Neal Milner: What the Honolulu Marathon in Hawaii says


A few days ago, I was talking to my friend Heidi about the upcoming Honolulu Marathon, which will be live and in person for the first time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

She suggested that I write about it because I was present at the creation. I participated in the first Honolulu Marathon, along with only 150 other runners, in December 1973.

The marathon was simple then. It is far from simple today in an understandable way. Still, the modern Honolulu Marathon makes me nostalgic and a little sad.

I want to reflect on what the marathon has become, how what it has become reflects what Honolulu has become in the almost 50 years since that first race.

I remember very little about that 1973 race, not because it was so blurry, but because things were so ordinary.

Rather, it was a very long, hard and calm Sunday race with a small group of runners, many of whom, like me, didn’t really know what we were doing.

There were aid stations, but they were silent aid stations. And there was no crowd.

The race was in its own way very well organized, but the organization was not at the center of things. The start looked like a small group of people scurrying around, preparing for a few laps around Kapiolani Park or a more hilly run around Diamond Head.

One runner was dressed in black socks and dress shoes, which was a bit odd but tame compared to the Mardi Gras costumes and selfie ceremonies that are so much a part of running today.

Upon arrival, we the runners were all given mango bread that one of the runner’s mothers had baked. From there we had to go to the awards ceremony, which took place at Ala Moana Park.

A great accomplishment, but not much.

Today, of course, it’s a big thing, a huge thing.

In recent years, the Honolulu Marathon has looked more like a super event than the little hometown run that it was almost 50 years ago. Cory Lum / Civil Beat / 2015

The number of runners in each recent Honolulu Marathon would almost fill Aloha Stadium. The 1973 group would not have occupied the seats in the cafetorium at Kaiser High School.

The marathon has become a party, a great event, with crowds in the streets, music, a real party and a not-so-small army of volunteers.

I ran a few Honolulu marathons after this first one. I did really well in my second, finishing within minutes of Boston Marathon qualifying time.

“With a little more work, a more organized training plan, I could…”

It never happened. I stopped running marathons because I missed the first one and hated what had become of the Honolulu Marathon.

To say that I hate him is not to say that I criticize him. The race is superb, emotional and taking care of thousands of runners in hot and humid weather, organizing hundreds of volunteers, working with politicians and first responders.

But all this is not me, which brings me back to my two most vivid memories of the 1973 race, which will allow you to understand my admiration for the marathon and my melancholy over what has become of it.

First memory: Joy was pregnant with our second child. The due date was two weeks after the race, but four years earlier almost to the day, our son was suddenly born a month earlier, very surprisingly and very quickly.

What if Joy went into labor while I was taking the class? Well, not much on my end.

It is not me. I don’t want to be part of a crowd. The hype, cheers, noise and camaraderie of being face to face with dozens of runners make me uncomfortable.

Our plan, if you could call her, was this: If she would give birth, she would call 911 and ask the police to find me. During the race, I registered myself by calling her once, from the bank of public telephones in front of the Aina Haina fire station.

Crazy and about as likely to be successful as – okay, I’ll say it – rail.

Picture a Honolulu Police Department SWAT team van, flashing blue lights, driving down the Kalanianaole highway looking for a skinny guy 9 mins per mile in a pair of good imported Japanese running shoes market and out of date. Lassie had a much better chance of finding Timmy, no matter what deep well this cute, carefree little boy had fallen.

(By the way, at that time the ambulance parked in that fire station in front of the payphones was one of those pre-EMT, hearse-like Cadillacs you see in old black films. .)

I remember it very well because it is such a strong reminder of what Hawaii was like back then. I miss those times when you couldn’t be constantly followed, alerted and informed.

It is now a relief – a luxury – hard to find.

My other memory is losing myself. I ran most of the race with my friend Jim who convinced me to run a marathon because we would have a free T-shirt.

For most of the race, there were few or no other runners within earshot. Near the 16 mile mark, roughly where the Hawaii Kai Safeway store is now located, Jim said, “we haven’t seen another runner in a long time.”

It turns out we were lost. Regardless of the logistics, we took the wrong turn and shouldn’t have been on this road at all.

Jim and I pulled over, figured out our mistake, made some racing pants seat calculations, and decided that the distance on our accidental route was about the same as the actual route.

We also decided that – big surprise – we weren’t in the running. Plus, no one would ever know or even care. (In fact, there is no official list of graduates from 1973).

So much space between the riders, so quiet, and on what I remember at the time was a new road bordered almost entirely by wasteland. There were also vacant lots in Hawaii Kai and on the highway. Hawaii Loa Ridge was just a ridge.

It was that kind of day in that kind of place.

I believe in the mission of the Honolulu Marathon as a popular race that adapts to huge crowds of runners. It’s superbly organized. And as his organizers had hoped, he’s improving people’s health by showing them how to get off their okoles and run. You cannot have lived here without knowing someone like this.

But it’s not for me. To enjoy running in these modern marathons, you need to savor the crowds, thrill to the noise and enjoy being managed.

It is not me. I don’t want to be part of a crowd. The hype, cheers, noise and camaraderie of being face to face with dozens of runners make me uncomfortable.

Increasingly, crowds and their management have also become a staple of life in Honolulu. This is what happens when a small town, like Honolulu in 1973, becomes a big city.

Density of housing, crowded streets, large shopping centers and big box stores replacing the merchants of the district, the noise of the road invading the benches among the exotic trees of Foster Gardens.

Honolulu now looks like the Honolulu Marathons of the 21st century and not at all like the 1973 race.

Getting lost is a good thing. All alone in a quiet place. Find your way in your own good times.


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