Sun lounger to 45 degrees: check; footballer's autobiography in hand: check; delicious cocktail in the other: check. Now, this is what I call a taper.
This is not the kind of pre-race wind-down I'm used to – even as a staff member on the good ship Runner's World. But this is Negril, on Jamaica's west coast, home to the Reggae Marathon and Half-Marathon – and the famous seven-mile white sand beach that I'm lounging, sorry, tapering, on.
Launched in 2000 to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Running Club of Kingston, the Jamdammers Grand Prix Series features five races in all, each taking place in a different parish of the island. The jewel in this country's road-race crown is undoubtedly the Reggae Marathon and Half-Marathon, which this year features a 10K race for the first time.
Here to tackle the 13.1-miler, I sabotage my mission almost from the off by embarking on an ill-advised six-mile 'tune-up' jaunt in the late afternoon Jamaican sun, minus suntan lotion. Just two days before the race, it knocks me for a Chris Gayle six.
I'm far from fresh on the start line at 5:15am, but the most invigorating of race starts is the shot in the arm I need. Gone is the monotone race organiser bellowing into a loudhailer at drizzle-drenched runners; instead a band of reggae drummers pound out a pulsating beat, as the 1,500-strong field gathers in the darkness on the start line within a torch-lit guard of honour.
Excitement builds as the drummers raise their tempo to a crescendo, and we set off into the darkness towards Negril.
I have no race strategy per se; mine is a more a Jack Bauer-style mission against the clock. As soon as the sun creeps up over the hills to the east I'm going into Chariots-of-Fire slow-mo, so I need to make hay while the sun doesn't shine.
Starting from the middle of the pack, I spend the first half-mile or so weaving through the crowd. But I think I might be pushing it a bit too hard, and it dawns on me that it would have been a good idea to figure out how to operate the backlight on my Garmin (if indeed it even has a backlight – I still don't know). Instead I'm running along holding my wrist up to the streetlights, desperately trying to track my pace. Then there are no more streetlights.
Approaching the first drinks station I see volunteers handing out bags of fluid, rather than cups or bottles. I'm not thirsty, but I am intrigued. I swerve to grab one. Trying to bite a hole in the plastic seems like added fuss, but crucially I'm able to keep
on the move.
As the road slopes softly into the centre of Negril for the turnaround, the field opens up and support grows as more and more early birds, late owls and holidaymakers turn out to create
a real buzz.
Heading back up the course I feel good. I spend the next three miles surging past fellow competitors along Jamaica's stunning coastline. I am cruising.
What a difference a mile makes.
I've lost my race against the clock, and by mile seven the sun is up. It's not high in the sky – nowhere near – but the mercury has risen disproportionately and I'm really starting to feel it. I desperately repeat my new dig-deep mantra: “What would Jack Bauer do?” You can be certain that terrorist-botherer JB probably wouldn't slow up 30 seconds per mile for the next six, letting competitor after competitor reel him in and pass him by. But that's him.
Now my race preparation – or more precisely the lack of it – is starting to
show. The blood seeping through the
fabric on top of my trainers lets slip my reluctance to rise a few minutes earlier
to put my nail clippers to work. Even
worse, the two bloodied areas on the front of my Runner's World-branded top reveals to all that this particular employee of the world's best-selling running magazine – a supposed expert on our sport – has made the most unlubricated and unplastered of schoolboy errors.
By mile 11, overheated and bloodied, I have a full and eye-wateringly painful appreciation of what it feels like to want to quit. I am Paula Radcliffe thinking about a sit down by the side of a dusty Athens road. I am Kevin Keegan in his last press conference as England manager. I'm Leo Sayer packing his bags to walk out of the Big Brother house. I really can't take anymore.
Then I'm almost there.
I'd like to say that it was my determination that got me through those dark miles to 13.1. Even my often-maligned but sometimes-useful stubbornness would feel like something to shout about. But I'm ashamed to admit that for the first time in my life my procrastination, the habit that typically causes me (and my girlfriend, friends, Editor etc) the most grief, comes through for me – my should-I-shouldn't-I-pull-the-plug deliberation takes me right up to the 13-mile marker.
I cross the finish line a broken man, then stop. Dead. I'm herded at shuffling pace to a 'cool tent' – think of it as a winner's enclosure for the exhausted everyman. Inside there is a cool mist of spray descending while volunteers lay ice-cold towels on my neck. Fellow finishers come and go, but I'm not going anywhere; I'm not leaving until I'm asked to.
I'm asked to leave. Fortunately, my disappointment is short-lived as I (just about) make it the 10-or-so yards to the next stage of the post-race pampering, where a sword-wielding volunteer lops the lid off a coconut for me.
Gulping back the coconut milk I notice the Caribbean Sea is the final destination of this race experience for many, soaking their weary legs in the cool waters. But it's not for me. I down the last of the juice and then I'm hotfooting it (read: lying down on the back seat of a minibus) back to the hotel. I've got a very important recovery phase
to take care of.
Find out about this year's race at www.reggaemarathon.com.
GET THERE Virgin Atlantic flies from London Gatwick to Montego Bay (an hour and a half by car to Negril).