Running in Guyana
By Sevak Tsaturyan
Sevak Tsaturyan is a US Diplomat from the sunny state of California, and an avid runner, who lived in Guyana for 2 years (2014 & 2015). I became friends with Sevak through multiple discussions online about the inaugural Guyana Trail Marathon in 2015. I decided to run that inaugural race to complete the first marathon in Guyana. His story is an interesting perspective about running in Guyana.
It was 82 degrees on a Saturday morning, under a scorching sun and I was about to make my 32nd and last lap of a 0.9 mile loop in the National Park in Georgetown, Guyana. Over the past three hours I had gone through two tropical rainstorms, heavy headwinds, cloudy sky and now a scorching sun: All of this while running on the same monotonous loop. Some locals had stopped by to look at my insanity; small children had ran behind me and quickly given up. After my 32nd loop, I felt like Forest Gump “I think I will go home now.” I wondered at the moment, that there has to be a better, safer place to do my long runs in Guyana.
I had been in the country for less than 2 months and had been advised by our Security Officer that many areas are out of question to run as they are not safe. My options were simply the small strip of 4-mile Seawall close to downtown or the National park – a one mile paved loop where many locals exercise. I had also gotten permission from the local Police Force to do sprint workouts at that time on the only track available in Georgetown, – the grass track of the Guyana Police Force where Guyanese track runners are made.
I was craving for some place to run or people to run with. The month before I had gone out with the local Hash Harriers to do a “run” but it was more like a 3-mile jog/walk and plenty of drinking afterword’s, nothing serious for a marathoner or a distance runner or a runner at all. Other than the Hash Club there are only a few Running Clubs in Guyana.
Serious runners get together in informal groups to train together.
I had heard that Guyana is building a new rubber track field almost an hour away from town – what a loss, how could I possibly drive an hour before work to just do my track workouts.
There are some smaller random road races most of them short distance 5k or so and usually a half marathon, but unfortunately There are no organized online resources and you won’t know them until a week before it may be posted in a local newspaper.
When I returned from this long 32-loop run I was clearly disappointed, and realized that my running in Guyana is going to suffer significantly. I started planning out short trips to Barbados or Curacao, close islands where I could at least do once-in-a- while quality runs. I texted to my long time coach and friend in Brazil that Guyana was a terrible place for runners and that I was going to be depressed living here.
The following week, committed to stick to my routine, I was doing an early morning fartlek in the National Park, when I was stopped by a man who identified himself as “Leslie Blacks – Guyana’s distant athletes coach” He said you should come run with my people: Alika Morgan and Cleveland Forde. I had heard of those track stars and had even attempted to contact Alika the month before I arrived in Guyana. But as any normal person should, she never responded to a stranger’s Facebook request to connect. Coach Blacks’s simple invitation changed my entire running experience in Guyana, it possibly changed my life.
A few weeks later I ran with Alika in the Courts’ 10K (Guayna’s largest 10K road running event sponsored by Courts supermarket held usually in mid spring). We finished Courts 10K just under 40 minutes and realized that I needed just as much help as Alika did in getting back to a good running shape. So Alika myself and Coach Blacks worked out a schedule, assisted by my Brazilian friend who wrote the program to train for the upcoming South America’s 10K (3 country series of 10Ks in Guyana, Suriname & Panama all held consecutively, annually every fall).
There are some smaller random road races, most of them short distance, 5k or so, and usually a half marathon, but unfortunately there are no organized online resources and you won’t know about them until a week before, when it may be posted in a local newspaper.
Every morning, Coach Blacks would drive Alika to my house, and we would run from East Coast Demarara on the busy highway (Guyana’s main road running along the seawall and going all the way down to Suriname) . For safety reasons Coach Blacks would drive behind us in a car. We would run on the road, on the seawall, in the park and do drill works on the grass track. This was my prime of Guyana’s running. At South America’s 10K both Alika and I hit records, she placed 2nd overall in female. I was 8th as there are much faster guys like Cleveland Forde and Cleveland Thomas who own the road races in the country.
This experience elevated my spirit but still there was something missing. That winter, another person, who changed my running life, joined our morning routines with Alika and I – Cleveland Forde. At first, I thought he was going to get real bored with us, as his 10K pace was on average a 32minutes and both Alika and I prided ourselves with around a 38-minute PR. But Forde turned out to be the most gracious runner I have ever met. He stuck with us on long and fast runs. He introduced us to running at night on the beach. Guyana’s beach is dirty, and full of garbage; it has brown waters due to the many rivers that feed into the ocean. But I realized that if you run in the dark the garbage, you cannot see, doesn’t matter. The soft sandy beach running was further elevated by Forde’s invitation to go to the Trails.
This is where my life changed – we would wake up at 3 am on Saturday mornings to drive an hour to a place near Timehri Airport where we found miles of soft paved trails and miners’ roads. We would run there, do hill workouts and Coach Blacks would follow us with lights from the truck that another runner, Mark Anthony, so graciously provided. A few others would join us occasionally, but our core group remained constant. I looked forward to those Saturday morning runs like a kid looks forward to Christmas morning. With the stress of living in a new country, it was one of the few bright spots of my life during those two years. I would have quite possibly cut my Guyana experience short had it not been for those runners and those running experiences.
I loved the cool breeze at 4 am in the morning and the soft red clay roads under my feet. More importantly I felt honored to literally rub shoulders on long runs with not only some of the best athletes in Guyana but some of the most quality personalities I have ever met in my life. Those Guyanese Athletes were fast, hard working, and more importantly, humble and kind. They were honest and trustworthy. They didn’t speak much, we just ran, we ran for hours until someone (usually me) got tired.
US-published security warnings, often warn of the dangers and inherent poverty in Guyana. Diplomats are warned about places and people to avoid. But what I witnessed through this experience in running with those individuals was quite the opposite. Running at 4 am in the morning, in the middle of the jungle, with a few locals, I felt safer than I would in the streets of the safest town in the USA. I felt like Guyana was paradise for runners. It was sheer joy!
At the end of my first year, I discovered the Amerindian Villages – in particular Santa Mission. Located about an hour boat ride through picturesque Kamuni creek – Santa Mission had miles of hunting trails that were not connected or t
I purchased a used Garmin GPS, and for the entire next year mapped out over 50 miles of trails behind the Santa Mission. We traveled there over 70 times to map out a marathon trail, and with the help of many locals, Peace Corps Volunteers and the international community we created Guyana’s first and only Marathon. www.Guyanamarathon.com. Over 200 participants signed up, and we raised nearly $20,000 USD. The proceeds of the race went to the Santa Mission Village. We hired the local Amerindians to mark and clear trails for runners, to cook meals, and to make wood medals from local Purple Heart wood. They presented their crafts and the Minister of Indigenous Affairs handed out our awards. Instead of trophies we gave local handcrafted Amerindian baskets. Runners came from over 11 different countries, and the event was hailed by a number of international publications https://www.good.is/articles/guyana-santa-mission-marathon-arawak-indigenous-culture-tourism.
Two years later, and a month before my departure from Guyana, I again ran 32 laps around the National Park. But this time I had a different sentiment. Numerous high fives, chats with locals who were doing their casual exercise that day, however, accompanied those 32 loops. I knew many of their names, I felt like home. I now knew the people and I loved them, I now knew the land, and I loved everything about running in Guyana.