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I woke up at 3:30 in the morning, stretching every last second I possibly could out of a short night’s rest. With the van leaving for the race start at 4 am, I pulled on my clothes, pinned my number, and scoured my luggage for my hat. “NOOOOOOOO!” I screamed internally when I realized it wasn’t there. “I am not running a half marathon in the Caribbean in May without a hat!” After briefly debating the merits of running with my beach hat on, I decided to put my hair up in the highest, tightest bun I could manage, cake an entire tube of sunscreen on to my face, grab my sunglasses, and pray.
The start of the Run in Paradise Half Marathon in Antigua was at 5:15 am sharp. The starting line was small but upbeat, and we grabbed our timing chips before heading to the line. Although we had picked up our numbers and shirts the day before, the chips were not disposable and were handed out the morning of – something that’s possible when your numbers are relatively small. Something else that’s possible? Using the porta potties as many times as you want. That is a luxury to which I am not accustomed.
I started the race with Renee, the race director’s daughter, and Paula, a member of Renee’s running group in Miami (shout out to iRun Miami!) The sky was just barely starting to lighten as we set off towards the ocean. I quickly educated them on my “high five at every mile marker” rule and was delighted when they played along. We approached the mile 1 marker as the sun was just starting to peek above the sea, setting off a spectacular display against the silhouettes of palm trees. High five, indeed.
With the humidity thick in the air and the beauty of our surroundings, we knew it wasn’t going to be a fast day, but we kept a steady pace all the same. We did a quick loop and passed the same spot at mile 2, marveling at how the colors had changed in just a few short minutes.
Despite the hearty amounts of sangria and busy few days I had had before the race, I was feeling pretty good. Maybe I was just happy – it’s hard to say! A positive mood affects your entire body, and it’s hard not to be in a good mood when you’re in Antigua. I mean, it’s a gorgeous Caribbean island with the friendliest people in the world. What’s not to like?
Somewhere around mile 3, we met Gary, a South African medical student who is in school at the American University of Antigua. I explained the high five rule to Gary and told them that it was part of the deal if he was going to run with us. “I’ll do whatever you want if you keep me company for a while!” he said.
Lucky for us, that meant he was more than happy to stop and take our picture along the way. He was having a rough race and was in pain from early on, so any reason to rest was welcome. Luckily, we had lots of pictures to take!
We lost Gary around mile 6 but hoped to see him at the finish line. The course had now wound past several beaches with sweeping ocean views, and we were heading through the heart of the Antiguan countryside. The race director, Stanely Humphreys, told me that he designed the course with the intention of showing the real Antigua – that means that we saw the beautiful beaches and luxurious resorts, but we also saw the neighborhoods and the people. Our sights ranged from high-end homes to low income neighborhoods, from horses lazing in pastures to children waving shyly from their porches.
As we ran along, I couldn’t help but thinking that I was surprisingly comfortable. What are the chances, right? It’s the end of May, it’s well into the upper 80s and sometimes low 90s back home in South Carolina by now, but here I am running a half marathon in Antigua and I’m…not miserable. The skies were overcast and we had a steady breeze, so although the air was humid, it was by no means unbearable. I’d had hotter runs in the mornings at home in the past few weeks than I did at this race!
Despite the race’s promise of a challenging course per their website, this really wasn’t that bad. There are certainly hills (it’s a mountainous island, after all), but I didn’t even notice the majority of them. With that being said, Renee and Paula did! Although they are much more used to heat and humidity this time of year from living in Miami, I did have one up on them when it came to hills. Thank you, Greenville, for that!
Paula and I gradually separated from Renee as she slowed down to accommodate an aching hip. We chatted about all of the things that runners talk about – how we started running and why, and a quick dive into our life stories. Well, maybe that was mostly me. I’m a relatively private person in a lot of ways, but not when it comes to running. If we’re running together, I’m likely to tell you pretty much anything and everything you want to know about me – and probably more. That may or may not be an incentive to join me at a race – I’ll let you be the judge!
We made our way around a golf course and smiled and waved at a woman who announced our places in the race “23rd or 24th, and 24th or 25th woman!” she said as we ran by. Realistically, there is no crowd support to speak of at this race. It is only in its second year, so if you’re looking for throngs of adoring supporters and witty signs, this is not the race for you. What you will find are locals sitting on their porches or standing at the end of their driveways, smiling and waving and welcoming you to their island. I’ll take that over another “Worst Parade Ever” sign any day of the week!
Water stops were every mile and featured water and Gatorade. Although the weather was cool and mild, they were definitely prepared for heat, which I really appreciated. One of my favorite things about the race is that the volunteers were all wearing plain white t-shirts and jeans – no fancy volunteer shirts or anything. I just thought that was so charming that I could barely stand it, but I’m sure the volunteers would have thought I was insane if I had complimented them on it, so I kept my mouth shut.
The race had great support from the Antigua Police Department, who helped us with traffic (which was only an issue for about half a mile near the end of the race) and directed us along the course. There were a couple of spots along the way where the route wasn’t totally clear, and I definitely would have gone off course if it was not for Paula. The race committee is totally open to suggestions and feedback and is working to make this a better event every year, so we passed that along.
We made the final turn and headed towards Fort James, totally in sync with our steps. I couldn’t believe it was over so quickly, which is rarely something I say about races. I mean, they’re all hard towards the end, right? But this one was just such a pleasure and a wonderfully unique experience. I still had plenty of energy and pep in my step as we approached the beach – possibly as a result of multiple picture breaks and walking through the water stops, but that’s neither here nor there. I broke out into a huge smile as the ocean came into view, and Paula and I crossed the finish line (I think in 2:26 ish?) with our arms up and our hearts happy. We were greeted by participants from the 5k, who started at mile 10 of the half marathon course and reached the same finish line, as well as locals and their friends and family who had come out to support all of the runners! One man was waving a giant Antigua and Barbuda flag and I felt like my heart was about to burst.
We were greeted by huge, amazing medals – and it takes a lot to impress me in the medal department these days! The race director designs the medals himself, and this year, they are in the shape of the number “2” for the race’s second year. The islands of Antigua and Barbuda are prominently feature on the medal, and I’ve got to say – it’s some serious hardware! A volunteer placed my medal around my neck and I grabbed a slice of fresh watermelon. I couldn’t wait to run into the ocean!
The water was just cool enough, thanks to the overcast skies, to be totally and completely refreshing. Make no mistake – despite the relatively cool temperatures for the island, it was still humid and probably 80 degrees, and I was still sweating like a pig, per usual. I let the waves wash over my legs and feet and just stood there for a long time, taking it all in. The beach seemed to stretch on for miles and was completely empty except for runners.
I met participants from England and Indiana and chatted with them about what a lovely course and enjoyable experience it was. Everyone agreed that one of the best parts was really being able to see and feel the island in a way you wouldn’t normally if you just ran near the beaches and resorts. Don’t get me wrong – those are important parts of the island, and the main drivers of the economy – but they’re not the whole island, and they’re not the whole story. I loved being able to learn just a little bit more by my favorite mode of transportation – my own two feet.
Still in its infancy, Run in Paradise isn’t perfect, and it isn’t flashy. This is not a big city race, and it’s probably not a PR course unless you just happen to run really well in the heat and humidity. What it is is authentic, friendly, warm, and welcoming, just like the island itself. There are kinks to be ironed out and improvements to be made that will make the experience for international runners significantly easier next year: packet pickup directly at the host hotel, for example, and a chartered flight from Miami to Antigua to reduce the costs for runners and boost camaraderie (HOW AMAZING IS THAT?).
The story of how the race was born perfectly sums up what its like and where its going in the future. Stanley Humphreys, the race director and Renee’s dad, was born and raised in Antigua, and Renee lived there until she was 8. Although they live in Miami now, Stanley works for the Antiguan government and has spent his whole life working to improve the island. He travels back and forth a lot, but he never misses Renee’s races, driving her to the start line, waiting for her at the finish, and making sure to see her and cheer for her along the course. After watching her run in her first marathon, he decided he wanted to bring the race experience and give his own people the opportunity to cross the finish line and feel the thrill of distance racing while giving foreigners a chance to experience the island in a new way.
I think the best way I can summarize the Run in Paradise is to say that every step of this race is done with love, from the great care that the committee takes in crafting a unique experience for foreign runners to their commitment to helping local runners train and participate. The event is small enough that you can really feel the care, passion, and dedication behind the entire event. I’ve never heard of a race that is willing to charter a whole flight to make things easier for runners or organize tours, transportation, and every step of the experience for runners who want that option. Like Antigua itself, this event touched me in a way that I didn’t expect. I’ve run a lot of races, after all. But every once in a while, an experience grabs you and moves you, and the Run in Paradise did that for me. I’ll be dreaming about the shine of my medal off the water for many months to come.
I’m excited to announce that I will be heading back to Antigua for the Run in Paradise next year, too! Who wants to come with me?! Registration for next year’s event opens June 15th! Sign up, get the best possible prices and book your complete experience!
I participated in the Run in Paradise Half Marathon as a guest of Run in Paradise and the Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority. All opinions are my own.