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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, May 27, 2002

Physician paces for success

By Katherine Nichols
Advertiser Staff Writer

Organizers of this year's 30th Honolulu Marathon want to draw 25 percent more runners from Japan, bring in nearly $100 million in revenue and generally continue the marathon's role as one of the few Hawai'i events the visitor industry can rely on during hard times.

In addition to being a Honolulu Marathon organizer, Jim Barahal is also a full-time doctor and businessman.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

Marathon supporters like to point out that the race receives no state money yet contributes more direct dollars to the Hawai'i economy, attracts more tourists and boosts hotel occupancy more than the National Football League's Pro Bowl, which the state pays about $4 million per year to stage.

Chief among the mara-thon's promoters is Jim Barahal, president of the Honolulu Marathon Association, and the person most responsible for its success.

When Barahal took over in 1987, the marathon was drawing an average of 6,500 participants. By 1995 the number of participants increased to a high of 34,000. The average number of yearly entries has increased nearly 400 percent to 23,725 under Barahal's tenure. With promotions under way for this year's Dec. 8 race, the number of early registrants is already up 10 percent.

Barahal is a full-time physician and businessman who started Doctors On Call, a medical service for tourists. He has done stand-up comedy, an edgy radio show called "Dr. Sports" and completed several screenplays, in addition to coaching his son's Little League team. Not surprisingly, the 49-year-old said he believes it's better to take risks than worry about failing.

"This event is run like my personality," Barahal said.

"He has the attributes I like to see in a leader," said assistant race director Ken MacDowell. "He gives you the general guidelines on what he'd like to see accomplished, and he trusts you to go about doing that without micromanaging. And he's always open to new ideas; the door is never shut on anything."

Barahal has been able to find success because he understands racing. And he leaves the rest — including television production, security and retail — to others, something he said his predecessors did not do.

"They felt that the skills or expertise that it takes to put on a footrace translate automatically into selling T-shirts and serving spaghetti to 10,000 people, or producing a radio or television show," he said.

Credit goes to many

The average number of yearly entries to the Honolulu Marathon has increased to 23,725 under the 15-year tenure of Jim Barahal, Honolulu Marathon Association president. Early registration this year is up 10 percent.

Advertiser library photo • Dec. 9, 2001

Though the Honolulu Marathon Association hires about 50 people for 10 days around the race, Barahal credits the small staff, all of whom helped with the marathon for years before receiving compensation for their efforts. These include race director Jonathan Cross, who worked around his dental practice to volunteer with Barahal from the beginning. Now both receive an undisclosed fee to operate the race and lead the nonprofit organization.

"It was just a small group of people who were not being paid and were very passionate about what they were doing, but didn't really have the time or the money or the inclination for all the formalities of a big business," said Barahal, recalling the early renegade attitude and business experiments. "So by nature it was a hit-and-run kind of thing and as ... we started having more success, it seemed like, why change our style? This works."

And it works on many levels. According to Joseph Toy, president and chief executive of Hospitality Advisors, LLC, the marathon helped boost the hotel occupancy to 80.6 percent on the Saturday before last year's marathon. Because every registrant usually brings one or two people, Toy said the 2001 marathon probably drew more than 52,000 visitors.

Events like these "lend stability as well as promote the message of Hawai'i as a health-oriented, active place," said Pearl Imada Iboshi, the state's chief economist. Extending the role of participation events also helps diversify the economy.

Niketown Honolulu marketing manager Keala Peters said that her store conducts 4 percent of its annual sales during marathon week, the highest sales volume week of the year. Last year, she hired an additional 20 people to work the season between Thanksgiving and Christmas, with a specific focus on marathon week.

Gilbert Kimura, director of sales for Japan Airlines in Hawai'i, said that the marathon is an essential event for JAL, the race's title sponsor for 15 years. "Hawai'i is the biggest overseas destination; we carry more than a million passengers a year," Kimura said. "Sporting events are an ideal attraction."

Far beyond the written agreement between the two parties, Kimura said JAL puts nearly $2 million into the event and the television production, which last year aired nationally on Tokyo Broadcasting System to 2.3 million households. The airline also promotes the race year-round by selling marathon logo items on its flights and showing in-flight race video.

Events get new energy

While Kimura would like to see a Honolulu Marathon week similar to a Super Bowl week, Barahal is reluctant to spread the efforts beyond what is already well established.

The Mayor's Walk, a stroll over the first 10K of the marathon course the morning of the main event, began with a few dozen people about 15 years ago. Barahal expects 6,000 this year. The walk has grown quietly, but the advantages are huge. Special Olympics has received about $250,000 from the event in the past eight years.

The Waikiki Mile, an elite-level 1-mile race down Kalakaua Ave., generated about $30,000 for public schools athletic equipment per year, but proved too expensive after a three-year stint. A request to the Hawaii Tourism Authority for money to support the showcase event was rejected.

Instead, Barahal chose to infuse the former carbo-loading party with new energy. "We reinvented it. We rebranded it. We refocused it," he said, referring to the entertainment-packed lu'au.

To improve on last year's Beatlemania concert — which drew 4,000 people to the Waikiki Shell to see the Fab Four imitators — Barahal lined up Brian Wilson, the founding member of the Beach Boys, to play Dec. 6.

Others have suggested adding a shorter running race. But Barahal disagrees. He said that 70 percent are first-timers determined to complete the distance, and "ultimately we're going to sink or swim with a marathon."

Barahal also has his own motivations as a longtime competitive runner and student of the sport. "You want to maintain a sense of purity about competing in it," said the former 1:10 half-marathoner and 32-minute 10K runner. "An individual decides to take on that challenge and achieve it and it's something that has to come from within. So we make it available and try to make it the best experience possible."

As a nonprofit agency, the Honolulu Marathon Association tries to have 18 months of operating revenue on hand in case of emergencies — like Sept. 11 — and allow them to do new things, Barahal said. Net assets and balance at the end of fiscal 2000 were $761,323, up from $383,166 the previous year, according to Form 990. A dearth of entries after Sept. 11 and rumors that a key sponsor might withdraw threatened the event last year. The revenue cushion saved the race from cancellation.