3 Reasons the Honolulu Marathon is the Best US Marathon for First Timers

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Honolulu Marathon Hawaii Best US Marathon

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Inside: Why the Honolulu Marathon is the best marathon in the US for first timers (plus what it’s like to run the race from an 11-time finisher).

I took up running in 2003 and to this day I still can’t really explain why. And I definitely didn’t expect to enjoy it.

But 20 years later and with 17 marathons across 4 continents under my belt, it’s safe to say I fell in love with running somewhere along the way.

Back then, I had just started traveling frequently for business and my gym membership card was gathering dust. I quickly realized I needed a form of exercise I could do anywhere – gym or no gym – or I was going to gain 50lbs eating airplane food and room service.

As is often the case in my life, I start something new and then quickly decide to take it to a ridiculous extreme.

Exhibit A: From “Hey, I like to travel!” to 10 Trips Around the World.

So I started running out of necessity. But then something crazy happened.

I actually started to like it.

It turned out to be the perfect way to explore a new city (something else I enjoy). And I began to crave the quiet thinking time that a 3 or 4 mile run gave me.

I also realized that while I could barely run a mile the first time I tried, each time I went for a run I was able to go just a little bit farther without dying.

I’m a sucker for any athletic endeavor that yields progress quickly.

So, how did I go from running a mile to running a marathon in a single year?

The decision to run a marathon

My new hobby quickly turned into an obsession and within six months I started thinking about running a marathon.

I love a good challenge and training to run a marathon (and completing one) was something I wanted to check off my Bucket List.

But running 26.2 miles is kind of a big deal and I wanted to pick the best race for me.

So which marathon to choose?

There are a LOT of unknowns when you sign up for a marathon but the biggest questions are:

  • Can I even finish a marathon?
  • If I can finish, how long will it take?

While I loved running, I knew that I was truthfully more of a jogger. So marathons with a finish time cutoff were a no-go. And that ruled out most of them.

I didn’t want to go through months of training only to be unable to finish the race and feel like a giant loser.

Here’s the thing about your first marathon..

The reason you never really know if you can finish it is because you never actually run 26.2 miles in your training. Most marathon training programs top out with a final training run of 20-22 miles.

So you show up at that start line and just pray that race day adrenaline will carry you the rest of the way to 26.2.

My only other marathon requirements?

Since I love to travel, I wanted my marathon trip to feel like a vacation. So it had to be someplace beautiful where I could relax and do nothing for a few days after the race.

And, for practical health-related reasons, it had to be somewhere in the United States. You never know what can happen when you push your body to a new limit and this didn’t seem like the time to attempt, say, the Marrakech Marathon (though I did that one a few years later – zero stars, do not recommend).

Honolulu Marathon Best US Marathon for First Timers

3 Reasons to Choose the Honolulu Marathon

The only race that met all of those conditions was the Honolulu Marathon. And honestly, it was a no-brainer.

The 5th largest marathon in the country – behind NYC, Chicago, Boston, and DC’s Marine Corps Marathon – the Honolulu Marathon hosts more than 20,000 runners each December (at least in the pre-Covid days).

With its proximity to Japan, the majority of those runners are Japanese. 

Here’s why it’s the absolute best choice for first-time marathoners:

1. No finish time cutoff

The race website proudly proclaims it as “the only world-class marathon that allows ALL participants to finish.” Whether it takes you 4 hours or 14, you’ll be allowed to cross that finish line and get your t-shirt and medal.

2. No qualifications to enter

Unlike the New York and Boston Marathons that require entrants to pre-qualify, the Honolulu Marathon has no pesky qualifications to enter. Another reason it’s the perfect race for a first time marathoner.

3. Amazing crowd support & a beautiful course

Ok, technically, that’s two reasons. But seriously, as far as marathon courses go in the United States, it’s impossible to beat the beauty of the Honolulu Marathon route. The crowd support is awesome (I have run other races where it’s non-existent) and the whole race is just a fantastic experience.

But most importantly, you’re literally running in paradise. And how can you argue with post-race mai tais on Waikiki Beach?

You can’t, my friends. You truly can’t. (Don’t even try.)

Waikiki Beach Diamond Head Oahu Hawaii
The post-race recovery zone

My first Honolulu Marathon

So, I signed up, trained for 4 months and ran my first Honolulu Marathon in December of 2003.

I was sure it would be a one-time achievement (and somewhere around mile 22 I was positive it would be).

But the crazy thing is, the second I crossed that finish line after 6+ hours, I knew I would do it again. And I did, 10 more times between 2004 and 2018 (my most recent marathon).

The Honolulu Marathon was my first and most recent and by far my favorite of the 17 marathons I’ve completed. But I’ve also run a few around the world during my travels:

  • Rio De Janeiro Marathon (fewest runners – just 200 – but absolutely stunning course)
  • Toronto Marathon (worst weather – 40’s, rain, gusting wind)
  • Calgary Marathon (best weather & my personal best time 4:28)
  • Mont Blanc Marathon (gorgeous course in the Alps but the altitude is a killer)
  • Marrakech Marathon (3 words:  carbon monoxide fumes…ugh)
  • Mayor’s Marathon Anchorage, Alaska (moose on the course at Mile 22!!)
Honolulu Marathon Race Finisher Shirts
The all-important finisher t-shirts

But if you’re thinking of running a marathon and you’ve stumbled across this post, you’re probably wondering…

What’s it like to run the Honolulu Marathon?

Since attempting that first marathon back in 2003, I’ve always wanted to try to put the unique experience into words. 

So, a while back, after finishing my 10th marathon (and 5th Honolulu race), I took a stab at it on my Round-the-World site. Here’s an excerpt of that post: Eat, Pray, Run: A Honolulu Marathon Diary

My Honolulu Marathon Diary

After running this race 5 times in the past few years, I’ve got my 5-day Honolulu experience down to a science.

Day 1 – Arrival in Honolulu

The day begins with a 10-hour flight from Atlanta to Honolulu, landing mid-afternoon. I arrive at the hotel just in time to watch the sunset with a mai tai, then it’s straight to bed. 

My goal on Day 1 is always to stay as close as possible to home time (Eastern US) until the race. This makes getting up at 2:30am on race day so much easier!

Day 2 – Diamond Head Hike & Race Expo

5am:  Up early for a brisk walk to Diamond Head followed by a hike to the top for panoramic sunrise views. After the hike, stop by the KCC Farmer’s Market for a fresh fruit smoothie.

Note: This is my favorite way to spend my morning on the day after arrival on Oahu!

9am:  Race Expo! Time to pick up my race number and check out all the running goodies at the expo.

Honolulu Marathon Race Expo
The race expo at the Hawaii Convention Center

5pm:  Night-before-race carb-up meal of choice (pad thai for me – who needs spaghetti?). Grab my race morning bagel at Island Vintage Coffee.

Read More: 7 Divinely Delicious Waikiki Breakfast Spots You Just Have to Try

6pm:  Sunset (no mai tai this time!), then lights out.

Day 3 – RACE DAY!!

2:30am:   Wake-up call! Yes, that is early.

2:30-3:30am:  Race prep – shower, start hydrating (water/powerade), carbs/protein (bagel w/peanut butter), band-aids on toes (best blister preventer for me and I’ve tried everything).

Honolulu Marathon Pre Race Preparation
What my race morning prep looks like

3:30am:   Walk to finish line to catch shuttle to start line.

4:15am:   Arrival at start line…STRETCH & WARM UP!!

Important Side Note:  The Injury Report

Before we get to the race, I should mention that for the first time this year, I am partially sidelined by a hamstring injury incurred during the last two months of training. It limited my training and I know it will make for a difficult race.

But there is no way I’m giving up a trip to Hawaii for a pesky little hamstring injury.

I chose to do the race regardless, take it at a slower pace, and walk when I need to. I know I can finish and I really don’t care how long it takes. It’s never been about the time for me anyway, just the experience.

And what an experience!

Without the pressure of the clock, I am able to enjoy the race in a way I never have. I stop to take photos and video and just soak it all in.

And now, the play-by-play.

For the sake of brevity, I will assign a numerical value to both my pain level and enthusiasm level as the race progresses.

The Start Line of the Honolulu Marathon

I LOVE the start line!!

It’s 4:30am and most of Honolulu is still in bed. But in Ala Moana Park thousands of runners are milling about, stretching, guzzling energy gels, and lining up for the port-a-johns. 

Honolulu Marathon Starting Line
At the start line and ready to go!

There is a nervous energy in the air.

Seconds before the 5:00am start, a spectacular fireworks display begins (Honolulu is now awake!).

The start gun sounds and we’re off into the streets of Honolulu while fireworks explode overhead.

Now it’s just me against 26.2 miles of Hawaiian highway. Well, me and half of Japan.

Hamstring Pain:  2 (the new normal for the past 2 months)

Enthusiasm Level:  10

Miles 1-5

Feeling good and running strong through the streets of downtown Honolulu in the dark of night. It’s December and Christmas light displays are everywhere especially as we pass Iolani Palace (America’s only Royal Palace), the official residency of Hawaii’s monarchy.

Hamstring Pain:  2

Enthusiasm:  10

Honolulu Marathon Route Christmas Lights
Stopping along the course for pictures of downtown Honolulu Christmas decorations

Miles 6-7

We enter the hotel district along Waikiki Beach where crowd support abounds. It’s just after 6:00am and I’m amazed at how many people have gotten up early to cheer us on.

It’s just one more reason I LOVE this race.

Hamstring Pain:  3

Enthusiasm:  10 and holding strong

Mile 8

The sun is beginning to rise as wheelchair racers pass us on the opposite side of the road making their way back toward the finish line.

We all cheer them on despite the fact that we are running straight uphill at this point. The hill notwithstanding, this is one of my favorite parts of the Honolulu Marathon.

Hamstring Pain:  4 (blame the hill)

Enthusiasm:  12

Mile 11

The course merges onto Kalanianaole Highway.

This stretch of the race is 2-way traffic. For the next 5 miles, the runners on the other side of the road coming at us are at Mile 18-22 of the course as it switches back toward the finish line.

I take the opportunity to check out the competition.

I am currently at Mile 11, so the runners on the other side of the road are now at Mile 22. In other words, they are WAY ahead of me.

The traffic is sparse on that side of the road and the vast majority of runners are on my side. But the few runners I do see all look like they just finished an Iron Man on another island and had some time to kill before the flight home.

My ego will likely survive the fact that these people are 11 miles ahead of me.

Hamstring Pain:  5

Enthusiasm:  8

Mile 13.1 – the halfway mark!

Hamstring pain is intensifying and I shift into run/walk mode.

Still keeping an eye on the runners on the other side of the street. They are now at Mile 20 and 7 miles ahead. As I scope them out, they all still look like major athletes. Not a body fat percentage over 3% in the lot.

Notice a few women in the bunch but none that have to double layer their sports bras like I do. Still good.

Mile 15

There are increasing signs it might be time to pick up the pace.

In a 5-minute time span, I see the following runners on the other side of the road (at Mile 18, 3 miles ahead of me):

  • Someone’s grandmother (who may or may not have been knitting a sweater as she blew past me)
  • Japanese man in full samurai regalia including wooden platform flip-flops
  • Bride wearing wedding dress (race number affixed to her veil)

Time to shift back into jogging mode – I do have some pride.

Hamstring Pain: 6

Enthusiasm Level:  6

Mile 16

The road veers and I am no longer coming face-to-face with those ahead of me.

This is a plus as it was beginning to take a toll on my already precarious mental state. The road loops through the residential area of Hawaii Kai for 2 miles and then I find myself on the fun side of the two-way road.

I’m now running face-to-face with those a few miles BEHIND me.

Hooray! There are still people behind me.

Hamstring Pain: 7

Enthusiasm Level: 5

Miles 18-19

Feeling a bit better now that I realize just how many people are a few miles behind me.

Light rain is falling despite not a single cloud in the sky (because, Hawaii). It doesn’t rain hard and with the heat level rising, it’s a welcome relief.

As a bonus, when the rain stops a beautiful rainbow appears over the mountains to my right. It is moments like this that I am reminded why I run Honolulu and not, say, Detroit.  

Honolulu Marathon Rainbow
A rainbow along the marathon route

I stop to take photos, completely unconcerned about time. Sometimes it’s not about the clock.

It’s a beautiful sight and boy do I need the pick-me-up because by mile 18, everything hurts.

It’s gut-check time with 8 miles to go.

Hamstring Pain:  9

Enthusiasm Level:  6

Mile 20

Can someone please tell me why are there suddenly race photographers everywhere?

Where the heck were these guys back at Mile 6 when I was feeling good and still looking reasonably fresh and cute?

Oh sure, you get to mile 20 where you’re red-faced, drenched with sweat and clinging to an ice-water-soaked sponge like it’s your last worldly possession and suddenly there’s a photographer every 50 feet.

Isn’t the idea for people to buy these pictures after the race?

Note to MarathonFoto: People don’t pay for photos of themselves looking a) exhausted b) miserable c) ridiculous or d) all of the above.

That is all.

Hamstring Pain:  9

Enthusiasm Level:  Seriously ticked off   Irritable

Honolulu Marathon Course
Around the 21-mile mark

Mile 21

A love letter to ice.

My Darling Ice,

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee in a cup with Gatorade or chilling those glorious ice-cold sponges in the barrel. I even love thee straight from the bag at the aid station.

Some of my fellow runners even love you so much they throw their bodies across bags of you. But for me, simply holding cubes of you in my heat-swollen fingers as I run is enough.

I’m sorry for any bad things I might have ever said about you. Like the time my flight was delayed for de-icing.  I didn’t mean it.

Love always,

Jenny

Honolulu Marathon Ice
Runners composing their own love letter to ice

Mile 22

The course begins to weave its way through some of Waikiki’s best neighborhoods along the beach.

Thank God the view has improved because at least it helps take my mind off the heat and the searing pain coming from my hamstring. The sun is fully up now and the heat is intensifying quickly.

My legs and lower back begin drawing up divorce papers. They are done with me. Now the praying part starts.

God bless:  The lady outside her house handing out a tray of mini-pretzels. They are exactly what my body is craving right now – carbs and salt.

Shame on:  The guys outside their house offering runners beer from their keg! With the possible exception of a sharp stick in the eye, I cannot think of anything I want less at this particular moment.

Mile 23

Where the hell is the sign for Mile Marker 23???

I am convinced I have somehow missed it. After Mile 22, I run for what seems like forever but no Mile 23 sign in sight.

Obviously, I must have missed it. Surely, I have gone a mile by now. Perhaps the race organizers accidentally forgot to get a Mile 23 sign? These things happen.

But no, just when I give up and start looking for the Mile 24 sign, there it is.

Mile 23. Just sitting there mocking me.

Good grief. This is possibly what they call “hitting the wall.

Longest. Mile. Ever.

3.2 to go.

Hamstring Pain:  10

Enthusiasm Level:  Waning

Mile 24

Complete and total exhaustion has set in.

But things are looking up. Only 2 miles to go and I’m starting the turn back toward Diamond Head. 

The bad news?  Diamond Head = HILLS.

It is cruel and unusual punishment to put hills at Mile 24 on a marathon course. This Marathon course was obviously designed by Lucifer. Time for more ice.

Hamstring Pain:  No idea, everything else hurts so badly I can’t remember where my hamstring is.

Enthusiasm Level:  Not fit for publication on a family website.

Mile 25

As I get closer to the finish line I begin to see finishers milling about.

They are walking backward on the course looking for friends and family and cheering people on. They are wearing their finisher medals and carrying the all-important finisher t-shirt (the design of which is one of the Honolulu Marathon’s best-kept secrets).

I struggle to catch a glimpse of the shirt – appears to be teal.

I try to decide how I feel about teal but can’t seem to form a coherent thought. Anything’s better than the fluorescent yellow piece of sh shirt they handed me at the end of last year’s race. Can anyone other than an 80’s pop idol actually pull off fluorescents? Discuss.

One more mile and I’ll have my teal shirt. I can do this.

Hamstring Pain:  0 – Thanks to complete loss of feeling below the waist.  Am I still running?

Enthusiasm Level:  Must…have…teal…shirt

The Last Mile…26!

Finally, I am approaching the finish line!

The cheering crowds intensify and no matter how much it hurts…I can’t help but get a second wind. 

Honolulu Marathon Finish Line
Finally crossing the finish line!

I raise my arms in triumph, smile for the camera, and cross the finish line.

An announcer calls my name. The crowd cheers.

It is bliss.

This is the moment that marathoners live for. 

In a single moment, all of those early morning runs, blisters, and bruised (or lost) toenails suddenly seem worthwhile.

I wonder why I put myself through the 4 months of training and in an instant I know. The feeling of accomplishment that comes with pushing your body to its absolute limit (on purpose) is something unique to endurance athletes.

And I’m proud to call myself a marathoner.

Hamstring Pain:  Who cares?

Enthusiasm Level:  I am a ROCK STAR

As I cross the finish line, I’m ushered all the way to the back of Kapiolani Park to pick up my finisher t-shirt – hooray!

My next stop is the snack tent for a celebratory Hawaiian malasada. This decadent sugary treat is quite possibly the best thing I have ever eaten.

Honolulu Marathon Finish Line Malasadas
Malasadas at the Finish Line

The aftermath: Ice. Food. Mai tai. Repeat.

Then I begin the slow walk back to my hotel.

As I walk, I pass runners who finished way before me and have already showered. They are proudly sporting their finisher t-shirts and looking like a million bucks.

I don’t care for these people. I groan and continue on.

My love affair with ice continues with the all-important post-marathon ice bath.

How long do you have to stay in the ice bath, you ask?

The general rule is as long as you can stand it.

For me, that’s about 10 minutes. But it does help with the recovery and within an hour, I’m starting to feel human again.

And hungry. Ravenously hungry. 

Waikiki after the race

The best part of the Honolulu Marathon is after the race. It’s the only marathon I’ve ever run that literally takes over the city.

For the second Sunday in December each year, Honolulu IS the marathon. Everyone in town is either there to run it or there to support someone who is.

And after the race today, Waikiki is awash in a sea of teal finisher shirts. Congratulations and knowing nods of appreciation are exchanged between runners and a general feeling of post-race euphoria sets in.

Wearing your finisher shirt after the race is akin to wearing a sign that says,

This is why I’m walking this way. Please don’t ask me to walk down a flight of stairs or pick anything up off the ground. Yes, you can bring me another mai tai.”

Honolulu Marathon Finisher Shirt
Showered & feeling almost human again in my finisher shirt!

Why run a marathon?

Less than 1% of the US population has ever finished a marathon.

Those in that 1% run for many reasons. Some as a personal challenge, some to raise money for charity and still others to honor someone they’ve lost.

I’m always moved by these people during the race. Those who’ve raised thousands to support research for leukemia or AIDS. Those wearing a picture of a lost loved one on their shirt.

In this year’s race, I passed a group of soldiers dressed in full combat gear complete with enormous backpacks. They were running to collect money for the families of fallen soldiers.

I have seen them before in the Honolulu Marathon. The first time I didn’t have any money on me, now I know better.

I look for them every year and this year I caught up to them at Mile 6. How they run the entire distance carrying all that gear borders on super-human.

But, oh boy, you should be there to hear the cheers when they cross the finish line. It will restore your faith in humanity. 

I don’t know why I run.

Maybe it’s as simple as the thrill of crossing the finish line. The cheers of strangers. A sense of accomplishment.

I always said I would run marathons for as many years as my body would allow me. And now that I’m (ahem) older and have completed 17 marathons, I suspect that time is drawing near.

I had hip surgery in 2021 and my surgeon suggested that it was probably time to wind down my running career and stick with walking or other low-impact exercise.

So, chances are I’ve probably run my last marathon.

But now that I live in Honolulu, I’m not sure I can resist the draw of this incredible race. It would be weird to be here and NOT be a part of it. So, I’ll probably walk it this year.

One final note, why not try the Honolulu Marathon?

If you’ve ever considered running a marathon, I highly recommend Honolulu. This year’s race is December 10th, 2023 and you can register here.

It’s a beautiful course, the crowd support is amazing, and everyone gets to finish (no matter how long it takes you!).

And, hey, if you’re going to run 26.2 miles, why not do it in paradise?

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