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, 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
2007 – Marrakech 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
2010 – Mayor’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 4th largest marathon in the country – behind NYC, Chicago & Boston – Honolulu hosts more than 20,000 runners each December. With its proximity to Japan, the majority of those runners are Japanese. After running it 5 times in the past few years, I’ve got my 5-day Honolulu experience down to a science.
10-hour flight from Atlanta to Honolulu, arrival at hotel just in time to watch the sunset with a mai-tai, then straight to bed. Staying as close as possible to home time until race day makes it MUCH easier to get up at 2:30am!
5am: Up early for a brisk walk to Diamond Head followed by a hike to the top for the panoramic views
9am: Race Expo!
5pm: Night-before-race carb-up meal of choice (pad thai for me – who needs spaghetti?)
6pm: Sunset, then lights out
Day 3 RACE DAY!!
2:30am: Wake-up call
2:30-3:30am: Race prep – shower, start hydrating (water/powerade), carbs/protein (bagel w/peanut butter), band-aids on toes (proven blister preventer)
3:30am: Walk to finish line to catch shuttle to start line
4:15am: Arrival at start line…STRETCH & WARM UP!!
A Marathon Diary:
Sidebar: For the first time this year I was partially sidelined by a hamstring injury during the last two months of training. It limited my training and I knew it would make for a difficult race. But there was no way I was giving up a trip to Hawaii for a pesky little hamstring injury. So I decided to do the race regardless, take it at a slower pace and walk when I needed to. I knew I could finish and I really didn’t care how long it took. It’s never been about the time for me anyway, just the experience. And what an experience. Without the pressure of the clock, I was able to enjoy the race in a way I never have. Stopping to take photos and video and to soak it all in.
(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: Love 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. A nervous energy is in the air. Seconds before the start, a spectacular fireworks display begins. The start gun sounds and we’re off! 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. Christmas light displays are everywhere especially when we pass America’s only Royal Palace – Iolani Palace, the official residency of Hawaii’s monarchy.
Hamstring Pain: 2
Miles 6-7: Entering the hotel district along Waikiki Beach where crowd support abounds. It’s just after 6am, amazed at how many people have gotten up early to cheer us on.
Hamstring Pain: 3
Enthusiasm: 10 and holding
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)
Mile 11: Course merges onto Kalanianaole Highway and 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 use the opportunity to check out the competition. At this point, runners on the other side are at Mile 22 so 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. Decide I am OK with these people being 11 miles ahead of me.
Hamstring Pain: 5
Mile 13.1 (halfway!): 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. In scoping 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 layer their sports bras. Still good.
Mile 15: Signs it might be time to pick up the pace. In a 5-minute time span, I saw the following runners on the other side of the road (at Mile 18 – 3 miles ahead):
- 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 my pride.
Hamstring Pain: 6
Enthusiasm Level: 6
Mile 16: Road veers and no longer coming face-to-face with those ahead of me – this is a good thing as it was beginning to take a toll on my ego. Road loops through the residential area of Hawaii Kai for 2 miles and then I find myself on the fun side the road where I’m running face-to face with those a few miles BEHIND me.
Hamstring Pain: 7
Enthusiasm Level: 5
Miles 18-19: Feeling a bit better by realizing just how many people are a few miles behind me. Light rain falling despite not a single cloud in the sky (welcome to Hawaii’s irrational weather). It doesn’t rain hard and with the heat level rising, it is welcome. And as a bonus, when the rain stops a beautiful rainbow appears over the mountains to my right and I am reminded why I run Honolulu and not, say, Detroit. 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 were these guys back at Mile 6 when I was feeling good and could still pull off the 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. 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 or even just 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.
Mile 22: The course starts weaving through some of Waikiki’s best neighborhoods along the beach. Thank God the view improves because at least there is something to take my mind off the pain and heat. 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 really starts.
God bless: The lady outside her house with a tray of mini-pretzels, it is 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 is the sign for Mile marker 23??? Am convinced I have missed it. After Mile 22, I run for what seems like forever but no 23 sign in sight. Obviously, I must have passed it…surely I have gone a mile by now…perhaps the race organizers somehow forgot to get a mile 23 sign?? A mistake at the sign-maker’s shop?? These things happen. But no, just when I start looking for the Mile 24 sign, here comes 23. Good grief. Is this 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 starting the turn back toward Diamond Head. Bad news: Diamond Head = HILLS. It is cruel and unusual punishment to put hills at Mile 24 on a marathon course. Decide Marathon course is obviously designed by Lucifer.
Hamstring Pain: No idea, everything else hurts so bad I can’t remember where my hamstring is.
Enthusiasm Level: Not fit for publication on a family website.
Mile 25: Approaching the finish line and I begin to see finishers milling around, walking back on the course looking for others 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). 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 cogent thought. Anything’s better than the florescent 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): Approaching the finish line, cheering crowds intensify and no matter how much it hurts…can’t help but get a second wind. Raise arms in triumph – smile for the camera – cross the finish line – announcer calls my name – crowd cheers. Bliss.
It is that moment that marathoners live for. In that single moment, all of those early morning runs, blisters and bruised (or lost) toe nails suddenly seem worthwhile. You wonder why you put yourself through the 4 months of training and in an instant you 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
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! 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 and 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.
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.”
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 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.