Go Big 260 Cold, Wind and Rain in Tropical Hawaii 260 Mile Ultramarathon--December 30, 2020
The Go Big 260 Ultramarathon is the longest of three races offered between Christmas and New Years by Hawaii Mountain Running, a club on the Big Island of Hawaii. Started by Alyx Barnett, they offer events to get people out to enjoy all the amazing island has to offer.
I would run one entire loop around the island starting on the windward side in Hilo. Heading south, I would pass through Volcano, South Point, Kona, past the airport, the Kohala Coast, then head up to Hawi town, along Kohala Mountain Road (more on this later!), into Waimea then complete a 56-mile jaunt back to Hilo.
When I signed up, four others had already done so. Come race day, only one other guy, Big Island resident and high school math teacher Justin Young would join me in the endeavor. In fact, with self-chosen start times, he had already finished his race by the time I started mine.
One really couldn’t design a race more suited for me. First, it’s in friggin’ Hawaii for God’s sake. Who wouldn’t want to do an Ultra there?! Second, it is 260 miles which is right in my wheelhouse. Third, it would give an amazing opportunity to in a way reconnect with my father who died on the island from colon cancer almost 30 years ago. He had always planned on retiring there but when he learned he had less than six months to live, he told my Mom, “Honey, we better get over there as soon as possible.”
The Big Island will always hold a special place in my heart because of my Dad’s energy and spirit there (Mana in Hawaiian).
To boot, the race supports a great charity, the Hawaii Wildlife Fund, I really feel good about raising money as a part of my silly endeavors. People say I’m crazy for torturing myself but when I help others, it makes it worth it. And for the record, “I’m NOT crazy. I’m just not you.” By the way, I stole that line from David Goggins. I may be extreme and what I do is extreme, but I’m not crazy. Damnit!
After sweating out whether my negative COVID-19 test I obtained through a not approved Hawaiian Airlines lab would allow me to leave the airport (otherwise I would have to quarantine for 14 days-a complete non-starter), I finally made it through. When released by the authorities, I let out a loud whoop which elicited some smiles from others nearby.
Outside baggage claim, I met up with Emily, my crew chief. We had corresponded many times leading up to the race. She drove me to the hotel where we joined Jordyn, the other member of my team. Both were friends of friends from the Big Island and had come highly recommended. Boy did they live up to the hype! These girls had never crewed and had no idea what they were getting themselves into.
In the am, we awoke at six and were at the start by 6:45. After some photos and a quick prayer, I was off at 7 am sharp, heading south. Of course, I made great time, chewing up the miles effortlessly. Around 12 miles in, I saw three people on the side of the road, cheering and holding some signs. I thought maybe it was a car wash fundraiser or something. They ended up being the family of one of my close buddies, Coach Tom. I couldn’t believe their energy. I was really moved by their support. They said they were following my tracking and that they looked forward to seeing me at the finish line in 3 ½ days.
About ten miles later I came upon a fat wallet just sitting in the middle of the bike lane. It had a guy’s driver’s license, numerous credit cards and a wad of cash. I gave it to the girls and told them to try to track down the owner. About two hours later, some dude in a motorcycle came up and said “Hey, are you Russ? I’m the guy whose wallet you found.” He was so thankful. More good energy and Aloha. Things were off to a fantastic start.
I made great progress past the volcano which had recently erupted. I didn’t see or feel any evidence though. Twenty miles past Volcano, I came upon a sign marking that it was 96 miles to Kona. Out on the road and on foot, it dawned on me how far that was. It would suck having to drive 96 miles and here I was having to run it. Then, when I got there, I’d still only be halfway done. A crushing thought. I told myself to not focus on the destination and to enjoy the journey.
Perhaps that’s my greatest challenge in ultras. I love the training and prep but when it comes down to the long, seemingly never-ending stretches, especially in the second half of races, I think too much about the finish. It’s a negative mindset that requires amazing self-discipline to change. I’ve come a long way but it’s still my weak link.
Around mile 60, the girls headed to a town called Captain Cook to get some sleep in a hotel. They would track me down come daylight. We loaded up my pack with food and drink for the night. I had planned on charging through to Kona for my first sleep. Of course, the sleep monster had other plans. I absolutely had to nap alongside the road around four am. I had trouble falling asleep because I was too cold of all things. Stupid me, I had not planned for the cooler temperatures. I was in Hawaii, right?
In the roadside ditch, I found a ratty old kids pajama top with a hood with bunny ears. I squeezed into it and pulled the hood over my head then crawled under a pile of dry grass I had accumulated to serve as a blanket. I was able to get some good ZZZ’s. When I woke up, it took me a few seconds to realize where in the hell I was and why was I sleeping on the side of the road, under grass and with kids’ pajamas on. If a stranger stumbled upon me, he would have called the police to take me to the loony bin!
To invigorate me during these freaky hours, I changed my music over to my Fearless Motivation playlist on Spotify (I highly recommend). It will pump you up! By eight am, I was out of food and drink and my cell phone was almost dead. Cold, famished and stranded, I had no choice but to soldier forward, anxiously awaiting my girls driving up the road to “come to my rescue.” As the sun rose, so did my temperature and my spirits. One thing about ultras is that the lows are low, and the highs are high.
When they arrived, they told me my longtime friends, Stewart and Lisa, would be joining us in Captain Cook, just south of Kona. What a huge surprise. I didn’t expect to see them until much later. Stewart was my Dad’s doctor back in the day and Lisa was his hospice nurse. Our family is deeply indebted to them for their love and care to my father. As I’ve written in a previous blog post, I’m a big fan of role models. Stewart was one of my first during my years as a first-year medical student.
They joined me and even paced me some along the narrow road through Captain Cook, despite there being no shoulder.
My spirits soared as I entered Kona town. I was joined by Megan from Hawaii Wildlife Fund. Her great energy was infectious. I loved having her with me and she carried me all the way into town.
As nighttime two began, the excitement of New Year’s Eve lifted my spirits more. My favorite stretch of the race was along the famed Ali’i Drive where the Ironman Triathlon finishes.
On Palani Road, I took an extended break, changing socks and shoes. People’s personal firework shows started cranking, rivaling those of city Fourth of July events.
Stewart, Lisa and Megan retired for the night. My girls loaded me up for the stretch past the airport towards Waikoloa and the Kohala Coast resorts. I hated to see them go. I struggled through this section which sucked big time. I started to feel the effects of the previous 130 miles. Plus, the lack of signs of civilization other than passing cars really dragged me down. I didn’t see any lights for more than six hours, making it impossible to gauge my progress. I felt like I was on a treadmill, burning energy but going nowhere. I told myself to quit being a B!@$# and just keep moving forward!
Around four am, I could not keep my eyes open. I saw a huge piece of cardboard from a clothes washer up in the lava off the edge of the highway. I bent it into shape and rolled over sideways a few times making myself a human burrito. It helped ward off the nighttime breeze that chilled me, making it hard to doze off. I was able to get about 15 minutes. About an hour later, I decided to try for more sleep. This time, I just ripped handfuls and handfuls of grass from the roadside and out of it made myself a bed and a blanket. Upon awakening both times, I had to reorient myself. Sleeping under a pile of grass or inside some cardboard in a lava field at four am is not something I’ve done before!
With relentless forward progress, eventually I saw twinkling lights far off in the distance. Friggin finally!!
Now I had a frame of reference. I charged on, eating my last bar. I only had my energy drink left, Tailwind, in my hydration bladder. I didn’t want to keep drinking it because it made me pee, but it was my only source of calories.
I made it to the entrance of the Waikoloa Resort around 6:30 am. I planned on going along the coast to Puako Road but got lost, burning energy and almost out of battery on my cell phone. The girls came down from Waikoloa Village where they slept for the night. I aborted my coastal route plan, which would have added about six miles.
They drove me back to the Queen K highway where I had a full pit stop—big breakfast, fresh shoes and socks, blister care and some amazing back muscle massage and leg stretching from Jordyn and Emily. Resort security checked on us because Jordyn was putting her entire body weight into my tight back such that from a distance it must have looked like I was getting CPR.
Feeling like a million bucks and with the warm sun now up, I made great progress toward Kawaihae. The tradewinds started really crankin’. The heat came too but I was super prepared for it having done heat training back home. Bring it on baby! I had lots of pacers through here. Megan, Stewart, Lisa, Emily and J-Dog (Jordyn) all took turns running with me. Race director Alyx came out with Caleb and Hannah, runners of the 100 mile they had just finished. Caleb had planned to do the 260 but a recent hiking accident where he dislocated his shoulder derailed his plans. This stretch and the slog up towards Hawi were some of my best miles.
Under the shade of a Kiawe tree, I tried to get two hours of sleep in the back of Stewart’s pickup. It seemed that every time I dozed off, I was awakened by a strong gust of wind. It wasn’t restful enough, so I decided to just get moving again. My now four-person crew fed me watermelon, spam and rice, trail mix and my favorite--- bread covered with an inch of guacamole!
I picked up my new friend Russell as a pacer. New to running and fascinated by the sport of ultra’s, he helped me eat up lots of miles. He had seen some of my videos and read some of my posts. He thought the best way to learn was to come out and join me. A super cool guy, I loved his company. Russell lived in Hawi. He said I inspired him to lose weight and to live a more healthful lifestyle. I was humbled.
Hawi was supposed to be 18 miles away but it seemed to be so much longer. Poor Emily. She endured my crankiness, pacing me into town. After seeing some whales off in the distance and a gorgeous Hawaiian Sunset, darkness and much cooler temps arrived, taking my spirits with them.
I had looked forward to a prolonged rest in Hawi. But my personal drill sergeant Jordyn wouldn’t let me. Only 18 years old and probably all of 85 lbs but wise and disciplined far beyond her years, she kicked me out of the front seat of the car! Tough love.
Emily carried me up the steep climb of Kynnersly Road. Though around eight pm on New Year’s evening, no one was out and about, and everyone’s houses were dark. It seemed like the apocalypse.
As I climbed higher and higher, the temp dropped, and rain arrived. First, nice little sprinkles then soon, they turned into heavy rains which wouldn’t let up until 20 miles later in Waimea town.
Then…the winds came. And man did they come. I’ve never experienced winds like this. No joke, I swear it sounded like a train running along side the road for eight hours straight. At times, I had to lean forward or sideways to keep from being blown back or knocked over. This coupled with the torrential rains made this an absolute “Suck-fest.” I’m embarrassed to admit that I had not prepared for the wind, the cold and the rain. Thank God that Alyx leant me a rain jacket or I would have gotten hypothermia. How pathetic would it have been for me to get that in tropical Hawaii?! I later learned that there was a high wind warning for the island. That’s saying something, considering their trade winds are legendary.
It came time for the girls to retire for the night for some much-deserved sleep and a warm shower. I was concerned about being so exposed in such rough conditions with only a rain jacket and wimpy lightweight pants. As we all took a nap in the car after a brief strategy session, we were awakened by the loud tapping by police officers on our window. They received a call about a car on the edge of the road with flashers on and with coolers and other stuff outside the car. Admittedly, it must have looked awfully suspicious out there at that time of night and in that situation. The girls made the decision to stay with me through the night. To me, their unselfishness saved my race. Along here something incredibly special happened. Jordyn said, “I think we need to pray.” She then sang the Lord’s prayer in Hawaiian. It was the highlight of my entire experience.
With that, I felt invincible. I dressed up and stepped out into the pouring rain and hurricane force winds to tackle the push to Waimea.
I had to no choice but to dig deep and persist, despite the misery. Jordyn joined me for stretches, her positive attitude blunting my negative mindset. Every time I rounded a turn, I thought the winds would let up. They never did. Nor did the rain.
Finally, the lights of town became brighter. I was making progress. After what seemed like eternity, I arrived in Waimea around 6 am. And the wind and the rain let up. Goodbye Kohala Mountain Road. You suck!
We rendezvoused with Megan from HWF. I took a 20-minute nap in her car while she and the team got coffee and snacks. With 204 or so miles behind me, I had 56 miles left. When we got to 52 left, Megan said “Hey, now you only have two marathons to go!” Isn’t it amazing how relative things can look depending on your perspective?
At 50 miles left, I broke the rest of the race into five 10-mile sections. I would knock them out one by one.
We were joined again by Stewart and Lisa along the Hamakua Coast. They surprised me with their support and interest. I thought I might see them briefly once out on the course. They ended up spending three entire days with us. Justin, the other 260 miler came out to meet me, which I thought was a cool move. We shared a kindred spirit.
With 20 miles left (it ended up being much more in reality), my spirits skyrocketed. I had a fantastic race. My mental discipline, my nutrition and hydration and my pacing were on point. Other than some bothersome but not debilitating pain in my right Achilles, back muscles and left shoulder, my body had held up incredibly well. The girls kept me limber and strong.
The rains returned. I was pissed. I thought “Haven’t I had my share already?” I was SO OVER the rain. It seemed that every time I took my jacket off, it would start raining again. It became comical at one point.
With 15 left, I came upon two enthusiastic girls yelling my name along the roadside. They were former students and water polo players of my good buddy Coach Tom. Their energy was a huge boost.
Under now relentless rains again, I had been joined by Michael, a graduate student interning with HWF. He had run many miles with me earlier. During the last ten miles, there wasn’t much conversation. I sensed that he was over the rain also. He didn’t have a rain jacket and was definitely “taking one for the team.”
Expecting the finish to come at any point (based on the roadside mile markers), it never came. I truly felt like the finish was being moved repeatedly. At one point, I was at wits end.
I became emotional and ripped into Michael and told him “You don’t know where the F#$% you’re going!” He didn’t appreciate it very much. I was cursing Emily who responded “Don’t worry about it” when I asked her earlier how much further? for the umpteenth time. My outburst was cathartic. I reset my mind. I had no choice but to shut up, remove any expectations and JUST KEEP RUNNING.
Plodding down the road which had now become a lake and saturated to the core, Michael told me the finish was in sight. God, what a relief. Physically, I was fine but mentally, my tank was on E.
Crossing the finish line by the lighthouse was again anticlimactic. The elation of having completed my goal and not having to run anymore was offset by extreme mental fatigue. We tried to capture some video and photos with the downpour made it nearly impossible. I had finished in 89 hours and 42 minutes and 42 seconds, nearly six hours slower than my goal time. I had slept less than an estimated four hours total over this duration.
I still was very satisfied with my performance.
I bent down to one knee, said a prayer and reconnected with my Dad. Jordyn surprised me with some Plumeria lei's and a Haku, a lei warn around my head. That meant a lot coming from her. That Island girl is special and has a bright future!
We all squeezed into Emily’s Toyota Prius to take Michael home and to head back to the hotel. WE WERE SPENT!
We decided to look for some food to eat before crashing. I suggested good old McDonalds for some fires and milkshake. We went through the drive through.
Back in the hotel lobby, I crashed into a heap while Emily checked us back into our rooms. I was too pooped for a shower so just slipped between the covers, inhaling three McDonalds hamburgers and a large fries. I didn't need a shower having had one for the last four hours!
I took a moment to reflect on how grateful I was to be in this position. What an amazing three and ½ days. (three and ¾ days really.)
Because I was overtired, I didn’t sleep well. I got up and took the most delightful 45-minute shower, letting the warm water rain down on me while I sat on the floor of the tub. It was heaven.
We met up with Stewart and Lisa for brunch at noon then went to the finish area to take some more photos in beautiful sunshine this time. What a difference 12 hours makes.
Emily, Jordyn and I went to a hippy Kombucha place in the evening where I had a smoothie and a beer. We reflected on how positive the race was for everyone involved and that so much good would come from it. I was honored, humbled and grateful to play my part.
Back in the hotel bed, I had a quart of ice cream and another beer, given to me by Justin, the other finisher, before turning out the lights. I told myself I wouldn’t do this race again. But because it was so fantastically positive…I might have to reconsider. Next time, I would bring rain gear and warmer clothes!