Traveling to four spots in Jamaica to run, from Usain Bolt's small town to capitol city Kingston.
To get to Sherwood Content, hometown of Jamaican track star Usain Bolt, rent a Toyota Yaris at Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay. Drive 27 miles along narrow unmarked roads through sugar cane fields, swerving to avoid cavernous potholes, goats and drivers who holler out the window to offer “the good stuff.”
Upon slamming into one of those potholes, hook up the jack to repair the flat tire. Because the bolts are too tight, flag down two young men who kindly but wordlessly remove the flat and put on the lumpy spare. Drive more slowly and carefully, past faded pastel-colored brick houses and wooden shacks, until you reach a concrete marker in front of the post office depicting Bolt as “the world’s fastest man.”
By this point it is 2 p.m., 82 degrees and humid. My 13-year-old daughter, Rose, and I lace up our shoes and begin our first run in Jamaica. “Run, mon, run!” shouts an elderly man in a beard and a Rastafarian cap, from the side of the road.
Inspiration for a trip
I’ve aspired to be a runner for years. My father racked up 5 to 7 miles daily, and he spoke almost mystically of the runner’s high that allowed him the space to work out problems in his head. My mom, too, jogged every day.
But I could never make it past 1.5-mile binges in sporadic monthly stretches. To graduate beyond the 1.5-mile mark, I decided to visit one of the most celebrated running countries in the world, Jamaica, where Bolt, the four-time Olympic gold medalist, ran as a schoolboy in the tiny village of Sherwood Content.
Like his colleagues Yohan Blake and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Bolt is a sprinter, not a long-distance runner, but the island has become known for its marathons, 5Ks and road races in recent years, including the Reggae Marathon in Negril every December.
“Jamaica is more suited to sprinting than long-distance running,” Bolt, who competes in his final Olympics this August, wrote in an email interview. “However, we have a lot of rolling hills, beautiful weather, scenic countryside and sandy beaches, which makes it enjoyable for long-distance running, too.” In 2012, the year Blake won silver at the Olympics, he told CNN: “We grew up in the country where your only friends are animals. I find it funny. Once we were running with goats and stuff. I think the sprinting really starts from there.”
Following Bolt’s recommendations for running spots, Rose and I drove all over the island, attempting to soak up the regional intangibles (with goats, if necessary) that turned Bolt, Blake and other contemporaries into lifelong runners.
Although Bolt had suggested running along the Martha Brae River, near Sherwood Content, we didn’t get far beyond his hometown post office. Our pothole misadventures killed the morning, and I was worried about driving on the Yaris’ spare tire in the dark. So Rose and I parked on the side of the road, laced up our shoes in the back seat and jogged down the one-lane strip of blacktop at the center of the tiny village.
It was Easter Sunday, so many locals in suits and dresses were attending services at the Waldensia Baptist Church, singing hymns audible from the roadside. But this sight of American tourists in running shoes, sweating in the midday heat, was too much for passers-by. A small child sitting in the back seat of a parked car mocked us as we ambled by: “Run! Run! Run!”
Self-conscious, we stopped after about a mile, then walked up to a roadside shack where a woman sold us two icy water bottles for 350 Jamaican dollars ($2.80). I asked whether many out-of-town runners journeyed here, to experience Bolt’s hometown.
“Yes, but in the morning,” she said. “It’s too hot now.”
We woke up the next morning at our hotel, the Meliá Braco Village in Rio Bueno, a beachside resort in the northern tip of Bolt’s northwestern parish, Trelawny, excited to try the next long-distance spot on the list he had provided.
First, though, we had to stop at the small town of Duncans, where two young sons of a local fisherman removed three of our tires and, using a hammer and block of wood, pounded the Yaris’ bent rims back into something like round shapes for the equivalent of $8.
Then we took off for Negril, a two-hour drive to the west side of the island. We were tired and hungry when we arrived at the center of the tourist district, a strip of restaurants and hotels along the beach, including Jimmy Buffett’s venerable Margaritaville. Rather than walk through a hotel lobby for a tourist buffet, ate at Miss Sonia’s, a roadside café under a canopy, full of white plastic tables.
Because we weren’t staying in one of the many Negril hotels, we had to find another way of accessing the beach, so we strolled through a small art market, indulging a couple of aggressive salespeople who showed us portraits of Bob Marley and green, yellow and black shotglasses and beaded bracelets. Behind the market was a scrum of barbecuers and tailgaters blasting Rihanna and reggae, whom we had to slip past on the way to the beach.
Finally, we made it to the sand. It was hard to run here, especially in my bulky Adidas, which quickly became heavy and waterlogged. But the blue-green Caribbean was such a shimmering backdrop that we didn’t mind, and we ran for a mile and a half, until the sunburned tourists and sand castles became too difficult to dodge.
Kingston, Mona Reservoir
The next day, we headed to Kingston via the recently completed toll road — no goats or potholes, but Rose was disappointed with the lack of roadside shacks selling fresh mango and chinaberry. We picked the Spanish Court Hotel as our Kingston base: It is centrally located downtown, three blocks away from another of Bolt’s running picks, the urban Emancipation Park.
It was also a couple of miles by car from Mona Reservoir, a popular running spot where Francis worked out for years before switching to the Constant Spring Golf Club in the northern part of town. (“The name is very literal,” he said. “There is a spring that’s always running.”)
Attempting an earlier start, we filled up on fried plantains and papaya at the hotel buffet and headed to the eastern side of Kingston, getting lost several times on the city’s unmarked roads en route to the reservoir. At one point, we landed at the University of the West Indies, driving around the campus where Bolt trains at a track named for him. Mona Reservoir is along a dirt road across the street.
By 9 a.m., when we arrived, a security guard said the reservoir was closed until the evening because of low daily demand — nobody runs during the sunniest hours. We begged, and she reluctantly opened the large gates to let us in for 20 minutes.
We parked in a dirt lot, climbed a hill and reached an unexpected new world, removed from Kingston’s heavy traffic and smog. The reservoir is stunning, a dark-green oval stretching beyond our view, with the eastern hills as a backdrop.
Butterflies floated by as we took off down the flat 2,600-meter (1.6-mile) path. This seemed like the ideal spot to boost our distance beyond 1.5 miles, but we had only 20 minutes, so we ran as far and fast as we could before returning to the Yaris.
Kingston, Emancipation Park
I was feeling discouraged when we got to Emancipation Park in downtown Kingston, surrounded by a wrought-iron fence separating it from drab, brownish office buildings. Clouds rolled in, and for the first time since we’d arrived in Jamaica four days earlier, rain began to fall, a light drizzle, not enough for umbrellas and jackets. Passing into the park beyond Laura Facey’s bronze “Redemption Song” sculpture, of a naked man and woman staring into the sky, we found a half-kilometer running loop.
I was determined to make this run count, pushing myself to get past the inexplicable 1.5-mile barrier. The first two or three laps were a breeze, given the refreshing drizzle, the soothing blue and red flowers spread throughout the park and the two little boys and a girl who briefly followed, laughing and shrieking.
For the next kilometer or two, I felt a familiar twinge — I fixated on the heavy weight of my breaths, counting the steps to the 500-meter marker near a young couple cuddling in the grass. My Adidas suddenly felt like Army boots.
I began to think: Why am I even doing this? Who would journey to Jamaica just to figure out how to run? Why couldn’t I, like any other runner, simply step onto the sidewalk outside my house and take off? What was so hard about it?
Then I started to remember my parents. Dad died in 2008. Mom has Alzheimer’s and can no longer jog. I recalled that they had invited me to run with them numerous times, on the dirt road near their mountain home in Boulder, Colo., but I always refused.
As I huffed and puffed around the Emancipation Park track, I found myself wishing I had taken them up on it. Then I wondered how Dad would have reacted when I told him about this weird Jamaica running adventure. “I’m proud of you for trying it,” he would have said.
Then I thought: “It’s the runner’s high. I’m doing it!”
Another two laps had passed and I barely noticed. The feeling lasted until I realized how tired my legs were. I pushed myself to the finish line, passing the 5-kilometer mark before collapsing on the grass. It was hardly a marathon, but, like Francis said, “bragging rights” — even for just a personal milestone.