Friday, December 14, 2007

I've got a little bit of time this Aloha Friday, so I thought I'd post some more about the 2007 Honolulu Marathon...

Earlier, I'd mentioned that the marathon was not nearly as organized as the reunion area of the 2006 Marine Corp Marathon. If you were there, you remember the strangling, stifling, claustrophobic feeling of 20,000 tired, sweaty runners and their families funneling over a small bridge in Arlington. It was awful, and we missed the entire post-race festival as a result.

Today in the Honolulu Advertiser was this story. Now, I'm not sure how to explain this to race planners, but runners' times are very important. This cannot be overstated. The NBA may as well play without scoreboards.

But the truth is most of the twenty-four thousand or so of us out there are just running to finish. We all have watches, we all know it takes 10 or 15 minutes to even reach the start line after the gun goes off, so we just laugh it off. Unfortunately, the timing fiasco wasn't what bothered me about the race.

First I'll say I was prepared for the rain, it is Hawaii after all. I was ready for the sweltering conditions, which Galloway says adds about twenty minutes to your time, on average. I was even prepared for my own unpreparedness! I knew that I wasn't particularly ready for this one, having only gone fifteen miles as my furthest training run, but I'd been pretty active altogether for the past few months, and so I thought I'd take it easy on this race and integrate the Galloway walking breaks, which I'd never tried before.

I'd run five minutes and then walk one minute, the idea being that you don't wear yourself out early on, and still have something to run with in the second half. Let me tell you: it works! Though I doubt I will adopt the Galloway method as a whole (I like to run) I believe I will utilize it in future training runs. His theory is sound, though it sounds crazy at first. Walk more, run faster and further. If you don't buy it, try it. (I'm not going to be able to convince you.) His swell book is here. It's worth every penny.

Galloway won the first Honolulu Marathon years ago, incidentally. There were, like, 500 runners and 200 finishers. Today the marathon has swelled to one of the top five biggest in the world. The reason for this is all the Japanese folks that make an event out of it. Honolulu is a big vacation destination for the Japanese, and it turns out that there are very few marathons in Japan that are open to everyone (you must have a qualifying time). All these multitudes running together is one of the things that makes a marathon fun, so I was looking forward to it, and I knew there were going to be a lot of Japanese running in it, but... WOW. Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day was just a few days previous. 50 years ago you would never have imagined such an event in Hawaii, of all places.

But unfortunately, the event organizers cut corners by catering the race to the Japanese culture and seemingly have little experience with how marathons are run stateside. The Honolulu Marathon's biggest sponsor is Japan Airlines (JAL) and JAL puts together group packages for their patrons. At the finish line, for example, is a big JAL tent with masseuses and hot meals and plentiful first aid -it looks wonderful! Of course, they wouldn't let me in. Either I was too white and too tall, or I didn't have the JAL tour-group wristband. JAL actually had party tents along the course, too (okay, "running stations") which we homely folk were also not allowed into. It was a demoralizing sight, really, to see all of these exclusive tents. At the finish festival there were numerous groups like JAL that were happy to help their own, but all I got was a couple of dry, sugarless cookies and a Red Delicious apple. I hate Red Delicious. Too mushy.

This is exacerbated by the fact that when you crossed the finish line, you were handed (handed!) a cheap shell lei, not unlike the kind you get at the airport, or Hilo Hattie's if you spend over 3 bucks. No medal. I almost cried. Then you're immediately greeted by the "Volunteer Lunch Tent" with their plates of kalua pork and rice and a side of fresh soup, but you are hereby directed across a parking lot and through a large muddy field to the "Runner's Tent" to get your paltry ration.

Then (if you can find it) you stumble to a tent on the far side of the festival, past all the private parties, where they hand you your T-shirt. Only finishers get T-shirts in this race, which I find amusing (the shirts all say "Honolulu Marathon Finisher" on the front.) At the convention (which was also relatively threadbare given the size of the event) they hand you a near-empty bag, and then another bag, and then more bags. I guess the Japanese like bags. I must say I was relieved to finally get an actual medal, however, at the T-shirt tent. It was an unattractive key fob in a plastic baggie that I immediately unwrapped and tied to my shell lei -as walking around post-marathon without a medal around your neck is really depressing. It was a bummer not to get the friendly "Congratulations!" from a volunteer, like I'm used to. And there's no hanging out on the beach and jumping in the Pacific for a cool dip -the finish "festival" is cut off from the ocean by the last mile of the course, which is fenced in.

That last mile was a tough one, too, as you see the FINISH banner hovering there in the distance, straight ahead of you. It's a tough course. There's the humidity and the rain that's expected of the tropics, but the start time is also at 5AM, which means we woke up at 2:30 or so to get down there. It's not so bad if you're from the mainland, really, because of the time change, but still! Anyway, the reason for this is to avoid the heat, and this is appreciated, but more than half of the runners expect to finish beyond the five hour mark, which would land them square in the middle of the afternoon at their most tired. There is no no cut-off time for this race. You run past A LOT of people.

As well, the race goes up and over Diamond Head about six miles into it (quite a hill) and then up and over it again at mile 25! SUCK! Miles ten through 22, more or less, are on the same road running right next to each other, so it's just a long straightway out and back, watching everyone coming at you. Some people don't mind this, but I find it irritating in a long run, just going straight forever and then making a U-turn. (Oh well, it's an island. I guess I can't expect much.) Sure you run along Waikiki beach for the first few miles in the beginning, but remember: it's pitch dark and you can't see a thing. You may as well be running past a thousand naked supermodels beneath the Eiffel Tower, it don't matter.

So it's not the best course. When I finished, I felt like I just crashed somebody else's party all excited-like, and then found that I didn't know anyone there. Hordes were still crossing the finish line three hours later when I was down on the strip at a restaurant having a beer. (No, there was no beer garden, and no, I did not get a free cocktail when I showed them my finishers shirt.)

All that being said, I am, of course, stoked that I ran it. Every marathon is great, and doing one in Hawaii was a terrific novelty. I will never forget standing in line for a Port-a-John at 4AM when the rain started coming down in sheets under those 10 million candlepower lights rigged up on the cranes. I was glad I'd plopped down 25 bucks for a hat at the Nike booth the day before.

And yes, there were not nearly enough Port-a-Johns at the start line. We all waited in line for over a half an hour, and I felt bad for the long line behind me, as we had only a few minutes to spare before gun time.

I will also remember the fireworks -which were pretty cool. We were standing there, a head taller than everyone as far as the eye could see, and there were a few BANGs and POPs, and you look up and see the lights exploding in the sky, betwixt downpours. Sleepy vacationers ventured out onto their Waikiki verandas high above the crowds to watch, and then we began to amble forward. There was no national anthem. Announcements came over loudspeakers in Japanese. They were followed by announcements in English, equally unintelligible.

I will also never forget running down the boulevard as the rain POURED down on us, shuffling through the puddles. The recently placed Christmas lights of the city reflected some life in the otherwise empty streets, and all the many thousands of us ran silently forward, the sound of a million synchronized foot-splashes ahead and behind. You could see the rain falling from great heights, and there were few spectators at such an early hour, and we ran silently forward. The lack of speaking may have been a cultural thing, or we may all have been miserable beyond words, but it was 75 degrees and we were in Hawaii and we were 3 miles into a marathon. It generally makes one quiet down.

Something I will never forget: there was one quick-deliver Japanese restaurant full of employees, out on the sidewalk of the storefront. They appeared to have taken a break from the early cooking of the day's sustenance for the needy masses of tourists, and they were out on the street in the rain, banging pots with ladles and spoons. They were laughing and cheering us on. I remember thinking of those moments of levity from my own days working at restaurants, and here I was, years later, in a very different place. It took my mind off the daunting pain for a moment, and it was awesome.

There weren't very many spectators, actually, which was really a disappointment. The early hour combined with the rain, and who knows what else, just didn't lend itself to it. I've run other races where the streets were lined with folks happily cheering you on all 26.2 miles, but this was not one of them. It was unfortunate, but oh well. You can't expect it. That's not what you run for.

This was my ninth marathon. It's amazing how different they all are, and yet all equally unforgettable. One of the big reasons I keep doing it is because it's new and different every time, and yet I still hit the finish line with that feeling of having reached an unimaginable height, having accomplished what few attempt. It's the only sport in the world where you are competing with the professionals in the exact same event! It's the equivalent of playing an NBA game with Michael Jordan, or golfing in a tournament with Tiger Woods. You may not be as good as them in the competition, but the fact that you were willing to try at all... it's like Tiger saying, "Come on in!" as he hands you a club, or Magic just tossing you the ball.

I passed the lead runner about halfway through the marathon, actually. Okay, so he was going the other direction, but still! He is The Best in the sport, and I was only an hour behind him. At least I tried. I finished a marathon before 9:30AM last Sunday morning. Half the people I know were still in their jammies.

That's something.