Sunday, March 24, 2013

2013 Prairie Spirit 50

During the Prairie Spirit 50 this weekend I started wondering how I'd relate my experience to half marathon training while doing my typical post-ultra-blog-retelling-of-misery. Perplexed, I pulled a GU from my pack, since I hadn't eaten in a while, and chased it with some water... Then it hit me!

They're the same race!


Trust me on this.

Here's the story.

This weekend was the inaugural Prairie Sprit 50/100 mile race. The race started in Ottawa, KS and basically followed the Prairie Spirit Trail 25 or 50 miles out, then back. 50-milers (me) turned around in Garnett, 100-milers (crazy people) turned around in Iola.

You want a flat ultra? Good luck beating this one. I bet most of the elevation gain my Garmin registered was from my arm moving up and down.

The weather forecast was suspect. I even considered not going because I didn't want to get stuck down there in a snowstorm. But, despite gentle protest from my mother, I decided I didn't want to miss a shot at a fast (for me) 50.

Since I'm only an hour from Ottawa, I got up at a somewhat normal time, ate, then headed out. I got to race HQ at about 7:15, giving me plenty of time to get my packet, get my clothes ready and make sure I had what I needed in my pack.

Race similarity #1: always bring more with you than you think you'll need, then make last-minute adjustments as race start approaches. I think I had four pairs of gloves, two pairs of pants, four shirts, a coat, three hats, two pairs of arm get the idea, right? Instead of stressing out at home over what I'll need, I just bring a variety of things with me, then decide what I'm going to carry or wear as close to the start as possible. This is true for 5k's and 50-milers.

Because of the impending storm (I thought it'd be rain midway through the race followed by snow at the VERY end of my run) I decided to carry two extra beanies, two extra pairs of gloves, a light jacket, an extra shirt, and something to wrap around my face. I stuffed all of this into my Ultimate Direction pack along with several GU chomps, salt, and GUs. My pack can hold 100oz of water along with a 24oz bottle attached to it. Because of the cool weather and the water frequency (about one every five miles) I decided to start with about 32oz of water in the pack and the bottle full. The plan was to empty the pack first, then re-fill the bottle as needed. This freed up a lot of room in my pack for warm clothing.

Race-not-so-similar #1: don't carry this much stuff with you during a marathon or a half marathon. Carrying a light jacket...maybe. GU and salt? Sure. But do you need an extra shirt and two pairs of gloves for a half? No.

I didn't have crew, which was another reason I was carrying so much stuff with me. And, in reality, the extra gloves and beanie were for emergencies. I knew I'd need the jacket. Did I really need the extra shirt? Probably not, but it was nice to know it was there.

My race strategy was simple: run the first 25 miles in 4:30, then finish. If I could do the second half in 5:30 or less, I'd be happy, but I wouldn't stress if I wasn't having a great day.

We started off with little fanfare. Ultras are like that. Low-key.

The first few miles were a little rough: pavement through Ottawa. We went under I-35 at about mile 3 and transitioned onto a very nice pea gravel trail. It was gorgeous. The trees hang over the trail, providing shade and blocking the wind a bit. You could see forever. That was okay tho. You could really relax since it wasn't hard to follow the course, just run straight, on the trail. Easy.

After a few miles I realized I hadn't eaten yet.

Race similarity #2: eat early. It takes about 30 minutes to an hour for food to go from your tummy to your intestines, where it's actually useful. If you're running a 2-hr half and you don't eat till mile 6, then you're likely not to get as much energy from your GU as you would have if you ate it at mile 1 or 2. Same story for an ultra. If you're eating when you're hungry, then you're eating too late. This is one reason, when I'm pacing, that I strongly encourage runners to get something sugary in them at the first couple of aid stations. It's going to pay off later for them.

I traded places with a few people during the next few miles, chatted, laughed, but mostly kept to myself. I caught up on some podcasts and listened to some music. It was nice to have the time to just think. I don't get those long uninterrupted stretches of mental nothingness anymore and I miss them. Maybe that's why I run ultras, maybe they're a bit of a break.

I blew past the first water station without stopping. Still had water in my pack. The second aid station, around mile 10, was staffed. I grabbed half a sandwich, some heed, some pop, and got out as quick as I could. It's easy to burn time at aid stations. This wasn't a race that I wanted to do that at.

It sounds strange, but the trail really was beautiful. I was really enjoying the scenery and the weather was still nice.

We hit another staffed aid station 9 or so miles outside of Garnett. Again, I ate quickly and moved on. Traded places with more people and enjoyed some scenery.

Coming into Garnett was fun. I finally felt the wind that was picking up from the northeast. A gentle little "hi, I'm here, and you're about to turn around and run into me". It had a sly "don't mind me" tone to it.

About two miles from the turnaround I knew I had a sub 4:30 in the books. I expected a 4:10 and ended up coming in at 4:08. 22 minutes early, perfect. With the weather, I was happy to bank time.

I ate more than I felt I should in Garnett just because that's a rule. Eat early and often, it'll payoff later. And it sure did.

I walked for about 10 minutes after leaving the turnaround. I was putting fresh GU into the front of my pack, got my jacket on, put a beanie on, and grabbed something to wrap around my face for when it started raining. I also texted Angie to tell her I was still alive (she worries sometimes) and told her when I expected to finish. I finished some AMAZING beef stew that I picked up in Garnett, then started to jog slowly.

I don't care who you are, you're tired after you've run 25 miles. My legs were sore and getting my stride back was tough.

Looking back at my Garmin data I see that I ran the next 5 miles, which is surprising. I slogged along slowly, at about 11 min/mile.

My next break was the first water stop after Garnett. I quickly filled up my bottle and left. Running the next 5 miles without walking!

This surprises even me. I ran 35 miles with a 10-minute walk break. That's shocking.

At some point before the first staffed aid station after Garnett it started snowing. Well, not so much snowing...snowing is a nice way to say I was getting pelted in the face with tiny ice pellets. It hurt. I wrapped my face with my trusty thing-that-goes-around-my-neck-that-I-have-no-idea-what-it's-called and kept moving.

At this point I started running with Josh. Of the last 15 miles we probably did half of it together. Once great thing about ultras is that you always meet nice people. This was no different.

The last 10 miles of the race. Photo by Josh Watson.
The snow really picked up from mile 35-40. The trail was one of the first things to start accumulating and I was happy for it. It's always nice to run on snow. It's soft.

Race similarity #3: it never always gets worse. This is an old ultra saying, and it applies just about everywhere. When things start to suck you need to channel some Churchill and remember that when you're going through hell, keep going.

Look, it was cold. I was accumulating snow on me. I had 10 miles to go. I was getting tired and my muscles hurt. I had to drive home in this weather. I couldn't feel my legs because I was wearing shorts. Why was I out there? Arrgh.

It's okay to loose it for a few minutes every once in a while. As long as you get it back together quickly.

I was 4/5 of the way done with the race. I loved running in the snow. The roads wouldn't be that bad because it was interstate the whole way home. It was okay. It was beautiful.

The trick to running any race is to put it in perspective. Sure, it sucks. But it only sucks for so long, then it doesn't anymore, because it's over. Enjoy it while it sucks because you'll only remember how fun it was later.

Deep stuff, I know.

At some point Josh ditched me or I ditched him, I dunno. I did the last 5 miles alone. Music, me, my thoughts. Hard to beat.

Once I saw I-35 I knew I was good to go, or so I thought. The last three miles were actually the worst. The trail through Ottawa was totally exposed, so the wind was hitting me straight on. That, plus the snow, hurt. My face burned, my legs burned from the cold.

Finally, I turned the corner and saw the finish. Crossed a few streets. Got some VERY strange looks from people driving by, and crossed the finish line.

9 hours and 11 minutes. Good enough for 14th out of 55. Beat my 10-hour goal, got to run in the snow and made it home safely. Hard to beat all that.

They're the same race, one just takes a little longer.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

SmartPacing Strategy

I was going to wait a few more weeks before launching into a soliloquy about how wonderful pacers are at races, then I looked at my calendar and realized we're about a month out from the start of the spring marathon/half-marathon season. Yikes!

I'm also starting to get inquires from runners who are eyeing times that I'm pacing in various races and, upon seeing that I'm the pacer for their goal time, correctly assume that I'm a somewhat shady looking character and proceed to question my strategy. 

So, let's get this all out of the way early.

Hospital Hill, and many other local races, will be using SmartPacers this year. We've been pacing local races (and not-so-local races) for several years now. We're a lively collection of merry fools who, for reasons our friends and families don't understand, love running races at set times, taking on the stress of getting not only ourselves across the finish line in one piece, but anyone else who's been tagging along with us.

Yes, we're all nuts, and yes, we love it.

We're led by Eladio Valdez, the coach for Runners Edge here in Kansas City. He came up with the SmartPacing strategy.

It goes a little like this. Let's say I'm the 2:00 pacer at Hospital Hill (I'm not, I'm 2:05 for reasons I may or may not explain later ;-) ). This is all going to be ballpark, but you'll get the idea. 

A 2:00 pace in a half is a 9:09 pace. Many pacers, for reasons passing understanding, will run a 9:09 pace all 13 miles. What the flip? Why would you do that to a) yourself or b) others?

This makes no sense. This isn't how most of us run. Our pace changes. We run slower up hills and faster down hills. We start a little slower to warm up.

Running an even pace in a race is asking for disaster.

Our strategy uses common sense, you know, that thing that's lacking in politics? Yeah, we have it all. (And may I say, we're getting way more mileage out of it than politicians usually do.)

We start races slow. The 2:00 pace group will probably run their first mile at a 10:00 pace. 

This lets the group warm up a bit. It also gives the group flexibility to work through the crowd at the beginning of a race.

Mile 2 would come in at about 9:30. At Hospital Hill it may be a bit slower, say 9:45. That's because mile 2 is that MINOR climb up Gillham.

By mile 3 we'd want to be close to our race pace, so we'd probably be looking to hit a 9:00 mile. 

Now, being the observent reader you are, you're thinking "hey, we're over a minute in the hole on the clock!" And you're right! We've burned a little time at the beginning of the race in order to get you warmed up and moving well for the rest of the race.

We'll get back the time we borrowed by running the core of the race a little under the race pace. For the 2:00 group, we would go through those middle miles in the 8:50-8:45 range, slowly repaying the time and banking a little for the end.

In the last few miles of the race we'll start to slow back down. At this point, anyone with the group who is still running strong should start to take off, leaving their pace group behind. Anyone struggling to keep up will notice the pace per mile slowly start to creep back up. In our 2:00 group we'd probably hit mile 11 at a 9:15-9:30 pace and mile 12 at a 9:30-9:45 pace.

One thing I didn't mention is water stops. I'll always make time to walk the water stops, at least 10-15 seconds per aid station. I'm only half a doctor at this point in my training, but I do feel comfortable saying that liquids are likely more effective when they're in you than on you, so taking a few seconds to walk and take a drink is worth it.

To make time for water stops I'll typically steal 5-10 seconds from each mile and bank it for the walk. Runners never notice. I have yet to have someone say "uhh, pacer-dude, you really suck at this because that mile was supposed to be 8:50 and you ran it in 8:45. I'm out of here."

I'll also put 10-15 seconds away for random course disasters (read: mismarked miles). This has never been a problem at Hospital Hill, but other races... It's a habit, and I think it's a good one for a pacer to have.

If you'd like to look up the pace times and who's pacing them you can visit the SmartPacing website for Hospital Hill.

If you've got any questions about pacers drop a note in the comments. I'll do my best to answer.

I'll write up a "how to run with a pacer" post in a few weeks/months. I've got all kinds of stories, like people whose entire race strategy was to stay in front of me, people who constantly ran 25 yards behind me, people who thought they had to pay me, etc.

Ahh, good times.

Stay warm, spring is right around the corner.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Mud–I love it

This post is a bit late because I wanted to save it for after I ran the Psycho Wyco 50k  this weekend. My main goal here is to convince you that running off-road is beneficial, fun, and not crazy. I think it will help in your Hospital Hill training.

But first, I have to tell you how much fun I had yesterday.

I was signed up for the 50k—three 10-mile loops around Wyandotte County Lake. I ended up doing 20 miles in 4 hours and 28 minutes. I'll get to the drop in a bit. Still got a nice medal for the 20-mile finish, and shirt, etc.

As soon as I arrived I ran into people I knew. I've been a Trail Nerd for as long as I've been back in KC—going on 7 years now. I've also been leading the Wednesday night Beginners Run for a while now—four years, I think. So, I know a lot of Nerds (of the trail variety—I also know lots of science nerds, policy nerds, music nerds, hipster nerds, and just plain nerds...if you need a nerd, just ask me, I've got one for you).

I ran into Larry and Coleen before the race and asked them if they were looking to run at a snails pace. They were! We agreed to take it easy and have fun. Justin was with us most of the way as was Sherri, which scared me, as she was the female 100-mile winner at The Hawk last year, and all-around bad-ass ultrarunner. Wael ran most of the first loop with us also, but he was "taking it easy" as he had just won the Men's 50–59 age group at the Rocky Raccoon 50-miler last weekend. His "take it easy" was to ditch us about 7 miles into the race.

The first loop around the lake wasn't bad. It was still cold enough that the mud was relatively frozen and the 150+ 10-milers (who started an hour after us) hadn't torn it up yet. We put in a respectable 2:01 loop. I felt good.

The second loop got fun. We ran into seas of mud almost as soon as we started the loop.

Okay, here's the "training" part of this post. When you're running through mud like this you're working way harder than you are on pavement, which is why I think it's a useful training tool. As soon as you put a foot down it's going to slide: forward, back, left, right, or some combination of the four. So, not only is your brain (and muscles) trying to figure out your next step, it's still trying to figure out where your last step is going. You end up working your leg muscles a lot more just to recover and keep yourself stable with each step.

You never do this running on pavement, unless you're running on ice, of course.

People spend tons of money and time trying to figure out how to stay healthy while running. I've never had a *serious* running injury and I think part of that is because I spend time on the trails as well as the pavement. It's trail running that forces you to use all the muscles in your legs and torso in such different and unpredictable ways.

Anyway, back to the race. The second loop was significantly more muddy than the first, which made it significantly more fun! There were a couple of places where we had to stop and go down a hill one at a time so 210-lb Larry wouldn't slip and bury 100-lb Coleen in the mud.

On one hill I thought, "Hey, I can run this!" So I ran around Coleen and Sherri and started bombing down the hill, sliding with each step. This was fantastic entertainment for everyone around me when I went ass-over-teacup into the woods after I couldn't recover a step. That was fun! I also completed the mud bath with a few slips on a ridge that required ropes for traction in some parts.

Once we finished the second loop I was done. I could have done another, but I started feeling the stress of "so much to do" creeping over me. Med school did that to me all the time and now grad school is doing it. I have a lot of respect for people who can manage their running with families and small kids because those demands are absolute, while my silly grad school demands are somewhat self-imposed yet still hard to ignore. Being on the trails helps that stress go away a little.

Go play in the mud everyone—it's fun, and good for you in so many ways.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Failure during training: it's OK

As a runner, you're one of two people. Either you've successfully run the race you're training for (or longer) already. Or, you're a total novice to running, not entirely sure what it feels like to run more than a mile at a time.

One thing we all are is human (although I'm suspicious of a couple of know who you are).

As humans we're essentially guaranteed to do a few things often. Failure is one of those "things."

This is ok. What's that line? If you're not failing, you're not trying. 

It's true!

I have failed at more things than I care to recall, and that was just this week. It pains me to think about all the stuff that either hasn't worked correctly or that I haven't completed during my graduate training, and I've only been at it for five months! Ugh!

But, I'm trying. Dammit, I get up every day, I go in there, I sling some pipettes, count some flies and pretend to intently study research papers while enjoying my mocha latte at 10:00 and 2:00. (Just kidding about that mocha thing, I'm an espresso guy.) (I'm also kidding about the 10:00 and 2:00 thing. I'm pretty bitter right now while working on an article about how the whole "scientists live in an ivory tower" mindset makes scientists [me!] feel.) (I use parentheticals a lot, deal with it.)

And you know what? Every once in a while, something works! I get a piece of data (I may not understand it, but I get it). I get a paper published. My boss throws me a "good job." Or a lab-mate says, "Hey, that makes sense."

Success—or modicums of success, really—are thrilling!

Where the hell am I going with this? This is not meant to be a woe-is-me post about school. It's about running. And, well, the same attitude applies to running. 

Look, running a race isn't hard. Getting ready to run a race is a total pain in the ass. The race is the most relaxing part of the whole thing.

During training there are calendars, clocks, scales, deadlines, goals, friends, spreadsheets, books, glossy magazines, and idols. All of which are putting pressure on you (us) to feel the need to constantly succeed.

Thing is, that's not the point and it's destructive because you're bound to fail at something. 

Look, the point is to get most of your training right. Not to get ALL of your training right. If you think you need to do everything perfect during training then you're on the fast-track to disappointment. 

It's okay to fail during training. Just make sure you get the overall training right.

Miss a run during the week? Fuhgeddaboudit!

Did a long run at 10:15/mi when you were shooting for 10:00/mi? Nice run!

Don't let these things weigh on you. Just move on. Your goal isn't to check every box off your training plan. Your goal is to run a good race when you need to. Don't let the little bumps along the way keep you from doing that.

You'll meet people who either claim to adhere perfectly to their training plan or claim to be making training their little witch.
Me: Hey Overachiever Oliver, how's training for Hospital Hill going?
Overachiever Oliver: Oh man, it's great. I got in six runs today all three minutes under my goal pace! I've dropped 732 pounds and my resting HR is now 2! But I'm a little worried about the race man. I might not be able to finish. I gotta train harder. How's your training going?
Me: I managed to eat two cookies instead of three yesterday. I'm pretty happy with myself.  
Don't let people like that impact your training. Just do what you need to do. My bet is you'll see ol' Oliver there bouncin' around in the porta-potty line at mile six because he had eight too many protein shakes before the race.

As a runner, I've failed numerous times. I've finished two 100-milers, but I've started six. You do the math on that but don't tell me the answer. I peaced out at mile 120 of a 200-miler, which a friend of mine flew all the way (on his own dime) to Vermont to help me run. I've never broken the mile time I want. Came in late as a pacer (the first time I paced!!!). Didn't start races because I knew I wasn't ready. I've let fellow runners down. I haven't shown up for morning runs. Et cetra. And all sorts of other failures that at the time seemed monumental.

I'm ok though. It happens. You learn and somehow you are better in the long run for it. That's the other thing we're all good at as humans: learning from past experience. It's a wonderful gift. (Except for Congress—a new neuronal synapse hasn't been formed in that building for some time now.)

On the training front it was a good week. I got in about 20 miles which included a longer-ish run on Saturday. It was so freaking beautiful in KC on Saturday that I almost stopped caring about those Polar Bears.

I'm kidding. I love Polar Bears.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Hospital Hill Blogging Team

Hi all! If you're found your way here by way of the Hospital Hill website or Facebook page, welcome! If you're one of my (three) regular readers, then you're in for some more frequent updates! Beth, the Race Director for Hospital Hill, for reasons that she'll likely regret later, included me in the Blogging Team for the 2013 race. If you're from anywhere near KC you know about the race and its history. If you're not from the area, or somehow have managed to avoid hearing about the race from your friends, then you're in for a treat. This year marks the 40th running of the race, and that is quite a streak.

I'll tell you a little about myself over the next few months and offer up why I think I was included in the group.

But first, promise me something: don't freak out when I tell you the kind of races I like to run. Also, don't call me crazy and don't think that my experiences won't be relevant to you. Well, I don't really care about the crazy part, just don't go thinking I'm operating at a different level than you, because I'm really not. I'm just a normal person who enjoys running long distances...just like you.

At Hospital Hill I'll be one of the 2:05 pacers. I do a lot of pacing and I really enjoy it. It is a fantastic way to get to know people and a fantastic way to help people achieve their goals. I'll likely spend some time convincing you that running with a pacer will be beneficial for you and I will encourage you to seek them out on race-day.

As far as running goes, I really enjoy running ultra-marathons. Technically, that's any distance greater than a marathon. The traditional ultra-distances are 50k, 50-mile, 100k and 100-mile. Lately I've seen longer races popping up, 150- and 200-milers. I tried a 200-miler once. It didn't go so well. We'll get to that. (You didn't realize this was a bit of a therapy session, did you?)

Locally, there's many ultra-options to select from. One of my favorites is Brew to Brew, put on by the KC Track Club. The KC Trail Nerds also put on several ultra-distance races throughout the area, as do the Lawrence Trail Hawks. Finally, the North Face Endurance Challenge has run a 50k here the past two years.

Full disclosure: I am the Race Director for the Hawk Hundred, a 100-mile, 50-mile and marathon put on by the Lawrence Trail Hawks. I get paid exactly zero for doing this. I do it because I love it. As a RD I can really feel for Beth about how difficult it is to put on a good event. I CANNOT imagine what it's like to put on a race with thousands and thousands of runners. I had 141 last year and thought I'd go insane. I realized the trick is to surround yourself with good people, they're key.

OK, I want to keep this post short, so I'll talk about my life outside of running, training plan and how Hospital Hill fits in with my summer and fall running plans in a later post. All of that will be in the context of helping you plan out your spring, focus your training, and get you ready for June 1st. If there's anything specific you'd like me to cover drop a note in the comments and I'll address it.

One thing to note: if you're new and doing a Hal Higdon-like training plan you won't start until March 1st. Although, you need to keep in mind that those plans start with 3-mile runs, so you've got to have a base built up by then.

I'm glad you're here. I'm glad you're either signed up or thinking about running this race. I like Hospital Hill because it's a challenge. The climb up Gillham at mile 2 tests whether you packed your brain with your running shoes - are you smart enough to not waste it all on that first climb? Then the short jaunt up to the Nelson checks your tank near mile 5, ensuring you have enough to hold your pace right before giving you another nice climb up Rockhill, past UMKC and The Stowers Institute. You then feel pretty safe as you cruise through Brookside back down to the Plaza right before what I think becomes the problem for most people, the long climb up Nichols and Broadway. It's not super steep, we're not climbing Pikes Peak or anything, but it does wear on people, especially at mile 11. After that, it's a little climb up to the Liberty Memorial, past the Fed, then down to the finish. Bliss.

This, friends, is fun.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2013 Plans

Thought I'd share some of my 2013 plans. The year promises to be equally as stressful as 2012 was, but in different ways since I'm only focused on my PhD work at this point in my training.

I'm pacing several races this spring:
All great races and I have no financial interest in any of them. If you're looking for a low-key fun event in the spring I'd suggest Running With The Cows. Lincoln is already sold out. Amazing. 10,000 spots went in 12 hours.

The most interesting race is going to be the Kansas Half the day after Olathe (Oz). That 2:00 pace is going to be a little painful.

I've got three ultras on the calendar this spring, but I'm only going to be able to run two of them. I'm signed up for both days of Brew to Brew as a solo, but because of a conference I need to attend I'm only going to be able to run on the last day. Both days are 44 miles. 

I'm also going back to Los Alamos for the Jemez Mountain 50-miler. You may (or hopefully not) remember the pathetic performance I put on there in 2009, dropping at mile 18. That was my "hey, I ran a 100-mile a few months ago, I really don't need to train" attitude. In case you're wondering just how screwed up I really am, this is my birthday present. I think it's quite a good present.

Finally, I'm signed up for Grandma's Marathon. This is my goal race...I want to Boston Qualify. comes another wrinkle. My PI (the person who runs the lab I work in) wants me to attend a course at Cold Spring Harbor that overlaps with the race. Dammit. Well, I have to apply for the course, so there's always the chance I won't get in...but I do really want to go. So, I'll be searching for a fall race that would still qualify me to run Boston in 2014. According to this webpage, I need to qualify by early September, 2013.

I do have one race to look forward to in the fall, Heartland. I deferred my 2012 100-mile entry for 2013. 

There's also The Hawk, which I'm race directing again this year. That'll be September 14th and 15th at Clinton Lake State Park in Lawrence, KS. Good times were had by all last year.

Ah, one more thing. I'm stil leading the Wednesday Night Beginners Run for the Trail Nerds. Well, "leading" is a bit misleading. I think I make it about 75% of the time, with folks like Wael, Chris, and Brian making up for my slack. Whatever, it keeps me in shape and honest with my running.

So, that's it. The big question is: can I run a 3:05 marathon this summer?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Halemau’u Trailhead to the Haleakala summit...and back

My initial plan for Haleakala was, admittedly a bit nuts, even by my standards. I wanted to run up the Kaupo trail, then up to the summit, then across the west side of the mountain, then down, and up to Lahaina. 63 or so miles: a 100k. Easy, right?

Well, two problems. First, to get to Lahaina I’d have to run on the highway on the northwest side of the island. After seeing the traffic on it for the first time I started to realize that wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had. The second problem was how to get to Kaupo. The road you take (the road to Hana) is not all that friendly. My friend Angie, who graciously let me stay at her place while I was there, figured it’d take me two hours to drive over there. Then, after I got there, I had the problem of what the heck to do with the car. Ugh.

So, I reconsidered.

Angie, her sister, and some of their friends had done a hike the previous summer that started at the Halemau’u Trailhead and went to the Holua campsite. I could get there in about an hour and it would give me access to the crater floor and the summit if I really wanted it, plus I’d be able to get back to the car easily.

My route had to revolve around access to water. It wasn’t clear where I’d find drinkable water in the park. The cabins have water, but you need to filter it before drinking it, and I didn’t want to bring a filter with me. So, I planned to carry what I needed and turn around when I got low.

When I got to the park I confirmed with the ranger that there was a water fountain at the summit. I knew this would be about 11 miles and I figured I had enough water to get me up there. Once at the top, the Visitor Center, my options for getting back opened up. It felt like a safe plan, so I went for it. Halemau’u Trailhead to the Summit, then possibly back from there or a quick trip back to the car via the road that went to the summit, or, I could hitchhike down if I needed it.

I started with my Ultimate Direction pack which holds 100 oz of water. Plus a 32-ounce bottle in the pack and my two handheld water bottles. When I’m in a situation like this I always drink my pack first, then the bottle in the pack, and head back when I’ve got only the two handhelds left. That way I know exactly how much water I have left – I’m not spending time trying to judge whether my pack is ½ or ¼ full.

Map of half the park, courtesy of

Halemau’u Trailhead to Sliding Sands

Halemau’u Trailhead is at 7,990 feet.  Angie had warned me that it was pretty steep.  She wasn’t lying.  You drop about 1,000 feet over two miles of switchbacks to the Ko’olau Gap.

Trail conditions on the switchbacks
Initially I thought I’d cruise down this section…bad idea. The trail is steep; plus there are lots of little rocks on the trail which makes it similar to running down a conveyer belt with wheels.  Now, this wouldn’t typically be a problem except for here, where you’re running along the edge of some very unforgiving drop-offs…you need to take your time and be careful.

I was down in about 30-35 minutes, a good, safe pace. I went through the gate and started the long, slow trek uphill.

The trail starts out nice; dirt with tall-ish grass on either side of you.  You want to stay on-trail here as you don’t want to scare any of the Nene living in the area, like I did.

The Holua cabin and camp is about a mile from the gate.  I came across a couple of hikers in this section.  They gave me that typical “are you really running this” look.  I just smiled and kept going.

Quickly, the trail starts to become less runnable as the rocks begin to litter the trail, up to the point where all you’re running on is rock. It kind of switches back and forth between dirt and rock as you pass the Holua cabin and campsite up to the north side of the Silversword loop. It then becomes a kind of rough sandy trail that doesn’t really want to be run.

I saw a few more hikers on the Silversword loop. I doubted that they had come down from the summit. I bet they were making a day trip of coming down from the switchbacks. An out-and-back from the parking lot to the loop would be about 6 miles, plus you have to climb out of the valley, so it’s a fairly good hike.

Leaving Silversword Loop you come up to and crest a ridge.  I expected more of the same brown and red terrain that I was in and that I could see in the distance.  Boy, was I wrong.

I was stopped dead in my tracks by the nearly instant change in the landscape.  The gentle and inviting brown path gave way to a pure black trail that would take me further along.  It was breathtaking.  The rocks lost their gentle curves and presented sharper edges, being, I assume, evidence of more recent formation as the wind and rain haven’t had a chance to relentlessly grind away at them like waves on the beach.

The path was still that miserable mix of sand and dirt and ash that taxes you half a step back for every full step forward. It was totally worth it.

I stopped and sat down for a minute just to take it all in.  It was really like being on another planet.  All you hear is the wind constantly rushing past your head, you can’t see another person, there are no familiar contrails overhead, no lights floating in the distance – it’s just you, and this barren landscape that could, and probably does exist throughout our Solar System.

From there I took the trail to the West of the Halali’i cinder cone.  This was my turn towards the Sliding Sands Trail.  I briefly considered staying on Halemau’u and heading out to the Paliku campsite, but my water concerns kept me moving towards the summit and the water fountain.

Turning to the West you pass the North side of the Ka Moa o Pele cinder cone.  This is the only true downhill between the switchbacks and the summit.  I used it for all it was worth.  The sand was easy to run - the cushion it provided let me run a little sloppy.  My Garmin tells me I was in the 7 minute per mile range coming down this hill that was maybe ¼ of a mile long. It was a total “I feel like a kid again” stride.

Sliding Sands to the Summit

I hit the Sliding Sands trail and turned to the summit. There was a couple under a bush eating their lunch.  I waved and said hi – they didn’t respond, they just stared at me. That made me kind of sad. Maybe their reaction was due to my ridiculous look.

Always wear protection
It was brutal out there with the wind. I had my desert running hat – the kind that has the flaps that come down on three sides. It was pretty ineffective in the wind since all it really did was just blow around. So, I took my neck warmer and pulled it up halfway over my head. That kept the flaps down on my ears. This accomplished two important things: first, it kept the sun off most of my head, and second, it kept the wind from pounding on my eardrums. The wind was so strong it hurt.

I took a picture of myself. I’m sure I’m in somebody’s nightmare now.

At this point I was at about 7,500 feet. The summit was at 10,000 feet, so I had to climb 2,500 more feet over 3-4 miles. Luckily, I didn’t realize this when I started.  If I did, I may not have gone all the way to the top.

It’s a tough climb. There are a lot of false summits on the climb up. They just keep appearing, one after another…frustrating.

I passed two more cinder cones on the way up. I briefly considered turning off to Ka Lu’u o ka ‘O’o which is about a mile out. But, it was getting a little late and I was out of water in my pack.  I had my bottle and my two handhelds still, but I still needed to head to the water, especially on the uphill.

The plan, if there was no water at the top, was to rely on the two handhelds to get me down the mountain on the road. It’d be about 8 miles, which is fine on two bottles. I had water and ice in the car, so I felt comfortable at that point.

One mistake I made, that I typically never make, is that I didn’t eat nearly enough. I stopped at the Holua campsite to eat some beef jerky, almonds, and GU – not enough for what I was doing. I was also not taking salt tabs enough, and I could tell. My right calf was cramping a bit.

I knew this, but I was determined to get to the top – then I’d eat. In retrospect, that was pretty dumb.

Once I got about two miles from the summit I turned around and was greeted with the most amazing view of the crater floor. Something about the colors in this park really stood out to me. The black, red, and brown mixed with the lightly sprinkled hints of life were very aesthetically appealing.

This is the best photograph I've ever taken
At this point in the climb I started passing folks hiking down from the top. I was a bit surprised at how unprepared some of them looked. Folks in tennis shoes and jeans holding a plastic water bottle passed me with a big smile on their face. I kept thinking “geez, I’m in pretty good shape and this climb is really taxing me, do these people know what they’re in for?”

Finally, I got to the summit. No cowbells or aid station awaited me; just a large pile of rocks and some funny looks from tourists getting out of their car.

11.2 miles by the Garmin and it took me three and a half hours, not counting some of my stops. If I had included the stops it would come out at four hours.

My legs were slathered in a strange reddish-black dust which I hoped was serving as a sort of sunscreen. I was in a t-shirt but I had my sleeves on. Add the two handheld bottles, the pack, and the crazy headgear and you can imagine why people were wondering what the hell I was doing.

I found a nice rock that overlooked the crater and sat down to eat. The view was gorgeous. Kalapawili Ridge sat in the distance. The sky above was as blue and as clear as you could imagine. To the northeast sat a sea of clouds which shielded the Pacific from my view.

The rest of the island was blocked from my view also. The clouds seemed to sit around 7k feet to the north and west. The wind from that direction seemed to collide with the wind from the east creating some kind of current which tugged the top of the clouds up near the mountain in a kind of reverse waterfall of white that never quite made it high enough before evaporating into the blue sky.

Nobody would have faulted me for staying there all day and just watching but I wanted to get back. I couldn’t find the water fountain, so I found a ranger and asked her where it was. She gave me a bit of a concerning look while simultaneously seeming to check my pupils, listen to my speech, and make sure I wasn’t tipping over on my own before pointing me in the direction of the restrooms. I thanked her with a smile that I hoped would convey a “yeah, I’m fine. I do stupid shit like this all the time.”

I filled my pack up to about 64 ounces, thinking I wouldn’t need all 100. I also refilled my bottle and refreshed the water in my handhelds. My water plan going down would be the same – exhaust the pack, then the bottle, then the handhelds. There was some slight protest from my wrists at this idea. I ignored them.

Summit back to Halemau’u Trail

For some reason I didn’t consider how fun the run down was going to be. It took me three and a half hours to do the first half of the hike. That put me at the top around 2pm since I stopped my watch a few times on the way up.

I really wanted to be back at the car by 5pm – there were some fish tacos in my immediate future and I was really looking forward to them (and a Longboard, or three, of course). Also, It didn’t register at that point, but I hadn’t brought a light with me: amateur mistake. My mother would be very disappointed with me if I tried to do the switchbacks in the dark. So, it was time to hurry.

I started off down the mountain a little conservative. My legs hadn’t seen a downhill for several hours, so I wanted to make sure they knew what they were in for.

After about a quarter to half a mile I really opened it up. I could, it was easy. I basically let gravity take me down as I bounded aimlessly along.

Folks that I had passed on the way up began appearing again. They’d see me coming and move aside a bit, correctly calculating that they’d be on the losing side of the collision equation.

As I went down I realized the greatest part wasn’t the speed or the ease at which I was moving. It was the look on people’s faces as I passed. It was obvious I was enjoying it, and they couldn’t help but smile and realize that the work I put in on the way up was paying off on the way down. I always think about that when I do a long run, I always wonder if maybe someone saw it and thought “you know, that looks fun…I could do that” and got up and did it.

The only other thing to report on the way down is that I caught a Silversword blooming. I can’t say I found the plant particularly beautiful but it is special to see one as it flowers. Haleakala is the only place in the world you’ll find them. They can live up to 50 years and they only flower one time. The stalk can reach up to 2 meters high, and once it’s done, the plant dies: one of those both profoundly sad yet beautiful decisions of evolution that you occasionally find in nature.

I got back to the Ka Moa o Pele cinder cone without stopping. This is the only uphill, aside from the switchbacks, you find on the way back. I walked this, of course, taking time to eat and take some salt.

As I was coming down the north side of the cinder cone I ran into a couple hiking back up. The girl had all their gear and the guy was walking in front of her. He was white as a sheet. I knew the climb they had ahead of them so I stopped and talked to them for a minute. They had water but he just didn’t look good. I gave him a couple of salt tablets, which he took, along with a confident “I’m an ultrarunning med student” which probably made no sense to them.

Halemau’u Trail to the Trailhead

At that point I turned north and kept running. I was going through a little more water than I thought I would, but I’d be ok as long as I got back before sunset.

I passed back through the black tundra and past Silversword Loop. Still running but taking enough time to really appreciate the beauty and the stark differences the landscape presented.

After Silversword I passed the Holua campsite which was now full of folks laid out for the night. I gave a wave and kept going, not wanting to waste the precious sunlight.

A quick mile later I was back at the gate, the switchbacks above me. I had finished my pack so I transferred the water in my handhelds into the pack. I wanted the free hands for the climb should I need to grab something in a hurry.

The switchbacks, from below
With a quick glance and a groan I started up. No way I was gonna run but I did hike it as quickly as I could. It’s amazing how the vegetation changes once you start up. It becomes more of a rainforest feeling with exotic plants and occasional boggy areas of trail.

I stopped a few times for the view. I had a rainbow to the northeast which stayed with me the whole way up and I appreciated it every time I came back to that side of the switchbacks.

Closer to the top and on the north side of the mountain I was greeted by clouds rushing up from below. They covered the trail for me, providing a very cool and calming mist to pass through as I ascended. I was grateful and I came out of each cloud with a renewed feeling of energy. What a difference from the crater floor!

After what seemed like way too long I saw the sign for the parking lot: 0.7 miles. Close, yet far enough to still be a ways off. I put my head down and just kept going.

As a final treat, near the top you go across what I can only describe as a land bridge. The mountain drops off precariously on both sides and it’s a little creepy to walk across. The extreme wind didn’t help either. I’d have almost felt safer traversing it on all fours or without a pack which I considered to be a sail of sorts with a strong enough gust. The view, of course, is amazing.

I reached the car, happy to be done with the run but sad at the same time. Two and a half hours from the summit back – a great pace. The entire experience was, to shamelessly mutilate a line from a movie, the perfect mix of beautiful and stunning. The colors were the best, like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

I would like to do Kaupo to the summit and back sometime. After doing Sliding Sands I know I could do it in a day with the right gear. You’d have to start extremely early, say 4 or 5am and have a plan to call it at the summit if it takes too long to hike up or if the weather decides to screw with you.