With the rise in popularity of racecations—a vacation with a race thrown in—over the past few years, a whole new world has opened up to runners around the globe. Destinations you’ve never heard of take on a whole new appeal when you hear about an amazing race that’s held there. Antigua (pronounced An-tee-gah) is just such a place. The twin island nation (Antigua and Barbuda) is located in the Eastern Caribbean and is a former British colony. This mountainous island features 365 beaches (one for every day of the year—literally) and is the perfect place to run in paradise.
As it so happens, there’s a relatively new race on the island where you can do just that. The Run in Paradise Half Marathon and 5k is run annually on Memorial Day weekend, and from the second you step onto the plane, you’re a VIP. The race committee charters a flight from Miami to Antigua to help reduce costs for runners and build camaraderie and enhance the experience. Upon landing on the island, each foreign runner is greeted personally by the race director, Stanley Humphries, before being whisked away to the host hotel at the Antigua Yacht Club and Marina Resort. That personal welcome is just the first taste of Antiguan hospitality, which should be legendary, if it isn’t already.
I was lucky enough to participate in the Run in Paradise Half Marathon this year and I arrived on the island excited, but as always, a little worried about the heat and humidity. I mean, it’s a Caribbean race in late May, right? I had no plans to PR or even really race, since I wanted to capture every beautiful memory I could from the race. As it turns out, I had no reason to worry. The weather was in the upper 70s and the sky was overcast, so while it’s not exactly cool weather running, it wasn’t unbearable either. It didn’t hurt that the race starts at 5:15 a.m. sharp (although the wake-up call certainly did!) and the steady ocean breeze blew sweet, salty air the entire time.
As I arrived at the start of the half marathon, I found a small but jovial crowd made up primarily of local runners and foreign athletes from six different countries, including England, South Africa, the United States and the British Virgin Islands. I picked up my timing chip and swayed back and forth to the reggae music playing in the background, waiting for the pre-dawn race start.
As the gun went off, the crowd shot forward and I took off at a steady pace with two other foreign runners I had met over the course of the weekend. I’m a chatty runner, but it didn’t take long for the course to stun me into silence. The silhouette of palm trees against the sun rising over the ocean shut me up quickly!
The first two miles took us past the ocean twice, and it was amazing to watch how the colors changed in just a few short minutes as the sun marched ever higher. As we trotted onward, our little group met Gary, a South African runner who is currently in medical school at the American University of Antigua. He joined our merry group, happy to stop and take pictures to relieve some of the pain in his legs. “I’m a little undertrained,” he said. “But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do a race here on the island.”
One of the things I appreciated most about the course is that it gives you a real sense of what life on Antigua is actually like. Yes, there are many beautiful beaches and resorts on the island, but there are also locals and real people who live in neighborhoods and scattered throughout the countryside. Stanley, the race director, designed the course specifically to showcase all aspects of the island—not just the well-known parts. The course passes several beaches, American University of Antigua, resorts, the Chinese Embassy and neighborhoods of all income levels.
While there aren’t necessarily any dedicated spectators to speak of (the race does start at 5:15 a.m., after all), I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the children waving shyly to me from their porches or the woman who stood outside her house and did her best to give us our approximate gender places as we ran. In the event that you are curious, my friend and I were “23rd or 24th and “24th or 25th” at that point in the race.
The sun kept rising over the mountains and we shared the road with almost no cars, but occasionally a farm animal or two. Horses, cows and goats grazed lazily next to the road and crossed our paths from time to time; like everyone else on the island, they were warm, friendly and happy to be sharing their home with us for the weekend.
The challenges you notice most about the course depend entirely on what it’s like where you train, but generally speaking, there are three: heat, hills and humidity. The women I was running with, who live in Miami, barely noticed the heat and humidity because, well, they live in Miami and have been running in the same conditions for months! Instead, they struggled with the hills while I powered up them, thanks to all the hills I run at home. Meanwhile, sweat was pouring off my body like vodka off an ice luge and I looked liked I had run through a rainstorm.
As we high-fived at mile 11 (something I insist on doing at every mile marker of every race with whoever I’m running with because it makes things a lot more fun), my friend Paula and I both suddenly realized it was almost over. The miles of smiles, rolling hills, beautiful beaches, and brightly colored houses were not going to last forever. It’s not very often that I wish I was running a marathon instead of a half marathon (it’s usually the other way around!) but this time, I wished that the event would last just a little bit longer. I was having so much fun exploring the island on my own two feet that I couldn’t bear the thought of it ending.
But, as they say, all good things must come to an end. Nothing gold can stay. As Paula and I turned toward the beach, I felt my heart rise into my throat as the ocean came into view. Cheering locals and those who had already finished the 5k and the half marathon lined the finisher’s shoot, smiling and shouting encouragement. I caught sight of a man waving a giant Antiguan flag right at the finish line and felt the smile cross my face, enraptured by the love and warmth I had experienced since arriving on the island.
They say that the best finish lines are sandy finish lines, and I have often found this to be true. I kicked off my shoes and headed straight for the warm ocean water. An ice bath it was not, but the sand felt good between my toes.
As we stood around waiting for more people to finish and for the local breakfast (red herring sandwiches) to be delivered, I chatted with some of the other foreign runners who had come to Antigua for the race. I met a dynamic foursome from England and two women from Indiana, who had planned their trip around the event. Becca Bell and Katy Anderson decided to make the trip after collecting enough points to stay on the island for free. “I think traveling and half marathons are a really great combination and a great way to explore someplace new on your own two feet,” Bell said. “Plus, the parties afterwards are usually really fun!”
Like me, Anderson loved that the race allowed foreign runners the chance to interact with the locals. “I really liked that we got a chance to actually experience Antigua in a different way. Everyone on their porches was really friendly and warm and always waving and saying hi to all of the runners. It was nice, because it gave us a chance to interact with people that you wouldn’t get a chance to meet if you just stayed at your resort.”
Of course, as idyllic as the Run in Paradise sounds (and is!) no race is perfect. This is a small event that lacks some of the frills of bigger races, so if you’re looking for a disposable timing chip, tons of crowd support, fancy aid stations, or tons of race swag, you won’t find it here. What you will find is an amazing, hand-designed medal, an interesting, beautiful course, warm and friendly people, aid stations at every mile, a race director who makes a VIP out of every single runner, and an experience you won’t forget.
The Run in Paradise Half Marathon and 5k is specifically designed to create an experience that is special for local and foreign runners alike. If you’re interested in participating in 2017, check out the race website for more information! Registration opens on June 15, 2016 and the race will be run on May 25, 2017. Chartered flights, which can be paid for in installments, are available from Miami to Antigua, and the website has information about accommodations and available activities. If you’re ready to stare at the mountains with your toes in the sand and a medal around your neck, don’t wait to register. Hopefully I’ll see you there!