Hawaii: In the footsteps of the king's runners

By Frank Liew

Frank Liew savours the pain and the pleasure of competing in the Honolulu Marathon.

Runners participate in the Honolulu Marathon. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user schacon
Runners participate in the Honolulu Marathon. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user schacon

There aren't too many consolations when you wake up at 2am on a Sunday morning. As you stare at the ceiling the reality of the coming day hits you - you're about to undertake one of the most gruelling physical activities known to man. That's when you begin to smile, because you realise that you'll be running a marathon in one of the most magical settings in the world, Honolulu.

Held every year on the second Sunday of December, the JAL Honolulu Marathon is campaigned by more than 20,000 runners. A large number come from Japan and a growing contingent is from New Zealand, Australia, Asia and the Pacific nations.

It's a big deal for the island city and is held during the busiest time of year for its tourism and hospitality industries. Started in 1973, the Honolulu Marathon enjoyed phenomenal growth to reach a peak of almost 35,000 runners in 1995.

Touted by many as the best "off-season" marathon because of Hawaii's year-round mild climate and stunning locale, it's also a favourite for many tackling their first full marathon thanks to its primarily flat course and relaxed aloha atmosphere.

From the moment you arrive in Honolulu in early December, signs welcome runners to the event and reps hand out pamphlets. As you drive through the city, especially the busy Waikiki tourist area, the atmosphere is buzzing.

Stores are open until midnight, sales are on everywhere, and dozens of restaurants and shops run marathon specials, from marathon carbo-loading menus to discounts on running gear.

If you're not a big shopper, there are plenty of ways to calm your nerves before the run, whether it's lounging by the beach, hiking up Diamond Head, catching a lazy wave, or strolling along the waterfront.

On the morning of the big day, getting to the start line is an event in itself. Shuttles deliver runners to the staging area, where you're confronted by a sea of bodies. Runners of all ages crowd the start on Ala Moana Boulevard, one of Honolulu's main waterfront roads.

The atmosphere is like nothing I'd experienced; a mixture of smiles and nerves as groups of runners reassure each other and perform their warm-up exercises. As the counter slowly approaches 5am, the MC whips the crowd into a frenzy before the starting gun is fired and fireworks explode over the runners as they surge forward.

At first the course meanders along the waterfront before turning into the downtown area past the famous Aloha tower, weaving through Chinatown and past other iconic Honolulu landmarks - the Iolani Palace and the bronze statue of King Kamehameha, the first King of Hawaii and founder of the Kingdom.

If you believe the urban tales, the marathon course follows the footsteps of the "King's runners", who ran barefoot along a coastal route to deliver and receive messages in the 18th century. A handful of people recreate this run, barefoot and in native Hawaiian garb.

After the first 8km, the course finds its way on to the infamous Kalakaua Ave and past Waikiki Beach, Honolulu's Fifth Avenue. You run past luxury boutiques, the statue of Duke Kahanamoku (godfather of surfing and aloha ambassador) and 5-star hotels accompanied by the cool morning sea breeze.

After rounding Kapiolani park, you head into the first climb, up and around Diamond Head Crater before heading towards the affluent Kahala area at the 15km mark. From there, it's a scenic run down the main highway all the way along the coast to Hawaii Kai at the eastern end of Oahu, passing the 21km halfway mark as the sun rises. The course loops around Hawaii Kai before doubling back on the highway, where you head back towards the Kahala region at the 30km mark.

Thousands of onlookers with signs crowd the side of the course, cheering you on and passing out the odd treat - shots of cola, candy and running fuel.

At this point you have to dig deep to push yourself through the last 12km. Helping to distract you are the colourful characters on the course - runners in lycra costumes, Pacific warriors and a disproportionate number of Japanese senior citizens, including an 82-year-old man tackling his 12th marathon.

The course turns around Kahala Ave, home to Oahu's most opulent (and weird) homes, before trudging back up Diamond Head at the 40km mark.

By this point, the sun is out in full force and once you reach the top of Diamond Head, you'll enjoy spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean. It's a magical moment, and you can't help but break into a smile. As you descend into the final kilometre towards the finish chute the crowd becomes increasingly dense, yelling and screaming to help push you through the final stage.

Crossing the finish line is something that I still find hard to describe. You feel a flood of emotions - calm, relief, anger, sadness, happiness, dread, excitement.

I'm sure there's some biological explanation involving endorphins and adrenalin, but over-riding all those is an intense feeling of accomplishment that rushes through your veins, like no high you've ever experienced. It's at that moment you understand how long-distance running can become addictive.

I didn't hit my target time of 4 hours 30 minutes, instead crossing the line at 5.20 after developing some nasty hamstring cramps at the 25km mark.

For those wary about finishing it, the Honolulu marathon doesn't close until the last person crosses the finish line. The last finisher in 2011 clocked in at 14 hours. I'd bet money that they were grinning from ear to ear.

It's not hard to smile in Hawaii. The people's aloha spirit permeates every facet of their lives, and the marathon is no exception.

The experience of trudging through 42km may seem daunting, but making that distance solely under your own steam, in one of the world's most beautiful locations, is an experience like no other in the world. See you at the start line this year.

Tips for first-time marathon runners:

* Relax. No one's ever ready to run 42km.

* Getting to the finish line is an accomplishment in itself, no matter what your time. Be proud of that.

* Try to find a hotel close to the finish line. Trust me, after 42km, the last thing you want to do is to walk back to your hotel.

* Pace yourself. It's your first marathon, so the goal is simply to finish it. Don't be a hero, otherwise you'll spend months after paying for it.

* Try to run with a partner or a friend. It helps, a lot.

* Hi Five everyone who offers it. I have no idea why, but it helps.

* Make sure you bring adequate running fuel. Five or six packs should be sufficient. Try to knock one back every 45-60min.

* Use all the drink stops. If you don't, by the end of it you'll wish you had.

* Drive the course before running it. Half your mental strength comes from visualising yourself running past certain landmarks.

* After 30km, stop looking at the mile/km markers. Just try to visualise the rest of the course.

* At 40km, don't worry, the guy/girl next to you is hurting as much as you are. They're just better at disguising it.

TRAVELLERS' TIPS

Getting there: Air New Zealand and Qantas operate frequent flights to Honolulu during the marathon period, although it may pay to book your trip earlier than the high traffic tourist season in December. There's no direct route but you can put together a trip on Jetstar via Sydney.

Where to stay: Many hotels will offer Honolulu marathon stay packages. Look online for the best deals.

Getting around: Rent a car if you can. It pays to drive the marathon course and will be useful in exploring the rest of Honolulu and Oahu.

Hawaii's top 5:

Kim Payne of Premium Travel Wellington loves visiting Hawaii and shares her top tips on things to do:

1. Hire a convertible and cruise the sights. Oahu is easy to drive around and if you pre-book a car in New Zealand, it will be cheaper.

2. Visit or stay at the beautiful Turtle Beach. It's a resort on the north of Oahu, away from the hustle and bustle and where the movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall was filmed.

3. Buy some shortbread from the Honolulu Cookie Company. Each store has free samples. My favourite is the chocolate-dipped macadamia.

4. Stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables at the Whole Foods Market supermarket. Pack a bag of goodies and have a picnic on the beach.

5. Learn to surf at Waikiki. There are lots of surf schools to choose from, and local surf legends to give you tips.

For more information on travelling to Hawaii, contact Kim and the team at Premium Travel Wellington on 0800 22 87 46 or email premiumtravel@flightcentre.co.nz

- Herald on Sunday

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