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Jeff Sacchini: Kauai’s Marathon Man

Running, says Jeff Sacchini, keeps his mind sharp.

Good thing.

With his busy schedule, he must always be thinking ahead.

With more than 2,000 runners expected for the 9th annual Kauai Marathon and Half Marathon set for next Sunday, Sacchini is using his laser-like focus on detail to be sure everything is in place and ready to go — well before the 6 a.m. race start and long after the final runners and walkers have finished.

It’s the same approach that has helped the husband and father succeed in the business world (he’s co-owner of Living Foods Market and The Lanai restaurant at Kukuiula Village Shopping Center in Poipu).

Sacchini recently sat down with The Garden Island to talk story about the Kauai Marathon.

How are things coming together this year?

They’re coming together well. A few changes this year. We’re moving the marathon start and finish, which is exciting. We initially moved the finish line to Koloa Landing, which of course precipitated having to move the start to compensate. It’s about two-tenths of a mile back, then we’re moving the finish line back the same two-tenths. We’re keeping everything right on track with the 13.1 and 26.2.

We’re excited our new partner. I really feel Koloa Landing has stepped up and been a true partner with us. They not only get the event, from Todd Hadley, president, all the way done, they appreciate running, they appreciate the rooms that we’re filling. More importantly, they appreciate the spirit of what we’re trying to do from a charitable standpoint and what we’re trying to do with bringing people on island and what that stands for.

How did you come to start the Kauai Marathon?

In ’07 I was running from my house and I ran out toward Mahaulepu. It was one of those glorious sunrises, a little bit of clouds, it was red, I’ll never forget it and I’m saying to myself, most people aren’t out running at 6 in the morning, and they have no idea how beautiful it is to start your day with some kind of run. And I said to myself, “Why am I alone out here running? Why doesn’t Kauai have a professionally run, organized race? I don’t understand why we can’t have a half marathon and a full marathon.” That really started the wheels in my mind.

So I get back from that run, I told my wife “I got this idea.” She’s been listening to me for years coming up with crazy ideas. I made a few calls, a few people laughed, a few were questioning my sanity, wanting to spend all this money to organize a race. I thought to myself, “If I listened to everybody my whole life why I can or can’t do something, I probably wouldn’t have done a quarter of the things in my life.”

What happened next?

I started the wheels in motion three or four months later when I met with the late Mayor Bryan Baptiste. I wanted this to be charitable minded, I wanted to make this event something special to Kauai so everybody could embrace it.

There was a real kindred connection with him. He was a very big man and his heart was equally as big as he was. And I could tell by the twinkle in his eye he was going to make it happen. To really pull this event off it was a real partnership; between the private money my wife and I put in, what (the county) was committing to do to make it happen. To his credit, he pulled it off.

Once we got the course certified, we were off to the races.

When you set up the course, what did you want people to see?

I wanted people to be able to see the real flavor and beauty of the people of Kauai. That’s why I wanted to include Omao Road, that’s why I wanted to include Kalaheo and Kukuiolono, to get up in there and back into the real Kauai.

What do you think today?

I didn’t realize it would morph into Kauai’s signature event. Based on Hawaii Tourism Authority’s own formula, it’s the largest economic impact event of anything on island. I think it’s around $3.5 million economic impact. That’s a big deal.

Are there some highlights over the years you could chat about?

The highlights for me tend to be around the emotions of that weekend and what happens, why people come and run. Whether it was the first year, a girl finished on crutches, nine years later, that’s still front and center. I like to hang around the expo, that’s where you talk story with the runners, that’s where you really get the flavor of the event and why people are here. We’ve had some amazing charities involved with the event the last eight or nine years. To hear all the stories, and there’s so many.

I remember talking to a gal at the finish line who, with her husband was going to run their first half marathon together. He passed away a couple months before they did the event. She came up completely teary-eyed and said, “I’m running, and as I’m running, my hand’s going to be held open because I know he’s right there with me.”

Pretty much every year, there is something like that. That’s what, for me, is one of the things I least expected, and one of the things about putting this on is getting to know the people and the stories behind the motivation of wanting to run.

Where does the Kauai Marathon rank for you in terms of career accomplishments?

I’ve done a lot of crazy things in my life and my wife will tell you this is one of many crazy things. This crazy thing actually turned out to be one of the cooler things we’ve done in terms of giving back. Frankly, we work hard 52 weeks out of the year. It’s Bob (Craver, race director) working 52 weeks, Robin (Jumper, public relations) working 52 weeks and me working 52 weeks. Our planning starts Monday after Sept. 4 this year. We’re focusing on 2018.

What does it take?

There’s so many moving parts. You show up at the start, you go out and run, it all seems to flow perfectly. The reality is, there’s 52 weeks of planning that goes into everything as it relates to the food, the course, the sound system, the timing equipment, the finish line. So many moving parts. Police with road closures, volunteers, hundreds of people out on the course, putting the event on, if you don’t plan and organize it in advance, something that looks relatively easy to pull together could end up being an absolute disaster. You’ve got to have somebody leading that orchestra and getting things just right.

What motivates you to keep going each year?

For me, getting to sit back and know all those moving parts came together, the race started on time, everybody showed up at the aid stations, everybody had a fantastic event, nobody got hurt, making sure the finish line is well stocked with food, drinks, band aids, all the things you need, ice, compression, physical therapy. When you sit back at the end of that night and our celebration party that night, there are some tired people, but we’re happy. All the uplifting stories, that night, Sunday night, is enjoying knowing we were able to successfully executive the completion of another event.

The Kauai Marathon continues to grow. Why do you think it’s developed such a following?

A couple different reasons. We built a reputation as having a very organized and professionally run event. The start and finishes are spectacular and the course speaks for itself.

I think for those reasons, we’ve created a nice stir, word of mouth. And as the economy continues to do better, I think more and more people are willing to open up their wallet and spend a little money to come and run a destination event.

The full marathon is a very difficult course, lots of hills. Have you considered changing the course to make it easier and perhaps attract more runners?

We could probably get another 300 to 500 people if we had a flatter course. It really scares people away from our event, especially in the state. We have a reputation as a really, really tough race. It might be one of the toughest road races in the world. But we don’t have any plans to change it.

You’ve never run your own race. Will you?

I hope so. I would like to. Maybe for the 10-year anniversary I’ll run the half. It would be fun to do. I always felt I’m so busy, so tired. I’m up by 2, by the time I’m done unloading trucks and getting things going, the parking, I’m out there directing traffic making sure pedestrians are safe, by the time 6 o’ clock comes around to start the race, I’m a little tired. But I would love to do it.

How long have you been a runner?

I ran cross country in high school. Ran 16:48 for 5K. I was pretty fit back then. It was painful during the race but I remember feeling so good afterward. I carried that through to college. I enjoyed weekend runs, I enjoyed getting up before class and going out and doing five- and six-mile runs. Back then I didn’t know what my pace was. I just wanted to go out and get a 40- to 50-minute sweat. It’s kind of stayed with me my whole life. When I got out of college, I fit runs in when I could. I have always been an early morning runner.

What are the benefits of running for you?

It’s important for me, probably less physical. I run to keep mentally sharp. I know a lot of times my wheels are always spinning. I sometimes get caught up with my intensity and all the things going on, I need to get away from phones, get away from people and just clear my head. I’ve had some of my clearest thoughts out running. It clears my head so much when I come back. It’s like “Get out of my way, I know exactly what needs to be done.” I don’t feel quite right if I don’t start my day with a run. There’s no better way than to wake up in the morning and go for a run.

Are there a few things you would like to tell the community about the marathon that perhaps they don’t know?

I didn’t do such a good job the first three or four years of explaining we’re a nonprofit, we’re committed to the charity aspect of giving back and having that be part of the community. We have given over $100,000 to nonprofits on the island over the last nine years.

The other real cool thing is, I don’t think people realize, we have 2,000 runners. People on the North Shore don’t realize how big a race is it, how meaningful this is in economic impact.

Our youth running program is another component I’m very proud of. We do a lot to encourage young runners. This year, we’re giving away free shoes to the top five boys and girls in the half marathon under age 18. The keiki races the day before the marathon are wonderful to see. We give scholarships to high school runners.

And we have great partnerships with Kauai Coffee, Wilcox Health and the Grand Hyatt. Our partnerships have helped us grow, evolve and move forward.

Is it where expected it to be, regarding number of runners?

I would have thought it would have been a little bigger, frankly. I knew we would be limited with rental cars and hotel rooms and the logistics on the course. This will never be a 20,000 people event. One, I’d never let it, and two, we just couldn’t accommodate that from a safety standpoint. And it’s really tough to draw people to these destination events. It’s expensive to get here and they have a lot of options out there.

The Maui Marathon has been around forever. They had 2,400 people last year for an event that’s been around 50 years.

I’d like to see it grow, I think the perfect amount would be if we could get to to 3,000. I think the roads could handle it, the infrastructure is there. That would be an ideal number for us.

But don’t get me wrong. I’m happy with where we’re at. Now that we’re doing 2,000 plus, I’m thrilled with that number. If we could grow it to 2,500 and eventually get it to 3,000 I’d be thrilled. If it stays at 2,000, we’ll feel good about it and put on a great race.

When everything is over and done with the marathon and half marathon and everyone is gone and the finish line is put away, what do you like to do?

I celebrate two ways. I go sit in the ocean and cool down from being in the heat and being up so early. And then we huddle everybody, the staff, the volunteers anybody involved, all of our sponsors, we do a post-race party that night.

We give some speeches. It’s just a good way for everybody to get together and rehash the day, all the funny things that happened, hopefully no bad things.

It’s a lot of laughing, it’s a lot of high fiving, a lot of, “We pulled another one off.”

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