We look out over the vast Pacific that forms our temporary backyard and watch the sun set as large waves break on the volcanic rock in front of us and Brown Boobies fly northward just offshore. This is our first of ten nights on the island of Oahu. It’s my first time in the state of Hawaii, but not my first time in a state of contemplation as I ponder the reason I am here. I am here, after all, to run the seventeenth edition of the HURT 100 mile trail race. I wonder if I am prepared for as much as 36 hours of rocks, roots, steep climbs and descents, mud, and probable misery that I had volunteered for.
My path to this evening on the Waianae coast was an unusual one. HURT is one of the “classic” hundred mile races, known as much for how well the race is operated and its community as for how difficult it is, consisting of five twenty-mile loops with roughly 5,000 feet of gain and a ton of rocks, roots, and mud per loop. While I’ve had so little success at the hundred mile distance past my first race, I’ve still had the goal of running as many of the older races as possible as those races were what drew me to the sport to begin with. I entered the race while on a long-term injury layoff, and was fortunate enough to get selected to run it during their lottery. My wife was somewhat aghast that I had even entered when I couldn’t run at the time, but a trip to Hawaii does much to smooth things over. We ended up building a vacation around this race, with ten total days on the island and the race stuck right in the middle.
My wife and I arrived at the race start at Hawaii Nature Center outside of Honolulu with plenty of time to spare on Saturday morning. Like every race start, there was a lot of nervous energy. A lot of talking. A lot of runners that hadn’t seen each other outside of Facebook in awhile catching up. For whatever reason, I felt no nervousness at all and didn’t feel intimidated by the task at hand. I slept well the previous night, except for waking up with coughing fits. That, in fact, was my only concern: I had some kind of respiratory issue that started on the third day of the Hawaii trip and wasn’t sure how it would affect my day, if at all.
I talked for awhile with some of my friends from the southern California running community. My wife and I then wandered to the bathroom. The line wasn’t too bad. I barely finished when the race director called us over to the start line just inside the forest edge.
I kissed my wife and told her I’d see her in 20 miles. At 6am we set off through the dark rainforest.
We planned to spend the early parts of our trip doing our usual active stuff, with a lot of hiking and seeing as much as we can see. We headed a little ways up the road on our first morning to hike to Kaena Point at the westernmost tip of Oahu. The hike was approximately three miles each way, and we had no real expectations out of it. It followed the rocky coastline and featured a number of majestic and wave-battered stone arches. The hike ended in a fenced-off area, intended to keep terrestrial predators away from nesting seabirds. There were several Laysan Albatrosses sitting on their nests. Endangered Hawaiian Monk Seals basked in the sun.
As the race started, I settled in about three quarters of the way from the front of pack. It opened with what is known as a brutal climb (the “Hogsback”), but with fresh legs, nearby runners to chat with, and total darkness with no visibility of the terrain, the climb didn’t seem difficult at all. My lungs seemed to be functioning well, though that may have been the result of using my asthma inhaler before the race. I chatted for awhile with a runner from Kentucky, discussing the difficulty of preparing for a hot and humid race during a cold winter at the northern end of the South. We reached a few spots with some wet rocks to climb. A local runner in our pack pointed out the best path through. About an hour and half into the race, with a lot of climbing already under our belts, we finally started to get some sunlight through the forest canopy. We traversed a ridge where the canopy opened a bit and I was finally able to shut off my headlamp.
Our host in Waianae offered to drive us to a nearby beach on our first afternoon there. It was a beautiful hidden cove with spectacular rock formations. It was also known for its frequent sea turtle sightings. Despite my years of working as a biologist in the tropics, including several visits to Tortuguero, Costa Rica, I’d never seen a sea turtle. It was pretty much a “jinx animal” for me.
We followed a nondescript, narrow, walled path between two houses that opened to the cove. Immediately in front of us were a couple of older folks basking in chairs in the sun. In front of them were three Green Sea Turtles also basking in the sun. I was excited. I was very nearly emotional, as I often am when getting to see spectacular wildlife that I’ve wanted to see for so long for the first time. I snapped a lot of photos and even shot a few videos.
The descent into Paradise Park Aid Station, about seven miles in, was a long one. There were steep sections with a lot of wet rocks. There were flatter sections with a lot of gnarly roots. As often happens to me when I’m spending more time hiking than running, I started getting pains around both of my knees. We finally reached Manoa Falls, with the last stretch to the aid station being a mostly gradual descent and a wide graveled trail suitable for the throngs of tourists that visit the falls. I was one of several runners that took the opportunity to go all out here. Opening up my stride felt good on my legs and the pain melted away. The aid station had a pirate theme, a lot of cheering supporters, and tons of food. I was in and out quickly, as I planned, and headed back up the trail the way I came.
As it was still early in the race I felt pretty good on the climb. I caught up to a runner I know and hung with her for awhile, just chatting about how the day was going. Conversation makes the miles go by faster and, before I knew it, I was on top of the central ridge in the race. The canopy is open here, and there are excellent views of the coast and the City of Honolulu before dropping steeply down the west slope toward Nuuanu, the second aid station on the route.
The descent to Nuuanu was far steeper and wetter than the descent to Paradise Park. There were short runnable sections, with sudden muddy steep rocky sections, often narrow and with treacherous drop-offs. A bad step here could be problematic. Hands were necessary in many places, and I often struggled with what to do with my hiking poles, which were otherwise useful. The trail flattens into mud and roots at the bottom. There’s a stream crossing with rope support, then the Nuuanu Aid Station.
Day two on the island began with me feeling remarkably tired, far more than I should for a flat six mile hike. My plans to stay physically active went out the window as my legs had to feel well-rested for the race. We decided to take the rental car out and circle the island, just to get the lay of the land.
We opened by heading north toward the famous North Shore. We drove back-and-forth through the area, not really certain exactly where we were going. We eventually settled in on the beach at Banzai Pipeline. I photographed surfers taking on the huge waves. I watched Brown and Masked Boobies make their way over the wave tops through the surfers. Eventually, a Humpback Whale breached behind the surfers. I was fortunate to catch it with my camera as it rose out of the water.
I started feeling the first hints of being tired on the steep climb out of Nuuanu. It wasn’t a big deal, as I had traversed some pretty difficult miles by that point and I’m certain many felt the same. I settled in for awhile with another runner that I knew, again chatting about how the day was going and how “crazy” some of the terrain was. We discussed the various ways we trained for it, and how we’d do things differently now that we had seen the course.
We separated on the long descent back to the start/finish at the Nature Center. While I retained a good attitude about the race, I was anxious to get a loop done. I had no idea how much distance I had to go as my GPS, which I was running for the first time in UltraTrac mode, was not measuring the distance correctly. I often thought I was close to seeing my wife again when I still had miles remaining. I eventually got there, a little over six hours into the race and later than I thought, but feeling pretty good. I elected to sit down for a bit and change my socks as they were soaked and I was feeling hot spots. I also decided to reapply my anti-chafe protection. My clothes were soaked with sweat, and I would’ve loved to change, but couldn’t do that on every loop. I told my wife that had to be the most difficult twenty miles of trail I had ever done, gave her a kiss, and headed back out on loop 2.
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