Planning in a pandemic: An inside perspective from Kona Marathon race director

  • The start of the 2019 Kona Marathon Events 13.1-mile race held at Waikoloa Beach Resort. (Penn Henderson/Hawaii Sport Events)

If you are a race director for a sporting event, then you understand all the intricate details that must be in place in order for a race to happen, which by the way, is no easy task.

Whether an event is large or small, race directors take on an enormous responsibility spanning months in advance with the ultimate goal of having a successful race — and even in doing so, it may not turn out to be the slam dunk one would have hoped for.


As the County of Hawaii slowly begins to increase the gathering sizes for organized outdoor sporting events, many are finding they have run out of time.

For Kona Marathon Events race director, Brent Imonen, that’s what it has come to. The race field in years past has typically been over 1,200 participants from a combination of four popular running events — the marathon (26.2-miles), half marathon (13.1-miles), quarter marathon (6.2-miles) and 5K (3.1-miles) — therefore he needed to cancel his in-person event for a second year.

As race directors have silently struggled to come up with creative ideas and virtual events as a way to be proactive during a pandemic, it was no different for Imonen. The Waimea resident, who also organizes other big sporting events like the Great Aloha Run, Honolulu Ekiden, Duke’s Oceanfest, Molokai 2 Oahu Paddleboard World Championships, and Mike Stewart Pipeline Invitational, agreed to share an inside perspective of being the Kona Marathon race director during these challenging times.

Q: How difficult has it been to not only cancel your event once, but twice?

It was difficult because the first time was unique and I wasn’t prepared for it like anybody else. I’d say about a quarter of the folks had already registered and we were already doing marketing to fulfill that other three-quarters of the field. So, there was energy and money going out already and then everything shifted with no certainty.

With tourism, whether it was hotel, rental car, or airfare, nobody knew when it would be over or if would be a short period of time or long period of time, so there were so many variables that were uncertain and with no control. Then not knowing how to shift gears when you already have people planning and expecting to have an experience on the Big Island was difficult.

Q: What did you find was most challenging?

When you are planning for a 1,200 to 1,500-person event and you’ve got only 300 people registered with no certainty of how the event will unfold – that was probably the hardest.

Between the obligations I felt I had with those roughly 300 people early on that had already booked, and at the same time, wondering if we should cancel or change in addition to the commitments I had already made with my partners, quite honestly, I was having many sleepless nights. It was quite perplexing and uneasy for a number of weeks, if not months.

But we made it through, and obviously everyone across the country were doing what they needed to do to get to 2021. Now things are better and due to the lessons we learned last year, I didn’t necessarily feel the same stress this time around. I want to move forward progressively instead of being reactive to what’s going on.

I think that a lot of our community and tourism has had to be reactive recently and I’m excited to be looking at the future proactively. I think that through all this there’s more interest to coming to an event, coming to Hawaii, and experiencing Hawaii but also giving back to Hawaii. I want people to interact with what Kona Marathon becomes, and hope they will leave with an overall experience and also feel they contributed in some way. I’m still trying to find what that balance is.

Q: Having to cancel the KM for a second year, was it a feeling of frustration or understanding?

I would say understanding because the entire sports industry, similar to the tourism industry, has been in the waiting. So, if the hotels, the airlines and the Safe Travels Program aren’t in place, then I can’t even begin to have conversations about how I would execute the Kona Marathon. It has been an investment of time, energy and money, but you can’t really put the horse before the cart unless it’s ready. We can’t really entertain people in whatever capacity until the state is ready and everyone’s health is doing better. Now we are in this flux as people are starting to think we are “there” but we are not there yet.

Q: Do you feel there a silver lining through all this?


I think it was awesome watching in the early stages of all this to see so many people getting outside to start running and walking. I think we have gotten back into our normal routines now — like the escape isn’t necessarily walking and running at this point. I do think I’m more convinced that I really want to take the race to the next level and enhance the experience so that it’s much better and walk away with a better experience than what they had in the past.

I think Hawaii Island has done a great job with respecting the process with COVID. We’ve obviously done a good job in the State with balancing new cases so my hope is that we can continue to move forward. It’s nice to see tourism picking up and it will be great to see the events and the non-profits to be able to get back into swing.

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