Guest blog post – Jeremy Lazell a Journalist who participated in the St Helena Festival of Running 2017
It’s not the first race I’ve ever run, but it is the first time my lungs have tried to exit my body via my mouth. Welcome to St Helena’s annual Jacob’s Ladder, a lungbusting race up the 699-step, Grade-I listed staircase linking Jamestown to its 17th century fort, perched on the cliffs way above town. It’s an average incline of 40 degrees, it’s open to all-comers, and the time to beat is 5 minutes and 16 seconds – just don’t expect to enjoy it.
The Jacob’s Ladder run is the star billing on the St Helena Festival of Running, the singlemost memorable, scenic – and brutally hilly – running festival I have ever participated in.
Ironically, I wasn’t planning to do any running when I came to St Helena in 2017. I was here for the Sunday Times in London to write about the new runway and the island’s appeal for tourists. It was pure luck that I wound up here during the festival – but it made my week.
For starters, the routes are just so varied and beautiful, kicking off with a quite spectacular marathon, half-marathon, 10km or 3km run on the Sunday. I did the half-marathon, which was billed as the hilliest half-marathon on the planet, and was not exaggerating. I can’t remember much flat that day, but I can remember startling views across the top of an island that looks like the Jamaican highlands on steroids. It’s fabulously historic, passing near to Napolean’s grave and the house where he lived until he died in 1821.
Perhaps the best thing about that half-marathon, though, was the camaraderie. One minute I was just a tourist, the next I was running alongside locals, suddenly united against a mutual foe: St Helena’s relentless hills. It didn’t end at the finish line, either: for hours after the last runners had come in, I sat and chatted to dozens of “Saints” and expats, from doctors and nurses to students and builders. If you’re looking for a way to meet locals, this is it.
It doesn’t half make for a social stay. By day I’d be ticking off postal walks and visiting historic sites, but night I’d be drinking and chatting with my newfound running mates in Jamestown’s wonderfully simple, joyously friendly bars. That, of course, is when I wasn’t doing other Running Festival events.
Because as well as the marathon, half-marathon, 10km and 3km, there was also a triathlon, the Jacob’s Ladder run, and the real highlight for me, a quite stunning sea-to-summit trail run on. Climax of the weeklong festival, the trail run starts at Jamestown harbour and finishes 15km and 818 vertical metres later at the mist-shrouded summit of Diana’s Peak – it’s St Helena’s highest mountain – passing the very hut where Halley mapped out the southern skies. I have written about trail running for easyJet’s inflight magazine, Trail Running magazine, and for the Sunday Times, but this is quite simply the most spectacular – and friendliest – trail run I have ever done.
Taking off from St Helena about two hours after finishing the race, I remember looking out of the plane and spotting Diana’s Peak – there was nowhere on the planet I would rather have been. I can’t be there this year, but I know for sure I’ll be back. Now if I can just find another set of lungs…