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Make a Trip of It: 2015 Honolulu Marathon

Runner’s World Magazine recently listed the Honolulu Marathon in the Top 10 Marathons in the U.S., and my sister Jill lives in E’wa Beach just north of Honolulu. She offered to provide runner support if I ran, and I had a few days extra days of vacation I had to use by the end of the year or lose them, so I just had to run this one.

This race was really different from most of the other marathons I have run, mostly because of it’s huge size (31,000 runners/walkers) and international flavor which is dominated by Japanese. The Pre-race Expo held in the Honolulu Convention Center was very large and festive with many Japanese vendors handing out various samples of magical energy foods and potions, all promising better performance and longer stamina. Many looked like some sort of seeds and one looked to be made from dead insects. I passed on all of them, except for a bottle of pure Hawaiian Spring water.

I had read in the runner’s blogs, and my sister Jill warned me, that this particular race has many slow runners and walkers. They tend to block the early miles of the course so completely, that you really can’t break out and run a reasonable pace until well into the marathon. With that in mind, I got to the starting line early and managed to stake out a spot very close to the starting line. I found out later that this was probably the best thing I did to turn in a reasonable performance time, as I was able to run unimpaired by slower participants from the very start.

Mahoney (bib 33729) running in the early miles of the 2015 Honolulu Marathon.

The morning of the marathon, my sister Jill and her husband Paul got up at 3 a.m. and cooked me my standard pre-race breakfast of half a bagel, an egg and a tall Kona Coffee. They drove me as close to the starting line as they could get — about 5 blocks away — and dropped me off an hour before the start. I found my way through the dark streets of Honolulu by following other runners walking toward the starting line. There was a small rock wall along the edge of the Ala Moana Boulevard a few hundred feet from the line and I sat down to conserve energy, relax, and meditate before the race. The younger crowd around me was very excited, talking and running around; I’m sure it was their first marathon. A Japanese mom was chasing her children, trying to get them to drink some of the special energy drink. I’m thinking “Oh little kids, you have no idea what lies ahead!” It turns out that this race has no time or age limit, and as Jill says, has become somewhat of a “Rite of Passage” for the Japanese people; the whole family flies over to run/walk the marathon together.

In the middle miles … check out the beautiful view behind the runners!

I notice, sitting on the wall next to me, an older Japanese gentleman. He was very calm and quiet; I figured that he must have run many marathons. There we were … two older guys quiet and subdued amongst a sea of wild, excited young people. He didn’t speak English, nor I Japanese, but we had the most wonderful conversation. Using hand gestures and the like, we shared the printed info on the back of our bibs which had our names and ages. He was 70 and I am 60; he had run the Honolulu Marathon every year since 1986 (he showed me the year on his Honolulu Marathon hat), and this was his 70th marathon. I respected him for that, and congratulated him by shaking his hand. I indicated to him, I had only run 13 Marathons. He then saw the 2015 Boston Marathon emblem on my race shirt, saying, “ Ooooh Booostooon!,” he then reached over and shook my hand. He showed me a small vial that hung around his neck, which contained ashes, obviously a loved one, and then indicated that he was running this race for a deeper meaning. I surmised that he and his wife must have come many times and run the Marathon together and he was running this one in memory of her.

At exactly 5 minutes before the gun, just like synchronized swimmers, we both simultaneously reached down and started the process of tightening our shoe laces, cinching them with a double knot to make sure they wouldn’t come untied. We both stood up, stretched, shook hands one last time, then headed into the anxious crowd awaiting the starting gun and that was the last we saw of each other.

Mahoney after dousing himself with a soaking-wet sponge.

The race starts in complete darkness and begins with a grand fireworks display. It’s great fun to run along with the crowd of runners being illuminated by all the bursts overhead. The first part of the course winds north through Waikiki’s many tall hotels. There were a surprising number of fans at 5:00 a.m. from the local motels seeing all the marathoners off as they headed on their initial journey 11 miles south toward Diamond Head. After leaving Waikiki it gets less populated and really dark; we seemed to be running through parks or less traveled residential areas.

At the start it was 72 degrees and the temperature climbed steadily once the sun came up. It was also very humid. The best thing about the Marathon was its water stops, and there were plenty of them, many of which served ice-cold water. The race had enough service volunteers and water stations so long you could grab multiple cups on your way through. I would drink the first cup and then take a second one to dump over my head. This helped immensely to stay cool and keep my race pace. Wet sponges were offered from mile 15 on and were a great way to stay cool by wringing them out over the shoulders and neck as I ran.

I befriended a couple of guys who were all running the same pace (about 8:15 min/miles). One was a fellow “Marathon Maniac” from Pennsylvania who spoke some Japanese and translated the shouts of encouragement from other runners and fans. The other was a guy from Finland running his 100th marathon; he claimed that he wasn’t accustomed to running in this type of environment (combo heat/humidity).

Mahoney crossing the finish.

The race course has a rather long out and back, which provides for a very long overlap where some runners are going out to the turnaround and others are returning and headed for the finish line. I got to see the leaders, all Kenyans; they were amazing to watch, running like gazelles. 5:00 minute/mile pace looks a lot faster when they’re headed right at you, nothing like it does on TV.

Only after rounding the turnaround loop and headed back toward the finish did I see the immense size of the race, I ran for miles and miles seeing thousands of runners then walkers behind me. I wondered if the race would have enough supplies to take care of them. Costumed runners were overheating and many Japanese moms were herding their young and encouraging them to keep going … gad! They were so young and only at mile 8! … I was at mile 16-17.

The last 3 miles were really tough, as by then, the temperature and humidity had really increased, and there was one long hill about a mile before the finish line. The best part was seeing my family Jill, Paul (Jill’s husband), and my daughter Lisa were all there to greet me at the finish line. They had photos and offered many congratulations. It was great to share the experience with them.

Paul snapped this photo of me finishing in 3:47:34. That isn’t anywhere near my fastest time, but I managed to finish 634th place out of 21,550 finishers, and 22nd place out of 1,015 in my age group (60-64 males). Although there are some very good runners in this race, the denominator is rather distorted by an usually large number of slower runners, and walkers. This is because the race has no time limit and encourages first-timers to enter. It’s interesting to note that in 2014,  only 21,815 out of 30,434 finished (about 72%), which was a little down from previous years (80-87%)  … maybe those Japanese moms are softening. I’m still happy with my age group place of 22nd; I ran well considering the heat and humidity.

Would I recommend the Honolulu Marathon for others to run? Absolutely, it’s in my top 5 favorites. I think as long as you are aware of all the issues of a very large field with many first time runners /walkers , it’s a big race with an international flavor.

Steve finished in 3:47:34, good for 22nd in his age group.

by Steve Mahoney, of McMinnville, Ore.

That’s one happy marathoner. Congrats, Steve!

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