Is all lost when you show up injured for a destination marathon? As Matt Phillips discovers in Jamaica, there's still much to celebrate, savor and run for.

It was just past 4am and I was walking through the darkness to the start line of the inaugural marathon in Kingston. It’s not the journey you want to take when injured, but I’d flown across the Atlantic to be here and I wasn’t going to leave Jamaica without at least attempting to run the distance.

The pain wasn’t new – the adductor strain had been bothering me for the past six months and I’d seriously aggravated it while skiing several weeks earlier. On the bright side, I’d had a great few days touring eastern Jamaica. And that is one of the greatest benefits of entering a marathon abroad: there is more than just the race to look forward to.

A view looking out through the open wall of Kanopi House's dining room; the wood-and-glass bifold doors open the entire wall of the traditional wood-framed structure and offer incredible views down over lush tropical forest to the coast below.
Pre-race hideaway at Kanopi House overlooking the Blue Lagoon on Jamaica's northeast coast © Alty Benjamin Jr / Jamaica Tourist Board

Pre-race preparations and explorations

Although it’s important to conserve energy in the days before the marathon, keeping the body moving is actually crucial, so I enjoyed some easy swimming, paddling and rope swinging in the waters of the Blue Lagoon (the one that made Brooke Shields famous) near Port Antonio. I also made a couple of short sojourns: clambering, cliff jumping and subterranean swimming at Reach Falls; and a boat trip along the coast to take in some more of the island’s silver-screen sights. The alluring Frenchman’s Cove beach, which lurks seductively behind two jungle-clad promontories, was used for Tom Cruise’s film Knight & Day, and the somewhat forlorn Dragon Bay was heavily featured in another of the actor’s classics, Cocktail.

A man in a swimsuit paddling a stand-up paddle board in the Blue Lagoon.
The Blue Lagoon had plenty of relaxing ways to keep my body moving in the days leading up to the marathon © Doug Pearson / Getty Images

The mornings and evenings were spent luxuriating up in the trees overlooking the Blue Lagoon at Kanopi House on the island’s northeast coast. Its hillside wooden chalets are perched on tall stilts, allowing the jungle canopy’s foliage and fragrance to flow into the rooms when the verandah’s full-length bifold shutters are swung open. As I often do on safari in Africa, I left the room open to nature during the night: there is nothing like drifting off to sleep and waking with the sounds of the bush drifting around you. The benefit of good sleep in the run up to the marathon is paramount.   

Blurred whitewater fans out down a rock face and into a pool below; trees' foliage hangs above the scene, and large rocks stand in the foreground.
One of the many cascades and natural swimming pools at Reach Falls © Cosmo Tee / 500px

Expert opinions and a world-class coffee break

I was fortunate to be travelling with renowned running author Adharanand Finn, who was a fount of knowledge on the long-distance racing front. After all, he’d not only completed plenty of marathons, but also the epic UTMB, a 170km race around Mont Blanc that includes no less than 10,000m of climbing. His advice regarding my injury was to listen to my body, but also to beware of its potential falsehoods (it turns out your body can create pain when there isn’t an injury to simply give itself a bit of a break). He said that if you think you may be having a pseudo-symptom, you just need to test it by pushing through (if the pain allows) and see if it eases. If it doesn’t abate, then you may need to call it a day to prevent making things worse.

Coffee beans ranging from green to rich, reddish purple hang from a single branch of a coffee bush.
The beans from the upper levels of the Blue Mountains in Jamaica produce the world's highest-rated coffee © YP_photographer / Shutterstock

With thoughts of the next day’s potential suffering rattling through my head, I was happily distracted on the three-hour drive back to Kingston with a stop in the cool climes of the Blue Mountains. There we toured the Craighton Coffee Estate, which produces some of the planet’s most expensive coffee. Low in caffeine and incredibly smooth to the taste, the coffee produced from these beans has received the highest-ever scores from global industry experts. Unfortunately for most of you (but happily for your wallets), the vast majority of the area’s coffee is exported to Japan where it is particularly revered.

Once back in the capital, it wasn’t coffee, but rather carbs that were on my mind. But given the early hour we’d need to be up for the start, Adharanand and I skipped the late-starting rooftop pasta party and instead opted for some pizza at our hotel. Only if I’d known Usain Bolt was going to make an appearance at the party…

A crowd of runners standing in the flood lights at the start line of the marathon; one runner beams with excitement and his tongue hangs out from his wide-open smile
Excitement and nerves present themselves in many different ways on a marathon start line © Jamaica Tourist Board

Back to the start, again

As I waded into the crowds on the start line, the fear of oncoming pain melted in the heat of the excitement that pervaded the scene; there were thousands of participants under the floodlights, and nervous smiles and laughter were everywhere. The Kingston City Run has been a mainstay in the city for years, with 5km, 10km and half-marathon races raising money for local charities. This year was the first to include a full marathon, and we were to be the first group across the line.

With the mercury already at 23°C, the gun went off at 4.30am. I set off into the darkness to the cheers of those behind. The route meandered steadily uphill for almost 10km, taking me past historic Devon House (home to Jamaica’s first black millionaire) and through empty streets lined by some of the city’s largest homes. I felt like I was flying, and for the first time since I’d injured myself I thought that I could go the full distance.

Runners make their way in front of a historic mansion; it's dark outside, but the house is floodlit, and there is a musician playing on the verandah.
A musician welcomed competitors as they ran past Devon House on their way up through Kingston's hills © Jamaica Tourist Board

Is it all downhill from here?

At the top of the hill was Kingston’s botanical gardens, which is where I would loop back down towards the start; the marathon would be two laps of this up-and-down route. It was a few hundred meters into the descent that I felt my injury flare up; gently at first, then soon with a vengeance. I’d naturally lengthened my stride on the downhill and it had triggered the issue. I thought of Adharanand’s advice, as well as that of my physiotherapist who categorically told me to not run more than the half distance.

The field had spread out massively by this point and I was alone with my thoughts, and with my pain. Eventually I heard footsteps and a familiar voice. Adharanand. He cruised up beside me and asked how I was doing. I told him that I was done and that he needed to carry the torch for both of us.

“You’re still on a good pace. Don’t give up too easily.”

But it wasn’t long before he was a kilometer down the road and out of sight. I kept at it, trying to ignore the pain and keep my stride short. I also kept telling myself that running 21km was still respectable. As I neared the halfway mark, which was at the start/finish line, I had a moment of clarity: wake up tomorrow in pain with a DNF (did not finish) beside my name, or wake up in pain with a finishing time and a medal. Despite the latter meaning 21 more kilometers of anguish, I turned my back on the half-marathon finish and headed back up the hill for lap two.

Several gold finishers' medals with gold ribbon hang down with a blurred background; they read 'Kingston City Marathon'
The achievement of completing a marathon always outweighs the finish-line bling © Jamaica Tourist Board

And up I go, again

Halfway to the summit I managed to catch up and pass Adharanand, who offered more words of support and encouragement. The pain was intense as I ran through the gardens at the 30km mark, and I was struggling. Suddenly Beyoncé’s ‘Halo’ started to ring out loudly through the race’s loudspeakers; both the wedding and funeral song of a dear friend, it shifted my thoughts to her. Tears flowed, my legs sped.

The last 12km went by in a bit of a blur, with cheers from the locals handing out water and from those on the last leg of the half-marathon. To my surprise I finished the hilly and hot marathon in 8th place in a respectable time of 3 hours and 27 minutes. That said, I wasn't able to run for the next six weeks. But the fulfillment of sticking at it will live on forever.

Post-race celebrations and cultural experiences

After a few hours of lazing, we headed out with fellow runner and Jamaica expert Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon to the beach at Fort Clarence. It’s a usual Kingston haunt on Sundays for soaking in the sea and savoring freshly caught seafood grilled over open flames; perfect for our weary muscles and hungry stomachs.

We finished our time in Jamaica the next day touring Trench Town, the neighborhood that gave birth to reggae, ska and rocksteady. The local cultural center is a rewarding experience; there you learn about the housing project's history, step into Bob Marley's old bedroom, sing some reggae and potentially meet some musical heroes (we bumped into Bunny Wailer).

If you’re thinking of a spring marathon and have missed places in London, Paris and Boston, the 2020 edition of the Kingston event is a rewarding option; spots are available for the 15 March event.

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Matt Phillips travelled with support from Visit Jamaica. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebees in exchange for positive coverage.

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