Wright On: One runner’s road to health worth following

  • Steve Pavao

Island living lends itself to outside activities from hanging out at the beach to paddling, tennis, swimming and all the rest, but do we know what sport is the most popular outside of high school?

There are no hard facts on the issue, so here we go, taking an unconfirmed guess that says running — particularly distance running — may well be the popular sport on the Big Island.


There are a lot of golfers and maybe there are even more of them than there are runners, but when you consider a lot of people who golf might only get out a handful of times a year, we’re going to suggest more people run than play golf. That’s based on the presumption that, at the low end, more folks go out for a run three times a week as opposed to golfing three or four times a year, and a lot of those same runners enter regular competitions, 5Ks, 10Ks, half-marathons and marathons than the number of people who enter golf tournaments.

“I think it’s true,” said Bob Wedeman, race director for several Big Island events from the Hilo marathon to the Hilo-to-Volcano ultra marathon, plus the Thanksgiving 5K and more. “We have increasing numbers in older adults, meaning people 25 and up, and overall, the numbers in the races are also increasing over time.”

Apart from raw entrants, Wedeman points to this year’s Thanksgiving 5K when participants chipped in $1,494 that went directly to the Big Island Food Bank and also contributed 500 pounds of food that went to the food bank. It was, he said, the largest amount of food and money that one event raised that he can recall.

There is no one person who can be said to represent the typical Big Island runner, because everyone is different, all walks of life are involved, but for a good example of the kind of people who take running seriously enough to make it a significant part of their lives, you could do worse than to recognize Steve Pavao, 62, named the State of Hawaii Department of Health employee of the year for 2019.

That isn’t to suggest every devoted runner here is the best employee and deserves to be understood in that way. We have runners here, as everywhere, who take it seriously but still, sometimes cheat in a marathon, cutting corners, taking a car ride to finish faster so they can tell their friends a better story.

Making a value judgment on everyone who competes in long distance runs is standing on shaky ground, there are good and bad people everywhere.

But the vast majority of Big Island runners are well-intentioned and most the them are in it for more than self-centered achievement and recognition. In that sense, they are more like Pavao.

Often, they start running to lose weight, or to begin running because their doctor told them they need to exercise more, so they start walking, then a little later they jog and, in time, they’re entering races and making the discipline an integral part of their lives.

For Pavao, who entered all five Big Island marathons this year, including Sunday’s Hawaii Bird Conservation Marathon, the springboard was cigarette smoking.

In 1992 he knew he was smoking too much, so he started running and eventually entered and completed the Honolulu marathon, in, as he recalls, 5 hours and 24 minutes. Back then, he says he was a little too self-absorbed.

“I was arrogant,” he said. “It was probably about six months, I was back to smoking.”

He smoked for about 25 years until he finally felt he needed to get healthy again and started running — make that jogging, slowly — back in 2008, three years after he quit smoking.

“I gained a lot of weight,” he said, “I could barely jog 100 feet, I definitely couldn’t run a mile, it was all I could do to keep up a slow jog. But I didn’t beat myself up about it, I kept going out to do what I could because I did feel a little better after I’d go out.”

This is encouraging for anyone who feels the need to do something good for their longterm health. Sure, go to your doctor, follow her advice, pay more attention to what you eat, but don’t overlook the fact that you can do a lot to heal yourself.

It took a while, but looking back, it was like no time at all before Pavao was able to run a mile, then two miles, then he was entering 5Ks and he discovered a community of like-minded people he didn’t realize existed.

“As much as anything,” he said, “it was the camaraderie I found in the running community that motivated me. I met people my age, people older and younger, men and women and we were all about the same thing, it made me want to do more.”

And he did.

“Initially, I didn’t think I could do a marathon, I couldn’t imagine how anyone could do that, but I just stuck with what I was doing,” he said. “I started meeting people and it really helped.”

He bought a watch to better break down his runs, he read running books voraciously, used a GPS and, in a significant way, found a new lifestyle.

Eventually, his new friends convinced him to be part of a relay team in the Hilo-to-Volcano ultra marathon, another inspiration when he realized how many, young and old, were involved in the challenge.

Pavao’s commitment was extended. There were 5Ks, 10Ks, half-marathons and then a marathon. He was into it, and despite what damage he may have done to himself with decades of smoking, he felt good. In fact, he felt better than ever and his efforts multiplied. In 2009, he ran nine marathons and after a doctor’s checkup, he was told there was no indication that he had ever smoked, again, after 25 years of smoking.

Runner, heal thyself.

He cleansed his heart and lungs and became a non-smoking crusader. He was a proud part of the Coalition for Tobacco-Free Hawaii team that lobbied for cigarette tax increases in Hawaii to motivate people to quit smoking. Today, the more than $3 tax on a pack of cigarettes is one of the highest in the nation.

He’s been running marathons for 12 years, including 26.2-milers in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston and other locales. Get healthy, find a community of new friends, enjoy the travel.

People ask how to prep for a marathon and the answers are simple.

“Get started,” he said. “Don’t overdo it at first, but after you can run a couple miles, push yourself a little, but not if you feel pain. When you get up to 30 miles a week, start planning a set number of miles, 8, 10, 12 or whatever works, but take rest days, don’t push it too hard.”

Just stay with it. Feel your health returning, confirm it with a checkup.

Life is good. Pavao’s experience suggests you can make it better without damaging your lungs and heart with cigarettes and with a decision to run yourself to better health.


Bottom line? Run for your life and enjoy the journey.

Send column ideas on noteworthy individuals, groups and teams to barttribuneherald@gmail.com

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