Neal Milner: what the Honolulu Marathon says about Hawaii – archyde

A few days ago I talked to my friend Heidi about the upcoming Honolulu Marathon, which will take place live and in person for the first time since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

She suggested that I write about it because I was there when it was made. In December 1973, I ran the first Honolulu marathon with only about 150 other runners.

The marathon was easy back then. Today it is anything but easy to understand. Still, the modern Honolulu marathon makes me wistful and a little sad.

I want to think about what became of the marathon, how it reflects what Honolulu has become in the nearly 50 years since that first race.

I remember very little about that 1973 race, not because it was so overwhelmingly blurry, but because things were so ordinary.

It was more of a very long, tough, quiet Sunday run with a small group of runners, many of whom, like me, didn’t really know what the hell we were doing.

There were refreshment stations, but they were silent refreshment stations. And there weren’t any crowds.

The race was very well organized in its own way, but organization wasn’t the focus. The start looked like a small group of people preparing for a few laps in Kapiolani Park or a more hilly run around Diamond Head.

One runner wore black socks and smart shoes, which was a bit strange but tame compared to the Mardi Gras costumes and selfie ceremonies that have become so much a part of the race today.

At the finish we runners got all the mango breads that one of the runners had baked. From there we had to hike to the award ceremony, which took place in Ala Moana Park.

A great achievement, but not a big deal.

Today of course it’s a big deal a huge thing.

In recent years, the Honolulu Marathon has felt more like a super event than the little hometown running race that it was nearly 50 years ago. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

The number of runners in any of the recent Honolulu marathons would nearly fill Aloha Stadium. The group from 1973 would not have occupied the seats in the cafetorium of the Kaisergymnasium.

The marathon has become a festival, a super event, with crowds lining the streets, music, a real festival and a not-so-small army of volunteers to make it happen.

I ran a couple of Honolulu marathons after the first one. I did really well in my second race, finishing the qualifying race for the Boston Marathon by a few minutes.

“With a little harder work and a better organized training plan, I could …”

It never happened. I stopped running marathons because I missed the first marathon and hated what became of the Honolulu marathon.

Saying I hate it doesn’t mean I’m criticizing it. The race is great, moving and getting thousands of runners in hot, humid weather, organizing hundreds of volunteers, working with politicians and first responders.

But all of that is not me, which brings me back to my two most lasting memories of the 1973 run, which will help you understand my admiration for the marathon and my nostalgia for what became of it.

First memory: Joy was pregnant with our second child. The due date was two weeks after the race, but four years earlier, almost to the day, our son was suddenly born a month earlier, very surprisingly and very quickly.

What would happen if Joy went into labor during the class? Well, not much of my ending.

That’s not me. I don’t want to be part of a crowd. The hustle and bustle, the cheering, the noise and the camaraderie of being at eye level with dozens of runners makes me uncomfortable.

Our plan, if you could call it that, was this: if she went into labor, she would call 911 and ask the police to find me. During the race, I checked in by calling her once from the pay phone bank across from Aina Haina’s fire station.

Crazy and about as likely as – okay, I’ll say it – Rail.

Imagine a Honolulu Police Department SWAT team car with flashing blue lights driving down the Kalanianaole Highway looking for a 9-minutes-per-mile skinny guy in a cheesy, cheap pair of imported Japanese running shoes. Lassie had a much better chance of finding Timmy no matter what deep well that cute, carefree little boy fell into.

(At the time, by the way, the ambulance stationed at the fire station across from the payphones was one of those swelling hearse-like Cadillacs in front of the EMT that you see in old noir movies.)

I remember it so vividly because it’s such a powerful reminder of what Hawaii looked like back then. I miss those tolled times when you couldn’t be constantly tracked, alerted and informed.

It is now a relief – a luxury – that is not easy to find.

My other memory is getting lost. I ran most of the race with my friend Jim, who talked me into running a marathon because we were going to get a free t-shirt.

For most of the run there were few, if any, other runners within shouting distance. Near the 16 mile mark, about where the Hawaii Kai Safeway store is now, Jim said, “We haven’t seen another runner in a long time.”

It turned out we were lost. Regardless of the logistics, we took the wrong turn and shouldn’t have been on this street at all.

Jim and I stopped, figured out our mistake, did some running short calculations, and decided that the distance on our random route was roughly the actual route.

We also decided that – big surprise – we are not in competition. Besides, nobody would ever know or even care. (In fact, there is no official list of 1973 finishers).

So much space between the runners, so quiet, and what I remember back then was a new road that was almost entirely lined with vacant lots. There were also vacant lots in Hawaii Kai and on the freeway. Hawaii Loa Ridge was just a ridge.

It was such a day in this place.

I believe in the mission of the Honolulu Marathon as a fun run that engages in large crowds of runners. It’s well organized. And as the organizers hoped, it makes people healthier by showing them how to get out of their okoles and walk. You couldn’t have lived here without knowing someone like that.

But it’s not for me To enjoy these modern day marathons you need to enjoy the crowd, feel the noise and appreciate being managed.

That’s not me. I don’t want to be part of a crowd. The hustle and bustle, the cheering, the noise and the camaraderie of being at eye level with dozens of runners makes me uncomfortable.

Crowds and their management have also become an increasingly inevitable part of life in Honolulu. That’s what happens when a small town, as it felt in 1973 in Honolulu, turns into a big city.

Dense, crowded streets, large shopping centers and large department stores replacing the neighborhood merchants, street noise that penetrates the benches among the exotic trees in Foster Gardens.

Honolulu now feels like the Honolulu marathons of the 21st century, and not like the 1973 race at all.

Getting lost is good. All alone in a quiet place. Find your way in your own good time.

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