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Can a Jungle Marathon Revitalize This Indigenous Community?

In Santa Mission, Guyana, a niche sporting event delivers economic and cultural promise.

Image by Guyana Trail Marathon & 10K via Facebook

For reasons logical and otherwise, I recently found myself spending a few days in Georgetown, the mildly dilapidated capital of the tiny South American nation of Guyana. A small city with a sometimes overstated but still relevant crime problem, Georgetown didn’t seem like a great place to linger. So while waiting for a flight into Guyana’s interior jungles and savannahs, I took a quick trip to Santa Mission, an autonomous reserve of the indigenous Arawak peoples 20 miles up the Demerara River, then five miles down the Kamuni Creek from the capital.

A small village whose population varies with seasonal work, logging in the forests or toiling in farther-afield mines, the Mission suffers from chronic unemployment and cultural loss to the gravitational pull of Georgetown. Old men and listless youths spend midday hiding from the sun in rickety, stilt-legged houses. The town’s last traditional hunter, a wizened, leathery man, engages all who will listen about the loss of local tradition. To answer concerns regarding cultural loss and the meandering lull of village life, the Mission has long been trying to develop itself as a tourist destination. Bringing travelers and sightseers to the area could create a base of jobs that would keep locals in the area and give them an excuse and financial incentive to safeguard their traditions.

Image by Mark Hay

I was eager to see how the Mission was going about this project, especially given the presence of nearby competing eco resorts like Arrowpoint, which suck up a lot of the near-Georgetown tourism market but only indirectly benefit local indigenous communities. I expected to see a lodge or two under construction, perhaps a crafting center, and a couple of locals building up their tour guide skills; I was hoping to talk to them about the tricky territory of balancing the imperative to develop the local economy with the desire to do tourism in a way that reflects their desires and cultural priorities.

What I did not expect to find was a giant banner on the side of the boat landing off the Kamuni Creek advertising the first ever Guyana Trail Marathon, Half Marathon, and 10K race on November 14, 2015. The race would twist through tracks cut through the bush around the village and target the participation of numerous international amateur athlete-tourists. Romario, the taciturn twenty-something who gave me a ride to the village in his boat, led us on a sleepy hike around the seemingly deserted village, explaining that the marathon represented a big hope for the village—an event (then a month away) which could jumpstart tourism and bring life back to this living ghost town.

Image by Mark Hay

This seemed insane to me. November is the beginning of the lesser rainy season on the near-coastal strip of Guyana, meaning that while the Mission wouldn’t be as boiling hot as when I was there, there was a mild chance that it would be wet, soupy, and humid. The trails are soft, cut through what locals refuse to call jungle but what still qualifies as thick forest; they were once used as roads for miners and foresters. The paths are also small, winding, and sometimes beset by gnawing insects and falling “monkey cutlasses”—heavy, blade-shaped seedpods. Running for up to seven, five, or even just four hours (the limits for each of the three planned races) in this lush but remote environment seemed to be like a misbegotten question, and I’m sure I looked skeptical at first.

But after learning more about this project and the logic behind it, and watching positive media coverage unfold in the wake of the event itself, I’ve realized that a marathon in the bush of Guyana was a great idea. Capable of creating a unique touristic niche for the Mission, alongside strong partnerships with national companies and bodies, it had the power to drastically improve local life with minimal risks or concessions. And ideally, it could inspire a whole branch of destination sports tourism in this high-potential nation.

Image by Mark Hay

First of all, I quickly learned that running in Guyana is by no means the craziest trail choice a marathoner can make. Granted, jungles (or jungle-like environments) are challenging places to run due to higher than average temperatures, the risk of illness or dehydration, and the (for many) unusual terrain. But there are now well-established training methods and suggestions to prepare, no matter where you’re from, for such a race. There are many such tropical races now—the rigors of this one don’t hold a candle to the Jungle Marathon, actually a four- or six-stage 79- or 158-mile run through Amazonia in Brazil’s Floresta National de Tapajos while carrying food and camping gear. The Jungle Marathon ran from 1 to 10 October of this year and regularly ranks as one of the most dangerous-to-insane races imaginable. In deep bush territory like that you actually stand the chance of running into a nasty critter in 100 degree Fahrenheit and 90 percent humidity weather. In Santa Mission, if anything was to go wrong, runners could rely on the volunteers that densely staffed the trails, proffering aid and refreshments every four-or-five miles (and every mile for the last six miles). Plus participants in the race would be be close to the snazzy facilities of Arrowpoint and an international airport.

I also found out that the Guyanese know how to put on a good marathon, although before this one, they hadn’t done so in quite some time. A few decades ago, the country had a number of regular and well-attended races, which produced a cadre of respected runners—including the coach Leslie Black who organized the Santa Mission race. (Today the Ministry of Sport organizes a half marathon every year, but it’s apparently nowhere near how old newspapers describe the original marathons in terms of fanfare and quality.) One hope is that, having demonstrated that Guyana can draw in enough people to host a good, profitable race, Black and others can revive the nation’s marathon tradition and make running into a respected and beneficial pastime for Guyanese people again.

Image by Guyana Trail Marathon & 10K via Facebook

Beyond feasibility or the potential to revive a lost element of the nation’s sporting culture, the marathon holds great potential as a way to spark tourism in Santa Mission and beyond. Black for one recognizes that destination marathons are becoming quite the trend amongst runners, and he and others believe that Guyana has the potential to become a popular, affordable, and functional course.

That may sound strange, given that Guyana isn’t the world’s biggest tourism spot. Even the Marathon’s webpage acknowledged (openly and directly) that it almost never registers for many as a vacation destination. But flights, especially from hubs like New York or London, are fairly cheap and the nation is the only one in South America that speaks English (which could be a draw for many seeking an accessible bush course). The race hyped the pristine nature around the Mission. But more importantly, the Mission allowed the organizers to describe the race not just as a course, but as a course of social good, billing it as a more meaningful way of engaging with locals and the indigenous culture than a quick boat ride down the Creek and tour of a gift shop. Runners had the opportunity to interact with folks like Romario, learn about the loss of the Arawak language, appreciate what culture remains, and see the value of their contributions to the local economy. With easy accessibility to the capital and the promise of race proceeds being directed towards improving education at the Mission school, the race wasn’t just about a fun thing for runners to do. It was also about giving runners a satisfying, conscientious bonus for their participation.

Image by Guyana Trail Marathon & 10K via Facebook

In the race’s first year alone, it seems as if that message worked, giving a nice economic boost to the village. Although tourism is an aspirational focus for the region, right now they only get about 800 visitors a year of any sort. But the race drew in 200 participants (who paid comparatively moderate entry fees of $80 to $200, depending on when they registered), volunteers, and non-local visitors from more than 10 countries, many of whom stayed in the village. That’s a 25 percent boost in annual tourism over a few days. (The winners of the marathon, who received locally made baskets as trophies from Guyana’s Minister of Indigenous People, Sydney Allicock, hailed from America, Germany, Guyana, India, and Trinidad and Tobago.) The race’s business partnerships, which ranged from the local Marriott to Fly Jamaica to the local Banks DIH Ltd. beverage company, also brought thousands of dollars into the project and provided the Mission with a great deal of income and publicity.

The hope is that people left with such a positive view of the marathon that they will perhaps drive some additional general tourism, providing steady employment for the Mission despite the Arrowpoint competition. More importantly, the race’s organizers believe that the event will return with more runners every year. And it would also be a fantastic model for other towns that might be able to harness their development needs and remote ecology as an asset. Sports-based niche tourism may not solve all of Guyana’s problems. But a reliable source of income from a socially and environmentally attractive sporting event would contribute to the national economy and be a huge boon to the future of the presently sleepy Santa Mission. That’s a fairly significant potential accomplishment for what seemed, to one outsider, like a crazy idea at first glance on the Mission’s boat landing. So here’s hoping that we see a second, even more successful marathon next year.

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