Honolulu, HI. — We drove through the Makai Gate at the intersection of Punahou and Wilder Streets onto the Punahou School campus just as classes were letting out for the day. In the warm Hawaiian sunshine kids with backpacks slung over their shoulders walked indolently side-by-side, some toward waiting family cars, many others toward after-school sports practices.
Located perhaps two miles inland from Waikiki Beach on the island of Oahu, the Punahou School is a private co-ed primary and prep school celebrated for both its academic and sporting successes. Originally established in 1841 as a school for the children of missionaries serving throughout the Pacific region, these days Punahou is most famous as the alma mater of Barack Obama, America’s 44th president, who graduated (as Barry) in 1979.
Today, Dr. Jim Barahal, president of the Honolulu Marathon Association was bringing former three-time Honolulu Marathon champion Mbarek Hussein and four-time U.S. Olympian Abdi Abdirahman to the campus to visit Coach Todd Iacovelli’s distance running session, where Jim’ son Sebastian is a mainstay.
“You know me,” said Abdi, “If I can help motivate even one kid, not just in running, but life, that would mean a lot to me.”
Gathering on the lush green lawns below the Lily Pond were members of the boys and girls cross country and track programs. Overseeing the workout was boys’ cross country coach Todd Iacovelli, himself a Punahou alum and five-time Hawaii state champion.
After Sebastian Barahal introduced Mbarek and Abdi to his wide-eyed teammates, Coach Todd suggested the afternoon’s workout.
“Since we have guests, why don’t we do some drills and our 300 meter strides,” said the University of Michigan grad who had been a freshman roommate of 2008 Olympic 1500 meter silver medalist Nick Willis while in Ann Arbor.
The visit was especially interesting for Mbarek. The Kenyan-born U.S. citizen first made a visit to Punahou as a 19 year-old while visiting his older brother Ibrahim at the Honolulu Marathon in the mid-1980s. Without ever having trained he ran a 2:40 marathon off just three weeks of jogging on the island. That he would later become a champion runner, therefore, was no huge surprise.
Even at age 48 Mbarek still has hopes of qualifying for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials, even as over the last two years he has taken up coaching at Albuquerque’s Sandia High School in New Mexico.
“We do three days of strength, core work and distance,” explained Todd as the boys began their drills amidst the lancing shadows cut by the rapidly setting sun. Nearby girl’s coach Darby Macdonald was timing her charges.
“This is just an inter-season workout,” she informed me. “February 1st is when track season actually begins.”
Darby has been coaching at Punahou for more than fifteen years, continuing a rich tradition that has seen the school amass 24 girls cross country state titles since 1973, 11 boys titles since 1965, and an astounding 35 girls (since `67) and 35 boys state track titles (since `59).
“I coached Todd (Iacovelli) when he was here,” said Darby as her girls took another spin around the campus grounds. We have about 40 girls who run on the track team.”
The boys were off doing 300m jaunts at 3000m race pace with a short, 20-30-second rest between.
“Once the season begins they will do an 800 meter loop,” Todd added.
After the session was finished and a final series of pictures snapped, Mbarek and Sebastian Barahal walked up campus to Punahou’s eight-lane all-weather track to recreate a photo they’d first taken in 2004 when Sebastian was just a tot. On the way they past the Waterhouse Pool where the raucous cheers of the Punahou faithful were rising up from the seats alongside the deck.
Arriving at the track they came upon a spirited girl’ soccer match pitting long-time rivals Punahou and visiting King Kamehameha High School. The teams were knotted at zero with just minutes remaining in the match.
As Mbarek and Sebastian walked down to the shaded north end to relive their first run together from ten years ago – on the same track that Sebastian’s dad Jim had once done track sessions with Mbarek’s older brother, three-time Honolulu and Boston Marathon champion Ibrahim Hussein in the 1980s — the King Kamehameha girls put in a late goal to upset the home favorites 1-0.
Then as the shadows lengthened heralding nightfall, the two soccer teams met to shake hands at midfield as two veteran marathoners bid good-bye to a newly energized squad of high school runners.
It has become a tradition at the Honolulu Marathon, also at the still-new Hapalua, Hawaii’s Half Marathon (the second annual Hapalua coming April 13, 2014) to mingle the knowledge and inspiration of the world’s best runners with the hopes and aspirations of the area’s best. Last spring then marathon world record holder Patrick Makau made a visit to Damien High School to offer his presence and advice.
But time is fleeting. The next day the remainder of marathon visitors would be taking their leave as the holidays beckoned, cooler weather awaited, and another year at the Honolulu Marathon drew to a close.