How Jamaica’s Reggae Marathon Has Won the Heart of Runners Across the Globe

OCHO RIOS, Jamaica – The Reggae Marathon, for many, is the most transfixing event on the semi-professional running calendar. Urban marathons, such as the New York Marathon and the London Marathon, force runners through blocks and boroughs of densely packed buildings and labyrinthian streets. “The magic moments of Jamaica, of running in Negril, involve having the Seven Mile beach visible throughout the event and finishing the race by running into the Caribbean Sea,” beamed Reggae Marathon sponsorship and marketing director, Diane Ellis.

How Jamaica’s Reggae Marathon Has Won the Heart of Runners Across the Globe
Photo by Karen Fuchs

Unique Charm of the Reggae Marathon

Held in the first blush of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, the marathon is a runner’s escape from the seasonal chill that plagues northern countries. The Marathon team chose the early December start date to fill a gap in the busy Negril winter tourist season, making the Reggae Marathon the unofficial starting pistol for the winter season. Participants come for the race and stay to support local industries. They visit concerts, stay at hotels of all sizes, and partake in Negril and Ocho Rios’ vibrant nightlife.

Allure of The Beach

How Jamaica’s Reggae Marathon Has Won the Heart of Runners Across the Globe

“I never expected the finish to end at the beach,” gushed filmmaker and Reggae Marathon ambassador, John Lewis. “I’ve lived in Miami for 20 years and have done races there, but we never ended up on the beach.” The community vibe is a significant part of why Lewis will be going back for his second time this year. “At the end of the race, everybody congratulated each other, enjoyed each other’s company, and actually hung out for a while.”

Making Lifelong Friends

Larry Savitch, a New Yorker and Reggae Marathon veteran, agreed with Lewis. “What has brought me back is that no other race I have ever participated in has given me so many friends, not just acquaintances, but real friends that I chat with several times a year and have seen outside of Negril.”

A Growing International Appeal

Attendance at the Reggae Marathon has steadily grown over the years. In 2022, almost 2000 participants from 35 different countries entered the event. Many came from the US, the UK, and Canada, all nations with large Jamaican diasporas. But, participants also traveled from other Caribbean countries such as Trinidad & Tobago, eastern European countries like Poland, African countries such as Angola, and Asian countries like Japan, among many others.

The growth is the result of determined, boots-on-the-ground work put in by the team behind Reggae Marathon. In the event’s early years, a travel team would set up booths at the expos featured at larger, more established marathons, such as the New York Marathon and the Miami Marathon. Ellis theorizes that the novelty of a middle-to-long-distance event, in the world’s capital of sprint racing, was enough to turn heads. On top of that, December is not an ideal season for marathon running in northern countries. Slippery surfaces that invite dangerous spills, bundles of clothes needed to stay warm but uncomfortable to move in for extended periods, and air so cold that it feels like shards of glass in your lungs with each inhale – none are conducive to comfortable running.

Community, Music, and Charity

The first leg of the Reggae Marathon journey is through a torch-lit path that opens up into the main stretch, offering a view of the iconic Seven Mile beach. Runners are enveloped by the clean morning air, and climate change permitting, a Christmas breeze (northerly winds visiting the island). The ‘Reggae’ in Reggae Marathon is more than a name. Music is a fundamental aspect of the experience.

How Jamaica’s Reggae Marathon Has Won the Heart of Runners Across the GlobeThe renowned Silver Birds Steel Band Orchestra plays at different legs, working through a discography of classic Jamaican songs and iconic pop covers. Mobile music DJs outfit their cars as mini sound systems and drive past booming music, everything from Reggae classics to Afrobeats chart-toppers, rallying the runners. The event finishes in front of the shoreline, and runners are encouraged to jog right into the sea for the perfect cooldown.

“The end of your race is just the beginning of another party with Reggae, refreshments (Red Stripe beer and fresh coconut water straight from the coconut), and, most importantly, the Caribbean Sea, which is life-giving and healing just to soak in. Vacation starts up again!” beamed Savitch.

It all combines to make the Reggae Marathon an excellent starting competition for those curious about long-distance running. “There’s no better place to run a half marathon,” Lewis proclaimed. “You can be competitive if you want, but you can also just enjoy your time there.”

Savitch again agreed. “If you want to have fun and enjoy the sunshine and music, this is the perfect race for rookies and seasoned runners,” he said.

Charitable Donations

Many groups compete in the event together, such as the Reggae Runnerz, a group of participants from the diaspora. Reggae Runnerz includes anywhere between 200 and 450 members each year. This group has made sizable donations to the Green Island community, a small coastal town near Negril. Donations help to support the local high school and even funding excursions to the Penn Relays. Another group is a collective of medical practitioners who volunteer at Negril’s clinics after participating.

The charitable energy permeates throughout the event and trickles down from the organizers. One of the partners is the Heart Foundation of Jamaica which offers affordable medical care. Care including scans and testing for heart disease, and participants are encouraged to donate funds when possible.

The marathon also partners with the SOS Children’s Village in Kingston to bring on volunteers to the event. The children are transported to Negril and exposed to the marathon’s best-in-class organization.

This year’s Marathon is on December 3, 2023, and promises the same one-of-a-kind combination of vibes, music, charity, and fun.