Feeling Irie – Reggae Half Marathon Race Report

Last we left off, I was off to Jamaica on a last minute trip to cover the Reggae Marathon, Half Marathon, and 10k for Women’s Running magazine. I’ll talk about the rest of my trip in my next post or two, but we all know race reports come first! So first, some basics:

Location: Negril, Jamaica “The Capital of Casual”

Date: December 5, 2015 (it’s always the first Saturday in December)

Time: 5:15 am sharp (they take pride in starting on time)

Years Running: 15!

Participants: About 2300 between the 10k, half marathon, and marathon. About 1300 run the 10k, while 800 do the half marathon and 200 do the full marathon. More than 60% come from overseas to run the race!

Obviously, I was ecstatic to get to go to another country and run a race. I love travel and I love running, so this trip was the perfect combination! What made it even more exciting was that I have quite a few friends who have run this race, and every single one has absolutely loved it and had extremely positive things to say. In the interest of full disclosure, however, this was not a bucket list race for me solely because I run terribly in the heat, and Jamaica is very hot, even in December. I was a bit nervous about how I would fare with temperatures in the 80s and humidity hovering in the 80-90% range! Add that to the fact that I’ve been running in temperatures near freezing for the past couple of months (as have many people coming to run the race) and the weather is definitely a factor.

But let’s not worry about the weather just yet! Packet pick up went super smoothly and it was very small – no expo to speak of. At packet pick up, I got to meet 90-year old Burt Carlson of Minnesota, who was back at the Reggae Marathon for his 11th year in a row and running the half! He has run something like 320 marathons all over the world, and he didn’t start running until he was 65. Amazing! I asked him if I could take a picture of him and he said yes – but only if he got to put his arm around me! What a babe.

img_0139-1024x768-1-4 Burt the Great!

We came back that night for the “World’s Best Pasta Party” and a press briefing. Now, I have been to a lot of pasta parties, and so have many of you, so you probably know that they are generally not very exciting and are usually overpriced. This one was the exception to the rule on all fronts – the party is totally free to all runners, has live reggae music, and there are 10-15 stations all serving different types of pasta, side dishes, proteins, etc, including ceviche, grilled chicken, stir fry pasta, and more! And of course, who could forget about the “Rasta Pasta” that made the race famous? Sadly, I couldn’t try any of the pasta dishes (damn you, gluten!) but the chefs kindly made me some stir fry seafood and I ate some delicious potato salad and then headed over to the press briefing.

img_0145-1024x768-1-4 The Reggae Marathon claims to have the “World’s Best Pasta Party” and with the world-famous rasta-pasta (plus a million other options) free to all runners, it is easy to see why!

While I won’t go into too much detail about the press briefing here, I have to say that the one thing that really left an impression on me is how proud the race committee is of this race and the support from the local community. It is clear that this event greatly impacts the lives of the people of Negril in a positive way, and the committee is very focused on creating an event that is not only enjoyable for the runners, but also sustainable and beneficial to the community that supports it. The committee is determined to make Jamaica proud, and spoiler alert – they do!

img_0158-1024x768-1-4 Just a few of the wonderful people who make the Reggae Marathon a possibility!

Race day dawned super early. The races start at 5:15 am in the dark, and the roads close beginning at 4 am, so you need to take a shuttle to the start line. Our group was supposed to meet at 4 am, but our British compatriots had arrived super late the night before, and as 4 am turned to 4:15 and turned to 4:20, we started to get concerned. Sure enough, their alarm had not gone off and they made a mad dash to our van! We made it to the shuttle just as it was leaving and to the start line with about 6 minutes to spare – just enough time to run into a portajohn and join the corral! Without too much time to think about it, we were off!

img_3742-1024x768-1-4 These people had a table full of liquor for sale RIGHT at the start/finish line area. It was incredible.

The race starts in the dark, but there are tons of volunteers with tiki torches lighting the way at the beginning and the sounds of reggae music blaring as you cross the start line. It is probably one of the most festive, fun start lines I have ever crossed, with the possible exception of Disney World, but hey, it’s hard to beat Mickey Mouse. Actually, now that I think about it, the freakishly early start time is also very Disney-esque, but I digress. Fellow journalists and bloggers Natalie and Kristen were both running their very first 10ks ever! First of all, let me take a moment to brag on these two for a bit – these incredible smart, funny, beautiful women have spent months on end traveling solo around the world and going on incredible adventures. They made me laugh the whole trip and I learned an incredible amount about the world, cameras, youtube, and a whole lot more from these two, so definitely go check out their blogs! Anyway, as we started off, I found myself running with Kristen. I had persuaded her to run without headphones and enjoy the experience of running her very first race ever, as the farthest she had previously run was 5k. We started chatting and a couple of miles in, she said “Wow, this is going by so fast! It is fun to talk when you run!” Another one drinks the Kool-Aid!

img_3744-1024x768-1-4 Reggae drummers in the early morning light!

Although the race committee had talked a lot about how the community supports the race, I didn’t really expect to see a lot of people out at 5:15 am. Still, whether they hadn’t gone to bed yet or woke up extra early to watch the race, there were locals and tourists alike out to cheer us on! We couldn’t see much in the dark, but looping through the center of the little town of Negril was fun. And speaking of drinking the Kool-Aid, interesting fact: at the water/aid stations, the water and Jamaican version of Gatorade were given to us in plastic bags! Let me take a moment to clarify that yes, in my day job, I am an environmental scientist, and yes, thousands of plastic bags are undoubtedly not the ideal solution for the environment, BUT…as a runner, THIS WAS THE BEST. You could rip a tiny corner of the bag open with your teeth, slurp out the liquid, and keep running all without splashing water/Gatorade on yourself. WHAT A COUNTRY! You would not be remiss to run this race solely for the reason of experiencing this glorious invention alone.

So now is the time where I talk about the weather and about pacing. I wasn’t worried about pacing because I was worried about the heat, but more importantly, worried about having fun! And running with Kristen was a whole lot of fun, and I wanted to keep her moving along. She was feeling strong, and although I didn’t wear my Garmin, I estimated we were running somewhere around 11 minute miles as we closed in on mile 4. Let me tell you, it was a hot, sweaty mess out there, even before the sun started to rise. Mentally, I was prepared because every year when I go home to Florida for various holidays, I run in the heat and humidity after months of cold weather and I feel like I am going to die. Thus, I expected to feel like I was going to die. With a slower pace, no sun, and the occasional breeze off the ocean, though, it was ok, and mostly, we were just having a blast! As we hit the point where the 10k turned off, Kristen was smiling like a star because she knew she was going to finish the whole thing without walking! I couldn’t have been more excited for her. There is something so special about watching someone finish their first race and knowing they achieved a goal that seemed impossible!

img_3760-e1449593526868-768x1024-1-4 This is what a 10k runner looks like about to finish her first race EVER!

I continued on, and by this point, the sun was starting to rise. Thanks to a conservative first half, I was feeling great, and although sweaty as hell, I was not overheated. I started to pick up the pace a bit, wanting to challenge myself an appropriate amount for the conditions while still having a blast. The ocean appeared on our left and the mountains were on the right, and everything was peaceful and calm. I’ve been really working on practicing gratitude lately and so I thought to myself “You are so lucky to be here. Just look at this!” And it’s true. I am lucky. Look at it!

img_3766-1024x768-1-4 Gorgeous ocean views at 6:30 am!

We ran by some roadside stands with the mountains in the background, and the shop owners were already out (it was about 6:30 am) watching the race and getting their merchandise set up. I stopped to take a picture of the rising sun and this perfect scene, and they yelled out “Come take a selfie, mon!” I thought about it for about half a second and then was like “HELL YEAH” and ran over, unfortunately probably covering them in sweat just by being in their general vicinity, but it’s probably the best selfie of my life for what I feel are obvious reasons.

img_3773-1024x768-1-4 This picture is everything. Sorry about my sweat, men of Jamaica.

As we approached the turn around, I was feeling good, but the sun was rising. Having water or gatorade every mile was helping me stay hydrated, but I could feel the sun beating down on my skin. We turned around to head back to the finish line around mile 9.5, and I knew I had been steadily picking up the pace. While I didn’t necessarily think I could go a lot faster, I wanted to hold my pace as much as possible. I saw Graham, a freelance writer for Men’s Running in the UK, just ahead of me, and his wife Lisa, a freelance writer for Women’s Running in the UK, who was a few miles behind me and doing the full marathon. I’ll never complain about an out and back course because I absolutely love cheering for others, and boy, did I cheer! I probably drove the people around me nuts cheering for literally every single person who ran by me in either direction, but I believe you get what you give, and I found it gave me a burst of energy every time I cheered for someone else. The people around me probably expended a lot of energy from rolling their eyes at my endless “YOU LOOK SO STRONG!” and “WAY TO GO!” but whatever.

img_3776-1024x768-1-4 “GO STRANGER! YOU GOT THIS!” Sorry, everyone else in the race.

As the sun continued to rise, it definitely got really hot. I had been a bit worried about how I would feel intentionally running the half marathon while knowing there was a full marathon at the same race – I’ve never done that before! Although I have dropped down to the half a couple times due to injury, I have never actually signed up for a half marathon at an event where they offered a full, so I wasn’t sure how I would feel about it mentally. It’s one thing to declare your marathon career over and another thing to actually put it into practice. However, as I powered through those last couple of miles in the sun, I felt nothing, and I mean nothing, but relief that I was doing the half. My back had not been feeling great since the race in Tulsa, it was hot, and quite frankly, I just wanted to hang out on the beach and party with my friends while watching the other runners come in! Crossing the finish line suddenly became super appealing to me and I was so glad I had made the decision to run the half marathon. I picked it up a bit and kicked for the final mile, crossing the finish line in a time of about 2:20 and some change. Interestingly, the race results online show your gun time and then show how much time to subtract for your chip, rather than just showing your chip time, so I thought that was weird. But anyway, 2:20 or so, and I got progressively faster throughout the entire race! Another negative split!

img_3810-1024x1024-1-5 Is this the greatest finish line pic in the history of my life? Yes. Did I thank God every mile for my Qore Performance shorts? Literally also yes.

Let me brag on this finish line situation for a bit. The race finishes in Long Bay Beach Park with a huge party. There is a giant reggae concert with some pretty famous reggae musicians, and everyone be jammin’, mon (I learned the lingo obviously). There is free Red Stripe beer and, the best part, the gorgeous, famous Seven Mile Beach is the finisher’s area! Yup, that’s right – you can run straight from the finish line into the water if you don’t mind wet shoes.

img_3786-1024x768-1-4 Hundreds of happy runners on the beach!

Now, with the roads being closed until 12 pm and one of our fellow journalists running the full marathon, we had plenty of time to kill. I finished the race at about 7:40, meaning I had at least about 4.5 hours to kill before our guide from the Jamaica Tourism Board came and got us! I had brought lots of sunscreen, a towel, and a change of clothes in my gear check bag, which served me, Natalie and Kristen all well since they had not brought any of that stuff with them. I literally reapplied sunscreen every 20 minutes because it was hot and I was terrified of burning to a literal, actual crisp out there, but it ended up being all good. The water was perfect, and we had a blast watching everyone run to the water to take pictures, talking with our new BFF Gregory (a charming 18 year old from Kingston who had just run his first 10k), and hanging out on the beach.

img_3801-1024x768-1-4 Is Gregory not the most absolutely precious individual you’ve ever seen?

As 12 pm rolled around, we started to worry about Lisa, who normally finishes the marathon in 5-5:30 hours. It was now going on 6 hours and 45 minutes with no sign of her, and of course, the heat was only getting worse. We went out to cheer the final runners in, some of whom looked absolutely ecstatic to be finishing their races and others who looked like they wanted to absolutely murder us for daring to cheer for them. I have definitely been that person on more than one occasion, so I completely understood! I think Kristen and Natalie got a kick out of cheering the final runners in. Although the cut off for the race was 7 hours, the committee had said the night before that they do not close the finish line until the last runner crosses, and everyone gets an official time and a medal as long as they cross the line. This was great news for Lisa, who was running marathon #96 towards her quest for 100! She ended up finishing in about 7:30, third to last, and honestly? I’m not sure I’ve ever been so impressed by someone in my life. The heat was brutal, but she stuck it out and kept her eye on her goal of 100 marathons. I’m not sure I could have done the same thing under those conditions!

img_3807-1024x768-1-4 Pretty epic setting for #medalmonday if I do say so myself!

Post race thoughts: I came to this race a little confused as to why people would want to run their goal race here, given how hot and humid it is compared to where the majority of people are training this time of year. After experiencing the magic of the Reggae Marathon, I now get it – the experience itself is the goal, not the perfect conditions. There are relatively few marathoners and the majority of people run the 10k just for fun, and it is exactly that – fun! The community is thrilled to have the runners there, the execution of the event is flawless from top to bottom, and the finish line party cannot be beat. There are nothing but good vibes at this race and the party atmosphere flows through the miles. Whether it is your 96th marathon or your first 10k, everything is irie (that’s Jamaican for “all good”) at the Reggae Marathon, Half Marathon and 10k.

img_3797-e1449594014801-1024x897-1-4 Reggae runners!

LEAVE A COMMENT: Do you have any destination races that are on your bucket list? Do you love running in the heat or hate it?