Kenya’s Philip Tarbei has been running for as long as he can remember.
He ran all through his childhood and during college where he earned a degree in teaching at the Tambach Teacher’s Training College in his home country.
And it didn’t take him long to realize that his natural born gift of speed could very much equate into a vibrant career in the highly competitive profession of long distance running.
So when Tarbei — who is one of ten children and also the first established athlete of his family — turned pro in 2014, one can only imagine the excitement the then 20-year-old must have felt. Tarbei has been running for the Adidas RunCzech Racing Team and ever since, he has produced some jaw-dropping results.
He has achieved a half marathon personal best of 1 hour and 13 seconds at September’s Usti nad Labem Half Marathon in the Czech Republic, and also won the 2017 Napoli Half Marathon in Italy (1:01:21) and the 2017 Hapalua Half Marathon (1:03:27).
For those unfamiliar with fast running times, Tarbei can essentially hold an average pace of 4:36 minutes per mile and do it for 13.1-miles. Basically, smoking fast!
I had a chance to speak with Tarbei during Saturday’s pre-Hapalua Half Marathon Run Social at Kapiolani Park before Sunday’s big race. Unlike the nervous laughter and quick chatter amongst other runners who planned to race in the half marathon, Tarbei smiled shyly while exuding a quiet sense of self-confidence and calmness.
“My plan for this year’s Hapalua is to run a bit faster than last year,” the defending champion said, barely above a whisper. “I hope to do 63 minutes flat. Last year it was very humid but I knew I wanted to run a 63. So this year if it’s humid like last year, then I think I can make good.”
Tarbei said that to specifically train for the Hapalua Half Marathon, he had to put in long training hours in very humid conditions back home in Iten, Kenya.
“For this year’s half marathon event, I typically put in around 95 miles a week, with two days a week focused just on speed work,” the 24-year old said. “I’ve been a professional for four years, so it’s been four years since I began serious training. My personal best is 60:13 in Prague last year. Then two weeks ago I did a 60:48 in Finland. So I’m feeling pretty good.”
Tarbei added that he typically doesn’t feel nervous before any race and already had his strategy set for Sunday’s 13.1-mile footrace.
“I plan to stick with my pacesetter, Daniel (Chebii), until Mile 7 or so,” he said. “We normally do not train together but we are from the same place. By Mile 7, I hope to see some Hawaii runners.”
The Chase format and Team Hawaii
For the inaugural Hapalua race on Oahu in 2012, Jim Barahal, the race director and president of the Honolulu Marathon Association, had an innovative idea to start the Chase Race in conjunction with the mass 13.1-mile footrace.
The idea seemed quite simple. Create a race, within a race, that will result with an exciting and crowd pleasing, grand finale sprint down the straightaway in Kapiolani Park. The top ten runners to cross the finish line would be rewarded with some prize money.
The Chase format also seemed pretty straightforward —gather 24 of Hawaii’s fastest runners who are collectively called “Team Hawaii,” and have them run against world-class runners and Olympians, known as “The Chasers.”
But in reality, no Team Hawaii runner could physically outrun a world-class runner outright, so race organizers determined that they needed to even out the playing field a bit.
Barahal came up with a solution. Why not give Team Hawaii incremental handicapped starting times from the Chasers based off of their most recent race performances? If Team Hawaii were given an accurate handicapped start time ahead of the Chasers, this would fantastically unfold to everyone reaching the final stretch in Kapiolani Park at the same time for an epic sprint off.
Thus, The Chase was created.
Since 2012, Barahal has depended on one of Hawaii’s most accomplished distance runners, Jonathan Lyau, to predict the handicapped times for each Team Hawaii runner.
Lyau, who is a 17-time Honolulu Marathon Kamaaina Champion and a 2009 Honolulu Marathon Hall of Fame Inductee, said that it’s not easy to figure out the handicapped starting times for all 24 runners on Team Hawaii. For this year, the handicaps ranged from 8-24 minutes.
“I look at various races they have run basically from the marathon time (in December) up through March, to get an idea of what their ability is and also what their potential is to run a half marathon,” Lyau said. “You also have to look at who the up and coming runners are, how people have run in the past, and also who has past experience at running in the Hapalua Half. It makes a big difference in knowing this course.
“I also don’t look at whose injured or sick — those are not factors in determining handicaps. As you know, anybody who runs always has some kind of minor injury or sickness and they can always have that excuse. But what I look at is the potential of what someone can run. If they are hurt or injured and cannot run, then really, they shouldn’t run the half marathon. They should be healthy and prepared as best as they can.”
Lyau added that the winning times have been fairly consistent in the past, between 63 to 64 minutes, which helped to give them an idea of what the winning time would be for this year’s race. From there, Lyau said he works his way backwards to create all of the incremental handicaps for Team Hawaii.
It’s not an easy job but somehow, Lyau’s prediction of Team Hawaii’s handicapped times always works, and this year was no different.
The Hapalua, meaning “half” in Hawaiian, has become the most popular 13.1-mile footrace in the State and continues to thrive as a worldwide destination race.
This year, four runners representing Team Hawaii hailed from the Big Island to take part in the prestigious Chase Race — Kailua-Kona’s Bree Wee, Honaunau’s Patrick Stover, Volcano’s Billy Barnett, and myself. The other invitees came from Oahu, Maui, and Kauai.
With each Team Hawaii runner given their own handicapped time from the Chasers, Kenya’s Tarbei and Chebii, it allowed everyone competing in the Chase a legitimate shot at finishing within the top 10 and winning part of an $11,000 prize purse – the winner taking home $5,000.
I found myself seeded in the second group with a 22 minute handicapped start time from the Chasers. With Tarbei winning last year’s race in a whopping 63 minutes, I knew that I would need to run strong from start to finish to give myself a shot at finishing within the top ten.
As I entered Mile 4, I finally saw the first group of women who started ahead and felt more energized than ever. After catching the last runner at Mile 7, I led for the next three miles and thought about how grateful I felt to be invited to this amazing event and maybe this time, I just might get away from the Chasers.
However, during miles 10 and 11, after cresting the steep hill of Monsarrat, it happened to me again. My legs surrendered to cramps and into a crippling walk.
Before I knew it, everyone came flying by including Wee and Stover. Being faster runners, both started behind me and I felt proud to see them having one of the best races in their career. And then I heard the sound of motorcycles roaring behind and a pace car closing in. It was Tarbei, who began passing Team Hawaii runners with a blazing pace of 4:50 minutes per mile.
And finally, once in Kapiolani Park, it turned out to be the epic sprint finish down the final stretch that race organizers had hoped for.
Tarbei had passed every Team Hawaii runner with only Stover remaining with 600 meters to the finish line. With one last surge, Tarbei made his move to pass Stover while encouraging the 28-year-old to challenge him to the line. Ultimately, Tarbei’s pace was too fast and successfully defended his title in a time of 1:04:14.
Then just before the finish line, Stover was passed yet again by Maui’s Reid Hunter. Hunter finished as the first Team Hawaii runner and in second place with his time of 1:12:25. Stover settled for third overall with a personal best time of 1:17:35.
Wee ran a fantastic race to finish 8th overall with her time of 1:23:32, while I held onto 10th place with my time of 1:28:08. Barnett didn’t have the race he hoped for but happily cruised in to finish 25th overall with a time of 1:23:40.
This race ignites every emotion within me. From pure excitement and the adrenaline rush at the start, to the thrills of running right on the edge of being in the “red zone,” and then after 11 miles, to complete and utter frustration.
But once I’m running down the final stretch of Kapiolani Park, I truly feel grateful and honored to be given this opportunity to run among Hawaii’s most talented and world-class athletes – an experience of a lifetime worth sharing.
After the race, Tarbei, who plans to make his debut at this year’s Honolulu Marathon, best summed up why he would like to return to compete in The Hapalua’s “Chase Race” in the future.
“What I love about Hapalua is the nice scenery, the beautiful beaches and the hospitality of the people of Hawaii. It’s such a beautiful race.”
If you have ever wanted to do a fun, exciting, and scenic half marathon race with a first-class experience from start to finish, then definitely put the Hapalua – Hawaii’s Half Marathon race on your bucket list.