HUNG UP ON TIME – 2012 Honolulu Marathon

Aerial View of Hawaii Kai
Aerial View of Hawaii Kai

Yesterday’s 40th Honolulu Marathon was a breath of fresh air.  In fact, it was many, many breaths of fresh trade-wind-blown air as times for the 26.2 mile loop course out to Hawaii Kai over Diamond Head and back was severely slowed by the strong trade winds blowing out along Kalanianaole Highway from miles 11-16. In the end, any chance for an event record (2:11:12, 2004) was swept away as this marathon turned into what has been lost in the sport in recent years, a pure foot-race rather than a paced time-trial.

While speculation was rife all week whether Kenya’s Wilson Kipsang, the Olympic bronze medallist and second fastest man in history, could better Jimmy Muindi’s long-standing mark, it came down to whether Kipsang could put away his Ethiopian rival Markos Geneti, the Los Angeles Marathon record holder and 2:04 man from Dubai 2012.

Though overall time ceased to be the issue, it required a full-blooded 4:39 partially upgrade 23rd mile for Kipsang to dispatch Geneti, though the winning time of 2:12:31 was only the ninth-fastest time in Honolulu Marathon history, and a full 8:49 slower than Kipsang’s 2:03:42 PR from Frankfurt 2011.  So, are we to look at his win in Honolulu as a failure?  He did run the fastest second half in Honolulu history, 65:31.

The point here is the sport has become so hung up on time that we have all but eliminated personality-driven competition from the minds of a constantly dwindling fan base.  We even refer to our race fields as filled with Kenyans or Ethiopians, as if there were no distinctions among these men and women of neighboring cultures.

It has been a sad, tiresome, and in the final analysis debilitating focus which has allowed the sport to be subsumed by  the increasing emphasis on charity fund-raising.  Odd, too, because it was competition and personalities which first elevated road racing to public attention via the Frank Shorter versus Bill Rodgers rivalry.

“I remember going to the Lynchburg 10 Miler as a 16 year-old to watch Shorter versus Rodgers,” says sport’s agent Zane Branson of PossoSports Europe.  “It was more than a race, it was a drama, not about the clock.”

Last Saturday we saw Mexico’s Juan Manuel Marquez KO Filipino rival Manny Pacquiao in the sixth round of their epic fourth match up in Las Vegas. Their Pay Per View broadcast generated $100 million of business.  While yesterday’s Honolulu Marathon generated $120 million for  the local economy, the professional athletes were playing for only $150,000 in prize money and a slightly lower amount in appearance fees, though contestants from both sports trained an equal number of grueling months for their one effort.

When the payoff is that limited, and time is emphasized over competition, the sport finds it impossible to generate interest beyond the running world bubble or the local event horizon.  Instead with an increasing number of young runners coming into what was once a veteran’s game, we have not simply accepted the inevitability of East African domination – hard not to given the results – but have replaced personality-driven competitions like Shorter versus Rodgers or even Kenya’s Paul Tergat versus Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie with the cold indifference of time trials.

While pro football markets itself as Tom Brady’s Patriots versus J.J. Watt and the Houston Texans, and basketball sells Kobe’s Lakers versus Lebron’s Miami Heat, running is marketed — if that’s what you want to call it — as how fast one anonymous interchangeable runner from a faraway land can run from point A to point B, rather than whether this guy can beat that guy.

The Honolulu Marathon will always be hilly, hot and humid.  And occasionally its challenge will increase when the strong trade winds come blowing down from the mountain passes to the north along the eastern edge of Oahu. Instead of seeing this as a unique test of strength and fitness, many top runners dismiss Honolulu because they can’t run fast here.  But fast times should be the cherry atop the cake of competition, not the focus of attention itself, especially when the odds are so heavily stacked against record performances in any race.

By continuing to make finishing time the focus of attention we are building our sport upon a foundation of ever-shifting sand which won’t stand up to any ill wind that may come blowing our way.


32 thoughts on “HUNG UP ON TIME – 2012 Honolulu Marathon

  1. Great post! I had similar thoughts about the London Olympics Marathon; the time was almost irrelevant. The race was all about the battle at the end, and the brilliance displayed in the win! And let’s not forget, the Marathon isn’t exciting only because it’s a race. It’s exciting because of the myriad of challenging aspects that come in to play during the race: Fueling, Hydration, etc. are all parts of any athletic endeavor, but mostly they can be ignored during, and managed before/after the event. Not in the marathon. In the marathon, it has to be managed during the event, and that challenge is part of what keeps it exciting!
    This is especially true for people with food limitations due to allergies, religious dietary restrictions, or personal choice. And keeping up with what/how the athletes are managing their limited energy budgets is endlessly exciting!

  2. I kind of see this post differently too. By saying differently I mean I also got confused. Good thing I got to read the comments. Michael is such a brave man. I commend him for braving the thing I would have done reluctantly. And, for Teri for clarifying it all the more.

    On the flip side, thanks for mentioning Manny Pacquiao–even though its about his not-so-lucky-day kind of thing. You know what I mean…On the bright side, that goes without saying “our” man is beyond question a BIG man.

  3. Toni, its a privilege reading your post. Lots of things start spinning around in my head while digesting your words. First, I loved running races and lived in Hawaii. I went to Univ. of Hawaii there in Manoa Valley.
    Second, everything today is so wham, bam and thank you ma’am. It is almost meaningless. I have learned to stop and smell the roses. I am now stopping others and making them see the beauty in all our lives. It takes helping each other to start making this world a better place. That is easy so say but so difficult sometimes to do on a daily basis.
    Keep on blogging. I will keep reading your blogs.
    Mahao Toni.
    Merry Christmas.

  4. great commentary toni,you are correct in saying putting names against one another, instead of time.most spectators have no concept of time run. only names of who beat who.

  5. Hi Tony,

    Great analysis. Thoroughbred horse racing figured this out years ago. We can all tell you who won the entucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont, how exciting the races were, but WHO can tell you the winning time? Probably no one except the owners and trainers. Times have not improved in years, but the excitement is there every year!!!

  6. As always….on target TR! I remember when RunnersWorld was more personal and less of a link minefield back in 1998. Parker Morse was in charge of the website.

    I posted a comment about the ball and chain…the noose of ‘time’ based focus in running. Craig Masback the CEO of T&F USA at the time responded and agreed yet we are still at a loss of color and competition. Then another guy responded and thought it was so cool how quickly a comment could get to the top of the running chain. So how fast did you run that 5K? 🙂

    PS Give me Lindgren and those 2 Russians any day! And that was 1964!

  7. I liked your post, but it is sort of confusing. Who is hung up on the times? The spectators? The press and bloggers? The runners? The spectators want to see a good race with a battle between competitors more than a fast time with no competition. The runners all to often don’t care about winning as much as they care about quality run and feeling good (not all, but too many). The press (what little there is) and the bloggers love times as much as anyone because that is the only way to compare the runners.

    Also it is hard to care about match ups when the top runners so rarely face off against each other, and at times don’t actually race they just want to get another good workout in for their next competition or gage their fitness.

    I don’t mean to offend anyone. I am just an ignorant running fan that is trying to understand your post.

    1. Actually you have some very valid thoughts! Running is a solo sport….and it has become so low on the radar. Why? Just as you said….some race just for workouts and the ‘next’ race. Some never face each other, or rarely. Coe/Ovett comes to mind. And the 100 meter men. They rarely meet each other. Nope…he’s in the 200….Nope, he’s in the 100. This scenario will NEVER bring a large fan base. Never! That’s why this ‘solo’ running sport is so low on the radar. Thank you for your insightful post Mike.

    2. Michael,

      Thanks for the reply, and your need for clarification. It’s because the racer’s have become anonymous and interchangeable that the sport has turned its focus to fast times. My suggestion is to build up the personalities, like boxing builds up Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao and others. Battles between carbon-based life forms are inherently more compelling than pre-staged runs against the clock.

      But when every event is a universe unto itself, and every field is one-and-done proposition, we don’t develop rivalries or personalities which appeal to the public. Fast times end up being a substitute for competition, a way to make some appeal. But we don’t have many true professional promoters in our sport, so there is no orchestration of fields to bring out duels or races of interest.

      And the money in our sport isn’t big enough for runners to risk making a chancy move, either, so they end up either finding races where the competition is limited, or they protect positions when major moves are made. We can never seem to get the very best runners to compete against each other unless it’s at the World Championships or Olympics.

      Fast times don’t cost as much as a fully-loaded field, either. So there is that aspect of it as well. And fast times, to a lesser degree, offers some appeal to tomorrow’s newspaper account, but not today’s TV coverage. People don’t remember what the times were in the famous races in recent past, like NYC 2005 when Paul Tergat and Hendrik Ramaala sprinted to the line with Ramaala diving in vain at the tape, or in Chicago 2010 when Sammy Wanjiru and Tesfaye Bekele (oops, I mean Kebede) staged their epic duel.

      Those are the races that linger in our memory, not the one guy running fast behind a phalanx of pace-setters toward a pre-staged outcome. Remember, it’s the Celtics vs. the Lakers and the Red Sox vs. the Yankees, not how many home runs were hit or what the final score may have been.

      1. A couple of tweaks in the current formula come to mind. I see that Japanese road running has a huge fan base, with lots of local press coverage and a small amount of foreign competitors; would love to see Ekiden competitions among the elite programs (Boulder v. McMillan Elite v. Hansons, etc.); also, NBA basketball, NFL football, and MLB learned long ago to promote the individual star at least as much as the team; yet at Prefontaine and other big meets, Nike has a dozen look-alike Kenyan runners all wearing the same color uniform! how about letting these guys be individuals, with different colored uniforms?

      2. Come on Toni. Who is “Tesfaye Bekele?” You were right there giving us that great commentary. It was Tsegaye Kebede, one of the greatest marathon runners ever. I guess it goes to prove your point that all these Africans are kind of anonymous.

    3. Michael,

      I’d say the events themselves are the biggest cynics. It’s up to the races to invite the pro fields and promote their performances. But rather than be a match-maker who creates interesting man a mano competitions, it’s evidently easier to invite a bunch of fast guys and send them out with a pack of pacers hoping to produce a fast time. It takes time and money to promote, and given the rapidity with which top runners seem to come and go in this sport, it is very difficult to promote a personality which, in fact, may not exist.

  8. It reminds me of a different saying that is apt here:

    “A cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing” (Oscar Wilde)
    Those concerned (only) with the time/mark ‘know the time of everything and nothing of the value of racing.

  9. Thanx Toni. I couldn’t agree more. I remember running in the Midland Run 15K in New Jersey years ago, where several elite/professional runners were there including Frank and Billy. It was an exciting day, the anticipation of the competition in the air, knowing they would be dukin’ it out.

  10. I am so glad I experienced the 80’s road racing scene when we raced the hell out of each other! I recall the 1989 Crim 10 miler when Lisa Rainsburger ( nee Weidenbach) and I changed place 6 times in last half mile and we were racing for 2nd place. No prizemoney , just appearance fee . Racing for pride and rankings! Toni was the commentator. My personal scrapebooks sadly tell the story of a sport no longer worthy of front page coverage let alone a mention on the results page! So sad for our current USA middle distance runners graduating from college! Not to mention the Australians, British, Canadians, Norwegians, Irish ,Scotish ,New Zealanders etc etc we no longer see! An era forgotten!

    1. Yup….time is impersonal and sterile. The human competition is thrilling. The mega sports focus on the win….the score tally is secondary. And Anne, I’ll always remember NYC Legs Mini when you won and raised your hand at the end. 1982 or 83. For some reason it was a moment I will always remember….the thrill of it all I guess…..your time? Say what? Not important! then you ran in the Orange Classic 10k where I video taped and Joan beat you. Your times? Say what? It was the race that counted. Not any more….time is king….sterile impersonal time. Alas.

    2. I remember that Crim. Cathy O’Brien set a course record that still stands, but that was a great battle for second between two great runners – two years before there was prize money at stake.

  11. I couldn’t agree with you more Tony! I remember back in the day, we never worried about time, it was trying to punish your competitors and get to the finish first. If you ran fast it was a bonus. It was all about racing for victory VS racing for time.

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