Monday, August 06, 2007

07/28/07 Kilauea Volcano Trail Marathon

If you don't know, Kilauea is one of the two active volcanoes on the Big Island of Hawai'i. The other one, Mauna Loa, last erupted in 1984. Kilauea has been erupting consistently since 1983. In fact, about a month before the race, the eruption on Kilauea changed to a new location. It got muuuuch more active for a few weeks and many trails and roads were closed. I was nervous about whether the race would happen. Luckily, it did... and they even let us run through a small area that was still officially closed to visitors.

This race has been ranked as the toughest measured marathon in the world by some "authorities" (like, Runners' World). I don't think it is, but it would certainly rank in my top five. The course is a loop that starts and ends at the Kilauea Military Camp. The race utilizes hiking trails and about 7 miles of road all within Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. The course itself changes dramatically throughout, and is best considered a stage race:

Stage One (8 miles). After a one mile uphill warm-up along Crater Rim Drive, runners jump onto the connector trail that eventually leads to the Ka'u Desert Trail. All told, this is 7 miles of screaming downhill over lava and sand. Extremely technical with rocks and ridges and the occasional "uh oh" jump over a Really Deep Crack. The course was marked with little yellow survey flags, and all the trails are marked by rock piles (called "cairns"). Unfortunately, the color of lava and the lay of the land makes the rock piles hard to see sometimes... SOOO... while the runner is trying to look down for tripping hazards, the occasional peek around is needed to sight the next nav marker. Combined with the downhill, which urges people to run faster, run faster, this is a really dangerous part of the course. Look up to sight, and SPLAT, down you go. I've seen people break bones in this section. And lots of blood.

Stage Two (5.5 miles). At the bottom of the hill, just before Mauna Iki, runners make a big left turn onto the Mauna Iki Trail. The footing on this section is like the previous section... only deeper sand, tougher rocks, and wider cracks :-). Incidentally, pahoehoe is considered to be the smoother type of lava (the other, a'a, is the rocky stuff). But "smoother" is not smooth... the surface of pahoehoe has little ridges which make great ankle-collapsers. On the one hand, this section is not downhill - it's very roly poly. This forces runners to slow down. On the other hand, there are some steep ups along the way. Right in the middle, at M10, there's a fun switchback that includes a little scrambling over/around boulders.

Stage Three (6 miles). After climbing up and out of the technical portion, runners are faced with some road miles. This is a nice change and would be easy peasy... except that the first 4 miles are uphill. 4 miles, uphill, no break. The last 2 miles roll along Chain of Craters Road and into the Mauna Ulu parking lot. This lot is actually closed because of the recent volcanic activity... but we got to run through it.

Stage Four (4 miles). This section is a wide trail... officially, really it is the escape road up the side of Kilauea if/when Chain of Craters Road unexpectedly gets munched. The first mile is rough and rocky, but the last 3 enter the rain forest - beautiful trees, grass, shade, and soft surface. Ah, easy, right? No. Notice that I said the escape road goes UP. Oh, yes it does. And up runners go. This 4 mile up is quite a bit steeper than the 4 up miles in the previous section. This is also M19.5-23.5 of the race. After everything else that runners have endured, this section feels like the hardest part to me. These miles take FOREVER.

Stage Five (3.7 miles). After popping out of the escape road near the famous Thurston Lava Tube, runners take the Crater Rim Trail around Kilauea Iki and the main Kilauea Crater... and back to the military camp. And... DONE! These miles are rolling and somewhat technical. No lava, but lots of roots and mud if it has been raining. Also, several sets of stairs along the way. For runners who are still coherent, this is by far the most visually interesting section. For the rest of us, it's a fairly intense little trail run. Luckily, the incoherent person does not really notice the sections of the trail next to the crater w/o a guardrail... that's a several hundred foot drop straight down.

So that's the course. The weather? Expect EVERYTHING. It starts out cool at the volcano... 6a will be 50-55. It heats up out on the desert section. It gets windy. Then, as runners get back to the RAIN FOREST, it can rain. Snow and ice are about the only things a runner won't experience.

It is a hard race. Last year, I went through stage one too fast and twisted my ankle at the end of this stage. It made for a long painful day and I limped in at 5:11. This year, I thought I'd be smarter about the race... but I still shot through stage one too fast :-). I did not, however, twist my ankle or hurt anything. Some folks did.

Many of my Hawai'ianiac friends caught me before the M10 scramble in stage two. Johnny and Wyatt (if you read my Kona report, Wyatt's the dude who unfortunately missed the turn) both passed me smiling. Right at the end of this stage, Les caught me. He was bloody and had fallen earlier, but he was upright and seemed pretty chipper. Less than one hundred yards before the end of this stage, while we were talking about his fall, I caught my foot in a hole and.... and... I caught myself. Phew. No fall. Up and out.

Stage three's uphill let me know that I had gone out too fast. It was hot and my legs were mush. The volunteers in the Mauna Ulu parking lot seemed to know in advance about my pink shirt and me... I got lots of thanks for being "breast cancer guy". I tried to thank them. Ice cold water at M19 of this race is the best water on the planet. But they would have none of that.

On I went. Sure enough, stage four's uphill ate me up. Even though it wasn't technical, 12:00 miles were all I could do. Most everyone else seemed to have the same difficulty; there was lots of leapfrogging back and forth, but we kind of moved as an informal pack up the side of the volcano.

Then it was time for stage five. Woohoo, the last stage and the most wonderful views. All was well until we came to an unmarked fork in the trail. People were just standing there. I was sure that "left" was the proper direction. I went off, and immediately had a confidence crisis... I was headed down, and I knew that we weren't supposed to go down into the crater. So I went back to the intersection. Nobody knew which way to go. Some people went right. One guy went left... so I went with him and a few folks followed me. About three minutes into it, this felt correct to me; I've run these trails dozens of times. The confidence crisis from before was caused by being at M24 of one of the hardest marathons on earth. My brain wasn't quite there. This was the right way. A woman with me wasn't so sure, and she started freaking out because we hadn't hit a section of trail she thought we should be on. I had a quick talk with her: "this is
the right way, trust me, that section you are thinking of is in about half a mile". She ran with me, and we rounded a corner... and there was an aid station. We had chosen properly. We told the aid station folks about the poorly marked turn. Later I'd find out that someone went back and covered up the wrong choice.

We passed the Volcano House, where the picture at the top of this story was taken. About a mile and a half more trail... and we were done. The gal who had freaked out was a hasher from Honolulu and tons of her hasher friends were at the end to hoot her in. I was right behind her, so they also hooted for the dude in pink.

Boom. 4:54. On this course, that wasn't a bad time... and 17 minutes better than last year. That put me in the top third overall, top third men, and right at the cutoff for top third in my age group. So... not great, but not bad.

And I was coherent enough to walk the 1.2 miles back to the Volcano House and crash in my room.

It's a really interesting race. It is very pretty. I swing back and forth during this run between "love it" and "haaaaate it". Afterwards, I say that I won't do it again. And then a few months later, I reconsider and plan for next year. At least, this is how it has gone in the past. I don't think I'll do the full again... maybe next year, I'll do the 10 miler.

Then again, ask me the same question in a few months. HA.

Next up: it has already happened. The Frank Maier Marathon in Juneau, Alaska. Kind of the exact opposite of this race. I'll write that story soon. It'll be shorter, but it will involve unexpected hardware!

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