Eat, Pray, RUN: A Honolulu Marathon Diary

Hawaii | Marathons | North America | Other Travels

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Since attempting my first marathon back in 2003, I’ve longed to try to put the unique experience into words. 

So, after finishing my 10th marathon in Honolulu last weekend, I decided the time had finally come to take a stab at it. 

First, a brief recap of the memorable road to 10:

2003 – Honolulu Marathon (first)

2004 – Toronto Marathon (worst weather – 40’s, rain, gusting wind)

2005 – Calgary Marathon (best weather & best time 4:28)

2006 – Rio de Janeiro Marathon (fewest runners – 200 – but most beautiful course)

2006 – Honolulu Marathon

2007Marrakech Marathon (3 words:  carbon monoxide fumes…ugh!!)

2008 – Honolulu Marathon (rained for a week pre-race, finish line reminiscent of the Everglades)

2009 – Honolulu Marathon

2010Mayor’s Marathon Anchorage, Alaska (moose on the course at Mile 22!!)

2010 – Honolulu Marathon

As you can see from the list, the Honolulu Marathon is my all-time favorite and the only one I’ve attempted more than once.

The Honolulu Marathon

The 4th largest marathon in the country – behind NYC, Chicago & Boston – the Honolulu Marathon hosts more than 20,000 runners each December.

With its proximity to Japan, the majority of those runners are Japanese.  After running this race 5 times in the past few years, I’ve got my 5-day Honolulu experience down to a science.

Day 1 – Arrival in Honolulu

The day begins with a 10-hour flight from Atlanta to Honolulu. I arrive at the hotel just in time to watch the sunset with a mai-tai, then it’s straight to bed. 

Staying as close as possible to home time until race day makes it MUCH easier to get up at 2:30am!

Sunset Honolulu Hawaii
Last night sunset before bed

Day 2 – Diamond Head Hike & Race Expo

5am:  Up early for a brisk walk to Diamond Head followed by a hike to the top for panoramic sunrise views. After the hike, stop by the KCC Farmer’s Market for a fresh fruit smoothie.

Note: This is my favorite way to spend my morning on the day after arrival on Oahu!

Read More: 7 Amazing Places in Oahu Hawaii to Make You Forget Traveling Abroad (for now)

9am:  Race Expo! Time to pick up my race number and check out all the running goodies at the expo.

Honolulu Marathon Race Expo
The Race Expo!

5pm:  Night-before-race carb-up meal of choice (pad thai for me – who needs spaghetti?).

6pm:  Sunset (no mai tai this time!), then lights out.

Day 3RACE DAY!!

2:30am:   Wake-up call! Yes, that is early.

2:30-3:30am:  Race prep – shower, start hydrating (water/powerade), carbs/protein (bagel w/peanut butter), band-aids on toes (proven blister preventer).

Honolulu Marathon Race Essentials
Race day morning, ready to go!

3:30am:   Walk to finish line to catch shuttle to start line.

4:15am:   Arrival at start line…STRETCH & WARM UP!!

Important Side Note:  The Injury Report

Before we get to the race, I should mention that for the first time this year, I am partially sidelined by a hamstring injury incurred during the last two months of training. It limited my training and I know it will make for a difficult race.

But there is no way I’m giving up a trip to Hawaii for a pesky little hamstring injury.

I decide to do the race regardless, take it at a slower pace, and walk when I need to. I know I can finish and I really don’t care how long it takes. It’s never been about the time for me anyway, just the experience.

And what an experience! Without the pressure of the clock, I am able to enjoy the race in a way I never have. I stop to take photos and video and just soak it all in.

A Honolulu Marathon Diary: 

And now, the play-by-play.

For the sake of brevity, I will assign a numerical value to both my pain level and enthusiasm level as the race progresses.

The Start Line

I LOVE the start line!!

Honolulu Marathon Start Line
Full of energy and rarin’ to go at the start line!

It’s 4:30am and most of Honolulu is still in bed. But in Ala Moana Park thousands of runners are milling about, stretching, guzzling energy gels, and lining up for the port-a-johns. 

There is a nervous energy in the air.

Seconds before the 5:00am start, a spectacular fireworks display begins (Honolulu is now awake!). The start gun sounds and we’re off!

Honolulu Marathon Fireworks
Fireworks over the start line

Into the streets of Honolulu while fireworks explode overhead. Now it’s just me against 26.2 miles of Hawaiian highway. Well, me and half of Japan.

Hamstring Pain:  2 (the new normal for the past 2 months)

Enthusiasm Level:  10

Miles 1-5

Feeling good and running strong through the streets of downtown Honolulu in the dark of night. It’s December and Christmas light displays are everywhere especially as we pass America’s only Royal Palace – Iolani Palace, the official residency of Hawaii’s monarchy.

Downtown Honolulu Christmas Lights
Christmas lights in downtown Honolulu

Hamstring Pain:  2

Enthusiasm:  10

Miles 6-7

Entering the hotel district along Waikiki Beach where crowd support abounds. It’s just after 6:00am and I’m amazed at how many people have gotten up early to cheer us on.

Hamstring Pain:  3

Enthusiasm:  10 and holding strong

Mile 8

The sun is beginning to rise as wheelchair racers pass us on the opposite side of the road making their way back toward the finish line.

Runners cheer them on despite the fact that we are running straight uphill at this point. I absolutely love this part of the race.

Hamstring Pain:  4 (blame the hill)

Enthusiasm:  12

Mile 11

The course merges onto Kalanianaole Highway.

This stretch of the race is 2-way traffic. For the next 5 miles, the runners on the other side of the road coming at us are at Mile 18-22 of the course as it switches back toward the finish line.

I take the opportunity to check out the competition. I am currently at Mile 11, so the runners on the other side of the road are now at Mile 22. In other words, they are WAY ahead of me.

There are very few of them and the ones I do see all look like they just finished an Iron Man on another island and had some time to kill before the flight home.

I decide I am OK with these people being 11 miles ahead of me.

Hamstring Pain:  5

Enthusiasm:  8

Mile 13.1 – the halfway mark!

Hamstring pain is intensifying and I shift into run/walk mode.

Still keeping an eye on the runners on the other side of the street. They are now at Mile 20 and 7 miles ahead. As I scope them out, they all still look like major athletes. Not a body fat percentage over 3% in the lot.

Notice a few women in the bunch but none that have to double layer their sports bras (like me). Still good.

Mile 15

There are now signs it might be time to pick up the pace.

In a 5-minute time span, I see the following runners on the other side of the road (at Mile 18, 3 miles ahead of me):

  • Someone’s grandmother (who may or may not have been knitting a sweater as she blew past me)
  • Japanese man in full samurai regalia including wooden platform flip-flops
  • Bride wearing wedding dress (race number affixed to her veil)

I shift back into jogging mode – I do have some pride.

Hamstring Pain: 6

Enthusiasm Level:  6

Mile 16

The road veers and I am no longer coming face-to-face with those ahead of me.

This is a plus, it was beginning to take a toll on my ego. The road loops through the residential area of Hawaii Kai for 2 miles and then I find myself on the fun side of the two-way road. I’m now running face-to-face with those a few miles BEHIND me.

Hamstring Pain: 7

Enthusiasm Level: 5

Miles 18-19

Feeling a bit better now that I realize just how many people are a few miles behind me.

Light rain is falling despite not a single cloud in the sky (because, Hawaii). It doesn’t rain hard and with the heat level rising, it is welcome.

As a bonus, when the rain stops a beautiful rainbow appears over the mountains to my right. It is moments like this that I am reminded why I run Honolulu and not, say, Detroit.  

Honolulu Marathon Rainbow
Why you run Honolulu

I stop to take photos, completely unconcerned about time. Sometimes it’s not about the clock. It’s a beautiful sight and boy do I need the pick-me-up because by mile 18, everything hurts.

It’s gut-check time with 8 miles to go.

Hamstring Pain:  9

Enthusiasm Level:  6

Mile 20

Can someone please tell me why are there suddenly race photographers everywhere?

Where the heck were these guys back at Mile 6 when I was feeling good and could still pull off a cute-runner-girl look?

Oh sure, you get to mile 20 where you’re drenched with sweat and clinging to an ice-water-soaked sponge like it’s your last worldly possession and suddenly there’s a photographer every 50 feet.

Honolulu Marathon Mile 20
Honolulu Marathon, Mile Marker 20

Isn’t the idea for people to buy these pictures after the race?

Note to MarathonFoto: People don’t pay for photos of themselves looking a) exhausted b) miserable c) ridiculous or d) all of the above.

That is all.

Hamstring Pain:  9

Enthusiasm Level:  Seriously ticked off   Irritable

Mile 21

A love letter to ice.

My Darling Ice,

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee in a cup with Gatorade or chilling those glorious ice-cold sponges in the barrel. I even love thee straight from the bag at the aid station. Some even love you so much they throw their bodies across bags of you. But for me, simply holding cubes of you in my heat-swollen fingers as I run is enough.

I’m sorry for any bad things I might have ever said about you. Like the time my flight was delayed for de-icing.  I didn’t mean it.

Love always,

Jenny

Honolulu Marathon ice
Runner composing his own love letter to ice

Mile 22

The course begins to weave its way through some of Waikiki’s best neighborhoods along the beach.

Thank God the view has improved because at least it helps take my mind off the heat and the pain coming from my hamstring. The sun is fully up now and the heat is intense.

My legs and lower back begin drawing up divorce papers. They are done with me. Now the praying part starts.

God bless:  The lady outside her house handing out a tray of mini-pretzels. They are exactly what my body is craving right now – carbs and salt.

Shame on:  The guys outside their house offering runners beer from their keg! With the possible exception of a sharp stick in the eye, I cannot think of anything I want less at this particular moment.

Mile 23

Where the hell is the sign for Mile marker 23???

I am convinced I have somehow missed it. After Mile 22, I run for what seems like forever but no Mile 23 sign in sight.

Obviously, I must have missed it. Surely, I have gone a mile by now. Perhaps the race organizers accidentally forgot to get a Mile 23 sign? These things happen.

But no, just when I give up and start looking for the Mile 24 sign, there it is. Mile 23. Just sitting there mocking me.

Good grief. This is possibly what they call “hitting the wall.” Longest. Mile. Ever.

3.2 to go.

Hamstring Pain:  10

Enthusiasm Level:  Waning

Mile 24

Complete and total exhaustion has set in.

But things are looking up. Only 2 miles to go and I’m starting the turn back toward Diamond Head. 

The bad news?  Diamond Head = HILLS.

It is cruel and unusual punishment to put hills at Mile 24 on a marathon course. I decide this Marathon course was obviously designed by Lucifer. Time for more ice.

Honolulu Marathon ice
The ice piles are pretty crowded by Mile 24

Hamstring Pain:  No idea, everything else hurts so badly I can’t remember where my hamstring is.

Enthusiasm Level:  Not fit for publication on a family website.

Mile 25

As I get closer to the finish line I begin to see finishers milling around.

They are walking backward on the course looking for friends and family and cheering people on. They are wearing their finisher medals and carrying the all-important finisher t-shirt (the design of which is one of the marathon’s best-kept secrets).

I struggle to catch a glimpse of the shirt – appears to be teal. Try to decide how I feel about teal but can’t seem to form a coherent thought. Anything’s better than the fluorescent yellow piece of c shirt they handed me at the end of last year’s race.

One more mile and I’ll have my teal shirt. I can do this.

Hamstring Pain:  0 – Thanks to complete loss of feeling below the waist.  Am I still running?

Enthusiasm Level:  Must…have…teal…shirt

The Last Mile…26!

Finally, I am approaching the finish line!

The cheering crowds intensify and no matter how much it hurts…I can’t help but get a second wind. 

I raise my arms in triumph, smile for the camera, and cross the finish line, An announcer calls my name. The crowd cheers.

Honolulu Marathon finish line
The finish line…at last!

Bliss.

It is this moment that marathoners live for. 

In a single moment, all of those early morning runs, blisters, and bruised (or lost) toenails suddenly seem worthwhile.

I wonder why I put myself through the 4 months of training and in an instant I know. The feeling of accomplishment that comes with pushing your body to its absolute limit (on purpose) is something unique to endurance athletes.

And I’m proud to call myself a marathoner.

Hamstring Pain:  Who cares?

Enthusiasm Level:  I am a ROCK STAR

The aftermath: Ice. Food. Mai tai. Repeat.

As I cross the finish line, I’m ushered all the way to the back of Kapiolani Park to pick up my finisher t-shirt – hooray!

My next stop is the snack tent for a celebratory original Hawaiian malasada. It is quite possibly the best thing I have ever eaten.

Malasadas Leonards Oahu Hawaii
Post run treat, a malasada

Then I begin the slow walk back to my hotel.

As I walk, I pass runners who finished way before me and have already showered. They are proudly sporting their finisher t-shirts and looking like a million bucks.

I don’t care for these people. I grimace and continue on.

My love affair with ice continues with the all-important post-marathon ice bath.

How long do you have to stay in the ice bath, you ask?

The general rule is as long as you can stand it.

For me, that’s about 10 minutes. But it does help with the recovery and within an hour, I’m starting to feel human again.

And hungry…ravenously hungry. 

Honolulu Marathon 2010
My teal Honolulu Marathon finisher shirt!

Waikiki after the race

The best part of the Honolulu Marathon is after the race. It’s the only marathon I’ve ever done that literally takes over the city.

For the second Sunday in December each year, Honolulu IS the marathon. Everyone in town is either there to run it or there to support someone who is.

And after the race today, Waikiki is awash in a sea of teal finisher shirts. Congratulations and knowing nods of appreciation are exchanged between runners and a general feeling of post-race euphoria sets in.

Wearing your finisher shirt after the race is akin to wearing a sign that says,

This is why I’m walking this way. Please don’t ask me to walk down a flight of stairs or pick anything up off the ground. Yes, you can bring me another mai tai.”

Mai Tai Dukes Canoe Club Waikiki Hawaii
Post-race Mai Tai at Dukes Canoe Club Waikiki Hawaii

Why run a marathon?

 Less than 1% of the US population has ever finished a marathon.

Those in that 1% run for many reasons. Some as a personal challenge, some to raise money for charity and still others to honor someone they’ve lost.

I’m always moved by these people during the race. Those who’ve raised thousands to support research for leukemia or AIDS. Those wearing a picture of a lost loved one on their shirt.

In this year’s race, I passed a group of soldiers dressed in full combat gear complete with enormous backpacks. They were running to collect money for the families of fallen soldiers.

I have seen them before in the Honolulu Marathon. The first time I didn’t have any money on me, now I know better.

I look for them every year and this year I caught up to them at Mile 6. How they run the entire distance carrying all that gear borders on super-human.

But, oh boy, you should be there to hear the cheers when they cross the finish line. It will restore your faith in humanity. 

I don’t know why I run.

Maybe it’s as simple as the thrill of crossing the finish line. The cheers of strangers. A sense of accomplishment. But if there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that I will run marathons for as many years as my body will allow me.

I’m reminded of an obscure quote from a British writer that has always struck a chord with me:

 The greatest pleasure in life is doing the things people say we cannot do.

Walter Bagehot

Words to live by. 

With marathon #10 now in the books, it’s time for some serious R&R. Next up, a few days in Kauai.

Read more: The Top 5 Best Things to Do in Kauai Hawaii (#1 is a Must!)

One final note, why not try the Honolulu Marathon?

If you’ve ever considered running a marathon, I highly recommend Honolulu. It’s a beautiful course and there’s no finish time limit (the main reason I initially chose it).

And, hey, if you’re going to run 26.2 miles, why not do it in paradise?

2 Comments

  1. Love this! I am training for my first half marathon in February and have dreams of running in big cities around the world. I am so envious of your ability to run full marathons and hope one day I can say that I have completed the Honolulu Marathon

    1. Hi Amanda! Full disclosure, I am a SLOW runner but I really do love it. The race atmosphere is so much fun and there is nothing like the feeling of crossing that finish line completely exhausted. That’s so awesome that you’re training for a half! I’m a firm believer that if you can do a half, you can do a full. For me, the key was finding a first marathon I was excited about (what’s not to love about Honolulu?!) and training with the simple goal of just finishing. That’s also one of the reasons I picked Honolulu, there’s no time limit and I had no idea how long it would take me to finish (almost 6 hours as it turned out!). Good luck with your first half, I bet you’ll be training for a full somewhere fabulous in no time!

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