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Honolulu Marathon fully leans into planning despite uncertain future

Wikimedia Commons
2015 Honolulu Marathon

Will the starter gun go off on Dec. 12 for the Honolulu Marathon as it did recently for the Chicago Marathon and the Boston Marathon? The Conversation talked to the president of the Honolulu Marathon, Dr. Jim Barahal, as the Boston race was underway Monday.

He shared that he was disappointed the governor and mayors’ recent COVID-19 announcement didn’t go as far as to encourage overseas participation in the marathon — or clearly allow the event to happen. But he said he recognizes the pressure was building to allow fans at the University of Hawaiʻi football games.

"We were disappointed because when we talk about professionally managed events, we like to think that we're as professional as anybody in the country, let alone Hawaiʻi," he said. "We have a lot of planning to do to put on a major marathon and I thought it made it more difficult for us."

Barahal, also a physician, is trying to plan for the world-class sporting event, though it's unclear if government officials will give the green light.

The latest Honolulu guidelines starting Wednesday allow for up to 500 vaccinated participants. In 2019, there were 33,255 marathon participants — including 16,355 from Japan.

"From an economic point of view, we are a business and there becomes a certain tipping point for every business where it becomes very difficult to maintain yourself. About two weeks ago before this announcement, we as the Honolulu Marathon team made a decision that we were going to act as if the event was going to happen 100%," Barahal said. "We leaned into this and said we're going — although we didn't know for sure, and we still don't — because to do anything else would be a self-fulfilling prophecy and the event wouldn't happen."

He expects mostly Hawaiʻi residents to take part. Barahal said after the first entry deadline passed, fewer than 200 people from Japan had registered.

"One interesting thing with the Honolulu Marathon and Japan, of course, about 70% of our revenue comes from Japan, either through entry fees, or sponsorships," Barahal told Hawaiʻi Public Radio. "I have to give a shoutout to two of our big sponsors — Japan Airlines and Mizuno, the athletic company — because they have stuck with the Honolulu Marathon."

Organizers purchased 20,000 masks for the race's start and finish, Barahal said. Other plans include personalized water bottles so runners can carry their own fluid to limit human interaction at self-service water stations.

Plans are for participants to start the race at 5 a.m. in waves of max 500 at a time, but they can't spread them out too far because of the heat, Barahal said.

In a statement Wednesday, Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi said, "We are working with the State on plans for expanding capacity for the Honolulu Marathon."

Blangiardi said he notified the Honolulu Police Department to prepare as if the marathon will happen.

“It has not been officially approved, but if conditions continue to improve I believe the Marathon could operate in a safe manner,” he said. "It would also go a long way in helping with the psychological wellbeing and our resiliency as a community.”

The Ironman World Championship, usually held in Kailua-Kona, recently announced it is moving the competition to Utah this year because of concerns about COVID-19 restrictions. Both of those events bring in millions to the state economy.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Oct. 12, 2021.

Updated: October 14, 2021 at 9:00 AM HST
Updated with comments from Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi.
Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
Sophia McCullough is a digital news producer. Contact her at news@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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