By JOHN DE GROOTE
The UCC Coffee Kunitake Farms Kona Marathon celebrates its 20th anniversary when it kicks off Sunday from the Keauhou Shopping Center, and for many competitors the race has become more than just another marathon.
“I’ll run this marathon every year for the rest of my life if I can,” Julie Weiss said. “It’s that special to me. You are surrounded by the warm aloha spirit here. “
Weiss has been dubbed the “Marathon Goddess” after completing 52 marathons in 52 weeks. The Kona Marathon was Weiss’ 11th stop of the 52, and she said that No. 11 was like running in heaven.
“The aloha spirit is so prevalent here, and the venue doesn’t hurt either,” Weiss said. “The support out there on the course from people giving you water and high-fiving you is just a wonderful support system, and I haven’t found something like that anywhere else.”
Weiss began her mission of 52 marathons in 52 weeks after losing her father in 2010 to pancreatic cancer — just 35 days after his diagnosis.
“I was devastated, helpless and angry,” Weiss said. “I knew that I needed to do something to make a difference.”
Weiss now runs for a cause: curing pancreatic cancer and raising awareness about the disease. So far she has raised $200,000 of her $1 million goal through her website marathongodess.com.
“It’s a joy to have Julie here for the marathon again,” assistant race director David Ranck said. “She really embodies what the aloha spirit is.”
Weiss’ 52-marathon trek came to an end when she completed the Los Angeles Marathon on March 14, but she is far from finished.
“I found my mission, but I’m just getting started,” Weiss said. “For people who want to do something wonderful, it doesn’t have to be marathons. As long as you embrace you passion and let your spirit shine we will see you at the finish line.”
The race also holds a special place in the heart of Minnesota resident Carol Fitzgerald Tyler.
“The first time I did this race I was over 100 pounds heavier,” said Tyler, who is now an ambassador for the event. “Kona has become a very special place for me. When people come to and run this race they feel at home and that they’re part of a family.”
A field of over 2,000 participants representing 48 states and 13 countries, including Germany, Japan, France and Australia, will compete Sunday — a 20 percent increase from last year.
For the first time since 2008, there will be a new Kona Marathon men’s champion. Reigning five-time champion Justin Gillette is l not be back to defend his crown.
“Unfortunately, Justin is not competing this year,” Ranck said. “We invited him back this year but he had to decline because his wife just gave birth to their baby girl.”
Last year, Gillette finished with a time of 2 hours, 37 minutes, 14 seconds — more than four minutes faster than the second place finisher.
Women’s champion Aki Mizunuma of Tokyo will not be returning either.
The marathon starts at Keauhou Shopping Center and then takes participants down Alii Drive and Kuakini Highway. The course then leads past Kona Commons Shopping Center on to Queen Kaahumanu Highway and then has the runners double back to finish at the Sheraton Kona Resort at Keauhou Bay.
Road closures for the marathon include southbound Alii Drive from Kamehameha III Road to Palani Road from 5 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.; southbound Kuakini Highway from Makala Boulevard to Palani Road from 5:45 a.m. to 10:45 a.m.; and southbound Makala Boulevard from Queen Kaahumanu Highway to Kuakini Highway from 6 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.
Packet pickup for participants will be from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. Saturday, and late registration is available for all events until the 5 p.m. deadline.