Honolulu, Hi. – With the continuing domination of East African runners, the task of connecting today’s pro runners to thousands of citizen runners is more challenging than ever.
This Sunday The Hapalua, Hawaii’s Half Marathon will contest its sixth running. Between 8500 and 9000 runners will participate, a bump up from the 7600 who ran in 2016, marking the fifth straight increase from the original 2000 who ran in the inaugural 2012 race.
But from its inception The Hapalua has established itself not just as another jog-a-thon following in the wake of a professional foot race. No, The Hapalua has been an industry innovator in the tricky sphere of athlete connectivity.
With its unique Chase format pitting four invited professionals against 22 of the islands’ top runners The Hapalua has found a way to make the competition world-class and locally relevant all at the same time.
22 Team Hawaii runners are assigned head starts ranging from 6 to 22 minutes before the three pro men give chase. This year the six minute group will include 2013 World Championship Marathon bronze medalist and three-time Japanese Olympian Kayako Fukushi. Then at 6 a.m. the three male pros, Kenyans Abraham Kipyatich and Phillip Tarbei, along with Japan’s Yuki Yagi head out on the hunt. Then it’s the first runner across the line in Kapiolani Park who wins the $5000 first prize check, scaling to 10th meaning minimum six Team Hawaii runners are guaranteed a payday.
Last year 2004 Olympic 5000 meter silver medalist Isabella Ochichi of Kenya utilized her 7:00 head start to become the first female pro to take the title in an adjusted time of 63:37. Japanese male pro Ryotaro Otani was second with a 3:00 adjusted 64:38, followed by 17 year-old Iolani High School senior Amanda Beamon in third whose 20-minute head start netted her 65:23. The two pro Kenyan men, former marathon world record holder Patrick Makau and Erick Kibet could do no better than fourth and fifth in a scratch time of 65:35.
The Hapalua and its Chase were conceived by Honolulu Marathon Association president Jim Barahal, who has headed the HMA since 1987.
“I’m calling it the second biggest sporting event in Hawaii,” said Barahal. “Our marathon in December is number one, but with the NFL Pro Bowl now gone, The Hapalua has moved up.”
In 2012 The Hapalua began with 2000 runners and only 100 coming from off-island. With a field of 8500-9000 this year, The Hapalua continues its annual increase, including a growing off-islands presence from Japan and the mainland USA.
“We will have nearly 3000 runners from outside Hawaii this year,” says Barahal, mirroring the strong Japanese participation that makes the Honolulu Marathon in December one of the top economic impact events in all of running, well in excess of $100 million as determined by studies conducted by Hawaii Pacific University.
Two weeks after The Hapalua Barahal will address the Hawaii Society of Business Professionals on the question: Is there potential to grow sports events as a component of Hawaii’s economy?
In a word, says Barahal, the answer is yes.
“I gave a talk in China on the same subject last June,” says the 2015 inductee into the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame, and HMA prez since 1987. “And the gist of my talk is that running is especially enticing from an economic standpoint.”
The six main points Barahal lists are:
1. The running demographic is highly desirable,
2. The events have a very small environmental impact,
3. Resources consumed are very small,
4. The events showcase the locale in an editorial way that stadium-based events can’t,
5. No infrastructure is required,
6. Events are repeatable annually, not one-offs.
“Hawaii staged the NFL Pro Bowl for years,” Barahal explained. “And it did generate an economic impact, but it cost the state $5 million to bring it here. Our events represent astonishing economic impacts while in many ways being taken for granted.
“For whatever reason the feeling is anybody can put on a marathon. So the barrier to entry is very low. Cities don’t understand the skill level or integrity needed to put on a high-quality running event. Not all of them value it as a franchise, because municipalities are democracies and they’re always worried about lawsuits. So they have a tendency to give permits without doing due diligence, which jeopardizes the value of legacy events.
“I’ve always felt that there should be a bond put down for any new events, because you need a barrier to entry. And if the barrier is too low you make yourself susceptible to people who come in and scam the city and public, which gives the whole industry a bad name.”
The trade winds are blowing briskly today. Hawaii’s warm and sunny weather never disappoints, even when the occasional clouds roll in and the rains fall. Soon enough a rainbow will appear and the smiles beam once again.
Down below my hotel lanai an increasing number of runners glide by, glad to be in paradise for one of its signature events. Come 6 a.m. local time the pros will begin chasing the Joes. After winning the first three years, the Joes have succumbed to the Pros the last two years. We will have a closer preview tomorrow after some interviews. Till then.