Saturday, January 24, 2015

HURTin' and Highpoints in Hawaii

A very tired and hard-fought H.U.R.T. finish

The last 10 days have been quite a whirlwind for me.  At some point last year, I rather nonchalantly tossed my name into the HURT 100 lottery.  Knowing my luck with lotteries, I wasn't particularly confident I'd have any chance at getting selected....but then, somehow I was.  I knew I had a long time to prepare for the race, so after the excitement wore off, I honestly put it out of my mind.

After my late-Summer defense, I spent most of the fall taking things easy.  Needless to say, my fitness level dropped noticeably.  Normally I wouldn't be too concerned about something like this going into an ultra, as I know at this point I can usually just "slog" it out even if partially out of shape.  BUT...the HURT is not the kind of race you can just "slog" out.  The HURT is quite arguably one of the top 5 most difficult ultras in America (definitely top 10).  The course is notorious for a very low finisher rate, with slow finishing times.  The course quite literally has no flat sections at all.  the elevation profile looks eerily similar to an EKG readout....up/down/up/down/up/down/etc.  The temps are always high, the humidity guaranteed to be off-the-charts, and the trail-tread is simply brutal.  There is no place on this course that a runner can get a "rhythm" going with regards to pace or leg turnover.  There are just too many roots, rocks, and obstacles to navigate through.  On top of all this, the course is comprised of 5 loops...which is a beast mentally to get through.

HURT Elevation profile - 100 miles of climbing/descending

As December creeped up on me, my training was still incredibly lackluster.  I rightfully began to panic and thought many times of simply dropping from the race.  I decided though after much thought, that I didn't want 2015 to be another year of DNS's.  So regardless of outcome, I was going to run the race.  How many times would I truly be able to participate in an ultra in Hawaii anyway?  I had to take advantage of my lottery pick and my frequent flyer tickets to beautiful Hawaii.

As the new year rolled in, I finally started picking up my training.  My daily runs began in earnest, and I even began twice-weekly hill workouts again.  Still, I knew I would be going into the race in less-than-ideal condition.  I did manage to get enough training under me that I felt I had an honest chance at finishing...but there was no way I was going to be at all "competitive".  For me, the HURT would be about finishing under the 36 time limit.

I got to Hawaii on Thursday evening before the race and took things easy.  I went for a light 5 mile run and got back in time to enjoy a lovely sunset on the beach.  I was staying at a hostel over near Waikiki.  Needless to say, the scenery was quite a bit different from what I had left up in Pennsylvania.

Sunset in Hawaii

On Friday, I spent the day hiking and exploring.  First I went over to Diamond Head and hiked up to the rim.  The trails were crowded, but the views were worth it.  The temps were in the 80's but it was the ridiculous humidity that I already knew was going to be an ass-kicker during the race.

Hiking up Diamond Head

Panorama near the top

Part of the trail goes up an old stairwell

Looking down from the rim

Diamond Head Benchmark

After Diamond Head, I drove down to another crater on Oahu.  In the Southeast corner of the island is the Koko Crater.  What makes this one so unique is that there is an old cable-car line that goes straight up to the summit.  This line is now a day-use trail that rivals Colorado's famous "Incline".  The trail is so steep in spots, you have to get down on all fours.  In total, the trail takes you up just over 1000 feet in under 1/2 mile.  Probably not the smartest idea to climb this the day before the HURT, but I simply couldn't resist.

Looking up the climb from the bottom
About half-way up

View from the top of Koko

Looking back down the trail

View of Rabbit Island

Eventually I made my way back to Honolulu in time for the HURT pre-race meeting at 2:30.  I grabbed my gear bag, and listened to the short info session.  After catching up with Nick Hollon and Jamil Coury, I headed back to my hostel room for a quiet and restful evening.  I still had to get my running gear and drop bags in order for the race as well, and didn't want to feel rushed.  By 8pm, I was all set up and ready to go for race day.  I probably should have been panicking a little bit at this point, but I refused to let the fear of the HURT get to me.  There was nothing I could do now but show up and run.

On race morning, I got up early (I was still on East Coast time), and headed over to the race start.  I was a little worried about parking, so it was good that I got there early.  After a little mulling around, we all gathered on the small bridge at the race start.  We observed a moment of silence to take in the beauty of Hawaii, and we were off.  The very first 2 miles is uphill, so I found myself powerhiking immediately.  It was rather bizarre, but necessary.  I mentally prepared for what I knew was going to be a very long race (probably close to 36 hours). 

Start of the race

Very quickly the first climb progressed....and the trails were a bit crowded.  But after a few miles, the trail opened up on a road for a few hundred yards and from that point on things were wide open.  The sunrise was beautiful and I recall talking to the person next to me about how nice it was to be running along in Hawaii.  This was of course before the humidity really kicked in.

We topped out on the climb and began the descent down to the Falls and the Pirate's cove aid station.  The descent went quickly and before I knew it I was out on paved road heading into the station.  Most of the descent was runable with a few really technical sections.

Sunrise along the road (first climb)

After a quick refuel, I retraced my steps back up the descent to the geographical center of the course.  The way the course was laid out, meant there was a triple-junction right in the middle that you hit after each climb.  It was still early, so I really enjoyed the climb.

One loop at the HURT

Course map showing the three "legs" of the course.
Note that they all meet in the middle

The 2nd half of the course was definitely my favorite.  As you top out on leg 2, the course takes you along a narrow ridgeline with beautiful views off to either side.  It's very much a like a "knife edge", only it's very overgrown.  This was something I found to be really intriguing...the foliage.  It was as if I was running the entire course through a legitimate rain forest.  The closest I've come to something similar was when I hiked on stewart island in New Zealand.

The drop down to the 2nd aid station at the end of leg 2 was even quicker than the first descent, and not quite as much actual elevation drop.  It went very fast and before I knew I was climbing back up.  It was loop 1, and I was already not thrilled with the repeating of segments.  I am definitely not a fan of repeating parts of a course.  Still...the course was beautiful.  

Leg 3 was the longest.  It featured a very drawn-out descent from the top of the course all the way back to the start at the Nature Center.  In the middle of the segment there was a cross-over that shared about 1.5 miles of trail with leg 1.  In total, I would run that segment 10 times over the course of the race.

When I made it back to the Nature Center, the heat/humidity index was starting to climb.  I was probably about 50th place or so at this point and already getting tired.  I decided it was time to break out my trekking poles as well.

Running along the top of "leg 2"

Loop 2 was one of the more difficult ones, despite it still being early.  This was mostly because it was run entirely within the heat of the day.  I remember taking it easy and letting my body try to keep hydrated.  My first loop time was exactly 5 hours and I decided to see if I could make my 2nd loop 6 (and then my 3rd, 7).  That would leave me 18 hours to do the last two loops (or 9 hours each).

Somewhere near the end of loop 2, it set in that I would be doing this repetition for 3 more loops and I got very discouraged.  I was clearly out of shape for this type of event, and I was losing all desire to be out there.  Even though it's easy to say "just keep moving" and eventually I'll be at the still seems so far away.  The mental aspect of the HURT 100 is incredible...and overwhelming.  I think most people could probably finish the HURT timewise, but it's the mental stamina that fails most.  Slowly but surely I ticked away checkpoints on loop 2 and rolled back into the start at mile 40 right at 11 hours.  This meant I had completed my 2nd loop goal of 6 hours exactly.  Now, in my mind, I had 7 for loop 3.

Of all the loops in the race, loop 3 was definitely the hardest.  I remember all I kept thinking on the first half of the loop was that I STILL wasn't half way done with the race yet.  All I wanted was to be on my 4th loop.  4 just sounded so much better than 3, and it was only one away from 5.  On loop 3 is when I came closest to quitting.  I remember thinking I would drop at the 2nd aid station right after the half-way point, but when I got to the station, I literally forgot to.  I was half way back up the climb when I realized I was still running.  Oops.

View from the course

After what seemed like an eternity, I finally rolled into the Nature Center at mile 60 right at 18 hours.  I had finished a brutally slow 3rd loop in 7 hours...right on my self-imposed schedule.  I sat for a very long time trying to decide if I wanted to go back out.  Physically I was ok, but I knew finishing the race would mean a lot of hiking, and not a lot of running.  In the end, I decided my favorite time of an ultra is the beautiful night hours.  Loop 4 would be entirely in the dark....and in the wee hours.  I decided to just go out and try to enjoy it.  Not think about a possible loop 5, or the race as a whole...just go out and enjoy 20 miles in the dark.  I left camp at midnight and began what became my favorite loop.  I found a peaceful place within during this loop and spoke to very few people on the course.  I never really ran with anyone, and only saw others as I passed them in opposite directions.  It was a quiet and reflective time on the course and I was glad I pushed myself to do the 4th loop.  I didn't really think about my progress, I simply followed the colored ribbons and enjoyed the cooler night air, and sounds of nature.  As expected, there was a lot of hiking...but fast hiking.  I was actually passing a lot of people with my hiking, that were trying to run.  In other words my powerhiking was faster than many people's running at this point in the race.  I noticed too, that the field had become incredibly thinner.  Many had dropped after 3 loops.  I estimated of the 120 starters, that there were only 70-80 left.

Some fun "jungle" portion of the course

Just over 7 hours later, and just as I was switching off my head lamp, I rolled in to the Nature Center at mile 80.  I was very tired and wanted desperately to nap, but I knew I needed to just start my final lap or I never would.  I drank a full cup of coffee, removed my headlamp, changed my socks/shoes, and reluctantly started hiking out of camp.  The final loop of a course like this is always a reflective one.  You can't help think as you pass by recognizable landmarks, "This is the last time I'll see you...rock(or stump, or root)"

Truthfully, my final loop was very uneventful.  I was exhausted and slow, but muscled out a 7 and half hour final time in the end for the loop.  Somehow, I passed 4 people in the last 1/2 mile of the race and crossed the finish line in just over 32 hours 32 minutes (30th place out of 60).  Certainly I would have liked to have gone sub 30 hours, but considering my training level, I was content to have just finished.  The HURT 100 really is one of the toughest races I've ever done, and it definitely lives up to its name.  I have a lot of respect for anyone who gets through it.  I'd like to also add that the race directors and volunteers really were top notch at this doesn't get any better.

32 hours, 32 minutes of horrendous trail.

After the race, I flew over for 2 days to Hilo on the big island of Hawaii.  I wanted to check out the volcanos and hit the high point of Mauna Kea.  I had very little total time on the island, so made the most of it.  I crashed at a great hostel (wild ginger inn) in Hilo, and was up at 7 am to rent a 4-wheel-drive truck.  I immediately headed up Saddle road en route to the Mauna Kea summit.  Ever since I was a kid I've wanted to see the observatories (particularly the Keck telescope) on Mauna Kea.  Here was my chance.  Additionally, I wanted to hit the highpoint.  I was a wee bit nervous about going from sea level to 13,800 feet in less than an hour, but I figured I'd be ok if I didn't stay up there too long.  Needless to say, once I made it to the summit, I was quite a bit dizzy.  Below are some highlight pics from the day.  I also went over and up the Mauna Loa road as well...which was also a lot of fun.  I ended the day taking a nap along the water before flying home.  

Half way up Mauna Kea (Visitors Center 9000')

At the top

Keck Telescope

On the official summit

Panorama on the summit

On the actual summit (after a short hike over)

My Phone track showing the small hiking trail leading over 
to the true summit (blue dot is me on the true summit).

One of the many cinder cones on the summit (Mauna Loa in the distance)

Mauna Kea Ice Age Natural Area Reserve

Mauna Kea seen from Mauna Loa

Lava Fields on Mauna Loa

My nap view during my final few hours in Hawaii

My final view

My first view upon returning home....*sigh*

I almost forgot to mention....back in March of 2010 I posted this entry here titled:

In this posting I had a picture of me "taking a bite" out of a physical copy of my masters thesis, sort of in the same way an athlete would chomp down on a gold medal.  Well, yesterday I finally picked up the bound copy of my PhD dissertation and thought I'd recreate the picture again.

March 2010 - Masters Thesis

January 2015 - Phd Dissertation

So John, how would you best sum up the past 7 and half years of your new academic life? this I suppose.

Anyhoo...hike on my friends,



Dan said...

I always enjoy reading your posts John. Thanks again for sharing.

Lakewood said...

Thanks Dan,

It was definitely a fun week despite the grueling nature of the HURT course. Getting to visit Hawaii in the dead of Winter is always a plus!