Does it have to be a race to count as an ultra? I don’t think so. Do you have to run with others for it to count? Again, I say no. Where I now live, there are no ultras. Heck, there are hardly any trail races at all (in fact, there are only three I can think of, and all three are on the same trail), and I can’t afford the money or the time to fly off island to a location that has an ultra race. On top of that, I barely know anyone who lives here who even runs trails, let alone ultras. Seriously, I’ve asked around. Even if I could, I know of no one to race with.
In lieu of racing, then, I decided to set my own personal challenge.
On Saturday, October 16, I set out to run a dawn to dusk course I mapped out for myself. The total length was about 55 miles, but that was an approximate number, I knew. I came up with the length by taking routes from my Strava and roughly connecting them together, from Olawalu in the south to Kapalua in the north. I then mapped them out on my DeLorme InReach (which is now owned by Garmin, I found) satellite GPS to create a course. The route would be a general guide and, though I hadn’t specifically trained to run 55 miles, I was confident that I’d do it or come close. It just depended on the time.
What was the reason for my run, you ask? Well – first, I HAD planned to run a race on another island in October, but it had gotten cancelled. I still wanted a challenge though. I came up with one plan for a run over a short mountain trail, but recent rainstorms had altered that trail significantly and, frankly, it was no longer all that fun to run. I had been doing a lot of climbing to prep for it but the changes made the course a little too treacherous. A challenge like that would require more time to train. October was an important month to me though, and that brings me to my second reason, the fact that I had lived a whole year in West Maui. A little over, actually, but I remember that it was in October of last year when I began to seriously explore the mountains by running them. On Maui, there are trails everywhere, but very few are catalogued. Most are on Haleakala as part of the national park. Those trails, however, are up to three hours away, depending on traffic. Not so easy to get to. I knew the few trails listed in books or on the web couldn’t be all there were. Nobody I spoke to seemed to know much however, so I decided I’d start running and see what I could find.
I found a treasure trove, and I wanted to celebrate them. Over the past year, I have learned so much about the land here and I feel as if I’ve developed a spiritual connection with it. I have spent so many hours exploring, communing with, and caring for this land that I felt a need to run it in a big way, to spend an entire day in the midst of it. It was a way for me to say, “thank you.”
Originally, I called the plan my “Personal Challenge Run,” but very soon into the event, I changed it to “Celebration.”
I started in Kapalua, along the Mahana Ridge Trail. I was only going to run to a certain point and turn around, rather than run up to the Arboretum Trail along the Honolua Ridge. It is super muddy up there and I knew if I went, it would be a slow run. Also, if I ran through the Arboretum, I knew I’d stop at the banyan tree that grows there. It’s massive. Stopping by that tree is a reward for reaching the top, and every time I stop to look at the tree, I climb it. Stopping to climb of course means I stop running. I didn’t want to have too many stops like that on this day, I thought. Skip the Arboretum. Once I started on the Mahana, however, the banyan tree kept calling. I couldn’t get it out of my mind, and I found myself going up through the pineapple grove, the eucalyptus groves, sloshing through mud and the watershed area, and then to the Arboretum. There is a loop trail around the banyan. It is dark and quiet. I thought, “I’ll just run the loop and look at the tree.” Ha, fat chance. As soon as I reached the loop, I was drawn like a magnet to the tangled mass of shoots that make up this wonderful city of a tree, and I knew it would have been downright WRONG of me to not pay a visit. Gosh, I love that banyan. It goes on and on, one clump of roots here and another there, forming a network of climbable roots extending deep into a mattress of leaves so thick, my feet spring across the top. The tree stretches across that leafy pile, all connected above and below. Honestly, a person could live in that tree.
I spent too much time in that banyan, I knew, but I was very happy. That was when I began to think this run ought not so much to be a challenge, but rather a celebration.
Kapalua was a mud slog, and by the time I got down to the Coastal Trail and the roads in Napili (just one short trail there) to Honokowai, I was covered in dried dirt. A man actually blocked my way on the sidewalk to ask what in the world I was doing because I looked “like a Navy Seal or something.” Not wanting to get bogged down in conversation, I just said, “I’m going for 50 today,” and he let me go after that. Another runner stopped me just as I was entering an off-road section to ask, “Hey, do you know that ridge trail people talk about? Is it a good one?” “It’s muddy today,” I said. “How bad is it?” I lifted my leg on a wall to show him the mud, and he said, “Shit no. I’m not ready for that!” and off he went to pound the pavement some more.
I love Napili and Honokowai, but I do not like that pavement. It was the only time my feet complained. I was happy the pavement would end at my one and only pit stop, a small parking lot south of Honokowai. My fabulous friend had agreed to meet me there with my “drop box” of extra water, a thermos of iced coffee, two more clementine oranges, and a change of shoes, socks, and clothes. I ate one clementine, poured my water, changed everything, and savored that coffee. Then I was off again. What a terrific break! My friend is such a trooper.
The parking lot is along the highway, with an adjoining road that leads up into the an area I call the “cane barrens” and alongside a coffee farm. I don’t run through the plantation because it is private property. It is sometimes hard to determine what land is open and what land is private, but I do make it a point to stay out of areas that I know are legit private. I missed a turn-off somewhere, however, and found myself running along the plantation’s edge. There was a bounty of colorful coffee berries growing on the tall green trees, and the sound of the wind, which blew through the rows of coffee trees with great force, sounded like a truck rally at some points, and wild ghosts moaning at others. I marveled at the sound and wanted to fly into that wind. I wondered if it would be stronger up higher – even hoped it would be – but it wasn’t. When I reached the government roads above the plantation, the winds had died into a world of sunny warmth and quiet. Giant blue dragonflies and orange butterflies lazily flitted around the reservoir, and the long climb up the deep dirt road was interrupted only by bird song and bees buzzing in the tall cane grass. At one point, on a short off-shoot trail I had rediscovered, a came across a just-ripe guava that must have recently fallen from a tree heavy with fruit. I was feeling the need for refreshment after climbing, so I picked it up and split it open. Biting into that sensuous fruit after a long, hot climb was AH! so satisfying!
By now, I was so caught up in the beauty of my moments, I decided to text my friend and tell her, “I’m not going to make 50. This day is just too beautiful to let pass by.”
From that point on, the day was all about appreciation, serendipity, and the joy of the trail.
I ran slowly, soaking in the sights, sounds, and smells around me. I found so much fruit in season, and flowers on trees that weren’t there earlier in the summer. Autumn even comes to Maui, I thought. Still though, the heat and the ocean views reminded me where I was, blessed on a tropical island in the middle of the Pacific.
At one point, on the other side of a ridge, I passed into a wooded area that leads down onto grassy slopes. Because the weather had been so wet lately, the woods and grasslands were no longer in their usual desert-brown, kindling-ready condition. Everything had changed, and I was looking down on slopes of green dotted with pinks and reds and yellows from fruits and flowers on the trees. Once again, I found myself stopping over and over just to soak it in.
I do love this part of my route. The trail climbs up and up until the trail bends around a point, moving to hug the edge of a deep gorge, with a deep and narrow canal running along the upper side. As I turn the bend, I hear the waterfall I will soon have to cross. I follow the path, climb over two landslides that must have happened during the big storms a few weeks prior, pass the canal’s tunnel entrance, and there it is, a narrow torrent of water rushing noisily down the cliffside to the bottom of the gorge below. The top of the waterfall is not wide – one just has to hop over – but the path is narrow and slippery, and the water was flowing hard. If I missed my footing, I’d be sent tumbling down a very long and bumpy ride to the bottom, with no expectation of anyone finding me for a long while. “Thank goodness for my GPS, and thank goodness I had let people know my plans,” I thought. The spot is just treacherous enough to cause one to pause a moment before taking the jump. No problem. I hopped over, getting my feet only a little wet. Love those sticky soles on my Five Finger shoes.
Around another bend, and then it was time to descend into the old cane fields. The grassy slopes of this area contain criss-crossing paths of deep red dirt going in all directions. Some are overgrown and hidden in grass growing seven feet tall or more; others are somewhat groomed because this is the territory of the dirt bikers, the motorcross enthusiasts. There are many here on Maui. Nobody talks about these trails that much, but the bikers know them and maintain them. Thank you, motorcross guys! I move from footpath to bike paths, flitting here and there, going wherever I feel. I don’t have to worry too much; I know my home is south and the ocean is west. Really, there is no way to get lost unless a person goes up and over the peaks. Inside the peaks, the forest is deeper and the ravines more dangerous, and not a place to explore on one’s own, without respect and knowledge of the land. Moreover, the interior of the mountains is sacred and the land is our island’s watershed. It should not be disturbed. I respect that and truly believe that when Maui feels fit to let me in, he will.
Running, running….hey, there’s a canal that is no longer flowing. Has the water been diverted? It appears so, because the one lock is filled deep. I don’t see a hole to reroute the water, but it must be flowing somewhere. I decide to take the dry canal. I had been here before, I realize.
I walk a ways until I get to a place I remembered hiking through with a friend. I climb out and cross down through a riverbed, then enter a grassy area filled with native koa and other trees. The koa trees here are strong. Their bark reminds me of cantaloupe skin. I turn down one path and recognize it as the path on which my favorite climbing tree stands. Funny, but just a few days before, I dreamt about that tree. There is something about it that exudes strength and comfort. I don’t see it. I pause to look up and admire the sunshine filtering through the pale green canopy and, to my amazement, I see a bat! It flies around my head and flits down the path, into a tree that is overgrown with and covered with dried grass. A perfect hiding spot. Spotting hoary bats on Maui is rare. The bats are endemic to Hawaii but few in number, and little is known about the mammals because they tend to live solitary lives and do not exhibit regular bat habits Seeing this one feels like a blessing.
I whispered to the bat and thanked him for showing himself to me, and when I look past his roost down the trail I see it – my tree. I don’t know why it seems so perfect. It isn’t very large or very different from the other koas in the area. It just feels…solid. And safe. I love this tree. I climb it, and look out over the green slope, then look back at the bat tree, wishing I could stay here a long, long time.
After a while, though, I knew it was time to go. Bat had gone to sleep and I needed to get below. I climbed down and started running through the sky-high grass. Soon, I heard the sound of motorbikes. Darn. I did not expect them here so late in the afternoon. They usually start around 9 or 10 in the morning and finish by noon. But there were about six. I stopped, listening for their direction. One was close by, but the others were heading in the direction I wanted to go. Drat. They were heading to the Oasis Trail.
The Oasis Trail – or so I call it – is a shallow gorge that houses one of the important streams flowing from the mountains to the ocean. The dirt bikers have built a trail along it that I love to run. It is filled with pheasants. At least one owl lives there. When the cane barrens are dry, coming into this area is like an oasis – cool, shaded, with the sound of water tumbling over the characteristic boulders that are found in every streambed around here. I was hoping to make it there to offer my obeisance, but not with dirt bikers around. I do not fear the cyclists, but I did not want to join in their party either. I knew the one biker was nearby, but he had stopped in an area that acts as a crossroads to many paths, an area which looks like the hub of a wheel. I came out of one footpath, marked his bike and noted he was not with it, and ran off in a direction going south, lateral to the mountains, rather than west and down to the Oasis. I stayed on the foot trails, hopping over ridges and roots, moving away from the sound of motors, until I came across a somewhat unfamiliar dry stream. I felt like I had been here before, but there had been water in it at that time. Now it was perfectly dry, and leading down deeper into a ravine. As no bikers could make their way here, I decided to climb in and see where it led.
The stream was dry and quiet. The previous storms had choked the ravine with fallen trees and leafy debris. I could smell water but saw none. The rocks were mostly dry. Huge boulders tumbled with little ones. Yes, I had been here before, I knew, because I recognized some of the formations. Here would be a small waterfall; there would be a great place to sit and dip my feet. I decided to keep going, as it felt like a gift. Hopping rocks is something I have always loved to do and here was about a mile or so of it for me to enjoy!
I did enjoy it, climbing up one boulder and jumping off another, trying to move as silently as possible and not disturb the birds. Obviously, I did absolutely no running here. When the bed finally became too choked with brush to follow, I found a spot to climb up and out. By then the bed was in a ravine about 20-30 feet deep, and climbing out was a pleasure. Once out, I looked left and immediately spied a path. Which way to go? Up? Over? Down? I chose up and then eventually found a dirt road I had not been on before.
I wasn’t exactly sure where I was, so I kept running until I came to a gate. I was on the other side of a “No Trespassing” sign. Oops. That sign was on the dirt road though, and not on the path that climbed over a little hill and onto another road that intersected on the “right” side of that sign. So I climbed up and over and ran on.
Eventually, I realized that I was in the part of the cane barren that I had first explored, behind the Gateway Shopping Center. Now though, I was much higher. High enough that I could see two landmarks easily, a large “L” chalked into the side of a hill about 2,000 feet up, and a mound about 700 feet that I call Crater Hill. I love to run up both of them. I had never seen either from this position, so again, it felt like a gift. Thank you, Maui, for being so beautiful. Just then, a couple wheeled by in jeep. That was surprising. I kept going.
Run, run, turn down a little ways and hey, isn’t this the ranch? Was I on the wrong side? Was I going to be gated in? How would I explain my presence there? Would they believe me if I told them I had accidentally ran there? Going a little further, I found I was in fact in the area of the ranch but fortunately, just on the other side, and as I came out, a guy in a pick-up eyed me suspiciously. Hey, I was not on his property (I think). I just kept going. I knew where I was now.
Down past Crater Hill, down through the barren, down onto the Cane Road, past the gate, across Keawe Street, and into the new area that was supposed to be a park but was now going to be a subdivision. I stopped on the roadside to exchange water bottles in my pack. A guy walking out from the shack on the corner of the Cane Road looked at me funny. He must have been wondering, “Who’s this crazy looking woman wearing a pack and covered in dirt? Where the heck has she been?”
I run through the park-turned-potential-subdivision, through the neighborhood where someone once yelled to get my haole ass out of there (no one does that any more; they must know I’m not a tourist), and onto Lahainaluna. It was getting late, but I wanted to see how far I could get on the L side before I had to head back home. Somewhere just before leaving the cane fields, I had decided that I really could use some ice cream. Up to now, my diet had consisted of a few almonds, dried cherries, one guava, three clementines, and water (plus that awesome coffee). I texted my good friend and asked, “Hey, want to meet me at the ice cream shop at 6:30?” She texted back, “Sure,” so that meant I would end my run there. I headed up the trail towards the L. I knew I wasn’t going to get all the way up, but I do enjoy the trail there. I paused once or twice to view the setting sun. Then I heard the dogs.
My neighbors had told me about the wild dogs. I had heard about them before, but I had not seen any evidence of them so far. My neighbors, though, have a small farm in that area, and they have security cameras up to prevent poachers from stealing their produce. That Wednesday, my neighbor told me that had captured a pack of wild dogs, about eight of them, on camera. Those same dogs, they said, had killed other farmers’ goats and pigs. Because of that news, I was carrying weapons. I had a sock loaded with a weight, and I also had a knife, a whistle, and my personal alarm. I had planned to run through this area around 3 or 4 in the afternoon, but now it was about 5:45 and getting dark. I don’t care what weapons I had, nobody was going to be up here and I did not want to be in the dark, facing a pack of eight (or maybe more) dogs that were known to kill other animals. I decided it was time to turn around.
I booked it down the hill and back onto Lahainaluna. I passed a man walking his friendly dogs and I asked if I could pet them. He said, “Sure.” Then he asked, “Auntie, why are you so dirty? You been hiking a long time or somethin’?” I told him I had started in Kapalua on the Mahana Trail and made my way down to here, via the mountains. He said, “Auntie, you BAD.” We talked a minute about the mountains and how beautiful they are, and said our goodbyes.
I pulled into the parking lot of the ice cream shop at 6:17 pm. A little early. Perhaps I could have run the parking lot. But that would have been a downer, I think. I stopped, waited for my friend, and we went in to order ice cream. I got a scoop of vanilla and split the second scoop: half strawberry, half guava, in honor of the delicious fruit that got me through my second half of the day. My friend presented me with a medal she had made herself, a ti lei holding a small medallion stating, “1st Place, West Maui Mountain Ultra.” It is the best bling I have ever earned.
I did not run 50 miles and to many, that might seem like a failure. That I took so long to run 40 would seem like a joke to some as well. I don’t care. The value of running long distances to me is in the joy of doing it, of being in nature, of drinking in the outdoors through every part of my senses for as long as possible. My only regret is that the day ended and I couldn’t stay out there. I realized that even after a year, I still have so much to explore. The trees up there call to me, and I want to go. Whether I run fast or slow makes no difference. Fast – I am enjoying the freedom of the flow, of flying in the place that fills me with joy. Slow – I am drinking in the tranquility and beauty that fills my heart with gratitude. To me, the joy is in the journey, however it turns out to be.