By Chris Lotsbom, @ChrisLotsbom
(c) 2016 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

HONOLULU, HI, USA (8-Dec) — For the first time in 19 years, an elite mile will be contested here in Waikiki. The inaugural Kalakaua Merrie Mile is set for Saturday morning, featuring a gender challenge that will blend the professional women and men’s races along Honolulu’s signature shoreline. Instead of crowning respective gender winners, only one person will be proclaimed champion through a gender battle format, taking the title of King or Queen of Waikiki.

“The goal is to have everyone finish around the same time, a photo-finish,” said Dr. Jim Barahal, President of the Honolulu Marathon Association. “Whenever you do this kind of thing you just see how it goes. We want a really exciting race.”

Rather than host separate men’s and women’s elite miles, Barahal created a gender challenge that will pit Olympians and elites of both genders against one another. The women will start at 7:30 a.m. local time, followed 27 seconds later by the elite men. If all goes well, the race will be decided in the final steps.

Headlining the women’s field are Olympians Nicole Sifuentes (CAN), Dominique Scott-Efurd (RSA), and Aisha Praught Leer (JAM), joined by Michigan alum Shannon Osika and recent NCAA Cross Country runner-up Erin Finn (who is not eligible for prize money). Chasing them down will be Olympians Hamish Carson (NZL) and Nate Brannen (CAN), along with Will Leer, Mason Ferlic, and Edwin Kiptoo (KEN).

With two different starts merging into one race, strategies can vary widely depending on which athlete you ask. Carson, a 3:56.72 miler, said it’s going to be a barn-burner from the get-go knowing the strength of the women’s field.

“This is going to be great! I’ll be like a police officer chasing the criminals,” he told Race Results Weekly with a laugh. “We’re not going to be able to turn it into a little tactical race and sprint at the end, are we now. We’ll have to keep the pace going.”

Sifuentes, a 4:03.97 1500m runner and Olympic semi-finalist, running blind from the front and not knowing where the men stand will be a bit daunting.

“I’m kind of excited to just run by feel, run blind. I can’t remember the last time I’ve done a race like that, so I think it’ll be fun. I’m looking forward to it,” she said. “It will definitely add a level of anxiety to it, just knowing that people are trying to run you down and they are men. I’ll try not to think about it too much and just run hard, but I think it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out because at this time of year it’s hard to tell how fit anyone is.”

The 27-second time gap was determined by after extended debate. Reviewing global results in both the 1500m and mile, Barahal said there’s a consistent trend of men running between 27 and 29 seconds faster than women at the highest levels. While elite men are clocking 1500m bests in the 3:33/3:34 range, women are hovering around or dipping under the 4:00 barrier. The mile world records on the track are 29 seconds apart from one another, too. After calculating that men take between 87 and 89-percent of the time women need to cover the same distance, Barahal decided 27 seconds would be the difference.

This isn’t his first time handicapping races. Annually, The Hapalua – Hawaii’s Half-Marathon, features a handicapped race where one elite professional has to chase down the best runners from Hawaii over 13.1-miles. The method has worked in the past, and created exciting contests.

“We have experience with handicapped races and making adjustments year to year based on how it plays out,” Barahal said. “That’s how it’s going to be with the gender challenge this year.”

Mapping out the race course on iconic Kalakaua Avenue was a no-brainer for Barahal, a win-win for all participants (elites and the approximately 1500 in the mass race) as well as spectators. As the most recognizable stretch in Waikiki, Kalakaua Avenue showcases the area’s beautiful landscape, shopping district, and the ocean. With the New Balance Fifth Avenue Mile in New York City serving as inspiration, Barahal wanted the event to be on a well-known stretch that is representative of the area.

“We’ve really seen –especially at the Fifth Avenue Mile– that people, the average runner, love to run a mile especially on an iconic street,” he said. “The fact that it’s on Kalakaua Avenue, we think people will have a really fun time and enjoy it. We’re hoping to approach the great experience people are having at events like the Fifth Avenue Mile in New York. We’d be thrilled if people have that fun time here and we are really looking forward to it.”

With five heats for the masses leading up to the elite starts, Barahal and the Honolulu Marathon team want the event to connect runners of all abilities together. Locals and tourists can run, watch the elites, and enjoy the atmosphere.

“It’s a great opportunity not just for participants in the marathon, but for friends and family to come and be part of it in a more physical way rather than just coming along for the trip,” he said. Barahal named the event the Kalakaua Merrie Mile as homage to King Kalakaua, who was known as the Merrie Monarch for spreading joy throughout the island, something the event hopes to achieve in its own right. “We have a love of the sport, and it’s another opportunity for people to participate in that. It all came together and we decided to do this.”

Turning back to the elite side, there’s one more added twist: prize money will be decided by the order elites cross the line, regardless of gender. The first three to finish will receive $3500, $1500, and $1000, respectively.

“Seeing it’s an out and back, we’ll be able to see how close we are at halfway and how much we’re going to have to pour on the pace on the way back,” Carson continued. “It’ll probably be close — there are a lot fast girls. Nicole, Shannon, and Aisha. Crickey, we’re going to have to go from the gun!”

Sifuentes echoed Carson’s strategy. “I’m going to try to go hard at the start, hard in the middle, and hard at the end. I’m just going to try and run hard the whole way and hold them off.”