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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 21, 2005

Thompson's gonzo marathon coverage, friendship recalled

By Rod Ohira
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawai'i got the gonzo treatment in 1983 when Hunter S. Thompson published "The Curse of Lono," an account of his coverage of the 1980 Honolulu Marathon as a correspondent for Running magazine. The book also covered a trip he took to Kona.

Hunter S. Thompson, author of "The Curse of Lono," poses in Kona next to a billfish caught aboard the Humdinger.

Advertiser library photo • 1983

A review by Publisher's Weekly noted, "Barely is he off the plane when Thompson is regaled by stories of natives butchering tourists. ... Interspersed throughout the text are sidebars recounting the disastrous career of Capt. James Cook, who had been greeted as the god Lono upon his arrival in Hawaii. ... "

Honolulu resident John Wilbur, a former pro football player and a friend of Thompson, said they met in 1969 and both worked on George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign.

"He was a gentleman, good and kind, but you never knew when he might go off," Wilbur said last night. "It could happen at any time."

Wilbur said Thompson could swing from being vicious one moment to "remembering birthdays of friends" the next.

"He came here in 1980 for the marathon. It really was a legendary day. My wife was running in the marathon. I remember driving to the starting line and Hunter is in between a cigarette and glass of Wild Turkey. My wife was in the back seat. He really lived his life his own way."

Thompson returned in 2001 to cover the Honolulu Marathon again, this time as a correspondent for ESPN.com. In an interview with Advertiser reporter Stephen Tsai, Thompson recalled the 1980 marathon:

"I was demoralized by the frenzy of the greasing up at the start — 10,000 people slapping grease on each other. I had never seen anything like that before. I was knocked off my mental stride. Nobody told me about the hugging and the greasing and screaming of those chants. I couldn't figure it out. Maybe I was hallucinating."

Honolulu Marathon race director Jim Barahal recalled last night: "His lifestyle was different; what you read in his writing was not dissimilar to how he lived. You had to bring your A game if you were discussing something with Hunter. His mind was extremely sharp.

"He liked to talk about writing. He once told me that self-doubt is the greatest obstacle to success."

Thompson was accompanied here in 2001 by actor-director Sean Penn, who was interested in turning "Lono" into a movie. Thompson returned for the 2002 and 2003 Honolulu Marathons, Barahal said; his 2003 entourage included actor Josh Hartnett.

Reach Rod Ohira at rohira@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-8181.