Honolulu, HI. — The Hapalua, Hawaii’s Half Marathon is quite a mouthful for a race name, especially when you consider it was born out of the long-standing and short-named Honolulu Marathon. But with over 6100 entrants signed up for Sunday’s fourth annual Hapalua, the event, and its name, seems to have stuck.
“From a creation point of view, we did something different,” said Honolulu Marathon Association president Jim Barahal. “We created a half-marathon from scratch, and branded it with its own name standing alone from the Honolulu Marathon.”
Not that that was the original idea. At first, Barahal considered a linked name that he thought lent itself to a logo with its own cache. Thus, the Honolulu Marathon Half Marathon would be branded as HM Squared.
“That was an interesting brand,” thought Barahal, who has been president of the Honolulu Marathon Association since 1987. But when he got a little deeper into the project, Barahal Googled the Hawaiian word for half, and it turned out it was Hapalua. That’s when he said, ‘that’s an even nicer name’.
On top of which, no one had ever used the word Hapalua in any context before, because in Hawaii the word people use for half is Hapa, which is the diminutive of Hapalua.
“I don’t think anyone knew there was a longer word,” laughed Barahal. “It took me about two minutes on the phone with an attorney to trademark that name, and we decided not just piggyback on our marathon.”
With the Honolulu Marathon so well established as one of the world’s largest and most iconic marathons, there was some risk in branding the new event as separate and distinct — though the Hapalua logo shares the King’s Runner with the Honolulu Marathon. But Barahal also saw evidence that too close a connection might have its own pitfalls, as well.
“Many marathons that add a half-marathon generally put the two events together,” he concluded. “But then see their half-marathon begin to cannibalize their marathon. When we started the new event we wanted to satisfy three criteria. Not because we were philosophically or emotionally attached, but to be economically successful we needed to incorporate these three criteria.
“Number one, we wanted to be a world-class running event, meaning we wanted world-class competition with fast runners, good amenities and a scenic course. That right there makes it tough, because you can’t do a soft roll out. Those will cost you up front.”
And though they didn’t brand The Hapalua as linked to the Honolulu Marathon, they knew they were the Honolulu Marathon, and had to launch at that level.
“Number two we were going to be a destination event, which I define as more than half the participants travel more than a thousand miles. And number three, we wanted a charitable component. Though there is no official charity, we let any non-profit use the race as a platform.”
At all the early event meetings, Barahal would reinforce those three criteria as a good reminder to his team what their mission was.
“We are four years in now,” continued Barahal. “We’ve had 40% growth on the islands, 50% growth out of Japan, and a 1500% increase in two years from Japan. I’m a little surprised how we’ve stuck with our three criteria. We haven’t had to compromise, though some elements are more successful than others. But Hawaii is a small market, so in order to be world-class we have to reach out. And for us that means Asia, and specifically Japan, because there a lot of half-marathons on the West Coast on the mainland.”
There were 2000 entrants in year one, 3000 in year two and 4000 in 2014. At the front end the competitive brand is what they call The Chase.
“The Chase element is the way to incorporate world-class competition, but with a twist. We knew the East Africans would beat our best local runners by 7 – 10 minutes, and we would all just be standing around the finish line waiting. That would not only embarrass our local runners, it wouldn’t be interesting or exciting, either. At the same time, we didn’t want to build out a huge elite field like for the marathon.”
Thus, the event created The Chase whereby three or four top international runners are pitted against 24 of the islands top runners in a handicapped format.
“We knew about the success of the Gender Challenge idea at the Los Angeles Marathon where the elite men try to chase down the elite women. But we put a twist on it by creating an American Idol thing where an everyman local runner had a chance to win the $5000 first prize. And with our connections to the top managers in the sport, they understood the fun nature of the event.”
In its first three years The Chase winner has come from the ranks of Team Hawaii, which is put together by Barahal and Jonathan Lyau, a top local runner who has won the Kamaaina division of the Honolulu Marathon more than a dozen times, the award that goes to the top islander in the annual December marathon.
Sunday morning the first wave of six Team Hawaii runners will start at 5:40 a.m. along Waikiki Beach. Female chaser Emily Chebet, the two-time IAAF World Cross Country champion (2010 & 2013) will begin with a six minute advantage at 5:54 a.m., while Japanese chaser Taku Harada will be given a four minute advantage. Harada has finished 9th and 7th in the last two Honolulu Marathons.
Two years ago former marathon world record holder Patrick Makau – who is running the Boston Marathon Monday April 20th — ran a gun time of 65:28 at The Hapalua in a drenching downpour, but he finished outside the top ten in The Chase. Last year sub-60 minute half-marathoner Peter Kirui stayed with Makau till past seven miles at a moderate pace before pulling free to go chase Team Hawaii. But because he waited so long to begin his push, he came up just short, catching all but two local women at the Kapiolani Park finish line. This year he promises to push earlier. And with time bonuses on the line, there is an extra incentive to be aggressive.
While Kirui deferred to Makau last year, on Sunday Kirui will have Nicholas Kemboi, a Kenyan born Qatari at his side, a man known as a hard charging front runner. Kemboi holds the fourth fastest 10,000 meter time in history at 26:30, but that time was run more than a decade ago. The Hapalua will be his first competition since dropping out of the Singapore Marathon last November with a back problem. That injury is gone now, and Kemboi is anxious to put his name back into the mix.
Emily Chebet is coming off a silver medal at the 2014 African Championships and a bronze at the Commonwealth Games. She is tentatively reaching out toward the marathon, and The Hapalua will give her a good test at a longer distance with no real pressure. Last year Kenyan Isabella Ochichi, an Olympic silver medalist in Athens `04, finished fourth in The Chase, nine seconds behind Kirui with a gun time of 70:24.
There is a meet and greet this morning at Kapiolani Park where the local entrants can jog a lap of the park with the international chasers. We’ll see how long they can stay on pace.