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.