Just over 16,000 other first-time marathon runners all over the world were doing exactly the same thing, using Hawaii as the carrot to get themselves to the race and, ultimately, the finish line. Theresa and I started meeting fellow marathoners as soon as we got to the airport, and people were still trading post-race vacation plans as we lined up at the starting chute and pounded en masse through downtown Honolulu.
Not long after we passed a giant lit-up Polynesian Santa Claus at the city hall—at about mile three—I got a miserable cramp in my right calf. The same cramp had plagued me during the last few weeks of training, but when it showed up that morning in Honolulu, I knew I had to run the race with it, or not run at all. Luckily for me, there were some excellent distractions along the way. There were packs of Japanese racers chanting, carrying flags, and running in coordinated costumes. There was a man so old and delicate he looked like an ancient sage, with a private nurse striding beside him in her white uniform and cap. There were Santas of every nationality, a barefoot man in a grass skirt, and thousands of competitors raising money for research—leukemia, arthritis, diabetes, AIDS.
The energy of all these people strengthened my resolve, as did sunrise over Diamond Head. At mile 14, we passed beneath the glamorous cliffside mansions of the Niu Valley, then looped around an inland waterway in Hawaii Kai and passed Koko Head, the volcanic crater that cradles Hanauma Bay. Every few miles, volunteers offered us water, sports drinks, icy sponges for sweat, and Vaseline for chafing; there were boom boxes playing and a stage with hula dancers. After several hours of overcast skies, the sun came out and turned everything into a Hawaiian movie in Technicolor. The vividness here contrasted sharply—and beautifully—with my memory of training under the bare trees and gray skies of a Pennsylvania winter. Around mile 24, some people started the post-race celebration early by passing out tiny cups of cold beer.
Theresa stayed with me the whole way, snapping pictures every five miles, so I had to smile—even when I collapsed in a grateful heap at the finish line. "Runner's high" buoyed my spirits through the rest of the trip (even though I could barely walk, I kept my official finisher's T-shirt on and exchanged knowing looks with other people I saw limping around Waikiki). Theresa and I packed a lot into our three days: snorkeling at Hanauma Bay, sipping mai tais during the sunset hour at the nearby Halekulani hotel, watching a hula performance by a former Miss Hawaii. Finally, we took the flower leis we'd been given on our arrival at the airport and, according to tradition, draped them over the outstretched arms of the larger-than-life Waikiki Beach statue of Duke Kahanamoku.
These days, I surprise myself by surfing Web sites devoted to marathon travel, lingering over descriptions of the Thailand Temple Run and Alaska's marathon. I've pictured myself racing in Paris, a city I adore, experiencing its streets and its citizens from the destination-marathon perspective. In Hawaii, they describe that sense of well-being and happiness as aloha spirit; in France, I think they call it joie de vivre.