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.
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. I get most of my exercise from a weekly pickup basketball game, but at 47, I’m feeling the strain in my knees and ankles; running seems like a less brutal and more efficient way to keep in shape.
Ten years ago, when I showed interest in following their example, my parents bought me a pair of Adidas Supernovas and special socks. Until Rose and I traveled to Jamaica in late March, they sat behind a closet shoe rack, unused since the last time I tried running, three years ago.
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 other citizens’ 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.
Jamaica has been known for this sport since the early 1900s, when G.C. Foster, who spent his youth walking and biking the hills surrounding his Kingston hometown, did the 100-yard dash in 9.8 seconds at the island’s track-and-field championships.
According to The Jamaica Gleaner, he took a banana boat to the 1908 Olympics in London, only to find that Jamaica was unaffiliated with the Games and he had no eligibility. But Foster opened the door for numerous track-and-field champions over the years: Arthur Wint, Merlene Ottey, Veronica Campbell-Brown, Asafa Powell.
“I grew up running in preschool, primary school. Ever since I knew myself, I was running,” Omar McLeod, a Jamaican-born University of Arkansas track star heading to Rio, said by phone. “I honestly think it’s in our food. That contributes a lot to us being fit and staying fit.”
But Alfred Francis, who is known as Frano, a committee chairman for the Jamdammers Running Club, which helps put on the Reggae Marathon and other road races, said that runners from other countries consume papaya and pineapple that are just as fresh, and they don’t sprint like Usain Bolt.
“We have created a culture of excellence, and friendly rivalry, which pushes us more and more,” Francis said, pointing to the March “Champs” high-school track competition, in which schoolkids compete before 35,000 people in Kingston. “People want to run fast and jump higher because they want the bragging rights.”
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!”
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, we ordered the vegetarian patty and scrambled-egg sandwich at Miss Sonia’s, a roadside cafe 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.
Lows and highs
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 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 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.
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 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.
Catching my breath in the park, with the drizzle and the flowers and the statues, I contemplated my running future. Would I keep it up back home? All I knew, for now, was that I needed new shoes.