For the past 20 years, Jon Kunitake has stood front and center at the start line of the Kona Marathon. Dressed in his usual attire of a dry-fit tank top, a dirt-stained baseball cap and black running shorts, what made the legendary running icon stand out from the crowd was the honored distinction of wearing bib No. 1, and — his running shoes.
Notorious for wearing old broken-down running shoes well beyond any means of repair, Kunitake never seemed to mind, as keeping it simple seemed to be his motto for most of his life. Yet every year, rain or shine, Kunitake always arrived early and ready to go, greeting participants with a warm smile and a cup of coffee in hand, to take on the 26.2-mile distance at the first hint of dawn.
Come Sunday, at the 21st annual event, Kunitake will graciously toe the line for one last time.
“It’s time to say goodbye,” said Kunitake, founder and ambassador for the Kona Marathon event. “And, it’s also a time to say thank you to everyone who supported me over the last 20 years.”
From the beginning, Kunitake’s name has been synonymous with the Kona Marathon. In 1993, Kunitake revitalized the event from what he remembered as four years of emptiness. Kunitake said the Kona Marathon originally started in 1986 and was held for three years by a couple who eventually moved to the mainland. After four years of having no marathon event in Kona, Kunitake decided to fill the void and bring the event back by doing it right.
Knowing it would require a lot of hard work didn’t faze him at all. Kunitake said he knows what it’s like to be poor and hard work runs deep in his blood.
Kunitake’s colorful past began in his youth. As the fifth child of 13, he grew up picking coffee in the fields of Holualoa. Born into a family tradition that was often cumbersome and tiring, Kunitake said he escaped to the mainland in his late teens to build a different life for himself, and to chase a dream that would eventually turn into reality.
He spent the next 20 years as a professional and well-known horse jockey. Being a Japanese-American born in Hawaii during wartime, Kunitake said it was tough in the beginning to gain the respect and stature of other professional jockeys. Yet, he endured because he was pursuing his dream.
After a phone call from his mother, Kunitake returned to Kona to take over his family’s coffee mill and subsequently learned he had a natural gift for running — at 40 years old.
At an age when many athletes retire from their sport, Kunitake defied the odds as he began a long streak of wins in varying distances from the mile to the marathon. During his prime years, he had a personal-marathon-best of 2 hours, 40 minutes, a half-marathon in 1:17, a 10-kilometer (6.2 miles) in 33:58, and a 5K (3.1 miles) in 16:12.
Meanwhile, he built up the coffee mill, expanded his business, and processed his own coffee. Kunitake Coffee Farms became an instant hit in Kona.
Striving for perfection with his coffee business, he realized the same efforts were needed to make the Kona Marathon successful and popular for it to survive. And, he would need help to grow the event.
Kunitake said he asked Jim Lovell to be race director in 1994, and three years later Kunitake secured a key partnership with Ueshima Coffee Company (UCC), a successful family-owned business and one of the largest coffee companies in Japan.
“I still have the letter Mr. Ueshima gave me in 1997,” Kunitake said. “I remember that I was so happy to read it as it truly reinforced everything I envisioned the Kona Marathon and fun runs to be. And that was to promote Kona coffee through a family oriented community event.”
Thus began a long and close relationship with UCC whose heavy sponsorship, along with Lovell’s marketing expertise, and Kunitake’s multiple contacts on the mainland and Japan, helped to catapult the event to an international level and attract world-class athletes, Olympians, and a top competitive local field.
It even caught the eye and attention of legendary Hall of Fame runner and Olympic gold medalist, Frank Shorter, who won the marathon at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich and is credited with starting the country’s running boom in the 70s. For more than a decade, Shorter would spend a week hanging out with Kunitake before taking part in the race festivities and half marathon event.
“He is one of the coolest guys I know,” Kunitake said of Shorter. “As famous as he is, he is truly down to earth and humble. A really neat guy that I’m happy to call my friend.”
Now, at 71, Kunitake said he feels happy about his decision to part with the Kona Marathon and plans to keep himself busy. Each year, Kunitake travels to a remote area of The Republic of Zambia in southern Africa as a goodwill ambassador to help teach basic principles of horticulture for self-sustainability.
He also travels to Central America working as a coffee consultant to share his knowledge of how to plant and graft coffee trees, often spending a month or more at a time visiting Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
At home, in a quaint coffee mill nestled in Holualoa, the self-described romanticist plans to continue intricate koa woodwork for gifts to his loved ones, and playing his violin.
And yes, Kunitake said he plans to continue running and racing in local events, and might even pop in on one of the shorter distances held in conjunction with the Kona Marathon. But concerning the actual marathon, and his connections to the event, Sunday will be his last.
“It’s time to pass the baton on for good,” he said. “I feel so grateful to be a part of a wonderful community that has given so much to make this race a success. I also feel truly thankful to UCC’s unwavering loyalty to me and to this event for nearly 20 years. It started as a race for our community and should always be a race for our community.”