Maui: The Hardest Run of My Life – XTERRA Kapalua 10k Trail Run

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Sam and I purchased our tickets to Maui back in May. We were invited to join Sam’s folks, Fred and Ruth, for their 41st wedding anniversary celebration in paradise. Even though Sam and I have never talked about going to Hawaii, we didn’t take a lot of convincing. Hanging out in 80 degree temps for ten days, surrounded by the ocean and a billion tropical plants? SOLD.

In an effort to get in beach-bod shape, we signed up for the Milwaukee Marathon. The marathon would take place about three weeks before our Maui vacation, which allowed the perfect opportunity to work our asses off before chilling oceanside and reading books for hours on end.

The problem with marathon training is that it makes me do crazy things. A month or two before the marathon, on a whim, I decided to research races in Maui. Running is my favorite way to explore about a new place, so why not take advantage of our predetermined vacation to race in the most remote island chain in the world?

Oddly, there was only one race that caught my attention: the XTERRA Kapalua 2.5k / 5k / 10k trail run. Oh, I thought, we can totally do a 10k. We’re training for 26.2 miles, so 6.2 miles won’t be a big deal. I’ve run very few trail races, but I was curious enough to read the course description:

You’ll face about 3 kilometers of uphill, wandering through an overgrown golf course, along dirt trails, through Oleander forests, and alongside 60-foot high ironwood evergreens, to an unexpected mountain lake at the 650-foot level.

We’ll take you on some old pineapple field roads for another mile up and around the lake and then to what we are calling the downhill delights. You will lose that altitude running a slalom through the old Kapalua Village golf course

Don’t look out too long or you’ll stumble. As you return to the 250-foot level there is a 200-meter technical, steep downhill into a gully next to the golf course, where you’ll jump over and duck under fallen trees and end up in a huge, rocky dry creek – at least we hope it will be dry.

Then through thick elephant grass, into a Cook pine nursery to a paved road that curves and climbs 100 feet to the head of a neat, narrow single track downhill with switchbacks that drop all the way down to the beach road.  We simply had to throw in a calf busting 250-meter beach run back to the resort and finish area.

I gulped. This sounded a little challenging. But, hey! Marathon training is harder than this! I shared the link with Sam, and because he’s all about trails and dirt and hills and things I tend to avoid, we signed up. Then Fred and Ruth signed up for the shorter distances, and we had one big family event planned.

But there is, perhaps, a key piece of information I’ve neglected to share about this race: it was the morning after we flew into Maui, and our flight landed at 10 pm HST…which feels like 3 am for us Chicago folk. The only thing worse than running 6 miles straight up a mountain in high heat and humidity is doing it while severely sleep-deprived.

Like I said, marathon training makes me do crazy things.

We arrived safely in Maui the night before the race, and I promptly fell asleep. Then I promptly woke up around 2 am HST, which is 6 am in Chicago, so I forced myself back to sleep until a reasonable Hawaii time. We piled into the Jeep and drove from our condo in Kihei to the Kapalua district, about an hour away.

While our region of the island hadn’t received any rain in a few days, in rained in Kapalua the whole day and night prior to the race. Even the parking lot and start/finish line area were muddy. Looking down at my newest pair of running shoes, not even a month old, I knew they were going to be trashed by the time I crossed the finish line. Running is a deceivingly expensive hobby.

After picking up our packets and cheering Fred and Ruth at the starting line for their races, Sam and I were finally ready to go. Looking around at our incredibly buff-and-fit competition, I was intimidated in a way I’ve never felt before a race. Everyone standing around us looked like their calves and shoulder blades were chiseled out of their bodies. They had a grit and determination in their demeanor that my little road-racing-self lacks when it comes to these kinds of courses. No one looked mean or scary, but they definitely looked like a flock of hardcore badasses that were about to whoop all over me.

Truth be told, they were much more prepared than I was for this race even though I’d just run a marathon less than three weeks beforehand. The course is the same course used for the XTERRA World Championship Triathlon, which took place the next day. Essentially, the best trail triathletes (the badassiest of the badasses) in the world (IN THE WHOLE WORLD) were going to run the exact same thing I was about to run. Headphones were illegal on the course because it was so vital to hear people are falling or coming up behind you or trying to communicate in some way.

The announcers kept talking about how the race was so slick, so muddy, and so gnarly that they actually had to alter some parts for safety precautions. The two rivers we were supposed to ford were about 18-24 inches deep after the torrential downpour last night. My stomach sank lower and lower into my gut as they counted down to the start cannon. We snapped a quick pre-race photo, which I assumed may be the last photo of me ever.

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When the cannon went off, I ran for about three minutes before I felt like I wanted to die. Already we were climbing a hill—steep and on wet grass—and I felt out of my league. I hadn’t trained on a single trail or hill in six months, and now I was consumed by them. My body started to revolt, asking me to stop and slow down, but I didn’t want to lose sight of Sam. Not when we were barely a quarter mile into the run. So, I tried to keep him within my sight.

For once, the incline worked for me and not against me. There were loads of other people around me who quickly realized that they, too, were in waaaayyyy over their heads. It was already over 80 degrees with 90% humidity, and we were all fighting for footholds on a narrow, winding, mud-slicked path through mangled trees. Sam couldn’t get too far ahead of me, because of the scrambling and sliding and clambering human barricade surrounding us. I barely had time to process how out of breath I was because I was trying to not face-plant.

Then Sam went down. He slid sideways-like, and I saw him hit the ground. He laughed, so I knew he wasn’t hurt, and now he was filthy. Being the wonderful wife that I am…I took shouted some words of encouragement and I passed him. I know he would’ve been mad if I’d stayed to help him instead of running my own race, because that’s the kind of competitor he is. So I forced myself to keep climbing, navigating the trail as quickly as I could see it.

Despite not being a technical runner, and definitely lacking any kind of trail racing experience, I learned a lot in those first two miles. I used trees to pull my way up the hill as my feet slid out from under me, or to whip myself around tight corners. I stuck to the inside of the path when running down into a hairpin turn so I could slide to the outside of the trail as I turned so I could keep my momentum. Wet-looking, super-slick mud was avoided at all costs. If I could definitively see the outline of someone’s footprint in front of me, that was my route because the mud would stick to my shoes and hold me upright. Better yet, if there were tree roots, I was stumbling over those and pushing myself off from the ground with more force.

Sam claims there were miles markers, but I never saw them. Thirty minutes into the race, I saw the steepest hill I’d ever run, and possibly ever seen, directly in front of me. I couldn’t stand up straight to run it: I was bent over so far in order to face the incline that was I practically crawling on my hands and knees, engulfed by mangrove-looking trees. The five or six runners around me were all walking. Just a few seconds into trying to tackle this beast and I was walking, too.

I’m not sure how long we walked—maybe four minutes, maybe ten—but we were climbing that god-awful slope the entire time. I’d lost the capacity to hold conscious thoughts in my brain. My body became a tool designed to do nothing except climb this mud slip-n-slide until the peak revealed itself. At last we arrived at the top.

Even though everyone around me was still walking and choking down air, I did something I didn’t think was possible: I started running again. I passed all those people and entered a state of pure running nirvana tripped-out bliss. Up until this point in my life, I’d never had an out-of-body experience before, but I think that’s the only way to describe what I felt. It was positively surreal.

For one thing, my body was pushed to limits I’ve never asked it to go before. Ever. Not even close. I was dehydrated, exhausted, and psyched out of my goddamn mind to be doing what I was doing. It was the hardest race I’d ever run, both mentally and physically, and despite thinking I would hate it I was absolutely in love with these moments.

All those factors individually add up to a pretty rad race environment. But then, on top of all those euphoric running feelings, something else happened that sent me over the top. I was slapped in the face by one of the most powerful, intoxicatingly-delicious smells I’d ever smelled. At the time, I had no idea what it was, but it consumed every part of my body. It made my body feel like it was tingling all over, and the happiness sensors in my brain were off the effing charts. It was sweet, but tangy, and oh-so-incredibly fresh and wild and pure. I couldn’t place the smell for the life of me, and it drove me crazy with its mysteries.

On the ground, I noticed all these crushed fruits with yellow skins: definitely the source of the smell. They weren’t grapefruits and definitely not lemons but somehow they smelled a little like lemonade. I felt like I was running through a dream, the kind of dream that lives on in your mind for hours after awaking because it’s just that goodthat consuming, that you don’t want to leave that place. Like some kind of freaking idiot, I started laughing out loud to myself. That’s the level of insanity I reached.

(Note: it wasn’t until a few days later, when a local Hawaiian handed me a can of juice, that I tasted this same smell and face-planted into euphoria again. Apparently the smell was a combination of crushed lilikoi and guava fruits).

I reached the lake at the top of the hill, and there wasn’t too much climbing after that. Sam passed me, definitely in his hill-climbing=Hulk mode. I picked up water at the third or fourth water station, and I figured I’d at least reached the halfway point. My body was resistant, fighting back every time I asked it to advance, but my endorphins were stronger.

I’ll be honest: the rest of the race gets a little blurry. We started descending, which was worse than ascending in a lot of ways.The second half of the course was muddier than before, and the downhill brought a whole new set of challenges. It was impossible to find footing, so I basically swung from tree to tree using my hands. We hurdled some giant trees lying across the path. That’s about all I remember.

At one point, shortly after mile 5 (the first mile marker I’d seen), I felt my right ankle twist all the way underneath me. A chilly coldness flooded my ankle, and there was a sharp pain with every step I took. The cold sensation crept into my foot and up my calf, but I couldn’t stop. I knew if I stopped, I wouldn’t start again, and the swelling would probably be worse. By the time I pounced through the first river and my feet were soaked, I’d forgotten all about my ankle and was focused on the last bit of the race.

I thought I’d seen the steepest possible incline, but I was wrong. Out of nowhere, a near-vertical paved road shows up. We’re all walking again, desperate to simply finish at this point. At the top we were met by a smiling, clean volunteer I instantly loathed. The last set of trail switchbacks took us down the hill, which was now rocky in addition to muddy. On the last hairpin turn, I heard the guy behind me fall. HARD. The air was knocked out of his lungs and I heard him roll a few times. All I could do was yell back, “Are you ok?” and heard him shout back that he was fine before my inertia and gravity pulled me down to the finish.

The second river was deeper, but the ground was finally level so I knew the finish was just a few tenths of a mile away. I heard the ocean, and the race announcers, and I gathered every bit of energy I had left…and proceeded to practically walk the final part on the beach, which damn near killed me. Running on sand after just doing everything I’d done? I couldn’t handle it. It was my breaking point, and I had to convince myself not to quit.

Something was pushed too hard, though. When I crossed the finish line and Sam came to give me a hug, the first thing I said was, “Stand back. I think I’m going to throw up.” I didn’t throw up, but I had pushed myself to my limits.Everything finally calmed down and I could hold a conversation. Fred, Ruth, Sam, and I swapped stories about mud and sweat and the number of people we saw fall. It was an incredible feat for each of us, and I’d never been more proud of myself for competing in a race so far outside my comfort zone.

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Then, lo and behold, one of the best surprises of all: I almost placed in my age group! I was the 4th female (25-29 division, out of 10 in my age group) and was a mere 22 seconds behind snagging 3rd place. Out of all the 10k runners, I finished 95th out of 250. Somehow, in an event I didn’t feel qualified to run, I actually managed to hold my own and kick some serious ass. It was worth every agonizing moment.

Still riding a bit of an endorphin high, Sam and I stripped down and threw ourselves into 4-5 foot ocean swells to wash off the mud and sweat. Later that day we snorkeled and chilled on the beach, but I was thinking about that mud-slicked mountain and how much I grew as an athlete in just 6.2 miles. My running journey has been long, and it definitely hasn’t been easy, but it’s the only thing I’ve stuck with through all these years…and I can’t wait to see where the next few years take me.

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