It’s dark on the streets of the Cayman Islands when I run my half marathon, best to beat the heat of a long December day. Living in Toronto, the concept of “beating the heat” in the winter seems almost absurd, but that’s why Canadians have flocked to this event for the last 17 years. Rhonda Kelly, the race director, says the number of Canadians participating grows every year, which is only logical—the event is a lifeboat to get from fall races to 2020 running goals. “You can always recognize the Canadians, because they’re the runners on the course with the biggest grins,” she says. “It’s one of my favourite parts of the job—seeing how happy our participants are when they arrive.”
My wife and I arrived in Grand Cayman, which is sandwiched between Jamaica and Cuba, on the Friday before the Sunday race, to acclimatize ourselves to the culture. We stayed at the Westin Hotel, swam in the ocean and ate at Pepper’s, where the jerk chicken will make you swear off pasta the night before race day. Westin Hotels have a “run concierge” program, which is almost like a tour guide for runners, and Richard Clarke, a former sprinter from Jamaica, took me on a long run Saturday morning along the sandy white beach.
“I think it’s best when you’re racing on vacation to not take the race too seriously, and make an equal effort to enjoy your time in a new place,” said Clarke. He’d recently become a new father and thus wasn’t really sleeping, but still had no trouble leaving me in his sand when we raced at the end of our run. “Coming from someplace as cold as Canada in the wintertime, I always advise runners to eat well, rest and enjoy the sun.”
Eating well is no problem on Grand Cayman, an island which bills itself as the “Culinary Capital of the Carribean.” I certainly haven’t dined extensively enough along the chain of islands to conclude that definitively, but after meals at Brasserie and especially Blue Cilantro—where we had scallops, muscles and lobster so good that we immediately had to post photos on Instagram and brag—I can conclude with no uncertainty that you will not go hungry before your race. Properly fortified, I showed up for my race Sunday morning at 4:30 a.m. not entirely weighed down with race goals. Then the gun went off, and everything changed.
Christopher Thompson is a British Olympian hoping to return to the Olympics this year. In town with his fiance, he had no intention of breaking the course record when he lined up at the starting line. However, runners are a strange breed and we really only know one thing: run as fast as we can. “The course was great and I really enjoyed myself out there. It was cool to see the local spectators and I loved the houses that were all lit up,” says Thompson, who finished in 1:07:45, setting a new record and then joining all of the other participants in a free post-race beer. “I definitely want to run the Cayman Islands Marathon next year.”
As for me, it took me a little while to get my bearings. With the early start time, I didn’t sleep much the previous evening, and the dark streets made me self-conscious about my footing. There’s a relay, half marathon and marathon distance, and for the half marathon, it’s a tidy 10.5K out and back. As the race went on, the sun began to rise, and after my turnaround point, I popped on my music. Suddenly everything—to the familiar strains of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’”—began melting away.
I smiled broadly and began to speed up, and I gave my first high-fives of the day. At the very end of the race, there was a Brit who was part of Chris Thompson’s posse, and him and I raced the last 400 metres with everything that we had. The Cayman Islands marathon is a Boston Marathon–qualifying run with top-notch timing, water stations and gels. For me, it was a chance to catch my breath and fall back in love with running. It was a thrill to be doing what I love in the beginning of December, fortifying myself for the winter running months I know will come.
For more information on the Cayman Islands Marathon, see CaymanIslandsMarathon.com.
Photographs by Jorge Rios.