Sunday, September 12, 2010

The King of Caribbean Marathons and a Boy Who Wanted a Watch

It seemed likely I'd never find Jason. A couple months after I'd sent an e-mail inquire to the race director, I quit thinking about it. Then a message suddenly arrived from Gail Jackson. "I know that kid," she said.

Gail owned the hotel in Negril where I'd stayed and she'd worked on the marathon's registration committee. "I was at his school yesterday...and asked if after the race did he go for a swim and talk to a white man?" she wrote. The boy's answer had been yes. He was the one. His real name was Oraine.

I promptly mailed one of my 100-lap Ironman watches to Gail to give to the boy. It was a watch I'd actually used in an Ironman triathlon. Sending him a watch I'd used seemed more personal than buying a new one. I put it in the original box with it's instructions along with a note of good wishes from me.

A month later, Oraine sent a letter thanking me. He liked to draw, and he included a pencil-drawn portrait on green paper. In his letter he said, "If there is anything you want me to do for you in drawing don't be afraid to ask."

Here is the story, from the Herald-Citizen, April 10, 2005.


After I crossed the finish line I quit running and starting staggering, stumbling like a backward-walking drunk. I was okay. But my legs were confused—by fatigue and the sudden non-running. The music was pouring down and the heat was humming.

I’d just crossed the finish line of the Reggae Marathon at Long Bay State Park in Negril, Jamaica. It was December, 2004.

A young man sharply dressed in a white polo shirt and dark slacks handed me a cell phone.

“Want to call home?” he asked.

Good idea! The free call was a promotion of the carrier for which he worked. I dialed my home number but couldn’t get an answer—or rather I couldn’t tell if I got an answer, the music was so loud. So I walked a 100 yards away from the stack of speakers pumping out Reggae, across a field of grass toward the ocean, and tried again.

And there was Jo Ann’s comfortable voice from far-away Tennessee, bouncing off a satellite, yet sounding next door. She’d answered the first time, she said, but couldn’t hear anything except noise. I told her I was okay, that I’d had a poor run, but that I wasn’t surprised by that. The usual stuff.

After returning the phone, I went to check on partial results posted on a board past the booming speakers, and discovered that for the male age-group 60-99 I’d finished first with a time of 3:37:25. At most places where I run, that wouldn’t win a cakewalk. The competitive field here was not very deep, and the heat was a factor.

Under the female age group 20 to 29, I saw that a young woman named Shannon from West Virginia had finished third. With about a mile to go, I’d pulled even with her. We were both just trying to survive, and we chatted a bit. But she was running a little slower than I was. Finally I went on. I knew she was feeling terrible.

“I’ll see you at the finish line—if I get there,” I said.

“Oh, you’ll make it; you look strong,” she said.

Runners! Bless their happy little hearts—always upbeat and encouraging. They’ll say you’re looking good and running smooth, even when you’re dying—even when they’re dying. They can’t help it; it’s how they are. Running makes them crazy.

I meant to keep my promise to Shannon, so now I went back toward the finish line looking for her. I found her glued to a chair under a beach tent. She hadn’t gotten very far. When I told her she’d taken third she was so pleased she began warming to the idea of going to the Country Music Marathon that I’d told her about.

“That’s not very far…” she said, and trailed off, visualizing another marathon—even while the pain of this one was still in her legs. Here you see another trait of runners: terrible memory.

When I was a kid my dad liked to drink coconut milk. He’d drive a nail into the eyes to make holes and pour the milk into a glass. I learned to like that, too.

At this race, that was a piece of good luck. A man was trimming the shucks off coconuts with a machete, deftly whacking away over a plywood board that served as a chopping block. With the last whack he sliced the top off one and held it out to me. I dropped in a drinking straw and walked away sucking on the coconut, a new kind of post-race hydration—one lacking carbonation, artificial coloring, preservative or sweetener.

Race management had set up a medical center in the beach house, an open-air, wooden structure the size of a five-car garage. Dehydrated runners lying on cots and tables were getting IVs and massages. I didn’t need either one. I asked the woman doctor if I could leave my shoes in the corner.

“That’s an unusual request! But I guess it’s all right,” she said.

I didn’t want to lose my shoes—it was a mile walk back to the hotel.

“I’m going for a swim,” I told her.

“Go north. We’re only 90 miles from Cuba,” she said.

“I need to practice.”

I walked straight into the Caribbean wearing my sunglasses, cap, running shorts and singlet, race number still pinned to it, marathon medal dangling around my neck. The water was exactly the right temperature.

Nearby a half-dozen Jamaican men and women of mixed age tossed a soccer ball around. A young boy dived in my direction. I watched as he swam the whole distance under water. He came up facing me wearing a friendly smile, a handsome lad with short dense hair.

“Did you run the marathon?” he asked.

I told him I had. He said he had run the half-marathon distance as a member of a three-man relay team, a special competition organizers had provided for the school children, one I didn’t know about until that moment.

It’s a wonderfully idea to involve the children in something as positive as a race; they face an uncertain future in a country wracked by poverty, drugs, HIV, a soaring murder rate and a floundering economy.

Here we were, an old white man standing in the ocean with an eighth-grade Jamaican boy talking about running. We shook hands. I told him my name, and he said his was Jason. His relay team had taken second place. That was great, congratulations, I told him.

Jamaica’s children left a poignant impression on me, none more so than Jason. His easy, endearing smile was as natural as sunshine. He admired my sports watch, an eye-catching black and yellow number Jo Ann had given me.

“I want to get a watch like that,” he said.

I told him he could get one about like it at Wal-Mart for 30 or 40 dollars. I actually said that! And with that utterance I proved I could be as arrogantly stupid as any North American tourist who ever landed on Jamaican soil.

Exactly which Wal-Mart should he go to, one in Miami or Key West? Well, he’ll just have to check the airline schedules. And what about the 40 bucks?—just a bit over 2,000 Jamaican dollars. He’ll have to save his lunch money. The hard truth is a watch is not likely for him any time soon.

I wanted Jason to have a watch. To develop his running skills, he needs basic training tools. Who knows what he might accomplish? My impulse was to strip my watch off and hand it to him on the spot—I had two others at home. But Jo Ann had given it to me; and, too, it held my mile splits stored in the memory, not yet transferred to my file.

A few weeks after the race, I mounted an e-mail campaign to find Jason. Weeks went by. No luck.

What could Jason accomplish? Most Jamaicans are of African or mixed African-European descent, and, hence likely share the genes of the Kenyans who currently dominate marathon competition.

The success of Pomenos Ballantyne suggests the potential. The King of Caribbean marathons—so-called by the Sunday Gleaner, a Kingston paper—is from neighboring St. Vincent, and he easily won today’s marathon.

At the Negril Tree House on my first night in Jamaica, I had gone to the lobby, an open-air room. A leanly chiseled black man came up to me.

“Did you run the Stockholm Marathon?” he asked.

My T-shirt proclaimed it; I admitted it. At first I was wary and not very warm, thinking he might be a crook. He told me he was Pomenos Ballantyne. After we chatted a bit I realized that the man was indeed a marathoner. And when he told me that his time in the Trinidad marathon was something like 2:17—the number I recall—I realized more.

“Oh…you’re an elite marathoner.”

“Yeah, elite,” he said.

Over the next few days I talked with him several times. I asked him how fast he thought he could run a marathon in cool weather away from the Caribbean heat.

“Two-eleven,” he said.

“That would win the Country Music Marathon! They give big prize money and a new car,” I said.
In fact, that time would win most marathons.

On the Sunday morning after the marathon, I went up to the roof terrace of the Tree House for the breakfast buffet there. In the corner a jazz trio—bass, keyboards, drums—was playing the barn-burner “Mercy, Mercy.” People were still celebrating the marathon. Hotel owner Gail Jackson herself was there, wearing a flowing chartreuse dress, marathon metal around her neck, smiling at everyone. She had run the race, too. Not only that, but the race winner, Pomenos Ballantyne, had stayed at her hotel.

Pomenos was there too, busy talking with people. A tall picture had appeared in the Sunday Gleaner, showing his calm intensity during yesterday’s race. He was a hero. Not wanting to intrude on his party, I sat down at another table.

The band went through Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” and then took off on “Wind Beneath My Wings.” Pomenos showed why men run races. Women crowded around, waiting to have their picture made with him.

Bette Midler’s familiar melody about soaring higher than an eagle wafted across the terrace and drifted out over a calm blue ocean. Her voice wafted through my head.

Pomenos stood with his arms wrapped around two smiling young women—and soared higher than an eagle.

As he left the terrace, he angled by my table to say goodbye. He was heading back home to St. Vincent. I urged him to come to Nashville for the Country Music Marathon.

“I’d very much like to do that,” he said.

But I didn’t expect it. Travel money was a problem.

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