Honolulu, Hi – Now in his 32nd year as the president of the Honolulu Marathon Association, Dr. Jim Barahal is the longest serving CEO among the world’s top marathons. During his tenure Honolulu has grown from 10,000 entrants into the fourth largest marathon in the United States.
This week over 34,000 runners and walkers will take to the streets of Honolulu in three separate events, the Kalakaua Merrie Mile on Saturday, then the Start to Park 10K and the 46th Honolulu Marathon on Sunday morning. We sat down with Jim at the marathon expo at the Hawaii Convention Center yesterday to talk about marathon business and sport.
JB: The challenge for us as the fourth largest marathon in the United States is we have the smallest metropolitan area of all the big marathons. New York, Chicago, Boston, we will never be as big as the very biggest races, and Los Angeles and Houston and Marine Corps in Washington DC also have much bigger markets to draw from than Honolulu. So for a long time our second market has been Japan. But there have been changes in that market in recent years with the rise of new citizen marathons, and that’s created big competition for us.
In the past, all the Japanese marathons were elite only. So the opportunity for average runners in Japan came here in Honolulu. But now, with other opportunities back home, we’ve had to make somewhat of an adjustment. How do we not only survive but thrive? What happen for us is we had to find growth beyond the marathon without cannibalizing the marathon.
All marathons now have other events on race weekend. But if you have a half marathon, you find it begins to overshadow the full marathon. So we asked several years ago, do we want a half marathon? And we decided to begin a new, not companion half marathon which we call the Hapalua which is in April. It’s now in its eighth year and it’s been very successful. We have over 10,000 runners at the Hapalua and it’s become another destination event for Japanese runners. About 2500 of our Hapalua runners come from Japan. But that didn’t address the first week of December.
The trend in running has been away from fast running toward participation. To stay competitive, you have to attract novice runners looking for an experience.
We realized two years ago, serendipitously, that on our course the first 10K basically ends at the marathon finish line in Kapiolani Park. That meant we could put on a 10K within the marathon and everyone could begin together, because the 10K is non competitive. So it becomes an event with in the event.
We ask our runners in the marathon and 10k to predict their finishing time, and then we integrate the 10K runners within the grid of Marathoners based on their pace per mile. So the three-hour marathoners and the 40-minute 10k people start together. They have different bibs but with the same color based on pace. And because the 10K is timed but not competitive, they’re all mixed in together.
One of the unique things about the Honolulu Marathon is that we do finish at the park and we are there for hours. And we have a festival, food and bands. Unlike other major marathons where you finish on a city street. So our 10K people get to be at the start and experience the excitement of the fireworks – it’s a real buzz to be at the start of a major marathon. Then they get a finisher medal and shirt. Frankly, it’s blown up beyond anything we could’ve thought. We think we will have 10,000 people in this event in two years.
TR: How do you stay relevant in the elite end of the sport with warm weather and a tough course when fast times are all the rage?
JB: We love being on the front page and we like being on the feature page, too, but we want to make sure we stay on the sports page. We still look at the marathon as a sporting competition. In the last two years, we’ve been the fastest marathon in the United States. This year our last two years’ champions Lawrence Cherono and Brigid Kosgei have graduated to the majors.
I recently saw the movie First Man about Neil Armstrong on the moon. And even in its day, it raised a lot of questions about why are we as a country doing space exploration when there are so many other pressing needs down here? Well, I’ve always felt there’s something in the human spirit that wants to reach out and explore new territory. I think the marathon is like that for people. That’s why the marathon finds you as much as you find the marathon. That becomes their quest, going off into the unknown and finding satisfaction from that.
We think even if people are walking a 15-hour marathon, they can relate to the pros running 2:08 or 2:22. It shows what’s possible on that day on that course, and they feel good about being out there with world-class athletes. But on our course they get to see the pros running by them. 95% of the field see the professionals run by them from mile 17 to 21. And when the professionals are going back up Diamond Head at 25 miles, that is still mile eight heading out, and there are still thousands of people watching the leaders saying, “I’m at mile eight and these guys are already finishing?!”
TR: There has been a real legacy of discovering new marathon talent here, dating back to Ibrahim Hussein winning Honolulu three times in the mid-1980s before going on to become the first Kenyan champion in New York City and Boston.
JB: We were the first marathon to be blessed with a great Kenyan runner, and we still want the best runners we can get. And we like nothing more than to give these young, up-and-coming Africans the opportunity to break through on the world stage. We feel we’re really changing a life there.
Right now, the marketplace for professional runners is changing. More and more races want Americans up there. But for us there a lot of young Kenyan runners that no one ever heard of that we know can break through. So for us, this works well with our philosophy.
The latest examples are Lawrence Cherono and Brigid Kosgei, who won our last two races and set course record both times. They are now at the top level of the sport (Cherono won Amsterdam this year in 2:04:06, Kosgei won Chicago in 2:18:35).
We understand they came here and did great. And we’re happy that they’ve moved on to the majors. And now the next group will come in. This is a time-tested course. If somebody wins Honolulu in a fast time, there is a context to put it in. And the major races see that and know what it means. If a woman can run 2:22 here and break the course record by five minutes, she might be one of the best marathoners in the world. So discovering the next great marathoner is in our DNA. And now we’re extending that philosophy into our Kalakaua Merrie Mile.
TR: Hawaii is a special place, and not just for the tropical weather. The islands and this marathon are world famous for their Aloha spirit.
JB: A real topic of intense discussion around the entire country these days is the concept of the melting pot. Honolulu is a place where it clearly works, a place that has always embraced people from outside. So this race and the people of Honolulu have always embraced the Kenyan athletes. And we think our biggest growth is looking at us right in the face.
Catch all the action live this Sunday on KITV! Starting at 4:55am Hawaii Standard Time (add 2 hours for Pacific time, 4 hours Central time, and 5 hours for Eastern time) , Toni Reavis, Todd Iacovelli, and Robert Kekaula will join a team of KITV reporters as they broadcast live on the race route! kitv.com twitter.com/hnlmarathon/st…