by Brett Larner
photos by Mika Tokairin and Brett Larner
Runners at the 5:00 a.m. start.
The island of Phuket on the west coast of Thailand used to be one of the big three overseas tropical resort destinations for Japanese tourists. When the Dec. 26, 2004 tsunami hit the island over 5000 people were killed, including both local residents and foreign tourists. Foreign tourism dropped precipitously, causing more damage to the local economy which was already struggling to cope with the direct effects of the tsunami. In 2006 the Laguna Phuket association of resorts began holding a marathon in an effort to bring people back. Along with the full marathon, organizers included half marathon and 10.5 km distances along with a 5 km walk and a 2 km kids' race, all featuring a seaside start and finish in the heart of the Laguna Phuket resort district. Out of the 2038 entrants in the first edition of the combined races, 571 came from overseas.
The view on the way back.
Now in its fourth running, the Laguna Phuket International Marathon has grown steadily. This year's event saw 4500 entrants, nearly 1700 of whom came from overseas. Along with encouraging running as a healthy activity among local Thai residents, the Phuket Marathon has made a significant mark on the local economy, an impressive achievement given the global economic situation.
Team Moriwaki before the start.
Thanks in small part to the Phuket Marathon organizers' efforts much of the island's Australian and European clientelle has returned. The Japanese have for the most part continued to stay away. For this year's race the marathon enlisted Japanese TV personality Kenji Moriwaki to help bring them back. Moriwaki, a comedian by trade, hosts the popular show 'Hashiru Otoko,' or 'Running Man,' which covers his adventures running a complete circuit of Japan. To help promote Phuket Moriwaki brought in young TV stars Tomoko Sakamoto, Rie Sawai and Keiko Kikuura.
Tough Japanese marathon women Sakamoto, Sawai and Kikuura.
He also held public auditions for a chance for someone to run their debut marathon with all four celebrities in Phuket, choosing Osaka-area Masaya Kinugawa, a businessman in his early 40's. Kinugawa's training and preparations became a regular feature of the show. Japanese entries in the marathon, which had grown at a slow but steady rate over the first three years from 97 to 192, jumped to over 300.
The early kilometers.
After an optional early start at 4:00 a.m., the main start went off in the dark at 5:00 a.m. Temperatures at the start were in the mid to high 20's with tropical humidity. The course wound through the Laguna Phuket resort area for its first few kilometers but then soon went out into the surrounding environment. Race organizers could have designed a course which kept runners largely within the main tourist areas, but to their credit they created something far more memorable.
A market along the course.
The Phuket Marathon course gives runners the chance to see sides of the local community and environment they would probably never otherwise experience. Crowded early morning markets with all the smells you might expect, local villages and temples, and areas still showing signs of tsunami damage.
Between 19 and 20 km.
Not just beaches either, but tropical forests, mountainous valleys, farms and plantations.
A woman selling durian at a stand on the course.
Crowd support was thin and quiet, but local residents were friendly and visibly curious about the sight of foreigners outside their normal grazing grounds and interested in something other than just drinking and massage.
And then came the sunrise. Temperatures climbed steeply after 8:00 a.m. when the sun came out from behind the scattered clouds. There was no escaping the fact that this was a tropical marathon, but water stations were frequent and generous and the unusually scenic course and positive atmosphere kept it a marathon to enjoy rather than race. Only one person, course record holder Stephen Paine of Australia, broke three hours, but the fact seemed irrelevant to everyone enjoying the award ceremony, the generous post-race food and the complimentary Thai massage.
Moriwaki near halfway.
All five members of Team Moriwaki survived the late-stage heat and sunshine. Moriwaki was the first to come in, finishing hard after being caught by tiny Rie Sawai with just a few kilometers to go. Sawai's time of 5:06:51, her second marathon, was a PB. Sakamoto, who was likewise running her second marathon, kept debutante Kikuura company and the pair finished together in 5:50:21.
Masaya Kinugawa and family after the race.
Kinugawa struggled in the heat and faded badly but finished in 5:56:04 with his wife and daughter and the other members of the team waiting for him in front of the TV cameras. Despite his exhaustion he was elated at successfully finishing. In post-race comments Moriwaki said he had particularly been touched by the chance to see a glimpse of the daily lives of ordinary Thai citizens away from tourist areas, and he hoped that more people would join him for next year's 5th anniversary Laguna Phuket International Marathon.
An elephant passes through the finish area.
(c) 2009 Brett Larner
all rights reserved