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A ‘Mo’ Bettah Run

Everything is going in the right direction for the 37th annual Hawai‘i Pacific Health Great Aloha Run and founder Carole Kai Onouye, thanks to a new theme (“Together Mo’ Bettah!”) and platform (virtual).

For the first time in its nearly 40-year history, the iconic Hawai‘i Pacific Health Great Aloha Run is going virtual, offering partcipants the chance to walk, jog or run the 8.15-mile race at any time and place between Feb. 8 and 15, while raising money for local charities.

“Because of COVID-19, we wanted to be there to help the needs of the people, and there are so many needs out there, so we thought we would continue to try to get entries in,” explains Carole Kai Onouye, who founded Great Aloha Run and continues to spearhead the event through Carole Kai Charities. “Everybody who signs up (they have about 5,000 entries so far), will get a T-shirt and medal sent to them saying ‘Together Mo’ Bettah!’”

“That’s a very apropos word that we can all say, ‘Hey, we’re in this together and together mo’ bettah — we can fight it together.’”

Runners take off at the start line of the 2019 Great Aloha Run. PHOTO COURTESY GREAT ALOHA RUN

Since its start, Great Aloha Run has achieved many milestones, including raising close to $15 million for about 150 nonprofit health and human service organizations and community groups throughout Hawai‘i.

There were nearly 12,000 entrants the first year, about 20,000 last year, and as many as 34,000 in years past.

Traditionally, the race starts at Aloha Tower and finishes at Aloha Stadium, with competitive elite runners leading at the front, Sounds of Freedom (military running in formation) on the side and casual walkers toward the back.

But the history of the event actually dates back to the Carole Kai International Bed Race, a popular event in Waikīkī from 1974 to 1994.

Carole Kai at the Great Aloha Run in 1987.

“At University of Hawai‘i, they had mattress races; the fraternities had mattress races right by Varney Circle,” recalls Kai Onouye. “It was so much fun that I said, ‘Hey, why don’t we do that and do it on beds?’

So, I got hospital beds the first year and people started making their own beds after that.

“The Great Aloha Run grew out of the bed race because the city would not let us use the area anymore.”

At the core of these events was the goal of connecting people to make a positive difference in the community.

In addition to Hawai‘i Pacific Health Great Aloha Run, Carole Kai Charities, with the help of Rene Mansho, has been offering free computer classes to senior citizens for 17 years (last year’s program was canceled due to COVID-19, but they hope to resume this year).

Last month, Hawai‘i Pacific Health Great Aloha Run hosted a holiday food distribution at Aloha Stadium, with support from Hawai‘i Foodbank and the City & County of Honolulu, for 3,500 families.

The annual race attracted about 20,000 participants last year. PHOTOS COURTESY GREAT ALOHA RUN

“My mother (Ethel Iwamoto Akamine) didn’t only want me to be an entertainer, she wanted me to be a giver,” says Kai Onouye. “She said unless you do more than raise money for yourself or do stuff for yourself, your life isn’t very important.

“My mother was so poor growing up. She became a barber, and her whole life she wanted to give away and do stuff for people but she couldn’t because she had to raise three kids on her barbershop pay and send us all through college.

“My heart just broke for her because she never had anything. So, I wanted to do something to make her happy and the happiest moment I had was during the bed race, we had a parade down Kalākaua Avenue and I put my mother in the car, and she was waving at people and it just made me so happy.”

Kai Onouye, a 1962 graduate of McKinley High School, spent much of her childhood with relatives in neighboring Kaka‘ako and was known as Carole Shimizu.

“When I first started performing in Waikīkī, I was working at the Moana Surfrider as a pianist … and the music director for all the Sheratons could never pronounce my name,” recollects Kai Onouye. “He would call me Shimuzu, Shimizi, Shimazu — he just pulverized my name. I said, ‘Please, my name is Shimizu.’ He says, ‘Oh, you know what, it’s too much of a bother. I’m just going to call you Carole Kai’ … and the name stuck.”

She also grew up spending her summers in Kahuku with cousins, and describes herself as “a real local, country girl at heart.”

Kai Onouye, whose husband Eddie Onouye was her first boyfriend in high school, majored in piano and minored in voice at UH, and went on to a successful entertainment career that took her around the world, including throughout South America, Asia and Europe.

“I performed at the Hilton in Hong Kong and big hotels in Singapore and then Indonesia and, oh my goodness, I’m starting to remember all this now, it was fun,” she says. “I also worked in Vegas and Reno and Tahoe … I had a seven-piece band and two singers, and we drove everywhere.”

In 1993, she partnered with Dirk Fukushima on Hawai‘i Stars, the local television talent show that was the brainchild of then-state Sen. Mike McCartney. She and Kimo Kahoano continue to co-host the show, which still airs today.

There’s also the beloved musical group Local Divas, comprised of Kai Onouye, Melveen Leed, Nohelani Cypriano and the late Loyal Garner.

Her résumé also includes appearances in dozens of episodes of the original Hawai‘i Five-0 and Magnum P.I.

“There are so many (career) highlights, but I think the fact that I was able to do what my mother wanted me to do and start a charity is probably the most fulfilling,” says Kai Onouye. “If we can continue to do well and good for other people, that’s the most important thing. To be able to make an impact on other people’s lives rather than just your own because if it’s just for yourself, like my mother said, you’re nothing.

“I just want to make sure we continue to give monies away through the Great Aloha Run and it’s because of the people who participate. We couldn’t do it without them, so it’s important to have people know that this whole journey is about connecting with other people.”

For more information or to register for the 37th annual Hawai‘i Pacific Health Great Aloha Run, visit greataloharun.com.

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