From the October 2012 issue of Runner’s World
Alcohol and madcap ideas are rarely a recipe for success – but this race is an exception
By Kerry McCarthy
A couple of years ago, drinking buddies Ishwar and Henry were sitting outside a hilltop bar on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. Ishwar gazed at the steep mountain road that he’d have to stumble down to get home and said to Henry, “Hey, wouldn’t it be crazy to run a half-marathon on this island?”
Henry should have replied, “Yes. So shut up and have some more rum.” But he didn’t. He said, “Hmm…” Which is why, two years later, I’m walking up a one-in-five gradient hill with my hands on my knees, acid lungs and calves of wood, whimpering like a little girl. I pass the sign that says ‘Mile 6’ (9.6km). The only thing that’s keeping me going is the sight of Ishwar, marketing manager for Montserrat Tourism and my host for the weekend, who’s no more than a minute in front of me, moving slowly and grimacing as he clutches at his groin through his shorts. (I assume it’s a grimace, anyway.)
Responsible for putting me through one of the most painful experiences of my life, I’ll be damned if I’m going to let him beat me to the finish, too. So I put my head down and plough on. Eleven and a half kilometres to go…
When I was first invited to participate in Montserrat’s Volcano Half-Marathon, I had to enlist the aid of Google to find out where Montserrat was. For those who are similarly clueless, it’s a tiny island to the north of Antigua.
Still a British territory, the island has a landmass of just 102km2 and a population of between 3500 and 5000, depending on who you talk to. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was known as a hangout for rock stars looking for sun, sea, and peace and quiet. Legendary Beatles producer George Martin owned the famous Air Studios on the island, and Paul McCartney, Sting, Elton John, U2 and the Rolling Stones are among those who recorded there. They were drawn to the country for its relaxed vibe, tropical climate and lush, natural beauty.
Winds of Change
All this changed in 1989, when the island was battered by Hurricane Hugo. Air Studios was reduced to a wreck and remains so to this day. Then, in 1995, the Soufrière Hills Volcano in the centre of the island erupted. The capital city, Plymouth, was destroyed and is now known as a modern-day Pompeii. It’s in the no-go zone, which covers 60 per cent of the island.
Fifteen years later the volcano is still erupting – nothing on the scale of 1995’s disaster, but the curls of smoke and puffs of ash are impressive enough. As a result, Montserrat, having lost 70 per cent of its population to other islands, now places the volcano at the centre of its tourism strategy.
The half-marathon is the latest way of leveraging it. And although runners didn’t get close to the volcano during the race because of the restrictions, it was never more than a kilometre or two away. It’s the highest point of a very small island, so there were enough majestic views of it belching out smoke to bring me to a standstill – if the arduous course hadn’t done so already.
The steepness of the slopes was painful, sure, but the real killer was the complete lack of recovery time. In the entire 21.1 kilometres there was less than half a kilometre of truly flat terrain; you were always either climbing or trying to contain your momentum downwards.
As I crawled past the bar where the race was conceived (the co-conspirator Henry – an English volcanologist – mysteriously decided not to run at the last minute), I seriously considered giving up. My anguished expression was clocked by an enormous old woman sitting on a wall. As I shuffled past making pitiful snuffling noises, she shoved a toffee into her mouth, gave me a look of disdain and drawled, “C’mon young man, you can do better dan dat.”
Total stranger she might have been, but she was right. It was simply a matter of focusing on the upsides – of which there were plenty.
Montserrat is a stunning island. Guava trees hang by the side of the road; flowers of every colour are in profusion everywhere, goats and chickens wander the streets freely and the breeze wafts the scent of aloe over the island.
A Hidden Gem
The islanders are horizontally laid-back and while most would never dream of exerting themselves by running (only two actually ran the race) they were happy to shout encouragement at the competitors.
Towards the end, a stranger screamed, “Go, journalist!” at me. Baffled, I touched my head to make sure I wasn’t wearing a fedora with a press card stuck to it. But no, it was just another facet of island life: with such a tiny population, everyone knows everything about everybody else.
For some, this might be irritating, but it’s also why there’s virtually no crime on the island. More than once I was gravely informed that the last murder happened more than two years ago, when a man bumped off his neighbour for having an inappropriate, noisy relationship with a goat.
The small number of participants in the Volcano’s Half-Marathon is set to grow, and this year’s numbers would have been twice as big had there not been last-minute problems with transfers from other islands. But it’s never going to be a large race. The habitable section of the island is so small that the race route was the only one possible, and there are only 300 hotel rooms. But this is precisely what makes it such a gem.
The course is extremely tough, the field is small and the location remote, but if you’re looking for an unusual destination running holiday, genuine warmth of welcome and a big challenge to boot, it ticks all the boxes.
It certainly worked its magic on me: I may not have heard of Montserrat before, but I have a feeling I’ll be back for more.
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