As the first two plates of chopped and sliced pork were placed on the table in front of us, accompanied by sides of Ore-Ida-looking French fries and an entire basket of hush puppies, my first thought was, “I hope I can handle a whole week of Carolina barbecue.”
My son Nick and I were at Lexington Barbecue in Lexington, North Carolina, the first stop on one of our somewhat annual barbecue tours. Our first trip, the Barrage of Brisket Tour back in 2013, took us to the Austin area, where we made five stops. The next tour was 2015’s Madness in Memphis , where we hit six barbecue places (and one fried chicken joint). In 2016, it was Kicking It in Kansas, for seven stops.
That last name is pretty damn awful, and I admit I’m retroactively naming some of these because I dubbed this year’s trip The Meat Sweats Tour.
So you’re not only doing something as foolish as running 26.2 miles on your day off, you’re going out of town to do it. Since your already-addled brain has probably been made worse by a combination of Taper Crazies, race anxiety and stress over that one stupid thing at work, I thought I’d help you with this packing list for your out-of-town marathon.
With more than a dozen half marathons and a handful of marathons under my belt — some of those run with coaches — I know the pre-race script. But for my first half marathon in an international locale, I went off script. As one tends to do in Jamaica.
Now before you conjure up an image of someone in a smoke-filled room, listening to reggae and surrounded by Rastafarians, let me assure you that’s not what happened. But only because pot makes me paranoid.
That said, left to my own devices and swept up by the excitement of my first visit to the country, I did make some rookie mistakes in the few days before the Kingston City Run in Kingston.
And you can do the same! Here’s how:
Don’t prepare for the weather: Perhaps there isn’t much one can do about training for a tropical race from the depths of a New York winter—even if it’s a mild winter. But it was almost as if I went out of my way to make the transition as jarring as possible. Two days before landing in Jamaica, I was in Iceland. I guess I could have arranged for a treadmill in a hot-yoga studio or run in place for extended periods of time in a steam room, but the former seems impractical (and expensive) and the latter seems like the sort of thing to get me barred from the gym for life and possibly arrested (and expensive). So to say I was unprepared for the heat would be an understatement.
Don’t familiarize yourself with the city by foot: I’d had every intention of getting a short run in, not only to get used to the weather but to see where I’d be running. But it turns out Kingston traffic is nuts and, get this, they drive on the wrong side of the road. Also, it was hot and, frankly, the pool at the hotel seemed more inviting. So I ran two miles inside a very small, very flat and very lovely Emancipation Park. The race, of course, wasn’t six loops around this park. More on that in a bit.
(Over) Indulge in the local customs: Jamaica has a carnival season. But unlike Catholic-influenced countries like Brazil and my homeland of South Louisiana (it’s a separate country; trust me), Jamaica’s does not shut down when Lent starts. Jamaica’s goes straight through to Good Friday. And on the Friday before the Sunday race, participants were encouraged to attend the Bacchanal Party outside National Stadium. The Jamaican Tourist Board folks were keen to take us. After a rather chaste (i.e., non-alcoholic) dinner, I figured it wouldn’t be too out of control. We arrived fairly early: 11 p.m. And upon stepping beyond security (where I received one of the more intimate friskings of my life), a rum drink was placed into my hand. After getting in two more rum drinks and taking in the sights of this outdoor bash, my compatriots decided that … we needed a more legit party. So off to another club where, in the words of local realtor Andrew Griffiths, we spent some quality time with Uncle Wray and his nephews listening to the hottest tunes in Jamaica. Wray & Nephew is 126-proof white rum. And it was served in a manner I’d last seen 20 years ago in a Zydeco dance hall in Louisiana: We were given a pint bottle in a bucket of ice and allowed to mix it as we saw fit.
It wasn’t a complete rager, though. I was back in my room by 1:30 a.m.
Do some aggressive sight-seeing: Saturday could and should have been a day of rest. But one of the other reporters on the trip had heard about a café up in the Blue Mountains and a trail that led to a waterfall. The previous Saturday I’d literally been hiking on a glacier and the day before we’d toured all over Kingston, so this seemed easy enough. Turns out some of the trails in Blue Mountains National Park are steep. And in some places they’re wet. It wasn’t so much the exertion I was worried about, it was breaking a leg. While branches whipped at my bare legs and I tried not to slip and plummet into tropical ravines, I could practically hear previous running coaches screaming, “What are you doing!?!”
Ignore advice (or: Fall for your own mansplaining): This ties into not familiarizing yourself with the course. A member of our group, Pat Montague, a radio personality and marketing entrepreneur – and a Jamaican – had run the race before. She warned us about inclines. Despite the fact that I’d literally spent the day before the race walking up and down a mountain, my thought process went something like this. Inclines? I actually do hill training on my own. Incline sounds like such a friendly word. Not like HILLS. Besides, hadn’t I run two miles around Emancipation Park and not seen any hills?
Guess what happened. Go on. Guess. I screen grabbed the elevation change from my Garmin. It looked like so:
The only saving grace was that the race started at 5:45 so the heat wasn’t as bad as it could be. Oh, and because an overzealous security guard doing his rounds shut a neighborhood gate on the course, meaning our Half ended up being 10.8 miles. I’m tempted to special order a 10.8 bumper sticker. But I don’t have a car.
Despite all that, I had a blast. I wouldn’t necessarily encourage anyone to spend the couple days before a race pursuing this sort of itinerary, but at the same time I wouldn’t NOT encourage you to do so. Even if I have no earthly chance of winning or even setting a PR, I usually end up stressing in the days before a race. Partly because this had been a last-minute addition to my race calendar, but mostly because of the Jamaican vibe, I went with the flow. I prioritized tourism over running and said in advance that I’d take the race easy, enjoy the 120 or so people running the Half, take in the sights and snap some pictures. It not only gave me peace of mind, it gave me plenty of excuses to stop and walk.
And I still got a medal.
Kingston City Run
Half Marathon, 10K, 5K
From US $20 to $75 for International participants
Expo/After Party: Yes
If you did a double-take and thought, “Why the hell would you do that?”, that’s exactly why I did it. One of the many reasons for traveling is to brag to your friends and family that you went somewhere. But if everyone’s going somewhere, it makes it harder to brag about your special, very unique vacation. If we end up going to Vietnam-Cambodia-Thailand later in the year, we’ll have to book a landmine-clearing excursion just to have something unique to write home about. Oh well. I guess we still have “Getting married at The Four Seasons in Bora Bora.”
At any rate, everyone’s going to Iceland these days. It used to be backpackers and Northeastern folks stopping on a layover to or from Europe. No longer. Everyone is there. EVERY. ONE. Northern Lights. Shrug. Glacier hiking. Yawn. Ate a horse? Pffft. Did you try the urine-soaked shark? (No.)
Last month, I went to Jamaica to run the Kingston City Run. There were goats, course corrections, hills and a full moon — among other things. I wrote about that particular race for Uncommon Caribbean. Check it out here.
Our third day in Iceland got off to an inauspicious start. Where we’d had rather roomy mini-buses — and a few empty seats — for our excursions up until then, the one that picked us up on Sunday morning for a tour of The Golden Circle had been built for school children. I’m only 5’6″, so this typically isn’t the biggest issue for me. But Cara is a little taller. And everyone in this micro bus was wearing two or three additional layers of clothing and carrying a backpack of some sort. There were no empty seats.
I found this a little odd since The Golden Circle is the most touristy of the tours and a fairly long one. A roomy ride would have seemed in order. Then again, it didn’t require equipment like crampons or dry suits and fins (more on that in the next post). We ended up weaseling our way into the front seats with a little more leg room, but I did wonder if this was the one trip we could have gone with one of the bigger tour companies and just settled for a bus.
Toast. It’s likely the first word you think of when you think of Iceland.
No. That’s not right. I imagine ice is the first word, with volcano and Bjork tied for second.
Our second day in Iceland started with toast. I don’t eat toast much at home anymore. I’m either trying to do away with carbs or swinging wildly in the other direction and wrapping a buttery croissant around bacon, eggs and cheese. (Check out Day 1 here. Day 3. Day 4.)
But in Iceland, we started our mornings with toast. IcelandAir Marina Reykjavik’s Slippbarinn does offer up a full breakfast and a breakfast buffet, but we didn’t pay the room rate that included breakfast and didn’t quite feel like shelling out $20-plus a person for eggs and the like. Besides, the hotel’s cafe, at the other end of the common area from Slippbarinn, had a view of the pickup location for excursions.
I’d forgotten how good toast could be, especially when made with good bread. (Boy, does that sound like something a wanky food-writer would type before going all-in on a 2,000 word piece about artisanal toast.) So toast with butter or cheese or avocado it was (pesto was also an option). We had yogurt, too. Iceland does yogurt right. In fact, you might as well start eating Icelandic yogurt now, because it’ll be the thing to dethrone Greek yogurt once Americans get bored with that.
So after loading up on toast and layering on the clothes, we climbed into an Extreme Iceland minibus for the Sensational Iceland tour. Of the tours we had scheduled, this was the one I looked forward to the most because it included a glacier hike.
Before we’d get to any hiking, we had some driving to do. And it was during the drive that I discovered a new-found appreciation for my mirrored sun glasses. I’m not a huge fan of sun glasses. I like seeing the world as it is, not dimmed or color-corrected. But I was happy to have them. It wasn’t that the sun was too bright. It was that we’d been up until 2 in the morning looking at Northern Lights. And I was tired. And we were wrapped in all those warm layers and the bus rocked back and forth just so. And baby needed a nap.
It was on the second day in Iceland that I realized I should have been careful about over-excursion. Oh, sure, there was a small element of over-exertion. But as our Extreme Iceland van was still half an hour from Reykjavik at 8:45 p.m. and most restaurants in town — particularly those around our hotel — closed at 10, I thought maybe I had over-scheduled us.
We’d arrived at 7 a.m. the previous morning and blew through Customs (they’d get us on the way out), snagged an early check-in, went out for a two-hour walking tour of Reykjavik, then a couple more hours on our own. After dinner that evening, we went on a Northern Lights excursion that had us out until 1 in the morning (more on that later, or in a different post). And then we were up at 6:30 to grab breakfast and, at 9 a.m., head out for 11 hours of sight-seeing and something called a glacier hike. The next day, a tour of the Golden Circle. The day after that, Blue Lagoon and a snorkeling trip.
I’m typing this post out while hauling ass through the South of France on a TGV train, the arid, hilly countryside and villages filled with sandy-colored houses topped with red-tile roofs. It’s the sort of region in which you could film Western movies and the audience wouldn’t know the difference. (Just ignore the fact that if you climb the next hill, you’ll be faced with the blue waters of the Mediterranean.)
The Short Version Before I get into the details, some of you might just want to know the answer to the following question: If I only have time to hit one place in Kansas City, what should it be? That’s an easy answer. Joe’s Kansas City. Some people might say it’s touristy or mainstream, but these are the sort of people who start hating a band simply because it becomes popular. Joe’s is popular for a reason. It’s got perhaps the best ribs I’ve ever eaten, the pulled pork was delicious and the beans weren’t sickly sweet like they were at a lot of places.