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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, December 4, 2002

Running the marathon from behind the scenes

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

All year long, Ron and Jeanette Chun spend most of their waking hours making preparations for the December marathon.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

The Honolulu Marathon

Race starts 5 a.m. Sunday along Ala Moana Boulevard.

Course: To Downtown (near Aloha Tower), up to King Street, eastward to Ala Moana Beach Park, Kalakaua Avenue and Kapi'olani Park; up Diamond Head Road, along Kilauea Avenue and onto Kalaniana'ole Highway, along Hawai'i Kai Drive, returning along Kalaniana'ole and back to Kapi'olani Park via Kahala Avenue and Diamond Head Road.

Related Events

Today through Saturday: Sports and Fitness Expo, Outrigger Reef on the Beach Hotel, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (except Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.)

Tomorrow: Diamond Head Duet 5K, starting at Kapi'olani Park, 8 a.m.

Friday: Legends of Running autograph session with Frank Shorter, Alberto Salazar and others. Outrigger Reef on the Beach, 9:30 to 11:30 a.m.

Honolulu Marathon Lu'au featuring Brian Wilson, gates open 5:30 p.m., concert starts 7 p.m. (Sold out.)

For more information, see www.honolulumarathon.org.

There's a doomsday scenario that no one at the Honolulu Marathon Association wants to contemplate. But, of course, everyone has.

What happens when Ron and Jeanette Chun finally decide to hang it up?

"If they leave ..." Race director Jonathan Cross shakes his head at his own premise. "If they leave, I'm not sure there would be a marathon."

Association president Jim Barahal knows that the day will come sooner or later, and he knows what he'll do.

"When they decide to walk away, I'll be right behind them to turn off the lights," he says, laughing. "But with all the energy they have, I'm assuming they'll be around for another 30 years."

While acknowledging that Barahal is the brain that drives the association, staff and volunteers have at different times referred to the Chuns as the the heart and soul, the eyes and ears, the hands and feet of the marathon effort. (In the heat of pre-race preparations, the Chuns — long-married couple that they are — have been known to refer to each other as less-mentionable body parts.)

"When (former association president) Jack Scaff left, the one thing he said was, 'Whatever you do, don't lose the Chuns,' " Cross says. "He knew as well as anyone what they meant to the marathon."

Since running their first Honolulu Marathon 24 years ago, the Chuns have found themselves drawn to the core of the organization's year-round international planning and operational efforts. Both are on the six-person board of directors but can't tell you their titles without peeking at their business cards.

That their efforts are largely unrecognized by the approximately 26,000 runners they serve each year is perfectly fine with the Chuns, both of whom are famously averse to recognition and attention.

Fast-talking, perpetually moving Jeanette handles much of the day-to-day work of coordination and planning, maintaining ongoing conversations with hundreds of volunteer groups, sponsors, contractors, reporters and others.

Ron, a retired electrical engineer, is in charge of planning, engineering and race operations, making him responsible for building work and service areas at the Kapi'olani Park finish line and along the 26.2-mile route.

"They're the living embodiment of the aloha spirit," Barahal says. "It's an overused phrase that's hard to define, but it's less difficult if you know them. If you spend a few hours with them, you understand what makes Hawai'i different. Nowhere else do you find the kind of warmth and aloha they have."

Getting into the race

"I did it to humor her," Ron Chun says of that first marathon year. "Before that, I had never run a mile in my whole life."

Jeanette, in turn, says she took up marathon training just to appease her dentist.

"I had really bad teeth, so he scheduled me for all Monday appointments," Jeanette recalls. "The Honolulu Marathon Clinic ran on Sundays, so I knew he'd ask me about it. The kids were still young then, so we all went together. I was thin, so I figured it would be no problem. But when we started, I couldn't even make it to one telephone pole."

Still, with much effort and dedication, the Chuns managed to finish the first of 14 marathons. So impressed were they with the support they received during that first race that they soon volunteered to help out any way they could. They had no idea what they were in for.

Ron and Jeanette first met at a high school football game. They married eight years later, while Ron was completing his degree in engineering at the University of California-Berkeley. Jeanette says their relationship is especially close because of the early lean years they spent when Ron shuttled back and forth between school in California and work in Hawai'i, and because of their unusual paths to career and marriage. Ron entered college relatively late, at 22. Jeanette graduated from the University of Hawai'i with a degree in education, but only after abandoning her dream of being an entomologist.

"I always loved bugs," she says. "I used to keep bugs in jars. I carried geckos in my purse. But when I was in high school, I interviewed a guy from the Department of Agriculture, and he told me not to go into the field. I had good grades, but he said that if I went to school and he hired me, I'd eventually get married and quit. I didn't like it, but back then, you didn't fight back."

But that was then. These days, Jeanette battles with the best.

"I was never what you would call subservient, but when you stay home and your husband is the breadwinner, you can start to get like that," she says. "But after that first marathon, I got liberated. I fought back a lot after that."

With her energy and organizational skills and Ron's engineering expertise and leadership abilities, the couple found themselves playing larger and larger roles in the marathon association. Together with Barahal and vice presidents Cross, Tommy Kono, Jim Moberly and Dick Sutton, the Chuns form the core of the marathon organization.

All hours of the day

Jeanette Chun is about to give Tommy Kono a piece of her mind for shushing her during a call, but the legendary Olympic weightlifter and longtime marathon volunteer gets a reprieve when the telephone rings again.

It's only noon, and Jeanette already has put in what for many people would be a full day's work. She spends these morning hours pinballing between the telephone, the fax machine and the bank of personal computers. There are meetings to attend, too. And in between, Jeanette also finds time to cook breakfast, make the bed (once Ron gets up) and throw in a couple loads of laundry.

The afternoon will pass with more of the same — more calls to sponsors, more e-mails to business partners, more faxes sent out with Jeanette's signature graphic touches.

As part of her responsibilities, Jeanette cuts checks to various vendors and contractors that service the race. One September a few years back, Jeanette signed off on 950 checks, only to find herself three cents off when she reconciled her ledger.

"I went crazy trying to find out where I went wrong," she says. "If it were my own money, I'd be more relaxed about it. But it's the marathon's money."

As a general practice, Jeanette pays vendors as soon as she gets their invoices. And to make sure payments are as prompt as possible, she drops them off at the Ala Moana Center post office every day at 5 p.m. to catch the last pickup.

"I drop a quarter into the mail box to make sure the mail hasn't been picked up already," she says. "If I hear it drop to the bottom, I know I missed it. So I drive out to the airport post office."

Knowing her ritual, Cross takes great delight in calling Jeanette just before she leaves.

"He'll call up and talk real slow, like 'Hiiiii Jeannnnnnette,' " she says. "He and Jim (Barahal) are just like boys. They're like my sons."

Jeanette is especially important in maintaining good relationships with the marathon's Japanese sponsors.

"We speak to our sponsors in one voice, and that's Jeanette's voice," Barahal says. "She's the conduit that maintains the flow of information and keeps up the critical relationships."

Several times a year, Jeanette and Ron join Barahal and Cross on business trips to Japan.

The sponsors "feel comfortable with me because I'm American but I understand Asian customs," Jeanette says.

Jeanette's people skills also come in handy after the race, when complaints from the community trickle in.

Once, an irate retailer called because a race-day miscommunication disrupted a contest promotion he had planned for his store.

"It was after-the-fact, so there wasn't anything I could really do," she said. "I asked him his size because I wanted to at least send him a shirt and some other stuff. He said he didn't want one. So I told him he could spit on it, and he said, 'OK, give me a large one.' "

For all the work Jeanette takes on, Barahal says it is a blessing — for the association — that she requires as little sleep as she does.

Chun says she usually turns in at 2 or 3 in the morning and wakes up before dawn.

"I'm up at 5:45 a.m. automatically," she says. "I jump out of bed."

But even her brief moments of rest are beset by thoughts of the marathon, she says. Once, unable to sleep, she wrote out a list of things she needed to finish before race day.

The list ran page after page after page. She decided to paste the list together and ended up with a 30-foot scroll.

Unofficial gathering spot

The Chun's house in Mo'ili'ili is the center of the universe for marathon organizers. The four-car garage is Ron's domain, filled with projects in various stages of construction or repair. Inside is Jeanette's space, if one could call it that, full of blueprints, plans, contracts, receipts, letters and other documents.

The association has an official office that handles participant registration and other necessary functions, but the Chun house is where, at all hours of the day and night, staff and volunteers come to work, plan, strategize, hang out, unload, and — certainly — to eat.

"You can't leave without eating something," Cross says. "If you don't take something, Jeanette will sneak something into your car."

Even executives from major Japanese sponsors have taken a seat on the floor for meetings. One even asked if he could bring his wife during a vacation stopover.

"It's like Graceland for some people," says Barahal.

Ron Chun sighs.

"I don't have a house. I sit on the floor and eat standing up. I used to hate it, but I'm used to it now."

Says Barahal: "When other people see how successful we've become and try to pattern races after ours, it just doesn't work, because we have a hidden weapon that no other race has. ... There's a lot of nuance to what Ron and Jeanette do. They are not replaceable."