Honolulu, HI – The Honolulu Marathon may not be a World Marathon Major, but it is a major world marathon. Now in its 47th year, the island classic began as more of an end-of-the-season lark for the handful of top local runners and a few island hopping elites brought over by their shoe company sponsor. Winning times would generally fall just under 2:20 for men and 2;40 for women. But it was always a fun time, more than a fast time.
Then something happened, and over the last 30 years Honolulu has become a springboard for some of the greatest marathoners of the modern era who used the Honolulu Marathon as a proving ground for greater glory on the world stage.
Kenya’s Ibrahim Hussein was the first Kenyan champion in Honolulu, winning three straight from 1985 to 1987. More than that, the University of New Mexico grad twice broke the Honolulu course record, slashing three-plus minutes off Dave Gordon’s 1982 mark of 2:15:30 with a 2:12:08 in 1985, then slicing another 25-seconds off in 1986.
Before Hussein, the assumption was that Kenyans did not possess the discipline for the marathon distance. Attacking 26 miles as if it were 10K road or 12K cross country event, Kenyan athletes flamed out well before the finish lines of marathons far and wide.
Think of that assumption today, considering the last three decades of marathon domination that have emerged from training camps in and around the towns of Eldoret and Iten in the Central Highlands of Kenya.
Hussein became the first Kenyan to win the New York City Marathon in 1987, then duplicated that first with three wins in Boston in 1988, ‘91, & ’92.
Once shown the right path, the rail thin tribesman of Kenyan instantly sprang to the winners’s circles wherever they ran. Japan-based Kenyan Cosmas Ndeti finished a close second in Honolulu in 1992 in his marathon debut (to his cousin Benson Masya) and then won the 1993, 1994, & 1995 Boston Marathon.
But it wasn’t just the Kenyan runners who brought their winning experiences in Honolulu to the majors. South Korea’s Bong ju-Lee won the 1993 Honolulu laurel before earning the silver medal at the 1996 Olympic Marathon in Atlanta behind 1995 Honolulu champion Josiah Thungwane of South Africa. Bong ju- Lee also won the 2001 Boston Marathon.
And most recently, 2016 & 2017 Honolulu champion and course record holder (2:08:27) Lawrence Cherono won the 2019 Boston and Chicago Marathon titles in electrifying fashion, waiting till the final meters in both Abbott World Marathon Majors to unleash his winning kick.
On the women’s side, 2016 & 2017 Honolulu champion and course record holder (2:22:15) Brigid Kosgei of Kenya destroyed the women’s marathon world record in Chicago this October, running 2:14:04 to rip 81 seconds off the old mark of 2:15:25 held by England’s Paula Radcliffe since 2003.
This year in Honolulu defending champion Titus Ekiru of Kenya may take aim at Cherono’s course record if the weather cooperates. And three days out, the forecast shows good conditions ahead on Sunday, similar to those in 2017 when both men’s and women’s records fell.
Ekiru will look to improve on his 2:09:01 time from last year, which was the second fastest in Honolulu history. This year he set a big PB winning the Milan Marathon in April in 2:04:46, three minutes faster than his win in Seville, Spain in 2017.
What stands out for the All Africa Games Half Marathon champion from this August – which he won by 1:02 – is his tuneup half marathon in Lisbon, Portugal on 20 October. There he cruised to another personal best of 60:12, an ideal tuneup for this Sunday’s Honolulu Marathon.
On the women’s side, fellow Kenyan Betsy Saina, fifth place finisher at the 2016 Olympic Games 10,000 and former NCAA 10,000 and cross-country champion from Iowa State, hopes to build on her personal best from the Toronto Marathon on October 20th where she ran 2:22:43 finishing in third place.
That performance came a week after she dropped out of the Chicago Marathon after suffering food poisoning on her trip from Kenya through Dubai to Chicago.
Now, after a five-week training stint in Flagstaff, Arizona, Betsy is hoping to follow in the footsteps of Brigid Kosgei and all the other Honolulu champions who took on the world from the winner’s’ circle in Honolulu.
Don’t bet against either Betsy or Titus if things fall into place this Sunday in Honolulu. After all, history will be on their side.