Thursday, March 1, 2012

An Essay about Running with King Kamehameha and Queen Liliuokalani at Volcanoes National Park

You don’t need to stretch much when you’re running 35 miles.  The first few miles will loosen you up.  Being loose, for many ultra runners, is a detriment.  They start out too fast.  I learned the dangers of starting too fast early in my running career.  I was running at Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii, got caught up with the natural beauty, and forgot I had another 25 miles to go.

The vomit riddled lava rock at mile 28 looked like King Kamehameha slaughtering a pig while prisoners of war lay sprawled on the ground, hands tied behind their heads.  There are no records of Kamehameha leading Luaus after battle, but the great unifier of the Hawaiian Islands undoubtedly ate pigs and pineapple.

“Where did that vomit come from?” I asked to no one in particular.  It had yet to register the vomit had come from me. I had not remembered eating toast and peanut butter that morning, but that’s what had come out.  No pigs.  No pineapple.  As another wave of gastric juices made their way up my esophagus, into my throat, and out of my mouth, I figured out where King Kamehameha’s Luau had originated. 

“Where did this come from?” I mused as I gripped the bottle of red sports drink.  I carried a bottle of red sports drink whenever I took off on these long adventures but it still surprised me that I had some tied to my belt.

I continued.

I think I tripped across a lava rock getting into my car after finishing the race.  I remembered walking into my hotel room with a bloodied face and soiled underwear but the several pictures from the event show only a scrape on my chin and lava dust on my legs.

“I will start slow,” I said aloud as I began the 35-mile River Mountain Loop in Southern Nevada.  It’s something I told myself every time I embarked as if to tell King Kamehameha he is not welcome in the deserts of Southern Nevada.  I decided to go counter-clockwise, which meant I’d be going uphill early.  Within three miles I’d be heading up the Three Sisters.  The First Sister is deceptive.  Her length hides her steepness.  It was along here I spotted a man with a shovel, just walking.  There is no deception with the Second Sister.  It’s steep.  One of the keys to successfully running long races is to hike up steep inclines.  You use twice as much energy running up a steep hill and you only go about 5 percent faster.  Rookies at the River Mountain Loop Run think the ordeal is over after the Second Sister.  It’s not.  The Third Sister is worse.  I finished the Third Sister at a quick hike and resumed running.  I’d only gone about five miles, half of which I walked, and I was feeling fresh.  Another three miles of gradual incline brought me to the Henderson Water Treatment Facility.  I saw another man with a shovel crawling under the fence.

I enjoyed a small downhill, about a half-mile when I made the turn toward the Railroad Pass Casino and the trail went up again.  Just get by the first 12 miles and the trail descends. I was now going downhill into Boulder City, about a 10-mile decline.  Although running downhill is easier, it can wreak havoc on the quadriceps and knees.  I reached into my running belt, grabbed three Advils, a packet of Gu, two Powerbars, and a bottle of water.  It was snack time.  As I looked up from ripping the package with my teeth, I saw a group of Boy Scouts with shovels excitedly traversing a hill.

River Mountain Trail: The part where the lake isn't.

Once you head out of Boulder City, there’s Lake Mead National Recreation Area.  There’s a nice 3.5-mile stretch where you’re above the Lake and can see for miles as you descend toward the water.  At this stage of the run, you’re tempted to head into the water, but there was work left to do.  This section of the loop presents the toughest challenge when running the loop clockwise.  In the Showdown at Sundown Triathlon a few years back I had ridden this section uphill.  Several participants were walking their bikes up the hill, others limping it up.  I continued to ride despite the cramps.  The bike ride finished at Bootleg Canyon and I debated whether or not to run the requisite remaining miles.

A pair of shovels lying on the side of the road snapped me out of my daydream.

The lake miles are my favorite on the run.  I usually pass them right about when the sun is heating up the desert and the lake breezes feel good on my throat.  If I were in Italy I’d definitely catch cold.  The Italian medical establishment has convinced the public that all illnesses are caused by wind hitting bare skin, especially the skin on or around the throat and neck.  Ultrarunners know that ultrarunning makes you sick, regardless of breezes on your neck.  Training and running long distances takes its toll on the body’s immunity system.  I had been fortunate, only having contracted a few colds, but not all runners are so lucky.  I was not supposed to be running this alone.  In fact, only a fool would run this alone. 

I was a fool. 

There would be enough people on the trail on such a nice day that if something did happen, I would be all right.  Ninety-percent of the run is within my cell phone range.  That wasn’t the case with Brooks Langley, who attempted to survive the Alaska wilderness with a bag of rice and a rifle.  He froze to death and had his lower torso eaten by a bear before being discovered by hikers.

The relaxing part of the run was over.  It was time to make the final ascent to my car.  That’s when King Kamehameha made an appearance.  He appeared above an outcropping as I wound my way up the mountainous part of the Loop, Queen Liliuokalani at his side.  I think they were carrying shovels.  They would need them to scoop up the Powerbars I had just vomited.

The paramedics hooked up an IV as soon as I mentioned the visit from two of Hawaii’s most famous monarchs.  My wife told me not to share the incident with anyone.  I’ve kept it a secret.  Liliuokalani and Kamehameha handed me a map to a treasure that had been buried in the River Mountains.  That’s what all the people were doing in the desert with a shovel.  Apparently there was a magazine article claiming Sanford Dole had buried a treasure in the wilderness around Lake Mead.  Liliuokalani naturally felt it belonged to her since she had been illegally removed from her throne as the last Queen of Hawaii.  She, with some assistance from Kamehameha and a spear, convinced me to find the treasure and throw it in to Mt. Kilauea.  I reluctantly agreed.  I was told to show nobody the map and to use the treasure for no other purpose than to buy a plane ticket to Hilo and cab fair to the volcano where the excess treasure could be used to appease her ghost.

It took me two years to convince my wife to go to the Big Island, but there I was finally.  I paid for the plane ticket with my own money and used the treasure to buy a gallon of milk so I wouldn’t have to eat dry cereal for breakfast.  I hoped Liliuokalani and Kamehameha would be OK with my deviation; after all, I saved them a considerable amount by purchasing my own plane ticket.

I was wrong.

I arrived in Volcano Village, situated at the entrance to Volcanoes National Park, early.  The Volcanoes Half Marathon was being held that day and I thought it would be fitting that I take part.  It was here, after all, that I had first encountered Kamehameha slaughtering pigs on a lava rock.  The VOG was heavy this day.  Liliuokalani was growing impatient.  I can knock this half-marathon off in about an hour and forty-five minutes.  Liliuokalani can wait.  Halfway through the race I was leading.  I ran the first 10 kilometers in under 41 minutes.  I had forgotten the lesson Kamehameha taught me years before about starting out too fast.  He visited me at mile 10.  I didn’t stop.  In fact I ran right through him and he ended up on the running shorts of the person behind me.  That’s when Liliuokalani tripped me.  I was covered in blood.  The deposed queen sat on my chest.  I could hardly breathe.  She asked me what the hell was taking so long and why I’d used the treasure to buy milk.  I explained that I purchased the air ticket AND cab ride myself and she should be a little more appreciative.

Mt. Kilauea

Kamehameha hit me in the stomach with a club causing me to vomit while Liliuokalani sat on my chest.  I was choking on my own puke when an Air Force captain turned me on my side and let chunks of curdled milk and Bran Flakes trickle down the side of my face, forming a stream on the lava rocks that were causing great discomfort to my back and shoulders.

I finished the race 12th. When I got back to my car, the treasure was gone.

I recounted this story to Hawaiian legend Don Ho—actually it was the ghost of Don Ho—at a restaurant in downtown Hilo while sitting on the lanai listening to music by… Don Ho.  Perhaps it was the tiny bubbles in my Dr. Pepper that was making me happy, but I think just being there with the most famous Hawaiian entertainer not alive made me giddy. 


  1. awesome post! You run about 1/2 mile from my house when you use that trail. And that curvaceous 4th cousin isn't sister worthy, I agree but some have called it that. Nice to follow a fellow hendersononian!!

    1. Hey Ron. I used to live right off racetrack and still work over there. It's a great place to bike. I've never actually run the whole thing, but I have biked the whole thing and done some triathlons there. Thanks for the feedback.