By the time I show up, at 4:30 a.m., about 30,000 very wide-awake runners have gathered on the green at Honolulu's Ala Moana Beach Park, where a pre-dawn Pacific breeze rustles through banyan trees and coconut palms and lightens the moist, tropical air. These early risers have come from 47 countries and 48 U.S. states. For days, they've been pouring onto Oahu, jogging Waikiki Beach, jamming the Niketown store, carbo-loading on sushi rice and pasta. Finally, at 5 a.m., with the crash of fireworks filling the sky, the wait is over. The 30th Honolulu Marathon has begun.
This race has become a premier event for destination marathoners, those usually far-from-elite runners who combine the physical and spiritual rush of completing a 26.2-mile road race with the pleasures of vacation. Every one of the 50 states now caters to these travelers, who follow their passion—whether it's to Alaska's Midnight Sun Marathon, New York City's beloved five-borough block party, or races at Disney World, at Mount Rushmore, and in Nashville (where every mile a country-music band plays). London, Berlin, Athens, and Paris play host to a few of Europe's top races—even the Great Wall of China has its own marathon, held each May.
Do you have to be a world-class athlete to run a marathon in these places?Consider this: Mbarak Hussein of Kenya won this year's Honolulu Marathon in two hours and 12 minutes. Marion Winik of Pennsylvania came in 16,409th, just under four hours later...and another 10,000 finishers moseyed in after me. While the Boston Marathon would have closed its course before I crossed the finish line, Honolulu stays open for 10 hours.
"People who are running Boston go to sleep early and do everything to achieve peak performance," says Dr. Jim Barahal, president of the Honolulu event. "But here, we get more runners who are in it for the fun." To cater to marathon travelers, Honolulu puts on a luau with guest musicians such as Brian Wilson and Van Morrison, and on race day holds a 10-kilometer walk for runners' families and friends.
One could argue that the destination-marathon party really gets going only after the race, when participants are ready to unwind. Randy Accetta, an elite marathoner and running coach, was in Honolulu with outfitter Passport to Adventure, shepherding a flock of runners scheduled to board a Norwegian cruise ship after the race. "Instead of worrying about itineraries," he explains, "you can focus your pre-race energy on your goal—knowing that when you finish, we'll have a piña colada waiting for you on the deck."
Though I didn't get on board this time (I'd left my husband in snowy Pennsylvania with five kids, so a cruise would have seemed like pushing my luck), what fueled me was precisely this combination of a lifetime's longing to visit a particular place, and a more recent curiosity about what it would be like to run a marathon. I was closing in on 40 when I first started running a few five- and 10-kilometer races just for fun. At one race, I met my friend Theresa—a serious runner with seven marathons under her belt and the goal of completing a race in each state. On one of our regular weekend four-milers, she mentioned Hawaii. Before long, we were typing our credit-card numbers into the registration form on the Honolulu Web site, and I began a 12-week training program leading up to the December race.