Little Cayman Loop

Running around Little Cayman was a really cool way to see this sister island. We spent the first part of this amazing week on Grand Cayman. I represented HORST Engineering at a health care symposium hosted by one of our key suppliers/insurers. We have a self-funded health plan and we are members of an insurance captive so the symposium doubled as our annual meeting. The captive includes more than 20 other mid-sized businesses proactively looking for ways to provide better quality and lower cost benefits to our employees.

Debbie and I had never been to the Cayman Islands, so when the opportunity was presented we decided to take full advantage. Last year was HORST Engineering’s first year in the program and two of my colleagues represented us at the conference. They enjoyed the trip with their spouses and had great things to say about their hosts and the accommodations (resort setting).

Grand Cayman was cool, but it has developed rapidly and the associated costs are becoming a bigger issue for the island’s full time inhabitants (about 69,000) and visitors alike. Congestion, accidents, and other issues are having a negative impact on the island experience. Apparently, it got even more crazy during and after the COVID-19 pandemic with a surge of new interest from outsiders. This week’s edition of the local newspaper, the Cayman Compass, reported on two recent fatal hit and run collisions with cyclists. I hate reading about that type of news, but I can see why. Even running was difficult as the roads are not cyclist or pedestrian friendly. Grand Cayman has few sidewalks and narrow or non-existent shoulders. There are almost no street lights (they replaced them with rotaries) so traffic is always flowing. It’s hard to cross the street when there are no breaks in traffic.

The conference started late on Sunday and wrapped up mid-morning on Wednesday. We had a few pockets of time to explore. Debbie didn’t attend all of the business sessions so she got some extra beach time. We did some running and swimming, and generally enjoyed the weather, which is spectacular. That means hot, humid, and sunny. It’s hot all of the time, even at night. The salt air has healing characteristics and the ocean water is amazing. It’s clean, warm, and a brilliant shade of blue.

We decided to stay for two extra days. The conference hotel was sold out and at first, we booked a neighboring hotel for Wednesday and Thursday, but we made a switch. Several months ago, when I was doing some Internet research, I checked the Fastest Known Time website. I searched for runs and was surprised and pleased to see that there was a previously established route on Little Cayman, which is 91 miles east of Grand Cayman, and known as one of the two sister islands. The other sister island is Cayman Brac, which you can see from the southern and eastern points on Little Cayman. Little Cayman is about 10 square miles and Cayman Brac is only slightly larger. We were able to cancel our Grand Cayman hotel and instead, book a small one-bedroom bungalow (with a kitchen and laundry) on Little Cayman.

The only way to get from Grand Cayman to Little Cayman is on a small plane. I’m sure you can get there on a private plane, but Cayman Airways has a commercially available flight (usually daily) on a de Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter. The 35 minute flight was a cool experience for an aviation/aerospace fan like me. The Twin Otter seats 17 passengers plus two pilots. On our flight, there was only six passengers, plus the two pilots. We had an extensive conversation with the captain, who was originally from Africa, but found his way to the Cayman Islands many years ago. There were no flight attendants and very limited ground crew (at Little Cayman). After landing, he rolled the baggage cart over to the terminal. That’s neat.

The runway crosses the island’s main road, so if you are driving, cycling or running when a flight is arriving or taking off, look out! Twin Otters like the one we took are powered by Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-20 turboprop engines. The plane is known for its ability to make short takeoffs and landings, which we witnessed on the tiny Little Cayman airstrip.

Before this week, there was only one Cayman Islands entry on the FKT site. A fellow by the name of Dave Stock created the Little Cayman route and completed it in 2018. His write-up says he has the goal to do an FKT on all three of the Cayman Islands, but so far, Little Cayman is the only one that has been logged. We tried to reach Dave through social media channels, but didn’t have any luck. His brief report on the 22.4 mile loop (a circumnavigation of the island) highlighted the most important factor: oppressive heat and humidity.

We started our run just before 7:00 A.M. We could have started earlier, but we made a tradeoff. We had a full night of sleep and some food before starting. We were worried that running at dawn or dusk might expose us to the nuisance of mosquitoes, but we don’t know for sure if that would be a factor. The island is very rural with only about 160 full time residents. For the first few hours of the run, only four vehicles passed us, so doing it at night with lights/reflective clothing would be safe. I don’t think there will be a “next time” for us, but we would recommend to others that they consider that strategy. Of course, you would avoid the sunshine, but the heat and humidity are present 24 hours a day. Even at night, the temperature remains in the 80’s (Fahrenheit).

Despite a slight headwind, we went out at a good clip, running 8:15 to 8:55 miles for the first nine miles, but our bodies eventually told us that was a foolhardy pace to sustain. Our first mile above nine minutes was mile 10, but several more followed. It was slightly overcast, but by 9:00 A.M. the heat of the sun was already baking us. We made two beach stops to splash (salt) water (which is warm, not cold) on our arms, legs, shoulders, and heads in an attempt to cool off but results were marginal. The water is very warm here. It’s not refreshing at all.

Most of the houses are connected to the grid, so they have electricity, but water is stored in cisterns as there is no “city water.” Air conditioning in most buildings is produced by heat pumps. I switched from a ball cap to a wide brim hat. Debbie was lucky she brought a bandana because she used it to cover her shoulders. It also worked well when she soaked it with water to cool off her head. Things really started to heat up in the second half. The combination of broken asphalt, sand, and gravel roads were easy to navigate and we ran at the edge to try to get some relief from the sun. The vegetation is low lying so there really wasn’t much shade at all. I used Altra Escalante road shoes, but Debbie used her Altra Mont Blanc trail runners. Both worked fine.

Thankfully, around mile 16, we ran by the Central Caribbean Marine Institute (CCMI) on the island’s north shore. We didn’t see anyone there (we called out through the doors), but the place was open, and they had an outdoor sink. We assumed the water was potable. We took a sink shower and refilled our UltrAspire hydration packs. This was life saving. When Dave Stock did the route in 2018, it appears he was accompanied by someone on a bicycle who helped by carrying extra water in a basket. We were self-supported, so relying on CCMI wasn’t part of the original plan, but it worked out. I’m sure they do good work at the institute and we are grateful for their sink!

Late in the run, I had to mix in some intermittent walking as my legs were blown. As usual, Debbie got stronger as it got longer, and she waited for me. Before we started, we debated doing the FKT individually, but I’m glad we stuck together and did it as a team. Naturally, I led the first half and then faded, while she guided us home with a strong finish. We had designs on running faster, but ended up doing it in 3 hours and 33 minutes. It was a good training run for Debbie as she has several ultramarathon trail races on the calendar for 2023. I was just tagging along.

As noted, the road surface was a mix of pavement, gravel and sand. Some of the sand sections were slow. It wasn’t deep, but there was enough that you felt the drag. The island is lovely. There were some great ocean views along the route. Also there were multiple interior salt ponds. They have a pungent smell, but they are frequented by amazing birds, of which there are many, including the rare Red-footed Booby and Magnificent Frigatebirds. Judging from the number of “For Sale” signs (some existing structures, but mostly raw land) that we saw, Little Cayman is at risk of having a development problem too. We read in the Cayman Compass that some people want to see the airstrip and other infrastructure expanded so that more people can get here. I’m sure some of the long time residents who enjoy the seclusion wouldn’t be happy with more development, but the businesses that are on the island would probably benefit from more customers.

We were fortunate to see three Rock Iguanas at different points along the route. They are endangered and there were numerous signs warning motorists to stay alert and watch for them on the road. Collisions are a risk to these reptiles. Little Cayman is my kind of island. The beaches are remote, the location is very rural, and accommodations are rustic. Along with Cayman Brac, Little Cayman is mainly known as a hard core SCUBA diving destination. Birders and fishing enthusiasts like it too. Now, it’s known as an FKT destination!

Debbie and I were happy to spend some time together, but whenever we have a fun trip to a new place, we wish our kids were along for the adventure. I guess we will just have to return to the Cayman Islands to share the experience with them.

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