It is dark, 5 AM, and I am running through the streets of Kingston, Jamaica. Saturdays are for long runs, and today our local club has arranged a route for up to 10 miles. Having been provided the route ahead of time, I did my best to commit it to memory, but it’s complicated - there are 18 turns within the first 5 miles alone. It’s my first Saturday run with this group, my first go at the course, and again - it’s dark.
At the start, I fall in with a few other 10-mile runners, head of the pack type runners, friendly, and competitive. Self-proclaimed to be around a 9:30 pace, like me, our match seemed like kismet. But when their brisk starting trot becomes more of a sprint in mile 2, I know I’m in for a challenge with 8 miles to go.
Kingston is a small city, and rough around the edges, even in its nicer residential neighborhoods. Running over uneven asphalt, making the frequent turns past stray dogs, under broken street lights, jumping to miss a dead rat, keeping my group in sight, noticing the security guards pass on motorcycle, all makes me feel like Katniss in the Hunger Games. It’s adventurous, invigorating, and empowering. I need this run like I need to breathe; I feel happy, excited, and free; I don’t stop moving.
Thankfully, the route is broken up by a water stop every 2 miles. The club collects water bottles at the start, sending them out to the course for runners to use along the way. For the first 8 miles, my main objective evolves from keeping in step with the lead group, to keeping them in view - a challenge considering the often pitch black we run through, and 3-4 turns we make each mile. Also thankfully, this group runs like a team - I reach each water stop as my faster cohorts finish up, and we all run on.
By mile 8, the sun is rising, and we’re well into the return of this out-and-back run. I’m passing many runners still making their way to the half-way point/turnaround, making the course much easier to navigate. Runners wave, say good morning, share high-fives. I fall into step with a slower-paced group to finish the final 2 miles. We talk about weekend plans - someone is hosting a birthday cookout for his daughter, needs to leave quickly after the run to start roasting the goat; someone else plans to visit the botanical gardens.
I’ve always said that running is the best way to see a place, to get close to its details, to learn all its nooks and crannies, such that once you’ve run it, you know it differently, and more intimately. Next weekend I’ll run my first half marathon in over 2 years, on the other side of the island in Negril. I’ll set my own pace from the start; I’ll start from the back and work my way up - my favorite way to race. Out of the city, next to the beach, I wonder how that run will be different, how that place’s details will look up close, and how it will make me feel, in the dark, and as the sun rises.
This is a unique post for me, but I came across an inspiring compilation of clips from Matthew McConaughey's commencement speech for the University of Houston (2015), and just had to share.
Some of my favorite bits:
If you find yourself wanting more, read the full text, or watch the live speech here.
My Jamaica house sits on a hill above Kingston, in a small community among many small communities, protected by a tall, barbed wire-crowned fence, secured with two solid wooden gates and a guard post at the entrance.
I moved here 4 months ago from the US, just outside Washington DC, to reside with my fiancé - the love of my life - for the next few years. A whip-smart economist with a heart of gold, his passion is to work with and in developing countries, places that stand to benefit most his efforts, and those of the organization he represents. It’s a form of career-based altruism I admire, and more pointedly, the commitment of energy required by this type of work - to remain curious, engaged and innovative - are a large part of what attracts me to him.
At present, I am not working. Fifteen years into my career, this move has provided a deeply desired break, and opportunity to rest before diving into the next 15. I’ve filled the past few months contentedly organizing our home, finally working through my years-old stack of books “to read”, working out twice a day, preparing healthy meals, deepening my connection with my fiancé, getting to know this place, and getting to know its people.
So far, I’ve learned that Jamaica is a country loved by many, and passionately so. I’m starting to parse the driving forces of this, and I see that it’s first about the people. Jamaicans are warm, quick with a smile, and exude the feeling of family. Although Kingston is a busy, working city, its inhabitants are aware and engaged in a way I rarely encountered in DC; they say hello, make eye contact, speak with a reassuring tone of voice that often conveys something like, “I’ve got you.” Secondly, I think adoration for Jamaica is about the physical place. Not all Caribbean islands feature mountains, and what I’ve come to learn is that Jamaica is all about its mountains; getting out to “the country”, getting up and out of the city, losing yourself in the hills, where snaking roads are narrow and rugged, trees are dense, and the air is cool and crystal clear. It’s as much a geographic reality as it is a state of mind; Jamaica is uninhibited, colorful, and a little bit wild.
I’ve also been exposed to many day-to-day realities here, which don’t necessarily detract from its perception, just create a more complete picture. Jamaica is a place of diminished stature, aged infrastructure, corruption, economic disparity, and crime. It’s a place where at red lights, men descent upon your car to wash the windshield, or sell fruit picked from the roadside, or hold out their open hands in hopes of a meager payment; where shopping centers are fenced in and guarded by security (or they are to be avoided), where walking alone down the street - as a man or woman, most certainly as an expat - is unsafe, period.
Like most countries, economies, and societies, Jamaica is a complex place with many layers. I frequently vacillate between wonder-filled joy and deep sadness in this place. I marvel at the kindness of people I’m meeting, the beauty of mountains, trees, beaches and birds, the many restaurants, shops, gyms, cafes, and parks that are so enjoyable, and safe to spend time. I relish the exploration within this new life experience, which is teaching me about myself, and binding my fiancé and I together in a way few other things could. The sadness comes when I look more closely at the often crumbling surroundings, when I want to go for a walk around my neighborhood, or a hike in the woods, and simply can’t, at least not alone, and when I remember that - though Jamaicans are hustling to improve their economy - incomes are very low, and cost of living surprisingly quite high.
Finally, I’ve learned that gratitude absent of experience can be alarmingly shallow, more an exercise of abstract acknowledgement than true understanding. While often consciously thankful for my lifestyle and personal freedoms while living in the US, I have to admit that my view was extraordinarily limited. To be completely honest - while writing on my MacBook from an air conditioned room of my gated community home - it still is. But, through this experience, still in its early days, my gratitude has certainly deepened, and along with it, my desire to engage in a more meaningful way.
I’ve got several 2018 goals in play, and the one I’m most excited about is the intention to read more often. The specific goal is to complete 40 pages each week - whether that happens in 5 sittings or 1 is no matter.
Reading is a healthy goal, right? It’s a way to learn new things, and can be a relaxing diversion, all while providing fun facts for your next dinner party. And while any one of these things is a strong motivation to keep the pages turning, I’ve realized there’s a reason far greater - reading has the power to change your life. There are a few books that have served as serious catalysts throughout my life. They include:
Skinny Bitch: A No-Nonsense, Tough-Love Guide for Savvy Girls Who Want to Stop Eating Crap and Start Looking Fabulous by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin
Looking at that sensationalist title today, I can’t believe I ever picked up the book, much less paid for it, but a co-worker on a health kick gave a passionate recommendation, and I succumbed. Those Skinny Bitch writers pack a punch, because by chapter 4, I was seriously considering vegetarianism for the first time in my life, and by chapter 9, I’d stopped eating meat entirely. Thus ensued 1 year of strict vegetarianism followed by 7 years of full veganism, all of which resulted in a me that was fit, healthy, engaged in a greater cause, motivated to cook creatively, and inspired to learn more about nutrition and wellness, constantly. I made new friends, ate new foods, and felt consistently healthy for the first time in my adult life (I hadn’t been an adult for very long, but that made the revolution all the more significant).
Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work & in Life, One Conversation at a Time by Susan Scott
I’d taken a course at work called Crucial Conversations, which provided me with helpful tools to use as a manager. It included the kinds of situational cues and questions that help a work team arrive at beneficial conclusions and produce positive outcomes. I don’t remember what prompted me to pick up the next volume in Susan Scott’s series, but by some stroke of fate or fortune, Fierce Conversations ended up on my desk, then quickly moved to my nightstand. This book, as promised, provides guidance and motivation to tackle the most challenging conversations in life, period. Without getting specific or situational, its step-by-step instructions walk the reader through interrogating her unsettled feelings, putting words to the (often yet unrecognized) desired outcome, then getting it out in the open, with the goal of seeking resolution, even and especially when the stakes are high. When I started reading this book I assumed it would further my expertise as a manager and leader. By page 149, I’d ended a years-long relationship that was no longer serving me. Mic drop. This book changed the course of my life.
Hal Koerner’s Field Guide to Ultrarunning by Hal Koerner with Adam W. Chase
I learned about ultra running after my first marathon, at which I reached the finish line and wanted to keep running. It didn’t take me long to find Hal’s definitive guidebook, which is incredibly comprehensive, realistic and actionable. It explains every little detail of ultrarunning, including differences in distance, terrain, weather, altitude, gear, nutrition, pacing, camping, and more. When the chapters about chafing, hypothermia and kidney failure only strengthened my resolve, I knew I was meant to run a distance beyond 26.2. Using Hal’s training plan, I finished my first ultramarathon in first place at age 31, truly a defining moment in my life. I mean…there could be no better endorsement for a book about running, right?
So, when I contemplate the 2018 reading goal I’ve set for myself, I know it’s about more than conversation at the water cooler or fulfilling a quota. It’s about being open to the information, inspiration, and guidance that might just reveal a path I’ve not yet considered, and nudge me to do something amazing.