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.
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.
Walt Disney World Marathon, ORLANDO, FLA.
Las Vegas Marathon, NEVADA
Tahiti Nui Sunrise Marathon
Napa Valley Marathon
Thailand Temple Run, BANGKOK
Country Music Marathon, NASHVILLE, TENN.
Paris International Marathon
Great Wall Marathon, TIANJEN PROVINCE
Mayor's Midnight Sun Marathon, ANCHORAGE, ALASKA
Safaricom Marathon, KENYA
Nova Scotia Marathon, BARRINGTON
Quebec City Marathon
New York City Marathon
For more information on destination marathons around the world, log on to www.marathonguide.com.
For entry forms and more information on the Honolulu Marathon, visit www.honolulumarathon.org or call 808/734-7200.
Pleasant Holidays (800/448-3333; www.pleasantholidays.com) provides all-inclusive air and land packages to the Honolulu Marathon.
Passport to Adventure (800/955-5769; www.passporttoadventure.net) organizes cruise and marathon packages to various destinations. Traveling runners should check out www.runtheplanet.com, which includes a World Race Calendar and race routes in more than 2,000 cities.