We Wouldn’t Want it to be Easy: HURT 2013

There’s no way to understate this: the HURT 100 is hard. I ran it well, and up to a certain point I think I ran it smart, and it’s still only due to the help of the amazing race volunteers and fellow runners that I was able to make it through to the end. If it had been a hotter year, I might not even be able to say that much, and most of us who started the race this year couldn’t.

I came in knowing it would be hard, and I was neither disappointed nor underestimating the task. That wasn’t exactly the same as being prepared for how hard it would be. No matter how much I’d read, how many videos and photos of the course I’d looked at, the true relentlessness of the run wouldn’t sink in until I’d run at least one full lap.

It was also one of the most intense experiences of my life, maybe least of all physically. People who talk about ultrarunning being a mental sport but haven’t run HURT might just be repeating filtered wisdom from someone who has. Esthetically, it was beautiful and haunting and unforgettable. Emotionally, it was deep and raw and tough and sweet, and I’ve cried less over break-ups than I did over finishing successfully.

In brief, the HURT 100 is run on five loops of a 20-mile course which climbs Honolulu’s Mt. Tantalus three times on each loop. If you’re familiar with Honolulu, Tantalus is due north of Waikiki, and you may have been there as a tourist to see Manoa Falls or Round Top Drive (both on course). If not, just know that Tantalus is steep as hell and covered in dense Hawaiian rainforest. In total, there’s just a few feet shy of 5,000 feet of vertical climbing per loop. This means the average grade on the course is close to 10%.

That’s not what makes it hard.

A couple days before the race, I went out for a preview with Ken “Running Stupid” Michal and co. We hiked and ran the shortest of the three legs of each loop, from Paradise Park through Pauoa Flats to Nu`uana-Pali Drive. Even though Ken, like me, was only in town for race week from the Bay Area, he was able to give me a lot of good tips. This year would be Ken’s fourth attempt at finishing the full hundred miles, so there might not have been a better source of info on what could go wrong at HURT and how to persevere.

Each of three legs of the course finishes a 12 to 1600 foot climb at Pauoa Flats, a roughly quarter-mile section of trail that flips open the dictionary to the word “gnarly” and asks, “Are you sure you really wanted that? Because I can keep going.” True, there are a few spots where the ground isn’t literally coated in Banyan roots. Yep. There are a few.

That’s not what makes it hard.

By the time we made it to Nu`uanu (the end of the second leg) I had a better understanding of what I’d be up against, and of all that Ken had pushed through over the past three years’ runs, but still no true grasp of the weekend ahead.

I showed up on race morning rested and excited. The run starts at 6am, which in January means more than an hour of darkness still lay ahead. I waited at the back of the pack, which would help force me to take it slow up the first climb, a steep hill just around the corner from the starting line called Hogsback. When we topped out at Round Top Drive (just before Pauoa Flats), I took advantage of my better downhill running speed to pass more than a dozen people, landing solidly in the middle of the pack by the first aid station.

On the climb back up, almost half of those people would pass me again, since I tend to be a slower uphill runner. This didn’t matter much to me, since I would overtake them at the Flats or coming down the other side by the time we got to the other station. In some cases, we would leapfrog each other this way predictably for as much as 80 miles. The majority of the trail is technical, requiring close attention to your footing if not the copious roots[1], slick rocks, and dangerous drop offs, with occasional scrambles or two-foot high step ups. This hits everyone in their weak spot, whether it’s ascending or descending or just staying upright.

No, that’s not what makes it hard either, but we’re getting closer.

I caught up with Ken at the top of a steep scramble (coming up to Bien’s Bench) after the second aid station. I was a little worried that I was going out too fast on the first loop, but my pace felt comfortable there, so I took his encouragement to pass instead of running with him for a while. I’d be seeing plenty more of him, anyway. On our way up we met another repeat attempter Jennifer-Anne on her way down, already, as she put it “puking out.” She’d get back to the start and spend the rest of the weekend volunteering. Some of it in a giant cockroach costume.

I finished my first loop in 5:15, refilled my bottles and turned around for another climb up Hogsback. Now in the daylight, without the big crowd at the back and the excitement of the early going, I could learn to hate this hill. Between the heat of the day and the encroaching fatigue, I still felt generally good but my ascents were already getting much slower. All told, the second loop would take me about 75 minutes longer. With 40 miles done and the night about to begin, I was starting to worry that if my time kept dropping off, in the end I would too.

This is precisely what makes HURT so hard.

No other mountain hundred I know of has such aggressive cutoff times tuned precisely to chase down mid-packers like myself. I have no doubt that Hardrock is a tougher course, considering it climbs an additional 8,000 feet and summits the odd 14,000 foot peak for a lark, but with 48 hours to finish most runners never need hurry just to meet the time limit unless something goes wrong. HURT, however, has a 36 hour time limit, with hard cutoffs throughout the last loop starting at 29 hours in.

This means that even if you make all the cutoffs with time to spare, you never really get a chance to stop worrying about them. You can’t rest for longer than you absolutely need to. You can’t slow down, zone out, and coast along one of the few relatively easy section of trail. You have to stay focused on running your best for as long as 36 hours [2].

Although I didn’t get to enjoy as much scenery, the nighttime portion of HURT might have been my favorite. Things cooled off enough on the third loop to offset most of my encroaching fatigue, and the rainforest has its own kind of beauty by headlamp. I’ll never forget the sound of wind picking up in the giant bamboo groves high above Manoa Falls. My third loop took 7:43, or again about 75 minutes longer than the previous loop.

On loop four, I deployed my Caffeine Strategem. I’d stopped drinking coffee a month before, and quit caffeine altogether a week after that. I cracked a 24-Hour Energy and mixed it into one of my bottles of electrolyte drink, and sipped it on my way up Hogsback. By Pauoa Flats I was flying over the roots and crooning along with my iPod at top volume (my apologies to any delicate eardrums I may have passed on the way). I refilled that bottle with Coke at the bottom. All told, I moved up 15 places and ran my fourth loop ten minutes faster than my third.

Early on loop five, though, the wheels came off. I took it slow up Hogsback as the second day of the race began to heat up. By the second half of the first leg’s climb, I was feeling a little queasy, but I took some ginger and tried to push through it. I let another runner and his pacer push me to run the rest of the climb faster than I usually would have, and just before the top I pulled over and insisted they run on. I tried to force myself to vomit but nothing would come up. Well, that was dumb.

With four miles left to the first aid station of the loop, I was dehydrated. I had some water in my pack’s hydration bladder, but for whatever reason it wasn’t tasting good to me and I could only get small sips in irregularly. Neither electrolyte drink nor Coke was at all palatable, and I did my best to force as many sips of water as I could, and maintained my pace for the rest of the leg, finishing with a good downhill run into the Paradise Park aid station.

Where I asked for water, and collapsed on the pavement.

The HURT volunteers jumped to my aid and saved my run. I was given cup after cup of cool water (the first of which I couldn’t keep down). A cold towel was placed on my head. Someone sat with me and rubbed my back and shoulders while someone else got me a cup of cold vegetable soup and refilled my pack. After maybe ten minutes when I was ready to try moving on, two of them walked up the road to the trailhead with me. I was still unsteady for another mile or so, but I absolutely owe my finish to them.

Photo from @HURThawaii Twitter stream.
Photo from @HURThawaii Twitter stream.

Shortly thereafter, a runner coming into the aid station who had already timed out and was just completing her 67-mile “fun run” handed off her trekking poles to me. I don’t know what difference they made for my overall time since I’m not used to running with them and they interfere with my fast downhill style, but they were great for that uphill section while I was still shaky after letting myself get so low. I owe another big thanks to #55.

The next leg was by far the slowest of the race for me, at barely over two miles an hour. It was the only time I dropped more than a couple places. At the final aid station, I was fairly sure I’d make it as long as I kept pushing, but I had an eye on my watch climbing back out again and was just as worried about the few runners left behind me. At one point, ten minutes after leaving the station where the cutoff would be coming up in twenty, I remember bellowing up the trail, “Ken! You’d better be up there and you’d better be running hard!” Not two minutes later he and his pacer came running down past me, looking as determined as I’ve ever seen anyone.

After I met Franco Soriano sitting on a rock, timed out a mile above the last checkpoint, I cried thinking about how hard he’d fought and how close he’d come. Many runners quit at mile 67 if they think the cutoffs will be too close. Franco made them chase him down.

Shannon MacGregor caught up with me on the steepest part of the last climb, and we pushed each other along. He ran on ahead to Pauoa Flats, where I limped in thinking I was alone and stopped to stretch. I stretched one quad, and screamed. I stretched the other, and screamed. I leaned against a root to stretch each calf, and screamed twice.

From thirty feet down the trail, I heard, “Fuck!” It was Shannon, sitting on some roots. “My blister just popped!”

We pushed each other along a little bit more, to the end of the last extra bit of climbing up to Manoa Cliff, and Shannon ran on down ahead. I didn’t have the legs for it yet. I packed up my poles, and shuffled along for most of the descent, until the last mile, and suddenly I was off. It seems to happen to me for the last mile of every run – I just smell the finish and remember how to run. I tore down the last bit of trail, over the bridges, and into the Nature Center right behind Shannon. There was still a big crowd hanging around to cheer for me as I reached the finish sign, which I touched, kissed, hugged, and sobbed over.

Photo from @HURThawaii Twitter stream.
Photo from @HURThawaii Twitter stream.

We wouldn’t want it to be easy, indeed.

I guess I passed Patrick Castello on my way in, and he finished another minute behind me. I never saw him.

Eight minutes later, Ken crossed the bridge and rounded the corner into the Nature Center. I have never seen an ultrarunning crowd go wild like it did for him as he successfully completed his fourth attempt at the HURT 100 with fifteen minutes to spare.

What makes HURT so hard is not just the distance, the terrain, the course, the footing, and the heat, but the fact that it’s meant to be nothing less than the hardest challenge it could be. What makes HURT possible to run is not just the dedication and the passion of each runner, but of the entire network of HURT runners and volunteers, all 300+ of them.

Mahalo. `Aole makou e ho`ohikiwale kela.

[1]: I know this may sound like a lot of other trails, but let me put it another way: there are actually brief sections where the trail itself goes over roots. The footing includes no dirt, rock, gravel, or artificial walkway, just a mass of gnarly uneven toe-stubbing fascia manglers.

[2]: Of course, if you’re a faster runner you have to spend the whole run worrying about running your best while focusing on your footing. Unless there was one I didn’t hear about, this may have been the HURT 100’s first year without a broken bone.

Running to O’ahu

I’m writing on the plane to Honolulu. In five days, I’ll be running my second hundred miler, the HURT 100. This one has a reputation. It’s been a long, fun, and sometimes ill-advised journey to get here.

I don’t know what it was exactly that possessed me to sign up for this race. I’d recently completed my first fifty miler, and I was pretty sure I wanted to try a longer distance someday, when I saw an email announcing that sign-ups would be open soon. Maybe that timing was enough. Deciding to take on the HURT 100 was bad enough, but deciding to take in on as my first?

People often roll their eyes when I mention it’s a hard hundred miler, as though running a hundred miles is already such an impossible feat, there couldn’t possibly be much delineation. Among ultrarunners, though, HURT has a reputation, and not just because of its cutesy intimidating name. It never stops climbing or descending, and by the time you’re done you’ll have climbed 25,000 feet. It’s in the Hawaiian rainforest, which means tricky terrain full of roots, rocks, river crossings, and endless mud, not to mention heat and humidity. If all that weren’t bad enough, the time limit is set tight at 36 hours. I’ve talked to people who have squeezed in finishes close to 48 hour cut off at Hardrock 100 in the high San Juans of Colorado, bagging 14,000 footers and struggling for air as they go, but timed out at HURT. One of them repeatedly on both counts.

So it sounded hard, sure, but it sounded amazing. The rainforest would be beautiful, and my favorite kind of running has always been on gnarly technical trails. I’d just have to get better at climbing. Endlessly.

Sign-ups opened at the end of July, and I surprised myself by forgetting to hover nervously before clicking “Submit.”

When they ran the lottery two weeks later, I only landed a spot on the waitlist anyway. Worst of all, I was #28 on the list. Judging by the last two years’ waitlists, I was just on the cusp – I’d probably get in, but I might not, and I had about four months of uncertain traning to slog through until I’d know for sure.

I lasted about three weeks. I didn’t stop training, but I found another race. Last year’s (2012) Headlands Hundred has been cancelled, then out of the blue reinstated under new management. It was only a week away, but I signed up and got my gear together.

Okay, sure, I was probably undertrained and hadn’t really tapered, but I figured whenever I ran my first hundred miler, it would be hard, it would be impossible to fully prepare myself for, and to some degree it would just have to suck. I was right on those counts, and fortunately it was also amazing. I learned a lot from Headlands that I don’t think I’d have any hope of getting through HURT without. Like that you need more than a week to prepare for a hundred miler.

Headlands left me with a little bit of ankle pain that I took too long to get diagnosed. Specifically, I waited until after Firetrails 50 a month later. Rather, I waited until after a few weeks of recovery from Firetrails 50. Oops. No damage done, but I might have missed out on some good training time.

Finally, in December, I moved off the waitlist to the entry pool. I ramped up my hill training, and started using the steam room or heading out for long runs with extra layers of fleece. Even in California, heat training takes work in the winter.

I joined a few other HURT runners and like minded fools for a forty mile nighttime training run in the mountains the weekend before Christmas. It all had a bit of a Tolkien feel as the eight of us set out into the woods at dusk. Two would turn back before it was (okay, got) too late. One would be separated from his companions and become horribly lost. Of course, I was that one.

At a certain junction where the trail apparently crossed the road, I was just a little bit behind another runner. I thought I saw his headlamp bounce off down the logging road which went down the hill off the road to the right instead of crossing. Something about it didn’t look right to me, but I couldn’t find where the trail was supposed to go, and I was pretty far ahead of the pack behind me, so off I went instead of waiting. Oops.

The problem with logging roads at night is that they are in fact a maze of twisty passages all alike. That there were no trail markings on any of the intersections was my second sign that I’d gone wrong. That I hit a dead-end at the stream with no crossing that didn’t involve a twenty foot drop was about my fourth. That I tried to backtrack to the road and ended up in someone’s backyard was actually pretty funny, but when I ran back down the road to where I’d gone wrong I still couldn’t see how I went right. So I went back down the logging road. Like a boss.

Eventually I figured out that if I gave up on finding the trail and ran along that road, I’d find the main park entrance, which also happened to be our next major landmark on the trail. I lucked out and managed to pick up the trail from the road sooner than that, only two miles up, but all told my foray in logging added six miles to the run and I no longer had any hope of catching up with the group.

We’d had a lot of rain that weekend, so the stream crossings were high. The majority had footbridges or were still small enough to feel quite safe, until I got to one about five miles from the end of the trail where the bridge was out. I didn’t know the area well enough to trust that I’d be able to backtrack and use another trail to get out (as half the group did), and backtracking all the way to where I could thumb a ride or otherwise find help could have meant risking hypothermia. Instead, I pulled out a perfect example of don’t try this at home, and crossed hip-deep white water solo at 4:00 am five miles from the trailhead.

The first step was cold, but protected and still. The second step was into rushing water that wanted to suck me down stream, so I plunged my foot all the way in until I could wedge it into the rocks below. From there I could grab a boulder that was just submerged, and leverage my way up onto an exposed rock for steps three and four. Step five was onto a mossy boulder on the far shore, but I only had a one-inch ledge. I grabbed the top of the boulder at my full armspan with my fingertips, grateful for some rusty rock climbing experience, and, fatigued from forty miles of night running but terrified of falling backwards, hoisted myself over the top.

Five more miles of easy running, some urgent I’m-okays from the stupid smartphone and a nap in the back seat, and I was starting to feel better about my chances of getting through this HURT thing.

All I’ve gotta do is run smart. That shouldn’t be so hard, right?