Honolulu, HI. — With its clement trade winds and Aloha spirit, the Honolulu Marathon has long been one of the world’s most alluring marathons. Now entering its 42nd year, America’s fourth largest marathon has hosted more 680,000 finishers, including many of the great runners of their era. Another 30,000-plus have signed up for this Sunday morning’s sunrise run up over Diamond Head and into Kapiolani Park.
But this hard-earned legacy of hospitality and excellence isn’t a laurel that can be rested on lightly. Like any athlete training for the race itself, the Honolulu Marathon Association continues to seek a level of perfection that both challenges and eludes us all. And that includes in the realm of elite performance.
Although Honolulu’s heat, humidity and challenging course make it one of the slowest top-echelon marathons in the world — the men’s course record is a modest 2:11:12 set by Kenya’s Jimmy Muindi in 2004 — the quality of competition has remained high throughout the years. In fact, Honolulu was among the first major marathons to feature Kenyan champions, as Ibrahim Hussein won three Honolulu titles in the mid-1980s before becoming the first Kenyan to win in New York City (1987) and Boston (1988, `91, `92). Increasingly, however, once Hussein opened the East African flood gates, the deluge never subsided. The list of Honolulu men’s champions reads more like a Kenyan phone book than a roster of an international sporting event. That circumstance, however, isn’t particular to Honolulu.
A search of 2014’s fastest marathons shows that 98 of the top 100 times in the world this year have come from athletes born in either Kenya or Ethiopia. 96 of the top 100 all-time marathon times mirror 2014’s eye-opening stat. This total domination of the sport by athletes who come from rather humble origins, and who, therefore, do not match their foot-racing acumen with corresponding media skills has more race directors than you might think wondering whether there still remains a need for elite athletes at all. In fact, you would be surprised by the number of race directors and the quality of the events they represent who have admitted as much to me off the record. And that sentiment is growing, especially in light of the recent allegations of performance enhancing drug use coming out of Kenya.
After all, say these race directors, it isn’t like today’s top athletes drive participation numbers anymore like the previous generation’s stars from America, Europe, and Austral-Asia once did. It would be easier, and certainly more cost effective to lessen the elite athlete presence, or just eliminate it all together. But after questioning this need himself, 28-year Honolulu Marathon president Jim Barahal has emerged from that internal dialogue more certain of the need for excellence than ever.
“Why have elites?” Barahal asked rhetorically over breakfast today overlooking the glistening Pacific Ocean. “Because the race has a legacy that even average runners connect with unconsciously. This race has a cache and renown worldwide. People who run here wear their finisher’s shirt proudly, due in part to that legacy of excellence. Eliminate elites, and it just becomes another race. It would fray the fabric of the event until one day it would break, and people would no longer associate your name with excellence.
“But even if you look at the event as purely a business, eliminating elites would be a bad business decision. You are caretakers of your own legacy, and like it or not, this is what you are. And you don’t want to disavow that. You have to know who you are, and where you come from. And from that standpoint, running is not simply a business.”
Three years ago Detroit native and former 2:45 marathoner Barahal inaugurated a new sister event for the marathon, a half marathon titled The Hapalua, Hawaii’s Half Marathon. Run in the spring, The Hapalua doesn’t yet have the sponsorship or funding that the marathon does. Yet Barahal still wanted to keep an elite competitive aspect to the event.
“We knew we wanted to be world-class,” he said. “So what are the components that go into making a world-class event? These are the questions you have to ask yourself. The first thing we wanted to do was to differentiate ourselves from the dozen or so other half-marathons on Oahu. So, first you want to achieve outstanding athletic performance that is far and away better than what any other surrounding race can possibly achieve. Second, you want to be a destination event with state-of-the-art aid stations, timing, medals, start and finish, tee shirts, swag, etcetera. And third, you want to be a good community partner and have a top charitable contribution. But even if you achieve the second two, you won’t be world-class without elite athlete performance. In the end, you want to embrace what you inherited. Your tradition and legacy is what made you. Without it you are just a fun run.”