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Running with Locals at the Kingston City Run

Jamaican AthleticsRace DayIf you go

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Many people who visit Jamaica never leave their resorts until it's time to return to the airport. Recent travel advisories have reinforced this approach, warning that parts of Kingston and the island in general are rife with dangerous crime. But the idea of sequestering myself in a resort and only experiencing local people as servers and room cleaners has always repelled me.

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. It sounded like a great opportunity to interact with locals in a non-colonial way.

Jamaica, of course, is the home country of the world's fastest man, Usain Bolt, and gold medal sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, among other famous athletes. The annual Boys and Girls Championships, or Champs, is an annual nationwide track meet where coaches from around the world scout the next big stars. Athletics are valued not only for health and recreation, but for scholarships to get educations many Jamaicans could not otherwise afford.

Recreational running clubs are also popular in Jamaica. These groups go out together and train several times a week for fun and exercise, usually in the very early morning before it's blazing hot.

I was a little intimidated when I realized how athletic many Jamaicans are.

The day of the Kingston City Run started early. The half marathon kicked off at 5:45 a.m., the 10K at 6 a.m. and the 5K at 6:15 a.m. The sky was still dark when I arrived at the start line, where a fitness instructor led us through an aerobic warmup of 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 sun came up and the sky turned into a glowing pink and orange backdrop against streets lined with orange, pink and white bougainvillea-covered walls. The course wound around Kingston landmarks. The most beautiful part was the grounds of Devon House, former home of George Stiebel, Jamaica's first black millionaire. We passed the bright entrance of Bob Marley's house a couple kilometres later, glimpsing a statue of him in dreads, jeans, guitar in one hand, other hand pointing victoriously into the air.

Since I'd never run further than a 5K, I'd planned to jog half and walk half. But coming up to kilometre four, it looked like a long slow grade to kilometre five. 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.

By the sixth kilometre, I was reconsidering this plan. Walking sounded like a good idea. Just then, a woman passed me with a shirt that said, "Don't tell me you can't" written on the back. "Thanks for the motivation!" I panted. She turned back for a second and said to me, "Yes, you can do it," in her soft Jamaican accent. That became my mantra for the rest of the race.

And then, just when collapse seemed imminent ... the finish line!

Triumphant finishers kept pouring over the line—the 5K runners and walkers, the 10K people, the half marathoners. I wandered to the post-race party at nearby Emancipation Park, where the air thumped with DJ music and race organizers readied themselves to present awards to the winners. I couldn't believe it wasn't even 7:30 a.m.

The winners were gorgeous, athletic people, participating in a race to raise money for education, homeless shelters and food for the poor. I was thrilled to be there, seeing the healthy, uplifting and victorious side of Kingston, Jamaica.

If you're visiting Jamaica and like to participate in organized races, consider planning your trip around the Kingston City Run or one of Jamaica's other major running events. The best known is the Reggae Marathon, which happens Dec. 2 this year. If you're coming all the way from British Columbia, consider combining a few days in Kingston with travels to other parts of the island. While in Kingston, visit the Bob Marley Museum, lounge at nearby Fort Clarence Beach and take a day trip to hike the Blue Mountains, home of some of the world's best coffee.

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