Early days of the Honolulu Marathon Clinic

Been There, RUN That–A Look Back at the Early Days of the Honolulu Marathon Clinic
By Olivia Rossi, RN, MSN, ACSM
Your Personal Trainer

I had just spent two weeks caring for my dying father at his home on the Big Island.  He loved warm weather and he loved Hawai’i.  He had lived there for ten years and now he was at peace there forever.   It had been a time for closure and a time for reflection.  I had been there before.  Hawai’i was a special place for me, too.  I had said good-bye to my father and laid him to rest.  I was going home.

As the plane lifted off and banked in a steep left arc over the famous shoreline, I looked down at one of the best known silhouettes in the world—Diamond Head.  I could clearly see the road that skirted the ancient volcano.  I remembered and thought to myself:  “Been there, run that.”  
. . .

The year was 1976.  My husband and I had just moved to Hawai’i for two years with the Navy.  He was on a ship out of Pearl Harbor and I was going to the University of Hawai’i to get my Master’s Degree in Nursing Education.  We had both started running in 1974 and it had become part of our lives.  Looking for a place to run was then and continued to be one of the first things we did whenever we moved to a new place.  Hawai’i was a gold mine and our timing was perfect.
We heard about a running group called the Honolulu Marathon Clinic.  It met every Sunday morning at 7AM in Kapiolani Park in Waikiki.  It was a training clinic, training to run the Honolulu Marathon.  The longest I had ever run was the 7.8 mile Bay to Breakers race in San Francisco the year before.  I had never thought of running a marathon.  It sounded daunting–26.2 miles!  Why would I ever want to do that?  How could I ever do that?  I soon had the answer to both of those questions.
The Honolulu Marathon Clinic was started in 1974 by a cardiologist named Dr. Jack Scaff.  It was his vision “. . . to get our cardiac patients in good enough shape so that when they went home they wouldn’t be all de-conditioned from lying around in  bed.” They had begun this rehabilitation at Queen’s Hospital in Honolulu.  “Then I decided we needed some kind of outpatient program—some light, gradual exercise for these people . . . I went down to the YMCA hoping to set it up.”  And he did.  “It took awhile for the YMCA to . . . accept the notion of heart-attack patients in an exercise program . . . they came around.”1  This fierce advocate of preventive medicine through exercise, cardiologist Jack Scaff, told participants that they could complete the marathon if they followed his prescriptions.
That’s where I first met Dr. Scaff, at the Honolulu YMCA.  As part of my graduate studies in Nursing Education and because of a lifelong interest in exercise physiology, I added a minor in Health and Physical Education.  One of my clinical rotations led me to cardiac rehabilitation which was in its infancy at the time.  I helped to set up a program for in-patient cardiac rehabilitation at St. Francis Hospital in Honolulu.  I also was volunteering at the YMCA, working with Dr. Scaff’s out-patient cardiac rehabilitation program.  I began seeing many of his patients on Sunday mornings at the fledgling Honolulu Marathon Clinic.   Dr. Scaff described the clinic as follows:  “What it is, we start people off very slowly—walking, if need be, but moving for one hour.  Of course, if they’ve been sedentary for a long time we recommend a treadmill test.  But anyway, we get them moving maybe three times a week at first.  We use the talk test:  Go only at a pace where you can maintain a conversation the whole time, and drink water every twenty minutes or so . . . We’ve got people running it who have had heart attacks, kids, people over seventy, women, it’s—running is going to change the whole face of medicine.  They’re going to have to revise the whole notion of rest.  They say I’m a heretic for prescribing exercise, but listen, every risk factor associated with heart disease is reduced by an exercise program.  The cholesterol drops, the blood pressure drops . . . You don’t have to be a cardiac patient—in fact, most of the members aren’t.  Anyway, they get down there, and before they know it they are running farther, faster—no pain.  In nine months I can turn the ordinary person into a marathon runner.”2
That’s how it happened to me.  We would gather in the cool morning air to the beautiful sounds of Hawai’i—the surf, the mourning doves, the mynah birds—and, after listening to a motivating pep-talk by Dr. Scaff, we took off walking, jogging or running for an hour.  Doctors, nurses and other medical personnel accompanied cardiac patients.  We covered two or three miles at first and as the date of the marathon drew closer, we increased our distance.  As our endurance improved, so did our speed.   Our longest distance before the marathon was eighteen miles.  They bused us out to Hawai’i Kai, a housing area, yep, eighteen miles west of Waikiki.  They dropped us off and we ran back. Have you ever seen Diamond Head from its “non-famous” side?  It looks totally different and so far away!  Probably because it was!  That road I mentioned at the beginning of my article?  That was the one I was looking at from the plane that skirted the base of Diamond Head and brought back the memories prompting me to think “Been there, run that.”  It was one of the most beautiful sections on the course, Diamond Head Road.  The cliffs, the ocean, the majestic beauty of the Islands . . . it was breathtaking even when you weren’t running!
In 1973 the Honolulu Marathon had 162 runners.  In 2009, there were over 30,000.  I ran it in 1976 and 1977, each time with a cardiac rehabilitation patient by my side.  We finished in 4:40 and 5:20 respectively . . . and respectfully!!!  We left the starting line at Aloha Tower at 6:30AM in the cool darkness of a December morning.  By the time we crossed the finish line, it was hot, humid and sunny . . . and downright exhilarating!
The Honolulu Marathon had been co-founded in 1973 by Dr. Jack Scaff.  In 1974, he conceived the Honolulu Marathon Clinic, “. . . educating thousands of people with the joys and benefits of long distance running.”  I was one of them.  He showed that even cardiac patients could finish a marathon with the proper training.  I’m still running although no longer than about six miles these days now that I’m in my sixties.  I was curious to know what Dr. Scaff is up to at his age.  He’s seventy-five.  He still has his cardiology practice in Honolulu.  “In 1998, an inherited condition that is causing partial paralysis of his leg muscles has slowed Dr. Scaff from a run to a walk.”3   It can be a sudden illness, a chronic condition and sometimes just the hands of time that may slow you down.  Yet the desire to “keep in motion” at whatever pace persists no matter what the vicissitudes of life.
In the course of our time in Hawai’i running with the Honolulu Marathon Clinic, we attended workshops and lectures associated with the Honolulu Marathon and other races, and ran along side (okay, far behind) world class runners and Olympians.  We met and ran in races with some great runners—Frank Shorter, Kenny Moore, Jeff Galloway, Sue Sticklin, Gayle Baron, Duncan Macdonald and Kim Merritt, winners of the 1976 Honolulu Marathon, and Cindy Dalrymple, 1977 winner.

. . .

There is a common thread that runs through my reflections.  The time period from when we lived in Hawai’i in 1976 to my most recent visit with my father in June of this year spanned thirty four years.  A long time that seems short now but the things that were important to me then are important to me now.  I think Dr. Jack Scaff would agree with me.   I challenge you, as he would, to keep on moving.

1,2.    Osmun, Mark.  The Honolulu Marathon Clinic, J.B Lippincott Company, New York,
3         Altonn, Helen.  “The Scaff Way”, Star Bulletin, April 22, 1998.

Yours in fitness,
Olivia C. Rossi, RN, MSN
Certified Clinical Exercise Specialist, ACSM
Certified Personal Trainer, ACSM

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