For a Taste of the Real Jamaica, Head to Jake’s Triathlon

Jake’s Hotel is home to the unlikeliest of triathlons, which happens to be the longest-running off-road tri in the world.

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The longest running off-road triathlon hasn’t changed much in its 24-year history. 

Maybe you’ve been to Jamaica. If you have, chances are you spent your stay in Negril, Ochos Rios, or Montego Bay on the west side of the island. That’s where people stay when they come to Jamaica. There are countless all-inclusive resorts, the white sand beaches are clean and beautiful, and it’s a safe place for the entire family.

That’s the commodity Jamaica has been selling for decades, and it’s been profitable. Tourism—particularly American tourism—has become the backbone of Jamaica’s somewhat lackluster economy, at least on the west side of the island. Less adventurous visitors wouldn’t dare visit the capital of Kingston on the eastern side, and on the southern coast you won’t find the all-inclusives you see in commercials, where you and that special someone can have that perfect romantic getaway. What you will find in the south is some of the most fertile farmland in the entire world, allowing the small town of Treasure Beach to be the breadbasket for much of Jamaica. The locals don’t take the bounty that the land and sea provide for granted. Processed food simply does not exist in Treasure Beach, and it’s nearly impossible to find something to eat that comes from more than a few miles away.

The southern coast is a challenging place to get to, involving a two and a half hour drive from Montego Bay on some of the roughest roads in the Western hemisphere. A reliable transfer service is required since driving in rural Jamaica can be extremely dangerous. Getting there isn’t easy, but perhaps that’s what makes Jake’s Hotel in Treasure Beach one of the most unique resorts in the entire Caribbean. Jake’s attracts travelers, not tourists. It’s as eclectic as any hotel on Earth, and it’s remarkably low-key, even by Jamaican standards. The property consists of a dozen beachfront bungalows and cottages, a restaurant, and not a whole lot else. There’s yoga every morning and an exquisite seven-course farm-to-table dinner at the owner’s off-site estate when there’s a full moon. Jake’s is also home to the unlikeliest of triathlons, which happens the longest-running off-road tri in the world.

The 24th running of Jake’s Off-Road Triathlon took place on Saturday and it looked exactly the same as it did in 1995. There were about 100 participants including relays. The entry fee is roughly $60 USD, most of which goes to support a youth sports park where kids can learn cricket, soccer, tennis, swimming and basketball. No one has made money of this event and no one wants to.

The event consists of a loosely measured 400-meter swim, followed by 24K ride that includes a mix of poorly maintained roads and trails, and finishes with a 7K run around the tiny fishing and farming village. It’s as hot and humid as Kona, but that’s where the similarities end. The volunteers forgot to assemble the bike racks for T1, so the first transition consisted of about 70 bikes strewn out on a beach, with a handful of dogs running amok. Not a single participant was bothered, because bike racks are an unnecessary luxury in Treasure Beach. The race started about 40 minutes after the scheduled time of 7 a.m., and again, no athletes were pressed by the delay.

As seemingly unprofessional as the race is, the competition is remarkably fierce as the event is a source of tremendous local pride. Most of the athletes made the two-hour trip over from Kingston, but none of them had a chance against local legend Jassette Bromfield, who won the race for the 16th time. Bromfield is one of the most accomplished mountain bike and crit racers on the island and he has 15-minute 5K run speed, but he’s received no support from the Jamaican Triathlon Association to improve his swim and secure funding to compete internationally. The country’s only competition pool and is located in Kingston, so he’s left working on his stroke in the ocean without the help of a coach. His goal this year is to receive enough funding from donations to compete at the ITU Grand Final in the Netherlands. He’s done a handful of high-profile events in the U.S. as an amateur and knows there’s nothing out there quite like his hometown race.

“I learned to ride on these trails, so this is a special race for me,” he said. “The vibe here is different from any other race. You have a ton of local support because the race has meant a lot to the community. People who know about Treasure Beach and come here think of it as home away from home because that’s how we treat people.”

Elisabeth Mondon won the women’s race for a seventh consecutive year. The Reunion Island native has lived in Kingston for the past 11 years and has represented Jamaica at the Commonwealth Games. She’s a phenomenal mountain biker with aspirations of competing professionally on the XTERRA circuit, but like Bromfield, she can’t find a coach on the island to help with her swim and the JTA can’t offer her any financial assistance. For now, she’ll focus on preserving her undefeated streak at Jake’s.

“I love coming here because there’s nothing not to love,” she said. “The people are so welcoming. The seafood is incredible. What I like the most is that this is a part of Jamaica that hasn’t changed. I think if you came here 30 years ago you’d find it exactly the same. If you come here you get to experience the real Jamaican country life.”

Jake’s Tri and Treasure Beach certainly aren’t for everyone. Treasure Beach trades in the luxuries of a five-star all-inclusive for authentic immersion into a community of people that are happy to have you. And Jake’s Tri serves up anything but the routine and structure of the newest cookie-cutter 70.3. Triathlon’s old guard laments that the sport has lost touch with its adventurous roots, while those in leadership positions can’t figure out how to make it more diverse. Maybe there are some answers to be found in a little race that’s been doing it’s own thing for 24 years and has no plans to change.

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