• Lee Murray

Honolulu in the Run up to Christmas

Imagine Christmas without Bing Crosby, Christmas cards, and sleigh bells in the snow. Picture instead banyan trees, floral leis, and paddle boards in the surf. And all that’s required to put yourself in this picture is run a marathon.

The Honolulu Marathon is held annually in the run-up to Christmas. What better excuse for dodging those office parties, end-of-year functions and jingle-infested department stores?  I sling a couple of sundresses and my trainers in a bag, and disembark on Hawaii’s island of O‘ahu with a day in hand. Enough time to get my bearings, pick up my race-pack, and test the pool loungers at my Waikiki resort.


Race registration is at the Hawaii Convention Centre, where the four-day race expo is in full swing. It’s a cultural excursion into the world of running, and particularly Japanese running, since Japanese visitors make up more than half of the 25,000 participants. It’s a cornucopia of vitamins, electrolyte drinks, nutritional gels, anti-chafe ointments, human anti-freeze in cans, contortionist orthopaedic devices, sunglasses, and even a beef chilli stand, but paradoxically, not a single pair of running shoes. Everywhere gaggles of Japanese runners break into synchronised stretching, the way actors in musicals break into song. Others queue patiently for the latest in titanium-infused bracelets, button patches and strapping, known to confer supernatural running abilities, and – strangely – not yet banned by the IAAF.


On race day, I rise at 4am and force-feed myself cereal bought at a nearby ABC store. ABC, I decide, is an acronym for Another Bloomin’ Convenience store. There are 39 on O‘ahu, and 37 of them are in Waikiki. Handy though, when you find yourself short of sunscreen, jandals, or novelty key-rings.


After some nervous fiddling with my race number, I slip from the hotel. Quietly, from out of the darkness, runners and supporters materialise, joining the exodus to Ala Moana Beach Park. I meet Linda from Washington, a 9-time Honolulu marathoner. Using her special powers, Linda magics me through the park to squeeze into the throng just minutes from the official start line. At 5am fireworks explode and the crowd erupts as a cascade of golden droplets herald the start of the 37th Honolulu Marathon. We move off, a heaving cord of humanity, leaving in our wake a soupçon of cordite and liniment.


The downtown loop twinkles in its Christmas best. Runners pass by the Aloha clock tower, Chinatown, the Iolani Palace, a statue of King Kamekameha, a coral church, city hall, and the Mission Houses Museum. In the dark, navigating crowds and curbs, I miss them all.


We come to Waikiki, a delicious stir-fry of designer stores and market stands, served up alongside Hawaii’s best-known sizzler, Waikiki Beach, now sullen and solitary in the shadows. At around 10km, we climb the foothills of Le‘ahi, or Diamond Head, the dramatic volcanic backdrop to every Waikiki postcard, its 232m summit obscured in the half-light.


Over the crest, day breaks, allowing me to see my fellow participants: Minnie Mouse, the Swan Queen, a Baywatch babe in a bikini, Rip van Winkle, Hello Kitty, and Darth Vader, the Force sadly not with him. Running behind a group of monogrammed shirts, I amuse myself saying Yumi, Yuki, Yemaybe and Nana in my kiwi accent.


Following the Kalanianaole Highway, we chart the coastline through Honolulu suburbia. The sun gods are testing us now, and I take Linda’s advice: hug the shade, the outside, the seaside, and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. I fill my hat with ice, mumbling silent curses at speedy oncoming runners, already on their way home. Finally, I reach Hawaii Kai, where we circle a lagoon and double back. Local bands play Mustang Sally and When the Boys Light Up. Accompanied by the shouts of supporters, it’s stirring stuff. I’m grateful, because with all the humidity my trusty iPod refuses to co-operate.


The return trip is slow, sultry and searing. A cheeky zephyr breaks away from the sea, taunts me briefly, then dashes off. We turn off the highway into glitzy Kahala, Hawaii’s Beverly Hills, where I’ll be moving when I win the Lotto. Opulent gates of embossed copper both hide and hint at luxury.

At last I make a slow but happy return over Diamond Head. There’s only a kilometre to go, a hot one through Hawaii’s original state park to the finish line and the frantic applause of 50,000 supporters. I cross the line, elated. Enthusiastic officials award me my medal and handmade shell lei, and I’m ecstatic until I spy something I want more.

A cold shower!

I rush over and douse myself. Minutes pass. I’m in heaven. Eventually, reluctantly, I give way to other runners, crossing the park to collect my commemorative finishers’ T-shirt. It’s overlarge and in overripe pineapple yellow, but today, in Honolulu, it’s better than Prada. Not yet 10am and I’ve run a marathon! I sit on the grass under a palm, gazing out to sea contemplating my wonderfulness.


The marathon over, I can relax. I begin with a beachside festin of macadamia-encrusted mahi-mahi and fresh fruit, followed by a lazy afternoon sailing on Mamala Bay, Waikiki curved like a bracelet before me, warm trade winds carrying me alongside the marathon course the easy way. I celebrate my success with the Outrigger Catamaran cocktail in its special plastic shaker.

‘I ran the marathon,’ I tell my host. He takes my picture.


Just before sunset I join Linda and her friends at Dukes iconic beach club, where the atmosphere is so mellow it’s anaesthetising. The waterfront bar, packed with celebrating marathoners, is a shrine to pioneering surfer, Olympic Gold medallist, and all-round nice guy, Duke Kahanamoko. Henry Kapona, Dukes’ regular Sunday gig, offers his lullaby to the sun as she slips into sheets of shimmering ocean, completing a perfect day.


The next day, in true Hillary tradition, I climb Diamond Head. It’s not far, but in deference to my tired limbs I take the bus to the crater floor. The hike to the top is steep and rocky with numerous switchbacks, so I’m surprised to see a hiker in dainty kitten heels. The trail was built in 1908 as part of US Army Coastal Artillery Defense system, which explains the unattractive bunker at its apex. But the view is dazzling, encompassing Hawaii Kai to the south, and Waikiki and Pearl Harbour to the north. I point to the tents on Kapiolani Park.

‘There’s the marathon finish,’ I tell anyone who cares to listen.

A day tour of the island reveals many contradictions: calm snorkelers’ coves that contrast with pounding white-tipped surf, and craggy misted peaks descending to baking volcanic plateaux. Five-star resorts sit alongside shrimp shacks, and crops of sweet sugar and pineapple do battle for space against bitter coffee and smooth macadamia. In the north, I fall in love with the sacred Waimea Valley, where lush monkey pod canopies shade ancient archaeological sites, and the protected ’alae’ula resides (the Hawaiian moorhen – not unlike New Zealand’s pukeko).

‘I did the marathon,’ I tell my Waimea guide. He did, too. Kindred spirits, we bemoan our niggly knees as we stroll the beautiful Arboretum, home to over 5000 tropical plant species. He points out the cannonball tree laden with its eponymous gourds; the fresh red coffee beans, and glossy black peppercorns on the vine. On an upper trail, a kilometre into the valley, the Waihi Falls create a natural swimming hole.


I wisely submit to a post-marathon therapeutic massage, a brutal fusion of Swedish, Shiatsu and Lomi-lomi techniques. It’s incredible, and away from the resort, affordable too. I devise a game of spot-the-marathoner. Could that be a marathoner cooling off by the pool, ordering sushi, learning to paddleboard, or browsing the International Market, I wonder? Yellow shirts are the norm at the Ala Moana Centre, as I tear around the 250 air-conditioned specialist stores in search of last-minute pressies, but only a handful are at the Honolulu Aquarium watching the endangered monk seal loaf in the sun, and even fewer take advantage of happy hour at Moose McGillycuddy’s Irish Pub. At Pearl Harbour, I forget to look, too moved by the submerged battleship Arizona, the final resting place of more than one thousand Americans. By the end of the week, diminishing numbers of pineapple shirts tell me it’s time to go.

‘I did the marathon!’ I tell everyone when I’m home again, delighted to get my precious shell lei through customs. I extend the holiday by declaring ours an Hawaiian Christmas, mixing up mai tais, and serving barbequed fish and thick slices of pineapple. The children get Hawaiian print boardies and fake frangipani hairclips from the International Market. My brother-in-law seems satisfied with his souvenir Outrigger shaker. I needn’t have splashed out on the cocktail ingredients, after all.

Naturally, there is no such thing as Christmas without Bing: no one gets off that easily. Even in Hawaii, Bing reigns supreme. So Mele Kalikimaka to you.


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© 2018 by Lee Murray