- My exact thoughts when I crossed the finish line of the Honolulu Marathon: “Man, what a beautiful course… but shit it’s so hot and I’m glad it’s over”.
- A few days later: I’m in Chicago, looking at gray skies and rain and wishing I was still running in Honolulu.
It’s funny how our minds work.
The Honolulu Marathon is challenging, mainly because of Hawaii’s tropical climate. I’ll get to that in a minute and provide some tips for running this race, but first I want to talk about how beautiful the course is and what makes it worth running despite the heat and humidity.
Before I go any further, I have to point out that I received a free entry into the Honolulu Marathon as a BibRave Pro. You can get more information about becoming a pro and also find and write race reviews on BibRave.com.
The Honolulu Marathon starts at 5am at Ala Moana Beach Park, which is a local recreation area consisting of over 100 acres of park, beaches, swimming and surfing spots. Instead of a traditional air horn or gunshot to start the race, this one starts with fireworks. I’m not just talking one or two little pops. This is a 20 minute full fledged colorful display that rivals some of the best Fourth of July fireworks shows I’ve seen. Runners cross the start line with fireworks going off on their left side and Miss Hawaii waving to them on the right.
From there the course runs through downtown Honolulu along Honolulu Harbor and through Chinatown into a historic district, which includes:
- Iolani Palace, which was the royal residence of the rulers of the Kingdom of Hawaii and is the only royal palace on American soil
- The statue of King Kamehameha
- Kawaiahao Church
- Honolulu City Hall
- The Mission Houses Museum
After that, the course crosses the bridge spanning the Ala Wai Canal, which marks the entrance to Waikiki. Runners pass by U.S. Army Fort DeRussy and head down streets lined with shops offering everything from tacky souvenirs and t-shirts to high- priced designer merchandise. This stretch offers views of Waikiki Beach and the statue of Duke Kahanamoku, a renowned surfer and Olympic gold medalist.
At mile 6, the course forks to the left and heads around the Honolulu Zoo and past the Waikiki Shell. At mile 8, the course passes by Diamond Head, which is an extinct 760 foot high volcanic crater. At this point, the course gets a bit hilly but it also offers breathtaking views of Oahu’s east coastline.
At mile 10, the courses passes through some residential and commercial areas along a coastal route which continues for four miles through the communities of Waialae Iki, Aina Haina, and Niu Valley. At mile 16, runners turn left and head into Kalama Valley. This section of the course loops around an inland waterway and offers views of Koko Head, a volcanic crater eroded on one side by the ocean into Hanauma Bay. The course then turns right and passes by Maunalua Bay Beach Park, which is a popular spot for parasailing and outrigger canoes.
For the next four miles, runners double back along Kalanianaole Highway and pass Kawaikui and Wailupe beach parks. At mile 22, the course turns and passes the Waialae Country Club, which is where the Hawaiian Open PGA Golf Tournament is held. At the road’s end, the route turns right and heads past a neighborhood of luxury homes fronting Kahala Beach and Black Point.
At mile 24, runners circle back around Diamond Head crater. An important note here is that mile 24 is almost all uphill, but mile 25 is almost all downhill.
As the last mile of the course curves around Diamond Head toward the finish in Waikiki, the route passes the Diamond Head Lighthouse. The last stretch of the race runs along Kapiolani park past Sans Souci Beach and the Waikiki Aquarium to the Finish Line near the Kapiolani Park Bandstand. After the race, there’s food and entertainment at the Honolulu Zoo. You can also get your picture taken with a hula dancer.
There is not a single mile of the Honolulu Marathon course that doesn’t have something beautiful to look at. The course is mostly flat with the only two noticeable hills (at mile 8 and mile 24). The race is also well organized and has an nice expo and post race party. Other than the weather, I have nothing but great things to say about it.
The hot and humid weather is no joke though. The temperature on race day was in the mid 80’s and the humidity was close to 100%. I counted at least half a dozen ambulances picking up runners and bringing them to local hospitals. I also saw runners on the side of the course being helped by police and medical personnel while they bent over and threw up or passed out. So I’m going to spend a few minutes sharing some of my tips for handling the heat and also a few pointers that are specifically for the Honolulu Marathon course:
- I talked to some locals who have done the Honolulu Marathon multiple times and they all said that this was one of the toughest years weather-wise. This might have just been an off year, but even mild days in Honolulu are only about 10 degrees cooler than hot days. So you should always expect conditions like this when you travel to Honolulu, regardless of what time of year it is.
- Interestingly, the weather wasn’t any worse than an average Chicago day in July or August. It felt hotter to me though because I did my training back home during October and November when the average temps were in the 30s and 40s (and even colder than that on a couple occasions). So my advice here is that unless you live in a tropical climate and are able to train in similar conditions, you should try to arrive in Honolulu at least a week in advance to give your body some time to acclimate to the weather.
- Hydrate early and often. It’s never a good strategy to wait until the last minute to start hydrating, but waiting too long to hydrate for a race like the Honolulu Marathon can literally have deadly consequences. Start to increase your water intake at least a week before the race and make sure to add some electrolytes to help improve your water absorption rates. During the race, grab a cup of water and sports drink every 15-20 minutes. The Honolulu Marathon organizers did a good job of having water and Gatorade tables available almost every mile and medical tents available every other mile. Make sure to take advantage of them.
- Dress in light colored clothing that’s also lightweight and has vents or mesh. Also wear a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen.
- The Honolulu Marathon starts at 5am for a good reason: the sun doesn’t come up until 7, so runners have two full hours to get as many miles in as they can while it’s still dark out. If you can do 9:15 minute miles or faster in the beginning of the race, you’ll get to the halfway point before the sun comes up, which will put you in a pretty good position for the second half. In addition to the heat, there’s very little shade during the second half of the course, and while the sun will be at your back from about mile 17 on, it can still get pretty intense. No matter what your pace is, listen to your body and slow down or take walk breaks if you need to.
- Miles 8 and 24 are the most physically challenging parts of the course because of the hills but miles 11 through 16 are the most mentally challenging. This section of the course heads in a straight line down Kalanianiole Highway, and runners have to watch other runners heading in the opposite direction the entire time since miles 17-22 double back along the same route. The scenery here is beautiful but I found myself constantly wondering where the damned turnaround point was. I don’t really know what the best way to prepare for this is other than to just be aware that it’s coming, know ahead of time that the course turns at mile 16 and does a loop through Kalama valley, and keep reminding yourself that it’s only gonna be a few miles before you get there.
- Lastly, try to prepare yourself to run in big crowds. The Honolulu Marathon is the fourth largest marathon in the United States after New York, Boston, and Chicago. There are over 40,000 runners who sign up for it each year. The crowds are extremely thick at the start line and during the first few miles of the race. And even though they start to thin out around mile 5 and gradually get better each mile after that, it wasn’t until almost mile 17 before I finally felt like things had completely opened up. Personally, I didn’t mind this because I’m from Chicago and I’m used to big crowds during my races. If you’re from a smaller town though, it’s worth noting that this is something you might not be used to. It’s also worth noting that the crowds will make you feel even warmer since you’ll be surrounded by hundreds of sweaty runners whose bodies are giving off massive amounts of heat. What I would suggest is trying to find a race or two to do in a big city prior to running in Honolulu, to help yourself get mentally prepped for this one.
With all that I’ve said, don’t let the heat scare you. This course is amazing, the race is well organized and Honolulu is the perfect getaway destination during December. Finishing it was a great accomplishment and within a few hours those “man I’m so glad I’m done” thoughts were already starting to dissipate. The next morning I went for another short run along Waikiki beach and felt great. I’d run this race again in a heartbeat and I’d recommend it to anyone else too.
Quick Note: I’ve added a second post that has some travel tips for the Honolulu Marathon here.