Cool running: Jamaica’s Kingston marathon


“A race around the capital lures Adharanand Finn (The Guardian) to Jamaica, but it’s the friendly island that is the real winner.” Finn reviews the many attractions of Jamaica on his trip to participate in the Kingston City Marathon.

If you’re looking for a challenge to really fire up your new year fitness regime, you may want to consider taking on a spring marathon. While many of the world’s biggest races, such as London and Boston, will have filled up long ago, one marathon still with places is the Kingston City Marathon in Jamaica, to be held on 15 March 2020.

Jamaica is not exactly renowned for its long-distance running – it’s more interested in sprinting and cricket – but the Kingston City Run has grown year on year, and in 2019 it added a full marathon to the bill for the first time. Together with a half marathon, 10K and 5K, the races host around 5,000 runners from across the world. Taking part in the non-profit event means helping the local community, with the 2019 edition raising funds for local charities, in particular those tackling homelessness in the city.

The races all start, conveniently, right outside the Courtleigh Hotel, which is where I was staying to run it last year. I even had time to dash back to my room for a last-minute bathroom visit. Less convenient was the 4.30am start time, which was designed to give us a chance to finish – or at least get close to finishing – before the sun really got going at around 7.30am.

With only 45 runners braving the new full marathon distance, it didn’t take long for the field to spread out as we made our way up through some of Kingston’s more wealthy suburbs, along quiet, empty streets, where dogs barked at us from houses hidden behind high walls.

At the top of the hill, we stumbled along in the dark as we made our way around the city’s botanical gardens, before heading back down into the city. Then we did it all again for a second lap, back up and down. It’s an undulating course with not many points of interest along the way, save for the 19th-century Devon House – the former home of Jamaica’s first black millionaire, George Stiebel, and now home of the famous Devon House ice-cream. As we ran up its palm-lined drive and past the mansion’s elegant facade, a lone singer played us on our way from the top of the front steps.

On the second lap, the hills seemed to grow steeper, as the day dawned over the Blue Mountains that rise up around the city. I was grabbing more and more to drink from the aid stops in an effort to keep myself moving, as the heat began to prickle my skin. The small size of the field meant I was in contention for a top 10 finish if I could just keep grinding along.

[. . ] The noise grew as we returned to downtown Kingston for the second time and approached the finish area, where the competitors from the shorter races had already completed their runs. I managed to muster a sprint for the crowds, with a few high fives thrown in for good measure. I finish 10th in a time of 3 hours 33 minutes. It’s not the easiest marathon in the world, but that just makes finishing all the sweeter.

While Kingston may still be getting its head around marathon running – and I’m sure this race will continue to grow – what it lacks in the actual race experience, it more than makes up for in the pre-race relaxation and post-race recovery stakes.

Before the race, I spent a blissful few days at Kanopi House, a collection of luxurious wooden chalets perched among the trees rising up from the Blue Lagoon in Port Antonio, about a three-hour drive north from Kingston.

After the bustle of the city, it was wonderfully peaceful – helped by the lack of wifi. The smell of warmth and foliage following the afternoon rains was overwhelming, and sitting on the veranda overlooking the blue waters, with brilliant green hummingbirds bursting between the palms, it was a veritable paradise.

[. . .] An apt place to visit on a day like this is Trench Town, the birthplace of reggae. The Culture Yard is a museum set in the government yard that was once home to some of the pioneers of reggae music, including a young Bob Marley. [. . .]

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