Stories make the race

The question came to Jeff Sacchini years ago while he was running near his Poipu home: “Why does Kauai not have a world-class running event on a world-class island?”

Kauai had lost the Grand Slam of Golf and was without what Sacchini felt was a signature event. A marathon, done right, could be just such an event, he thought. It could attract visitors, bolster the economy, unite the community, create an emphasis on healthy living and raise money for nonprofits.

In 2009, the first Kauai Marathon was held — and it’s still running strong. Around 1,700 runners (more than 600 locals), with 15 countries represented, will toe the starting line at 6 a.m. Sunday for the sixth marathon or half marathon.

It’s become what the race founder envisioned.

“It’s morphed into what I hoped it would be going into year six in every way,” Sacchini said.

The economic impact of the marathon, since its inception, is estimated at more than $15 million. And, including this year, donations to nonprofits have topped $80,000. There is a strong volunteer core, too. And the island has a steadfast contingent of residents committed to fitness.

Sacchini, who recently celebrated his 50th birthday, could cut costs, save money and go a cheap route.

The operating expenses for the marathon are about $400,000, and it’s not easy landing financial support.

He believes in the race. He believes it will continue to grow and more sponsors will come on board. He believes it is a benefit for Kauai. He is proud that it’s no longer necessary to leave Kauai to participate in a marathon.

“I think Kauai deserves a first-class event,” he said.

Sacchini is a dedicated runner with a personal best of three hours, 9 minutes in the marathon. For more than three decides, he’s been clocking 30-mile weeks at a steady pace. At 5 feet, 11 inches, running keeps his 180-pound frame lean and solid and his mind sharp.

“I love running. I love clearing my head,” he said.

But he’s never run his own marathon on the island where he’s had a home since the mid-90s. No time. Too busy on race day, when he rises by 2 a.m. Still too many details to be sure are handled — from the starting line electronic mats to the aid stations throughout the course to the food, drink and awards for finish line festivities. His cellphone never leaves his side.

“I’d feel horrible if something happened,” he said.

Sunday, his energy will go into making everything click.

He loves it that the marathon and the half start together in Poipu and have the same finish line, too, next to the ocean. He loves the awards celebration with emcee Dickie Chang calling up runners. He loves the finish line with radio personality Ron Wiley greeting weary runners.

The marathon course, which includes the hills of Kalaheo and Lawai, is considered one of the toughest road races around.

“I probably wish I didn’t make the marathon course so difficult,” he said.

His store, Living Foods Gourmet Market and Cafe Shops which he recently purchased with Howard Warner, will be providing some of the post-race food, including fresh, organic sandwiches and some pastries.

“This is what I do, Living Foods and the marathon,” Sacchini said.

As founder of the Kauai Marathon, he said the greatest reward is not the race. It’s the human interest stories he hears from runners on marathon weekend as they gather for the expo at the Grand Hyatt. He hears of a son running in honor of his father. He is privy to the tale of a mom taking on the marathon in remembrance of a daughter. He chats with the woman from the Mainland who is here to raise money for the American Cancer Society because she lost a sister to cancer. He spends time with family and friends who live states apart, but fly in to run this race together.

It’s the interaction with people that Sacchini treasures most.

“People are motivated often times in life to run for others. They run in honor of others,” he said.

A marathon gives people a goal. Training for it creates a lifelong habit. Race day is an experience they will never forget and Sacchini does his best to be sure it’s a fond memory filled with smiles.

“For me, hearing the stories, the emotional stories of people, spouses, folks running for others, weight loss, it never ceases to amaze me how many people have a story, very compelling stories, that bring a tear to my eye every year,” he said.

Five years in a row, he said, he’s cried as someone has shared their story. This year, he expects, won’t be any different.

“I’m sure I’ll cry again,” he said.

•••

Bill Buley, editor-in-chief, can be reached at 245-0457 or bbuley@thegardenisland.com.

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