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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, December 13, 2003

Rookie runner targets finish in first marathon

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By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Just who does Sharon Keith think she is?

Sharon Keith, a nurse educator at The Queen's Medical Center, starts her afternoon workout with a steady jog. Keith has been training to run in her first Honolulu Marathon tomorrow and hopes to finish the 26.2-mile course in six hours.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

She's 51 years old, has two balky knees and a problem with her Achilles tendon.

Just four months ago she could barely run four miles at a snail's pace. Yet, tomorrow morning, the Kahalu'u resident will line up on Ala Moana at 5 a.m. for her very first Honolulu Marathon.

What is she thinking?

"My philosophy is that when mere mortals engage in heart-healthy activities, they feel better, they get fit and they end up crossing a lot of milestones they didn't think they could," she says.

Keith, a nurse educator at The Queen's Medical Center, will be one of roughly 12,370 first-time marathoners, more than half the field, in tomorrow's race. Her time target is modest — she'd be happy with a six-hour finish — but, like most beginning runners, she'll consider the race a success if she makes it to the finish line without injuring herself.

"I'll start out slow for at least the first half, maybe the first three-quarters," she says of her race-day strategy. "And I'll either try to go faster or I'll slow down depending on how I feel."

Keith certainly picked the right marathon.

While race organizers have focused much attention on introducing up-and-coming elite runners to the world in recent years — Hono-

lulu was the first major marathon to actively pursue Kenyan and other African runners — organizers still go out of their way to maintain the race's reputation as an everyman's marathon.

Sharon Keith prepares herself mentally for her afternoon workout Wednesday. Keith is one of 12,370 runners who will be participating in their first Honolulu Marathon tomorrow.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

"And everywoman's," says race director Jon Cross.

"We don't have a time limit," Cross says. "We'll stay out there as long as necessary and we'll support the last runner just as well as we do the first. We've traditionally had a very high percentage of first-timers, and that's important to us — more than anything."

Keith is in many ways a typical first-time marathoner. Because distance running requires a significant commitment of time, many recreational runners don't attempt their first marathon until their 30s, 40s or 50s, when their careers, incomes and family situations are stable. Many come with limited experience in running and racing.

The challenge of the marathon is large, even for experienced distance runners. Before Keith can collect one of those coveted finisher's T-shirts, she'll have to run 26.2 miles from Ala Moana Beach Park, around Downtown and back through Waikiki, past Diamond Head and Kahala, along Kalani'anaole Highway to Hawai'i Kai, returning along the highway and through Kahala, up a three-quarter-mile, lung-busting stretch of Diamond Head Road and through the finish line at Kapi'olani Park.

Easy, right?

"Well," Keith says, drawing on the muse of Woody Allen. "You can accomplish a lot just by showing up."

There is no doubt among her coaches and friends that Keith will indeed show up for the big day, just as she has shown up for all of the tough, little days that brought her to this point.

The Honolulu Marathon
  • Total entrants: 23,751
  • Japanese entrants: 14,253
  • Local entrants: 5,117
  • Mainland entrants: 3,567
  • First-timers: 12,370
  • Last year's economic impact: $81,697,345.16*

*According to a Hawai'i Pacific University study conducted by Jerome Argusa and his students

"She's dedicated," says Lorna Allenbrand, who runs with Keith at Brian Clarke's marathon clinic. "She's always there."

Howard Markowitz, another member of the group, says Keith brings the right mindset to the event.

"You can count on her to be really steady," he says. "And she's good company."

Keith, who only recently turned in her marathon application, says she "backed in" to race. Her original intention was simply to spend the season improving her running.

Keith has always been active, but she doesn't consider herself much of an athlete. She swam in high school and has enjoyed bicycling for most of her life. Drawing on those two skills, she has competed in a few sprint-distance triathlons. But running has always been a weak area.

"When it came to the run portion of the triathlon, I'd always just suffer through it," she says. "I'd say to myself, 'the fun part is over.' "

Realizing her regular 2-mile jogs around her Kahalu'u neighborhood weren't enough, Keith signed up for Clarke's marathon program in September, intending simply to build a better foundation in running.

Placed in a beginner group, Keith started out with slow, easy two or three mile jogs, progressing gradually to higher mileage.

Clarke, an accomplished runner and one of the state's most respected running coaches, advocates a program of slow, long runs for beginning marathoners.

Sharon Keith, along with other members of her training group, stretches before an afternoon workout. Keith prepared for her first marathon by steadily increasing the distance of her training runs.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

"(The marathon) is a big deal but, really, anyone who wants to do it can do it if they go slow enough," Clarke says.

"In two or three weeks, people like Sharon, who are not totally out of shape when they start, can be doing two-hour runs," he says. "After three or four weeks, they realize it's not that hard."

Consistency is the key, Keith emphasizes. To accommodate the three-day-a-week running schedule, Keith made it a point to leave work "on time, for a change."

Long runs, the cornerstone of any marathon program, were scheduled at various courses around the island each Saturday, meaning Keith had to be in bed by at least 10 p.m. every Friday.

"We meet at 6:30 a.m. on Saturdays, so I get to sleep in until 5:15," Keith says.

To keep her body properly fueled for these hours-long tests of stamina, Keith eats a 70 percent carbohydrate diet one or two days before her long runs. (She's doing the same thing this weekend, with a pre-marathon dinner menu of pasta, polenta and spinach.)

Keith's husband, Andy, 42, an engineer, is also doing the marathon for the first time, although he has chosen to train on his own.

"It can be difficult finding time to run because we both work 50 hours a week or more," he says. "But we find a way to do it."

While Keith made good progress with the training group, she wasn't convinced that she could do the marathon until late October, when she completed the Niketown 30K, one of several races Clarke's groups participate in as part of their training.

"I was kind of shocked that I could go that distance (18.6 miles)" she said. "After that I felt confident that I had enough endurance."

Keith's progress was surprising, in part, because she suffers chondromalacia, a painful softening of cartilage in the kneecap, and had recently developed Achilles tendinitis. She credits Clarke's conservative program with helping her build her endurance without aggravating her injuries.

"I really wasn't sure if I would be able to run when I started," she says. "I still feel it, and sometimes it's painful, but it didn't get any worse from the training."

Running 12 to 13 minutes per mile, Keith doesn't expect to wow anyone with her performance on marathon day. But she'll be there at the start, and everyone who has seen her dedication this season agrees: She'll be there at the end.

"She's so steady, I don't see her messing up," Clarke says. "She might come off as a little unsure of herself, a little under-confident. But she's actually really tough. She's courageous."

To find out how Sharon Keith finishes, please see Monday's Advertiser. Reach Michael Tsai at mtsai@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2461.