed a visit to Reach Falls, another slice of paradise. As well being an idyllic spot in which to lie and bask in the sun, it is a natural playground, and I got to indulge my inner child, jumping off the rocks, clambering behind the waterfalls and plunging into a blow hole – a narrow gap in the rocks down into an underground pool.

A river runs through it: rafting on the Rio Grande, Port Antonio.

A river runs through it: rafting on the Rio Grande, Port Antonio. Photograph: Doug Pearson/Getty Images

On the way back to Kingston for the race, I stopped off in the Blue Mountains at the Craighton Estate coffee plantation. If you don’t automatically put Jamaica and coffee together, that’s because 70% of the island’s coffee ends up in Japan. Which is a shame for the Europeans, because Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee is officially, according to industry-standard scores awarded by master tasters, the best coffee in the world.

Back in Kingston, with the early start I finished the marathon by 8.30am, and had the rest of the day to relax and recover. The popular thing to do on a Sunday in Kingston is head over to Hellshire or Fort Clarence beach, eat freshly caught fish and splash in the warm waves. The whole city was feeling lazy and hungover after staying up for a huge reggae concert the night before, so with my fuzzy, post-race tiredness, I fitted right in.

An apt place to visit on a day like this is Trench Town, the birthplace of reggae. The Culture Yard is a museum set in the government yard that was once home to some of the pioneers of reggae music, including a young Bob Marley. I got to see his teenage bedroom, along with the pan he used to cook his vegetarian stews and the guitar he used to write his first songs. I also got lucky and arrived at the same moment as Bunny Wailer, one of Marley’s original band members, and was treated to an impromptu performance from the Culture Yard’s resident band, who tells me tales of working with Marley in their early days.

After a few hours on the beach, I had one last stop before my trip was over – a visit to the Devon House ice-cream parlour – this time a new branch on the waterfront in downtown Kingston. It was the perfect end to a marathon weekend.

Way to go

Adharanand Finn travelled to Kingston and Port Antonio as a guest of the Jamaica tourist board. Rooms at the Courtleigh Hotel in Kingston from £135, and at Kanopi House in Portland from £105 a night. For Kingston City Marathon details, visit kingstoncityrun.com. For more information on Jamaica, see visitjamaica.com

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