Benner, Wee set new course records at 100% Pure Kona Coffee Half Marathon

John Benner and Bree Wee set new course records at Saturday’s 100% Pure Kona Coffee Half Marathon at Coconut Grove Marketplace. (Rani Henderson/Hawaii Sport Events)

Ever since John Benner was 5 years old, running has been his sport. He continued to develop his speed and endurance growing up in Boston, Massachussetts, and later in high school, before landing at the University of Vermont where he ran track &field and cross country.

Benner excelled both as a student-athlete and leader. He was team captain and currently holds the Catamount indoor record for both the mile (4:05.34) and 3000 (8:13.47). His personal best in the 5000 event is 14:45.80.


On Saturday, Benner, who lives and trains in Volcano, won the men’s title at the 100% Pure Kona Coffee Half Marathon, setting a new course record in a sizzling time of 1 hour, 12 minutes and 4 seconds. The previous record of 1:17:13 was set in 2015 by another Volcano resident, Billy Barnett.

It wasn’t hard to locate Benner after he crossed the finish line. Wearing the winning crown, a haku lei, and carrying cups of water in each hand, he looked fresh — as if he could’ve run another 13.1 miles. Benner was gracious to stop for a chat.

After graduating from UVM in 2020 with a passion for ecology and the outdoors, the 24-year old said he took the opportunity during COVID to “get as fit as he could” while looking for field work related to conservation and restoration. An internship opportunity opened on the Big Island in May.

“I got a job working at Hawaii Volcano National Park as I do plant research there,” Benner said while sipping water. “I am intern and moved to Volcano in May.

“I actually did a half marathon (Volcano Ohia Lehua Runs) back in August. It was good; I ran pretty well there, I was happy with it. It was my first half marathon and this is only my second. I finished that race in 1:10, and I did 1:12 today. I was a bit slower but I didn’t expect it to be as hot as it was at 5:45 a.m.”

Benner said he is used to running in Volcano — a cool 60 degrees and misting most of the time. He’s met Barnett out on the trails and Hilo runner, David Collier. Benner said he likes the shorter distances, especially the mile, and only recently began increasing his mileage over the summer with the help of his father, Rich. On Saturday, he had a plan.

“From gun, I pretty much just went off,” he said. “My plan was to try and hit 1:10 (1 hour and 10 minutes) so I went out at a 5:20 pace for the first five or six miles. Then, I kind of fell off pace once I hit that big (Keauhou) hill, so I slowed down a bit and just tried to stay comfortable. I thought that hill was going to be smaller than it was, but it wasn’t. The big thing was, I just really didn’t want to crack and really slow down, so I just tried to stay comfortable until the last mile or so, and then I gave it a good go.”

Benner said he didn’t know a lot of people when he signed up for the race but had his eyes keyed on the 2019 winner, David Wild. Once he hit the turnaround in “the Pit,” he felt a bit worried on whether he would hang onto his lead.

“I wasn’t too sure,” Benner said. “I saw David coming down into the Pit as I was heading out. I knew I wasn’t feeling great at that point and he looked pretty good so I was getting a little nervous over the last few miles.

Benner crossed the finish line solo, amidst a few spectators, volunteers, and Eddie-O’s booming voice over the mic. Wild finished five minutes later and in second place with a time of 1:17:58, followed by Waikoloa’s Daniel Hill in 1:23:53.

On the women’s side, Bree Wee basically crushed her own course record set in 2018 (1:25:37), establishing a new record in a fabulous time of 1:24:16. Wee soaked in her win with feelings of pure gratitude for the opportunity to have an in-person race.

“It was just really nice to have a race back as it’s been so long,” Wee said. “Just coming back together as a community, and just seeing people again, I think we all missed each other so much.”

Wee shared that her motivation for a fast-finishing time was chasing a goal she hopes to accomplish at next month’s Honolulu Marathon.

“Jonathan Lyau from Oahu is trying to break 3 hours in a marathon in every decade of his life,” she said. “So, he will be in a new decade of his life at Honolulu so he’s trying to get together a sub-3 hour group. I told him that if I can break a 1:25 (1 hour and 25 minutes) over here then I think I’ll be ready to break 3 hours over there. So, I knew if I could break 1:25 then I can do a sub-3 over there. I now feel I’m ready.”

Holualoa’s Laura Ankrum claimed second in the women’s division with her time of 1:31:59, with Sierra Ponthier finishing in third place at 1:35:43.

However, not everyone felt like they had a stellar race. Hilo’s David Collier, who recently won the Kau Coffee Trail Run Half Marathon in September, said he cramped during Saturday’s running event and felt a bit disappointed with his finish time.

“I think it was driving over from Hilo, I cramped really bad,” Collier said. “I’m a tour guide and I ran the Kau Coffee Trail run and won the half marathon. That was a really great race for me. I was hoping to break 1:20 today. I think I finished at a 1:24. It was just tough out there, but I’ll be back next year.”

Of course, the loudest cheers went to legendary runner and owner of Kunitake Farms Pure Kona Coffee, Jon Kunitake. The 79-year old Holualoa resident, who proudly wore “Bib #1”, finished in a time of 2:59:12.

“It was awesome and it was well organized,” Kunitake said of the race. “I got inspired by running today. Just seeing all the other people out and running in-person really inspired me. I really missed seeing everyone. But hopefully now, we can get back to having in-person events again as today truly proved that we can get there.”

Benner said he’s happy races are happening again and it feels “awesome” to have something to train for.

“I’d love to get in a few more races while I’m still here. My internship ends in January so I’m hoping to do just any race that is happening. I don’t know where I’m going after January but I just love running here. There are awesome trails and the running community is so tight here that I feel this is really a special place.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Star-Advertiser's TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, email