Rain or shine, the Honolulu Marathon is on at 5 a.m. sharp Sunday with no capacity limits.
Dr. Jim Barahal, chief executive officer of the Honolulu Marathon Association, has dealt with more than a year of much uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic — but took a leap of faith that the race could be staged this month.
Despite the detection of the omicron variant in Hawaii, plus financial loss due to a drastic drop in runners from Japan, Barahal is determined to move ahead, pointing to the overall event as a symbol of triumph over adversity.
Barahal said he feels confident that outdoor activities are safe, based on guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and that the marathon, which has about 14,000 registered participants across three events over the weekend — down from about 35,000 in 2019 — also will be safe.
“We’re excited,” he said. “We think a lot of people in the community are going to celebrate with us. When the gun goes off and fireworks go up in the sky, we’re going to send a signal that Hawaii is back.”
Dozens of marathons around the world have been staged this year, he noted, including major races in Boston, London and New York City. Last year’s Honolulu Marathon, along with scores of other races, was staged virtually, with participants submitting images from completed runs.
Some 10,000 participants are signed up for the 26.2-mile race, which starts on Ala Moana Boulevard and ends at Kapiolani Park. Most are local runners, while only a few hundred will be coming in from Japan. The rest are signed up for the Kalakaua Merrie Mile on Saturday and the Start to Park 10K on Sunday.
Historically, according to Barahal, half of early registrants do not show up, so organizers are expecting about 7,000 participants. “This is going to be primarily a local event,” he said, adding that he believes it will be the largest since the pandemic started.
There is going to be a financial hit, he admitted, with at least an 80% decline in revenue. The marathon gets no funding from the city, state or visitor industry.
There was no significant boost in registrations after Hawaii opened up to international travelers last month, according to Barahal, who did not expect one with the short window of time. There will be about 400 runners from Japan this year compared to 17,000 in past years. Mizuno and Japan Airlines have stayed on as sponsors.
“We’re ready to go. We have budgeted the event, we have cut where we need to, but nothing that compromises safety,” he said, adding, “To not do it two years in a row would threaten the existence of it.”
The marathon’s largest fixed costs, which include securing the course with special duty officers, barricades and the use of timing chips, will still be covered, he said, but some bells and whistles such as the video screen and photo bridge at the finish line have been dropped.
There will still be malasadas for finishers, but no live entertainment along the route or at Kapiolani Park.
The marathon is now open to fully vaccinated participants and those who show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 48 hours of the event. Barahal estimates about 90% of registered runners are fully vaccinated.
Participants older than age 12 need to bring photo ID and proof of COVID-19 vaccination or negative test when picking up race packets at the Honolulu Marathon Expo at the Hawai‘i Convention Center on Friday and Saturday.
Masks will not be required while running, and under the most recent easing of restrictions, staggered starts are no longer limited to 200 participants at a time. Runners will be separated based on projected times, but the goal is to get as many on the course as quickly as possible, Barahal said.
The marathon course will be lined with 25 aid stations — some self-serve and others with servers.
Veteran marathoner Jonathan Lyau, a McKinley High School state champ, is among the top runners planning to participate this year. Lyau decided to emerge from retirement to attempt a new record.
He ran his first Honolulu Marathon in 1979 and finished it under three hours the following year. Lyau, 57, said he retired from marathons about six years ago, but during the pandemic spent a lot of time running and decided to give it another go.
This year, he is aiming to run the course in under three hours, which would mark a fifth consecutive decade of finish line times under three hours.
Lyau also has been training a group of other runners, many of whom plan to run the marathon.
“Everyone’s excited, especially after not being able to do it (in person) last year,” Lyau said. “Everyone has been waiting and training so now at least they have something to shoot for after all this training. … They’re all ready to go.”
Barahal said he is grateful to Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi for his support, and to all participating sponsors and runners.
“We’re excited to do this,” he said, “and then focus on next year, which would be the 50th anniversary, and hope things are looking better. … We think it’s important to put it on because at some point life needs to begin to return to normal in Hawaii. We’ve lost many sporting events, and Honolulu Marathon does not want to join the list.”