HONOLULU (05-Dec) -- Back in 2016 when Honolulu Marathon Association president Jim Barahal decided to bring back a road mile to the Honolulu Marathon Weekend here, he wanted to give the elite section of the event a unique twist. So Barahal, a medical doctor who was a distance runner at the University of Michigan in the 1970's, decided on a gender battle format where the women were given a head start and prize money would be paid based on the combined order of finish for men and women. He named the race the Kalakaua Merrie Mile and it will be contested for the fourth time here on Saturday. Nearly 3000 runners of all ages and abilities will compete, including many who will also run Sunday's 47th Honolulu Marathon.
PHOTO: Edward Cheserek (left) just before passing Leonard Bett to win the 2018 Kalakaua Merrie Mile in 3:54.9 (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)
For Barahal, deciding on the time gap has been equal parts art and science. He doesn't use an objective standard but rather considers the overall strength of the men's and women's fields and tries to pick a time which will deliver an exciting finish for the thousands of spectators who line the course on Kalakaua Avenue next to Waikiki Beach.
In the first year the women received a 27-second jump on the men, and that turned out not to be nearly enough of a cushion. Kenya's Edwin Ngetich Kiptoo made up the difference in the first 1000 meters of the race, won in 3:57.4, and beat the nearest women, Canada's Nicole Sifuentes, by five seconds. Sifuentes, a two-time Olympian, ran 4:29.1 and said she was going all-out.
"We just went out hard from the gun, so the whole thing was hard," Sifuentes told Race Results Weekly. "I didn't necessarily feel like I could speed up at any point because I was gunning it."
The following year Barahal decided to tighten slightly the time gap to 26 seconds, and the race had a far more dramatic finish. Kenyan teenager Mirriam Cherop ran a heroic 4:24.7 course record completely on her own, but was passed inside of the final five meters by compatriot and former NCAA star for the University of Oregon, Edward Cheserek. "King Chez" clocked 3:58.1, enough to win by just six tenths of a second.
"I was like, I think I'm going to catch that girl," Cheserek said at the time, "and I got her."
For the 2018 race, Barahal gave the women two more seconds, expanding the head start to 28 seconds. The nineteen year-old Cherop ran even faster --a new event record of 4:22.6-- but Cheserek not only rolled her up in the final sprint but also held off Kenyan steeplechaser Leonard Bett who finished only 6/100ths of a second behind him. Both men were timed in 3:54.9, setting new event records, and Cherop finished third. Cheserek earned $4000 in prize money, while Bett received $2000 and Cherop $1000.
"I didn't feel them (coming)," the crestfallen Cherop said after last year's race.
This year the women once again will get a 28-second lead, but they have a new and powerful advantage: the strength of the field This race has never had so many quality women on the starting line, including five women who have run under 4:04 for 1500m: Amanda Eccleston (4:03.25), Shannon Osika (4:01.80), Rachel Schneider (4:02.26), Elinor Purrier (4:02.34) and Nikki Hiltz (4:01.52). Both Purrier and Hiltz were 2019 World Athletics Championships finalists (Hiltz in the 1500m and Purrier in the 5000m).
But will the 28-second lead be enough to give the women their first overall title here?
"It's going to be maybe 28 seconds this year, then the guys come after us and see if they can catch us," said Eccleston, who will be racing the Merrie Mile for the second time. "Hopefully they can't this year."
Eric Avila of San Diego, who was fifth in the 2019 USATF Championships 1500m, thinks that the women have the upper hand. He said that the men will have to get it going quickly if they want to take the top prize. He said that he's worried about one athlete in particular.
"Elinor, definitely Elinor Purrier," said Avila, who will be competing here for the first time. "She likes to run hard from the front, and if we kind of dawdle we're not going to catch her. No way."
The men's field is also very strong. Cheserek is back and so is two-time Olympic medalist Nick Willis of New Zealand who comes to Hawaii nearly every year for training and some quiet time with his wife, Sierra, and two sons, Lachlan and Darcy. Also in the men's race are Johnny Gregorek of Ardsley, New York; Patrick Joseph of Boulder, Colo., Craig Huffer of Australia, Pat Casey of Flagstaff, Ariz., and Brimin Kiprono of Kenya. Willis, Cheserek and Gregorek have all run sub-3:50 for the mile, and every man but Joseph has run sub-3:37 for 1500m. If they work together and not focus on racing each other, first, they could catch the women.
"They all have a good kick," said Nikki Hiltz, the 2019 Pan Am Games 1500m champion, whose mood quickly turned pessimistic. "It's not fair," she said, only half joking. "We're just going to be sitting ducks."