Kauai Marathon: People make the difference

Big smiles.

Happy faces.

Fist pumps.

High fives.

Hands raised in victory.

Those were the reactions of many runners crossing the finish line Sunday at the Ninth annual Kauai Marathon and Half Marathon. It was a glorious day out there. A record number of registrations. A new record in the half marathon. Repeat champions. A new champion.

There are moms and dads. Brothers and sisters. Husbands and wives. Dads and daughters. Friends. Firefighters. Elected officials. TV personalities. Resort managers. Shop owners. Retail clerks. Editors.

It was a festive crowd. Yes, the 26.2-mile full marathon and the 13.1-mile half marathon were well organized. The award ceremonies were fun. The post-race party at the Koloa Landing Resort was just as good as you could hope with many weary but satisfied runners.

What stands out about this event, what makes it so special, though, isn’t how fast people ran. It isn’t how many people ran. It isn’t even why they ran.

What makes this marathon a class act, why it continues to attract more locals, is the spirit. The aloha. The good will. The simple joy of the day that comes with running with a few thousand others who share you goal on this day: To start together, to love the journey and to finish well.

That’s all one could ask for, and that’s what happened Sunday morning.

The Start

The AC/DC song “Thunderstruck” is blasting out a few minutes before the start. Hundreds of running are milling about waiting, anxious.

“Everyone behind the line,” shouts JT Service, one of the emcees. “Let’s try to keep the middle of the street free and clear.”

I look around and see many familiar faces and do the rounds to collect hugs and high fives and exchange good wishes. Smilie Punzal and brother Joel Punzal. Dawson Okinaka. Basil Scott. Jimmy McDougall. Tyler McCandless. My friends Ron Wiley and Dickie Chang. Art Umezu offers encouraging words from the sidelines. This is my favorite part of the race. Enthusiasm and energy overflow. Nothing but good vibes. I glance back at the sea of runners stretching far back on Poipu Road. I wave to my wife and suddenly, Service is counting down.

“We’re going to go in five, four, three, two, one, aloha!”

And we’re off.

The early journey

Early miles in a marathon are some of the easiest you will ever run. You’re in cruise control, barely breathing, chatting with runners an enjoying the cool air. My buddy McDougall eases past me. He’s running the half, I’m in the whole, which is good, I think, because he beat me last year and would probably beat me again.

We chat for a second, and he pulls away.

“Good luck out there,” I say.

He waves back. “You too.”

On the bypass road, it’s beautiful. The sun is rising and it is peaceful, a delight to be here. At one of the early water stops, my friends Pam Varma and Lincoln Gill are volunteering. They shout and smile as I pass, and a few seconds later I see Lori Benkert, who also waves and yells. “Go Bill.”

I heed the words of Tyler McCandless, a six-time winner here, to go easy early.

On the Tree Tunnel, the sun is climbing over the mountains and shadows are falling across the road in front of me. It turn to the man running next to me. “How glorious is this?”

He nods.

“This is beautiful,” he said.

Yes, it is.

Omao and beyond

This is the most enjoyable stretch of the race. A nice, gradual downhill for a few miles. Residents come out, sit, watch, drink coffee. Some hand out water and hold signs.

I say good morning about 25 times and thank them for coming out.

They respond:

“Keep it up.”

“Looking good.”

“Way to go.”

We’re about 10 miles in and my legs are feeling tired, but that’s to be expected. My training wasn’t great, but enough to get me through.

I see Diann Hartman off to the side as I run on.

“Hey Diann,” I shouted.

Through the hills and around the corner, I hear the beat of taiko drums. A welcome sound, but also, it signals the worst is to come. It’s shortly after here that half marathoners go left back toward Poipu and the finish line, while full marathons continue up Koloa Road and begin a 10 mile battle with the hills of Lawai and Kalaheo. Up and down. Somehow, it seems all up.

Some ask me, why don’t I just run the half.

Perhaps I should. I know I hate hills. But I love this race.

Lawai and Kalaheo

The hills are just as long and relentless and mean and nasty as I remember. I continue my slow and easy mantra because, frankly, I couldn’t go fast.

The good news is, my legs kept moving at a slow jog. I was not forced to walk.

A few things got me through. First, GU and electrolyte capsules. I was taking one every 2 miles. The sodium and magnesium and the caffeine helped. I’m a believer.

Less scientific, but another jolt, mentally and spiritually: The people. During all that up and downs of the hills, there was a constant. People cheering, encouraging, wishing us well, yelling for us. I got high fives and big whoops from Chris Young, Rotarian and fundraiser extraordinaire. My friend Bettejo Dux had a beer ready for me, but I couldn’t stop for fear my legs would lock up. I saw Fran McDonald and slapped hands. Curt Colby urged me on. Garrett Scales told I was looking strong as I started up yet another hill.

There were hula dancers, musicians, cheerleaders and football players out there. It made a difference.

Home Stretch

With three miles to go, I hear someone yell my name. “Bill Buley!”

Who is it? Whoever it is, he is charging up from behind. I’m too weary to look back and plod on. A minute later, my friend Kawaihoola Curnan goes by and he is flying, smiling, looking fresh. He slows briefly to get a drink at the aid station, then pulls alongside me. I don’t want to slow him down. “You’re looking strong. Go. You might be Kauai’s first runner.”

With a smile and wave, he’s gone.

I can’t summon any last drive, any final kick. I’m sure my time must be around 4:15 or so, as slowly as I’m moving. As when I round the final course and see the clock says 3:59, I am suddenly happy. Yes! I will break 4 hours. Barely, but I will.

Ron Wiley, announcer, brings me home. “Bill Buley, editor of The Garden Island newspaper!”

Thanks Ron. Really. I felt at the same time like the tired old and yet, a champion.

A medal is placed around my neck, my friend Renato Desouza gives me a smile and nods. I find my wife.

The next hour or so is a blur, really, of eating and drinking and talking with people and hearing stories of their races and asking questions.

What became clear to me wasn’t that most people were fretting about their time or place or personal bests, though for someone like me, that’s usually what counts.

What I will never forget, as I wandered and talked story and watched the faces and expressions of those around me, was the aloha spirit. The delight, the pride, the courage, the confidence, the camaraderie, the resolve and strength and optimism everyone shared with me that day, was something I wish I could hold onto forever.

I want to carry the blessing of that day with me every step, every mile, in this journey of life.

You know?

I can. And I will.


Bill Buley is editor of The Garden Island. He can be reached at bbuley@thegardenisland.com


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