The Honolulu Marathon, which will be run for the 47th time Sunday, is not considered one of the six major annual marathons around the world. But that doesn’t give it an identity crisis.
Jim Barahal laughed when asked if not being designated a “major” makes Honolulu to distance running what Boise State is to football: A consistently excellent “mid-major.”
“Yeah, we’ve got a few trick plays and there are (marriage) proposals, ” said the Honolulu Marathon president, referring to when the Broncos upset Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.
“The inspiration was the tennis grand slam, ” said Race Results publisher David Monti, who is also a Honolulu Marathon spokesman. “The pros look at it now like, ‘How many majors did you win?’ It’s worked out pretty well.”
The series has also attracted amateurs. For some, the allure is a six-pointed medal indicating having finished all of the majors. A total of 6,401 runners had achieved this up to this year’s Chicago Marathon, according to the series website.
Honolulu has no aspirations to become a seventh major marathon, Barahal said.
“Too small of a city,” he said. “It’s about your metropolitan area. Where they have suburbs, we have fish.”
There’s no hint of jealousy in Barahal’s voice. He knows bigger doesn’t always mean better, and the Honolulu Marathon has a unique status of which its organizers are proud.
Like the others, Honolulu does invite elite professionals to compete here. But it also calls itself “The People’s Race.”
Many of the 25,000 who will line up, some way behind the starting line, are there not primarily to race, but to accomplish something extraordinary.
“People seek a challenge, and this is one that may change their life, ” Barahal said.
Some of the invited pros who run at Honolulu (mostly from Kenya) become marathon superstars after competing here. In that regard, it is sort of like the Sony Open in Hawaii, the PGA Tour stop where you may see a rookie who later in his career wins the Masters.
But unlike golf, the marathon itself is a pro-am. The citizen runners take on the same course as the pros. And at Honolulu, unlike many other marathons, anyone can enter, and you can take as long as you need to finish.
“There are no qualifications for the Honolulu Marathon, Start to Park 10k, or Kalakaua Merrie Mile,” according to the marathon’s website.
Those latter two events are among Barahal’s “trick plays “
Not everyone wants to run a marathon. In the past it was 26.2 miles or nothing. But in recent years the addition of the mile run through Waikiki on Saturday, and the 10k that is run during the actual marathon on Sunday, have been popular—so much so that there will be around 35, 000 total entrants this weekend. When you add in The King’s 10K on March 1 and the Hapalua half marathon in April, “for all platforms the goal is 50, 000, ” Barahal said.
The Honolulu Marathon course is not a flat, fast track and the weather is not conducive to record-breaking times. That combination has kept some elite runners away. Also, it created a challenge that Monti said organizers responded to very well.
“One of the things Honolulu has under its belt is a mastery of fluids, and medical attention that might be needed for warm weather, ” he said. “About 50% of the entrants are first-time marathoners. Throw in that it is hilly, starts at 5 a.m., and it can get up to 85 degrees, and there’s a lot to deal with. But they know more about hot-weather running here than anywhere else.”
That heat is also part of why Honolulu has been successful.
“They capitalized on it being a warm, safe and hospitable destination, particularly for people from Japan, ” Monti said. “Mass participation in marathons in Japan has been discouraged. The Fukuoka Marathon, there’s only 500 runners. One of the brilliant ideas Honolulu had was ‘Hey, there’s all this demand that’s not being met in their own country.’”
Tokyo had to expand its field to qualify to be a major ; when they opened it up, 300, 000 people tried to register, Monti said. There will be 37, 500 spots in the 2020 Tokyo Marathon ; a lottery system is used.
Honolulu has never turned anyone away from the starting line.
And Barahal is working on attracting more from another large and growing market of runners.
“We have an office in China, ” he said.