Is This America's Prettiest Marathon?

Is This America's Prettiest Marathon?

An aerial shot of the last few miles of the half marathon course.

SourceTV Juice Productions

Why you should care

Because if we ran 13.1 miles, you can too. 

I wasn’t going to run the half marathon. I was in Kauai to vacation and volunteer — which, in Kauai marathon parlance, means equal parts checking runners in and drinking mai tais. All was going according to plan, until the night before the race. Somehow, I got talked into walking the half marathon with my good friend Charles. We woke up early, lined up for the 6 a.m. start, and before I realized what was happening, we were running just as much as (not any more than) we were walking.

Here’s the thing: I don’t run. And when I do, I do it awkwardly — I’ve got long limbs and little coordination. But I’m also hopelessly competitive. Strolling along while good-looking geezers breezed past wasn’t gonna cut it.

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Kauai’s famed Tunnel of Trees

Source Kauai Sports Media

So I pushed myself, and by mile 9, I was limping. And crying (cue tiny violins). My mom — also stubborn, also athletic, also an irregular runner — ran past, pausing to offer help. “No, just go on. Leave me!” I said dramatically, pushing her away.

kauai marathon

Tyler McCandless — the half marathon winner, for the third time — with Jeff Sacchini at the finish line.

Source Tina Fenton

Finally, sweaty and exhausted (I hadn’t worked out in months), I crossed the finish line, forcing a smile because I knew there were cameras snapping a photo of this “momentous occasion.” I spotted the first-aid tent and made a beeline for the ice packs. I was so out of shape I had developed tendinitis over the course of this one run. My “injury” (I have a renewed sense of respect for speed walkers) has persisted.

It was worth it, though, because that marathon was so damn pretty. In fact, Bart Yasso, famed runner and CEO of Runner’s World, calls it the most beautiful island marathon in the world. He’s run the course all eight years of the marathon’s existence.

The Kauai marathon is quite possibly the prettiest run in the U.S., if Pacific islands with white sand beaches and lush jungles are your kind of thing. The run starts off on the island’s south side, in an area called Poipu. At around 5:30 a.m., as the 2,000-plus runners line up (slow people in the back), a man delivers a Hawaiian prayer while fire dancers light up the dark sky. The actual run takes you through junglelike streets (one spot on Kauai is the rainiest spot on Earth) and through the 100-year-old Tunnel of Trees. It’s breathtaking. Near the end, you ascend one last hill and then, suddenly, you see the ocean in the distance. The full-marathon runners split off around this point, at mile 11. The ocean beckons and you finish the last mile or so right along the water, the finish line dotted with hula dancers.

The marathon was launched in 2009 by Jeff Sacchini and his wife, Liz, after Jeff went on a run — mountains to his left, water to his right — and realized the island didn’t have a flagship sporting event. “One: It’s beautiful here. Two: There are a lot of runners on Kauai. Why should they have to get on a plane to run a marathon?” he says. It’s also a way to boost tourism and raise money for local charities — a total of more than $100,000.

The marathon falls on Labor Day weekend and has drawn a total of 13,988 runners. This year, it attracted 2,044 runners from 44 states and 13 countries, more than half from the Hawaiian islands. Also this year? I did the marathon my way: poolside, with a piña colada in hand.

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