The air was warm and heavy with moisture even at 7:00 am as we all stood in grass just back from the Pali Overlook. Modern day warriors, men and women of Oahu, coming together in the killing grounds of the last great Hawaiian battlefield, waiting for the race stages to move out. Each filtering down the Pali Trail into Koolaupoko while the others continued to hold off the unseen forces of a forgotten conquering army. But our battle lay along the bottoms of the cliffs to the east, and we were not fleeing but charging down the ancient escape routes.
I took my place high on the hillside, waited the start and then slipped and slid my way to the bottom, the rubber pig stuffed in my belt. It was all a formality. I needed to carry it out of site of the crowd and then Ed Bugarian would be forced to take it. I handed it to him before we hit the turn onto the Old Pali road, and he was gone and out of site in less than a minute. I had the feeling that the over 50 crowd was going to be running amok.
I’m always tight at the start and can not run for miles. I’m not very talkative, and I don’t really want to listen to anybody else as the pain in my legs and hips works it way out of my stiff body. I made the trip to the bottom alone, cursing various things which struck my fancy and just trying to get moving without pulling or breaking something. It was miserable, and it got hotter and more humid as I worked my way down into the valley and made the turn onto the Maunawili Trail. I was sweating steams from my head and upper body and the weight of the water felt like it would fill my lungs; I hadn’t realized how much my system had adapted to the desert and the volcano. Wet, hot and tight, I became disgusted and was ready to quit, but didn’t feel like making the climb back up the Pali.
The next group began passing me soon enough, despite my ample head start. Fast young women mostly, sleek muscled ladies with intent expressions on their faces that belied the distance of the turn around. I pushed harder as they passed keeping them in sight a bit longer, enjoying the beauty of their muscled strides around one or two extra turns. It lightened my temperament, and the extra push helped work out some tightness. Then some of the younger 50’s started to move up on me. Josef flew by before I knew he was in back of me. I pushed a bit harder, keeping ahead of the others around a three or four turns before exchanging a few words with them and wishing them a good race as they sped past.
Gordon Lau was the last of the old crowd to make it by me. He was doing that pace of his that is endlessly never very fast. Gordon and I have both improved over the past few years, but now I can only occasionally keep up with him. It takes a particularly good day for me, and a down one for him for our particular styles to make a race out of it. Generally I just move aside and wish him well, which is what happened out there on Saturday.
Maunawili is an enchanted region of the island. A race is not the best venue to understand this as most of the time one’s eyes are glued to the muddy trail, but a walk down the trail on an off day, or a light run is always a wonderful experience. The cliffs rise almost 1200 feet from their base, creating vistas that are awesome, and off in the distance the views of Kailua and Waimanalo are stride stopping. The valleys have been cultivated since the earliest Hawaiian settlement prior to the first millennium. Looking out at the rich lands and seas, it is easy to understand why those who came before us choose such a place to begin a new life.
The constant flow of people coming up behind me drew me out of my tightness and brought on periods of long easy jogging. It was not enough to stay ahead of these younger challengers, but it was fun to keep ahead for turn after turn. Hitting the ups I delighted in walking up the hillsides while I heard the grunts and hard breathing of those behind me. I moved over the technical ground and steeps leaving them behind, only to give it up again on the more level and even parts of the trail. But in each instance I would have to yield and pull off to the side as I began to pant and sweat more heavily.
My pace was actually quite good when I checked my watch against the benchmarks I have for the trail, and I found myself way beyond the ‘Don’t steal the UH Banana’s’ sign when my watch finally flipped past one hour. I was doing so well, in fact, that I began to grow a bit concerned, and when I reached the power towers I stopped for a moment to look off toward Waimanalo and see if I could catch site of the faster runners. When Harold Ebling came by we joked about the fast pace, and mutually voiced concern that it seemed a bit hard for a race that was barely a quarter complete. We didn’t say it, but we were both a bit concerned, as well we should have been.
I dropped off a bit after talking to Harold and wishing him on his way. I cheered on Larry when he past, and had a good but brief talk with Paul about their climb up Rainer, which was a stunning and grand adventure. I’d have liked to have talked to Paul longer but his pace this year was significantly faster than last and I found myself breathing hard and had to wish him on before he could tell me more than just the basics. Despite my desire to drop off a bit I found that my reluctance to let people by without a bit of a fight was still pushing my pace and that I was looking at a two hour turn into Waimanalo. My contemplation was shattered when Josef almost ran me down as I took that last little ridge before the Horse road. It was good to see him in such fine form. It seems like it has been years since he has felt well enough to once again dominate our runs. Ed was not far behind him. He’s got to be the fittest fifty-seven year old on the face of the earth. It is always interesting to see just how far out of ‘Totally in the Groove’ I am. Gary Marr and Gordon Lau flew by me before I could make the road. I wondered how fast these guys would be when they finally grew up. I jogged down the horse road into the aid station saying high to the rest of the leaders as they made their way out of Waimanalo. I ran by Cheryl about midway, and set catching her as one of my goals. Beating a McAlester/Loomis relay would be a good showing on any day in Maunawili. Though it would have been so much harder if Bob had let Cheryl do the out and not the back, but I was not going to complain. I hit the bottom in 2:05, which was about ten minutes slower that my time last year, and just about where I wanted to be.
It was good to see Don Fallis’ face at the aid station and as I gave up my pack to Bob McAlester, I stuffed my face with a great little sandwich that Rex had made. Real food is always a bonus and should never be passed up. Don and I joked about it being his turn to offer a massage at an aid station, and I ate a few other bits of food. Then Bob helped me shoulder my pack, Don insisted I take an extra sandwich, and I scarffed a few glasses of gator aid and I was ready to go. I looked at my watch and it said 2:07. It is was hard to believe that I had been at the aid station for less than three minutes.
I left Waimanalo carrying 80 ounces of water in my camel pack. I had sucked down additional fluids and electrolytes at the aid station. I felt a bit bloated and the extra weight on my back pulled at me as I marched up the hill. Brian caught up with me and we chatted and laughed a bit as he jogged alongside me as I strode up the hill. I could keep pace with him on the steeper portions, but given any leveling he moved ahead. Finally he moved out of site as the trial took a few switch backs. I felt the weight of the water on my back and yearned to be a bit lighter. Last year I had siphoned off 30 or 40 ounces to gain some speed but it had not proved particularly helpful. I had forgotten the essential of Maunawili. It is Maunawili out and BACK. Maunawili Back is Maunawili UP. So really it is Maunawili BACK and UP. The first part of the race is a fling, though many don’t realize it. Maunawili out is just a lark, a warm up, a pretender. The real race is that ominous rise that faces you when you make the turn and realize that you have about six miles of very steep up before you reach the more moderate hills of the west. Then, of course, there is the Pali trail and Old Pali Road sections that are actually outrageously steep.
But that all lay ahead, and after a few attempts at this run I was deeply aware of the need not to think too deeply about what lay ahead. Eleven miles of up, perhaps farther than you will ever have to race without aid, can be intimidating. Almost twice as far as most aid station intervals in major trail races. Hurt has lengthy distances between stations with seven or eight miles, and that does a lot of mainlanders in. But Maunawili makes a mockery of standards. It is not just eleven miles of hot humid muddy jungle trail, its eleven miles of steep upwardly slick humid jungle trail, through the heat of the morning where the sun bounces off the hillsides and humid heat focuses on you like an ant under a magnifying glass. It is eleven miles of gruelingly hard trail coming just after eleven miles of what you thought were very hard trails. If you don’t have a lot of humility and respect for Maunawili, the spirits of the run will mock you, and force you to your knees. If you don’t understand what you are facing then somewhere out there on the Back you will find yourself wishing you had never thought trail running was enjoyable, you will rue the fact that you got out of bed in the morning, You will start lying to yourself that you are almost to the water tank before you even reach the power towers and you will find yourself pleading with anyone that comes by for extra water or electrolytes or anything. You will find yourself three or four miles in and whining to yourself that it ‘Can’t be too much farther.’ And you will wander down the trail crying to yourself for a few hours as you muddle your way through a race that has not only passed you by but swallowed you whole and sent you to a purgatory where you plod endlessly over muddy wet rocks that cause continuous falls and spills. Any rules you might have expected of trail racing are broken by the spirits of Maunawili and you can find yourself suddenly just a lone survivor abandoned on a remote jungle trail, lost and disheartened, if you start the Back and you are not packing a lot of humility and water.
It is mostly the fast boyz and girlz that suffer, the street whiz kids that run places like ‘heart-break’ hill out in front of Diamond Head and think they know ups and hardship. The record setting crowd who own a pair of trail shoes, and who come out to Maunawili on a dry day and do a ‘one way’ on occasion. Even the HURT crowd suffer as many find that the few turns they did in training are not quite the same as the suffering of a race day pace. All in all those last eleven miles of Maunawili are about as hard as it gets for trail racing here in Hawaii, or anywhere else for that matter. It maybe only a twenty-two mile race, but it is an Ultra none-the-less; and no doubt one of the shortest kick your ass into the mud Ultra’s you will ever experience.
I was figuring on a little faster out than back. I had done two hour plus out and so would have to be about two fifteen back if I was going to get in under 4:30 which was my goal. My start had been slow so I cut the last stages of the return an even or better break. The early stages had been moderate as I had loosened up, so again I was only expecting a break even over that ground. But there was a long period in the midst of the run where I had felt good and paced hard, and I would have to match it. Finally it would mean I had and extra fifteen minutes to put into my flight out of Waimanalo. All the calculations were fuzzy and the product of a mind that was short on oxygen and sugars, but I could see that I did not have a lot of time. And it explains why I was striding up the hill so hard as I traded short bits of conversation with Brian as we moved out of Waimanalo.
I made a few brief rules; jog or run on every bit of good ground, charge the ups, take the downs faster than I liked, and wait for the good trail near the end before throwing in the reserves. It meant that I could catch my breath and get a bit of rest on the rugged terrain, and I figured that moving slower over it would actually be more efficient in the long run. I had a started with a near full water bladder so I figured I would not run out until I was on my way up the final hill. I decided to rely on my goo bottle for energy after I had eaten the second sandwich. Having made these rules the only thing I had to do was analyze the ground and apply the rules. All I had to do was keep myself in the race and not let my mind wonder far from the Zen of the run.
When I do the hills I always try and keep a pace that I feel I can do for hours if I need to. A hard relentless climb that gains strength at each obstacle, that ignores the trail hardships and just moves forward with out stop. It means I have to be a few steps ahead of myself all the time, and constantly gauging my strength. From a mental point of view, if it is not the trail then it is not relevant. Keeping this state becomes increasingly difficult when one is engaged in parboiling the brain and body tissue. But I find that if I can invert the suffering it helps me focus. Rather than trying to ignore the pains I bore in on them, becoming more aware of what they are and how they are effecting my stride. Adjustments can be more precise and potential problems are dealt with while they are still minor irritations. It is a an odd bit of sadomasochism that requires a sense of humor or can drive one completely nuts.
The trails were muddy, and the good ground had been swallowed up in the trampings of sixty pair of feet. There was a lot of slip in the ups and downs and I had to do much of it on faith, not something I was particularly comfortable with considering the twenty to sixty foot drops that are so common along the cliffs. But I high stepped a lot the problems on the ups, spider walking over the nasties and sung praises to the trail spirits on the slippery downs. The good ground was hard to find, the mud made even the level sections slippery and difficult, so I had to be very aware of any opportunity to push and gain some time. I found myself jogging the moderate ups where the trail had some drainage and the mud was minimal. It was not in the plan book but like a lot of plans they didn’t match the reality and needed modification.
The trail gets worse and not better as you push into the heart of Maunawili. Day hikers must get discouraged and turn around leaving the farthest valleys less traveled. Last year when somebody trimmed the trails before the run they even missed the narrowest and wettest of them all; a nasty section where the rocks make the trail hard to walk and the overhanging vegetation keeps you from seeing your where you are stepping. Some say missing it was to show how the trail is when it is left unmaintained, but I just put it down to a crew who were a bunch of lazy bastids who wouldn’t do their share. The point of comparison argument was just that common kind of misinformation we are inundated with in this day and age; what the cruder among us would call BS. One only needed to check out the trails to the west of the towers last year to see how a crew could do its task properly. But a year had pretty much erased all the effort of last year’s maintenance and that terrible little valley was as hard to traverse as ever, even given the fact that Aaron’s crews had been through Maunawili in the spring.
There are a few points along the trail that can be frustrating if you are looking to achieve significant land marks. The power towers come into view just beyond a ridge and it appears that they are no more than a few minutes away. However as one slides around a turn the trail takes a long swing back into the heart of the cliffs and the towers suddenly become distant, and you are left to wonder about the reality of what you believe you saw back out on spine of the ridge. A long hard slog in and out of the valley will once again reveal the towers, and they will have that not-to-distant look to them, but once again as you come around the next spine of land you will find yourself facing a long decent and climb out of another narrow valley. It goes on like this endlessly, the heat bearing down on you, and the level of your water bottles falling away as you find you have radically misjudged the half-way point. It is not uncommon for panic to lick like a tiny candle flame at the edges of your consciousness and your opinion of the day to begin to darken as you round yet another bend and find yet another long valley stretching out before you. You might even find yourself asking the rhetorical question ‘Who changed this trail and made it longer?. And as you become more frustrated you become less cautious and inevitably as you negotiate another rocky rill at the farthest kink in the trail at the back of the valley you fall on the slippery rocks and hurt an ankle, or knee, or a wrist. If you are lucky the pain wakes you up a bit and you press on, if you are not it is just one more excuse to whine and cry about how badly things are going and your pace slows and your water levels drop as you console your poor self with precious fluids.
I don’t know how many valleys there are between the point where one first sees the power towers and one actually stumbles upon them. Too many, too many to count, too painful to keep track. On the way out it is just that nice long slide into Waimanalo and there is no reason to keep track, but on the way back it becomes an endless trudge and I have never been able to concentrate well enough to keep track. I’ve just learned to put my head down, not look up at the broad open turns, and to regard the ferns of the power line turn as a gift from the trail spirits; something over which I have no control but which delights me when I feel them brush by my face.
If wanting something too much can take that pleasure away from you then the power line turn is just a shadow of the vision of the Water Tank. The water tank, that bright sparkling tower filled with the sound of clear cool water dropping onto the slick black rocks like with the chimes of crystal bells. The water tank, bright in its little valley the clear ice like arc of water radiant in the sun. Isn’t the water tank a turn or two from the power line turn? Isn’t the water tank just after that valley filled with mountain apples? Isn’t the water tank just after that hard steep up? No. No the water tank isn’t any of those, or a hundred other desperate questions you might ask yourself about where it is or how close your are to it. In reality the water tank does not exist. It is an illusion. There is only a slime filled wooden barrel with a dirty plastic gutter draining into a muddy rill, and water that tastes like a mud and pig shit cocktail. That’s all there is. Nasty. But out there beyond the Pine, or the sign, or the Falls Trail, or that open airy hillside, or the Queen’s steps, or the sound of the cars on the Pali Highway, out there far, far from any evidence of an end to your suffering, the water tank can loom like a tower of the emerald city, the center of your entire existence, an essential quest of life that you latch onto in the belief that a drink from the water tank will offer you a new reality, a wondrous rebirth.
I’ve wanted the water tank, and paid the price for it as the trail grew longer and longer, as if my need for it nourished the ground under my feet and the trial grew like a mad vine longer and faster than I could even stumble down it. I have been out there and passed forlorn individuals, lost and weary who have asked me how far to the water tank. And when I told them that they shouldn’t be thinking about the water tank because it was too far away, they chased me down the trail screaming curses at me, as if I had corrupted a sacred temple. We live in a world where the truth is often foul and nasty and where revealing it to others can bring you nothing but condemnation. The water tank, is the lark of the spirits of Maunawili who reap great merriment out of our continued inability to face the reality of the long hard Back.
I have to admit it that even now, now that I have suffered so many times, the water tank is still a turn or two later than I expect it to be. It is still farther off along the trail than I was willing to admit to myself, one dark valley more than I could fully comprehend. But it comes to me as only a mild surprise untinged by the pangs of thirst and despair. I expect to suffer all the way to the water tower, I expect to feel the endless fatigue set in, and I am not surprised when I hear the trail spirits giggling in the recesses of the lost turns and valleys of the bright end of the trail. I let them play their games with me, offer them small ho’okupu, and accept my fate as I struggle toward the barrel.
I reached the water tank, made my way through the last of the dark valleys of Maunawili that blend into the somberness of the Pali Cliff trail and began the long climb. I welcomed the up, had anticipated it, and took great pleasure in the first of the hard breaths that sent pain deep into the muscles of my chest. I increased my stride, spider walked the nasties, and pushed harder feeling the effort wear at the edges of my endurance. My breath came in deep hard pants as I hit the evens and downs and I kept pushing through the easy ground. I looked at my watch and realized I had a few minutes still in the bank. My body finally adjusted to the hard pace and I felt the endorphins shoot into my blood stream. I laughed out loud and growled like a bear pushing harder up the inclines, letting the madness overtake me in these final miles of the run.
I dug in when I hit the road, and strode hard and relentless up the concrete and asphalt sections of the old way. Occasionally I would increase my dig, deepen my pace, and push harder up the hill, but I didn’t run. I wanted to be able to climb unstopping. Coming around one long bend I caught sight of a pair of leopard shorts jumping that asphalt diversion curb. It was Cheryl. I pushed harder and quietly, not wanting to let her know I was coming; better to just burst by. It took me a few hundred yards to catch her, and after a brief greeting I was by. I was force panting, pushing as much oxygen in as I could manage as I hit the top of the ridge. The killing plain came as a relief, and I jogged across it to the finish. My watch showed 4:24, eleven minutes faster than last year, but many places farther back on John’s sheet than last year. Tough crowd. Tough Trail. But that’s the Maunawili Out and Back for you.
© 2007 mnmuench