Sunday, December 16, 2012

Honolulu Marathon, December 2012

Honolulu may seem like an odd place to go to run a marathon. Even in winter, the weather is generally warm and humid - not ideal marathoning conditions by most people's standards - and the course includes a couple of hills around the Diamond Head crater. But for me, for a few reasons Honolulu makes great sense as a destination marathon.

Firstly, it's not such a long trip from the east coast of Australia. It's about half the travel time compared to New York - which I was originally intending to run - and the time difference (effectively only 3 hours) is vastly easier to overcome. When NYC marathon was cancelled in the wake of Hurricane Sandy it seemed like fate was on my side, and then when the other option, CIM, turned out to be a weather disaster (rain and gale-force winds), I figured Hawaii was definitely the place to be.

Secondly, as I proved at Boston earlier this year, hot weather isn't necessarily a disaster for me and my marathon performance. I ran - and won - a local 11km (6.75 mile) race recently in 90+ degree temperatures and full sun, averaging around 6:12 min/mile. I'm actually not sure if I do run better in cold conditions; at any rate, warmth doesn't seem to slow me down as much as it could. I think I'm fortunate in this regard.

The Training 
After the Wagga trail marathon in August, I recovered for a bit and then launched into my most ambitious (and strenuous) Pfitzinger training plan to date: a 12 week plan, peaking at 105 miles per week, and early on I set my goal marathon pace at 6:31 minutes per mile. This would, in theory, get me a race time of 2:50:30 - ambitious, for sure, but not necessarily impossible.

All this went quite well with no major niggles or threatened injuries, and during the cycle I ran a 10K PR (38:13, at the end of my 3rd consecutive week over 100 miles) and also a 5K PR in the same race (18:47ish). In my usual OCD style I added miles to the first week of taper, so my training cycle became 10 weeks averaging just under 97mpw, then a 2 week taper up to race day. 

The Travel 

Honolulu marathon has been described to me as the Japanese equivalent of Boston, and sure enough the first thing to strike me as we walked around Waikiki in the few days before the race was the incredible numbers of Japanese tourists, many of them dressed in outlandish running outfits (even when clearly not out for a run), and large groups of them jogging along the beachfront at Waikiki or doing strange stretching drills in the park. 

The expo was absolutely hilarious - very little merchandise, with Adidas as the only major sponsor, but everything with a distinct Japanese flavour. If I had wanted a pink frilly running skirt with fluorescent striped capri leggings attached, I could have been the happy owner of one that day. I have never seen cutlery on sale at a marathon expo before either, but I could have taken some home if I had wanted to.

To my surprise, the only type of energy gels on sale at this expo were Honey Stinger ones, a brand we don't have in Australia and which I have therefore never tried. GU gels are my usual choice, but it seemed dumb to bring some when they cost 1/3 as much in the USA as they do in Australia. When there were no GUs to be found, obviously I had to get something, so I chose a selection of flavours (both with and without caffeine) and hoped for the best.

For this marathon, as with CIM and Boston, I had the distinct advantage of being able to talk with friends who have run the course before and were able to make some wise observations, ones that would prove very useful to me during the race. Weslie - my CIM roommate and Oahu local - has run Honolulu many times and we drove part of the course together on our way to a VERY yummy brunch on Friday (thanks, Wes!). She made the comment that once you get back off the freeway there are only 4 miles to go, and that helped me a lot in planning the final miles of the race.

My final pre-race run was a nice 5 miler around Diamond Head with my other Honolulu-based RWOL friend Yo, who also talked me through the race and in particular the best approach to the hills that miles 7-9 and 24-25 would bring. We parted company at the finish line with a plan to meet near there again in just under 24 hours' time.

I finished that run with a 3 minute sprint down Waikiki beach (dodging surfboard-wielding tourists, possibly a rather foolhardy idea) and back in the hotel room I began my version of the Aussie carb-loading regime by drinking lots of Gatorade, followed by a day lounging around by the hotel pool gorging on bagels and toast, Clif bars, fries, peanut butter M&Ms….a smorgasbord of carbohydrates that left me feeling gross and full all day. After a comparatively light dinner we retired at 8:30pm with multiple alarms set all over the room, the earliest for 2:45am to ensure we would make it to the buses before 4am.

Race Day
I'm actually already awake before the first alarm goes off, and I have no trouble hopping straight out of bed and into my race outfit, which I have prepared (yes, OCD again) the night before and laid out with my shoes and various other accessories. At 3am I wash down a peanut butter Clif bar with some coffee-flavoured milk. By 3:30 I'm out the door and walking to Honolulu Zoo, where rows of buses are waiting to transport runners to the start line near Ala Moana.

At the start area there are indeed a LOT of people in what seems like fancy dress. I'm expecting to run the first 2 hours of the race in darkness, but it's 76F/24C already and so I'm wearing the bare minimum: a pink running bra, my lucky pink shorts, toe socks and my ageing ASICS Gel Racer 9s. Around me there are many people who look like they're going to be out there for 5 hours and more, but are wearing full-length tights and shirts, with all manner of weird clothing over the top. There's a person who appears to be dressed as a taco. And oh my god, over there is Minnie Mouse, the Asian runner dude whom I have seen at Boston and NYC already. This guy is everywhere!

I make a last-minute dash for the porta-johns, and then finally I push my way as close to the starting line as I can (Yo and Wes have both warned me that the self-seeded start is a total bunfight, with walkers up front going for the photo opportunity, so I have no qualms about shoving my way forwards) and wait for the gun. But there's no gun, instead there are fireworks! And so begins the 40th Honolulu Marathon, with me heading out to run the race of my life.

Miles 1-3: 6:28, 6:36. 6:20 (pace in min/mile)

It's not too congested, to my surprise, and I'm able to hit goal pace pretty easily for the first mile. Minnie Mouse appears to my left and charges ahead of me at the first intersection. Whoa - is he going too fast or am I going too slow? Checking my Garmin is something of a challenge since it's still pitch dark, but I manage it nonetheless. All around me are men (that's normal) and everyone pounds along in silence through the darkened streets. There are groups of cheering supporters here and there; at mile 2 they seem to be yelling out "Almost done!". Really?? Listening closer I conclude they are probably yelling something in Japanese. Or they are Japanese who really think we're nearly done. Either is possible I guess....

After 2.5 miles I decide it's time to take my first gel, a change in strategy that is entirely due to a recent discussion with my online running group about fueling. My skimpy outfit has made it a challenge to find places to store all 4 gels, so I have one in each pocket and two in my bra. The latter two are kind of annoying me, actually, so I fish one out and find it's strawberry flavour, with caffeine. I tear it open and manage to get it down.

Miles 4-6: 6:22, 6:22, 6:28

I'm able to effortlessly pick up the pace very slightly during this section, which takes us back through Waikiki and past our hotel.This is what Yo advised me to do, and so far I'm settling in very comfortably. Ahead of me is a guy wearing a retro-type red outfit and he has a mop of very curly hair that he has attempted to stuff into a dark cap. He reminds me of someone I know from RWOL - A Muse, who ran a 2:46 earlier this year - and he seems to be running exactly at my target pace. Shadowing him, whilst thinking over many of the bits of running wisdom that A Muse has imparted to me over the years (and some of the fights, including the time he called my roadrunner-210-steps-per-minute cadence "ridiculous"), keeps my mind happily occupied for these few miles.

Speeding along in the dark

During the latter part of mile 6 we approach the finish area but turn left and head around the edge of Kapiolani Park as we make our approach to Diamond Head. Suddenly I'm in amongst a group of maybe 6-8 guys. One of them asks me what place I'm in amongst the women. I laugh and tell him honestly that I have NO idea, but I'm not an elite. I'd love to stay and chat but I look at my Garmin and they're going way too slow, so I pull ahead and start chasing the next group: a tight-knit pack of 5 runners whom I will be seeing ahead of me for much of the next 2 hours. I go through the 10K mark in 40:14 - a bit faster than my stated goal pace, but on track to break 2:50. So far it still feels possible…..

Miles 7-9: 6:26, 6:39, 6:26

Rather evil elevation chart
Off we go up the steep hill that I've run so many times when I've been in Hawaii. It's every bit as steep as I remember, but I'm handling it well and soon I catch and pass the group ahead. One has a purple singlet with "COACH" on the back (I assume this is to do with running, not the luxury handbags) and another is shirtless with grey running shorts and yellow Newtons. They're clearly shooting for sub-2:50 and I wonder if I can stay with them for the rest of the race. A couple of wheelchair racers are struggling up the incline and I pass them too. God, that looks like bloody hard work.

As I continue upwards a street light must be out, because suddenly I'm running in almost total darkness. I can't check my Garmin at all so I just keep going, and mile 8 turns out to be my slowest so far. Quite abruptly there is also a very strong headwind, and I'm running by myself now so I can't tuck in behind anyone. It strikes me that this wind is going to be a big problem if it doesn't die down soon. Finally I reach the top of the hill and am rewarded with a sharp right hand turn into a moderately steep downhill. Time to make up some time, I hope. I take another gel at this point - ugh, it's a sickly honey flavour - and pray that it will give me speed.

Miles 10-12: 6:26, 6:31, 6:29

Through 10 miles in around 1:04, the Coach and his group (including Yellow Newton Dude) pass me again - they're going way faster than I want to right now, so I let them go. Heading onto the freeway the headwind is BRUTAL and I see sub-2:50 sliding away from me; never mind, I can still PR if I hold things together. The top wheelchair guys are on their way back now, and watching them keeps me distracted as I battle the wind that doesn't seem to want to let up. A couple of guys appear behind me - they're trying to draught off me, poor things - after half a mile I decide to let them do the work, but when I fall in behind them the pace drops to around 6:44. Too slow, ugh, so I step out and go back to forging my own path ahead. 

Miles 13-15: 6:39, 6:34, 6:35

I go through halfway in 1:25:54. That's a full minute off where I wanted to be at this stage, but there's no point worrying about that now. I'm watching for the male elites to be coming back on the other side of the road anytime now, and soon there they are: floating along, with the current world record holder Wilson Kipsang right in the middle of the pack. As usual it's totally thrilling to watch them pass, and any disappointment I felt at knowing that my A goal is not going to happen, dissolves in the joy of seeing the world's best marathoners at work.

Soon afterwards I get the shock of my life: around mile 14.5 something makes me glance to my left and there on the median strip I see a female elite (who looks Kenyan) lying prone beneath a palm tree. WTF??? She lifts her head, so I know she's not dead, but she doesn't look to be getting up anytime soon. There's an aid station about 400m ahead - as I pass through at speed, I start yelling at the volunteers "There's someone lying on the road back there!! I think she needs help!!" - it might seem harsh that I don't stop to render her assistance, but I'm pretty sure she would not have done anything different if the roles had been reversed. I keep yelling until I'm out of breath (which doesn't take long, unfortunately) and I need to get myself some water, too. Later I look through the results and find out her name: Doreen Ngunu, and she is indeed Kenyan. 

As I push on through the horrible headwind it does also occur to me that now there's one less female ahead of me; I still don't have any clue what place I'm in, but it just improved by one I guess! Yay? It might be karma but after having this thought I take my 3rd gel, and for whatever reason almost choke to death on the horrible thing. I think it's strawberry, or maybe banana flavour, but it's significantly runnier than my usual GU gels and half of it goes down the wrong way. The rest seems to stick in my throat, stinging and burning. YUK! I run onwards, spluttering, coughing, and trying not to throw up. Schadenfreude, anyone?

Miles 16-18: 6:37, 6:44, 6:23

Now we're at the far point of the race, around Hawaii Kai, and we gradually loop back so that the headwind finally becomes a tailwind. Paradoxically, mile 17 is my slowest of the entire race: either I'm just spent after all this time being blown backwards, or I lose focus dreaming about how nice it will be to have the wind at my back, or I'm just not paying attention. I manage to speed up enough in mile 18 to make some of it up, and as I head into the final part of the race a massive stream of runners is literally pouring along on the other side of the freeway now. Actually, quite a lot of them are yelling things at me like "Go girl!" and "Looking strong!", and it's very endearing. The nasty headwind and the near-lethal gel experience are forgotten and once again I'm enjoying the race. 

The tailwind is great but the humidity is significantly more noticeable now; also, the sun is finally coming up and it's warming up for real. I've been dumping water on my head since about mile 6 and I don't stop now - each water station is a repeat of Boston, where I sip some water and throw the rest all over myself. My hair and shorts are drenched, flapping against my head and legs respectively, and once again I probably look like a small, pink, drowning rat, but it worked then and I'm counting on it to work again today.

Miles 19-21: 6:36, 6:32, 6:36

During mile 19 I catch and pass Yellow Newton Guy, who tells me I'm doing great. I thank him and say "nice shoes" - who knows what he makes of that, at this point, but I hope he gets a laugh out of it. Weslie's sage advice helps me out a lot here; as mile 20 approaches I know it's only 2 miles until we get off the freeway, then 2 more to the top (almost) of Diamond Head, and then there will only be 2 more miles to go (well, just over, but whatever). This kind of mental trick is something I've used for well over 10 years and it helps me GREATLY again now. During mile 21 I am due to take my final gel - I fish it out of my bra and hang onto it for maybe half a mile before working up the courage to open the bloody thing. This time I'm using great caution so I only swallow half of it to start with; when this goes down okay I carefully suck down the rest and breathe a sigh of relief. 

Miles 22-24: 6:36, 6:29, 6:40

Off the freeway at last, I run past a gas station and around a sharp corner to the left. A grey-haired man standing beside the road yells at me "You're 10th woman and 51st overall!". I yell back as confirmation "10th??" and he replies "Yes! And there's a woman about a quarter mile ahead!" Oooh - yeah, I can see her - she looks Japanese and she's wearing all-over neon yellow. I don't think I have it in me to catch her now, but then again why not play a little game of Assassin Mode? It can't hurt at this point - I feel pretty strong, although speeding up may be harder than it sounds, particularly since we have the final hill coming up soon - so I fix my eyes on her and watch for the next half mile. Sure enough, I'm gaining on her, ever so slightly but I'm definitely gaining. Will I be able to get her??

During mile 23 the uphill part begins and I pass a guy in a blue shirt who looks familiar. I've actually traded places with him a fair few times during the race; when he sees me pass now, he starts yelling encouragement at me about Neon Girl ahead: "Go get her! You can do it! PUSH, PUSH, GO!!" I mutter to myself "Ok, ok, geez" - it's like he wants me to take off sprinting or something - and try to pick up the pace. Emphasis on "try", because at this point in a marathon it's rather tough to speed up, let alone do so on any sort of hill. But I push onwards and when I crest the final rise, there is Neon Girl maybe 100m ahead of me. Ooh, can I make my way into 9th place??

Miles 25-26: 6:39, 6:08

The downhill starts and I'm concentrating as hard as I can on putting one foot in front of each other, controlling my descent but at the same time letting it flow as fast as possible. Just behind Neon Girl is a person with a curly ponytail and girly-looking arms, although their legs are suspiciously hairy; it keeps me occupied for a while trying to figure out if this person is male or perhaps another female elite (albeit with some hippy inclinations), and if I can get them both then maybe I can finish in 8th place. As we hit the flat towards the end of mile 26, I conclude that no, it's a bloke for sure, and as I pass him Neon Girl is now within striking distance. I made up a LOT of time over mile 26 - but as we turn into the chute, my god that finish line is just SO far away. Put your head down, Rachel, and GO!!!

Last 0.2 miles 6:14 pace

Halfway down the finish chute I pull alongside Neon Girl at last. But she glances over, sees me there and puts on a kick that I just cannot match. It's taking all I have just to keep going; accelerating is out of the question. I hear Weslie screaming my name, but I'm too deep in the zone to acknowledge her.

I look up and see 2:52:00 approaching on the clock. I'm going to make it across in 2:51:x or die trying, so I dig deep and sure enough, I hit the line in 2:51:56. NEW PR!! WOO HOO!!

Official time: 2:51:56, 6:34 pace

Placement: 10th female, 38th overall, 1st in F40-44 AG (elites in their own group, sweet)

Splits: 1:25:54 / 1:26:02


I stand under the shower spray in the finish area until I'm completely drenched, and then walk slowly towards the water tables. I feel spent but nowhere near collapse, and I know I've run the best possible race I could have run today. Neon Girl sees me - she has beaten me by 8 seconds - and it's obvious she speaks no English. My schoolgirl Japanese is equally inadequate, so we smile at each other, shake hands and bow politely. As I make my way out I hear Weslie calling me, and together we wander into the finish area. We pass the Shiatsu massage tent and I go in for my first ever massage - who knows if it will help with recovery, but why not, right?

We meet up with Yo (3:01:40) and his Kiwi mate Richard (3:05:xx, and it turns out he's a bandit, something he did not care to disclose to any of us at the time!) and stand around under a huge banyan tree, happily talking about running and our plans to meet again in Boston.

On the leaderboard!!
The Analysis
Looks like 100mpw really works! Without the hills and the horror headwind, I think 2:50 might have been a real possibility, but in the face of it I think I made the most of the day and ran as well as I could have. An 8-second positive split is as close as I've ever come to perfectly even pacing and speaks volumes for my endurance, which is probably my greatest strength in marathon running. If only the weather gods will smile on Boston in 2013, the next - and possibly ultimate - goal of sub-2:50 may indeed be within my reach!


  1. Fantastic read!

    BTW, I don't think anyone can fault you for not stopping for that runner. It's a race. I can tell you that if I collapsed during a race and someone stopped to assist me, losing a PR in the process, I'd be pissed. There's race officials there - let them do their job, while you do yours (which is to race).

  2. Great race! I found a post of yours over at runningahead and then found this blog. Really well executed race despite the heat and humidity. Like you said, you can manage the heat pretty well. Family and I were in Waikiki in July and I ran quite a bit of the marathon route during my morning runs; clearly you handled both the out and back of the diamond head hill quite well. Great read. Thanks for the details!! Jeffrey.

  3. Man, it's hot in Wagga! No wonder you run in the early mornings (and do well in warm marathons).

    Well done on the PB and 10th place. Definitely a 2:4X:XX there for you at Boston if the weather is kind. Still don't know why 2012 was a 'blah' year - 38 10k, 18 5k, 2:51 marathon. Wish I was that ordinary ;-)

  4. I never got a chance to congratulate you on yet another awesome performance. Placing 10th is definitely a fantastic result, and methink you have even faster times in you. Thanks for a great RR.

  5. I have no clue how I stumbled upon your blog from a link to to a link to a link, but I love it! congrats on such a great marathon! almost even splits with hills and win? good race!

  6. Hello,

    I have a question about your blog, could you please email me? Thanks!!


  7. Excellent quality articles are here. This is good site with useful info. gait analysis

  8. Hey I just totally randomly came across your blog, I had a chuckle when I was reading this because I am the Yellow Newton Guy! I'm so glad to see that you are still continuing to kick butt as I've gathered from your most recent posts, keep up the great work! BTW I still have the yellow Newtons, wore them this morning but I think they are getting close to retirement. Oh and Yo is a friend of mine and we used to run together on weekends, small world!