Running Across The Big Island of Hawaii

Hawaii is a magical and mystical place people dream of visiting. Volcanoes, waterfalls, rainbows, lava, pristine beaches, the list goes on… Hawaii is a one of a kind destination. When I was invited to take part in the Julbo Hawaii Trail session, it was a dream come true. My fellow Julbo athlete and friend, Julien Chorier and I would run 150 miles across the big island of Hawaii together. Joining us would be the lucky winner of the Julbo Hawaii Trail Session, Bill Clements from California USA. Our adventure across the island would be captured by a film crew using everything from GoPros to drones.

A huge challenge for this trip would be creating a feasible track for us to run across the island. We would also need to accurately estimate the timing of each section to coordinate proper support for the runners and to capture a lot of the journey on film. The task was daunting. The weather was also a big factor to consider on our trip. Not only is the weather unpredictable across the big island, but varies greatly with dozens of micro climates and vast changes in temperatures and altitude. Josh and Dino, Julbo crew members, worked many weeks planning out the logistics of our lofty task.

Immediately after landing and receiving our traditional Hawaiian leis, we got to work traveling the island scouting out our big journey. We would start our run in the south of the island at Volcanoes National park where we would run down to the beach and across old lava flows before starting our climb to Mauna Loa, our first of the island’s two 13,000ft+ volcanoes. The next day we would descend down Mauna Loa and then across a long dry, barren lava flow landscape before finishing the second day by climbing the tallest point in all of Hawaii, Mauna Kea. The 3rd day of our run would start by descending Mauna Kea via single track and rough Jeep roads then finally descend through the island’s jungles to the beach. The journey will end at the beach in the legendary Waipio Valley, “Valley of the Kings”.

Bill, Julien, the film crew and I were all quickly becoming friends and the team was ready for the epic task at hand after three days of preparing. Nobody has run the route we picked across the island and the logistics of successfully supporting and filming the entire event weighed heavy on everyone’s minds. The film crew has to capture the adventure on film, but they would also be responsible for all our support for three very long days… and nights. At night, we would sleep in tents, or at least the part of the night we were not running.

Julien, Bill and I were confident and ready to tackle the task at hand as we started our run heading towards the beach on the first morning. Bill, Julien and I had in short time become a team. Bill had great respect for Julien and I as professional runners, but the three of us didn’t let status get in the way of our friendships or working together to accomplish our goal in Hawaii. We had agreed to stay together and work as a team on this multi-day run, which is the only way we could make the project a success. Right away we realized we had under estimated how rough, taxing and subsequently slow the trails would be on the lava rock terrain.

The tall grass grew over the scant trails we were following down to the beach and to make things worse, the temperatures were hot. We had to stop dozens of times to actually find the trail we were following, wasting precious time and energy. Climbing up towards our first check point on the highway 25 miles into the run, we ran out of water and were forced to drink directly out of untreated catchments off a cabin roof. Bill was struggling to keep pace and we all were nervous how things would turn out. Finally at the first checkpoint we all three rested, ate and drank until we couldn’t anymore. We had taken two times as long as planned for this first stretch of trail.

On the road up to Mauna Loa things were already cooling off and we instantly were more optimistic. Our pace was good heading up the road approach to the volcano. After our approach, we continued our ascent on the technical single track where Bill was doing better at keeping good pace. Julien and I happily fielded a lot of questions from Bill on our running experience. Julien and I shared stories and advice on everything from races we had run, to running and training tips and techniques. As the sun started to set, Bill’s pace held strong and Julien and I were in our groove. None of us had ever been on a mountain or volcano ascent quite like Mauna Lea. Mauna Lea climbs over 13,000ft from the ocean, but in an amazingly gradual and consistent fashion. Because of the low grade and the direction of our approach, we could never actually see the summit. Cruising through the unending variety of colors, shapes and consistency of lava rock we began to yearn for the summit. It was unbelievably cold as we approached the top of the volcano, especially considering how hot we were that morning on the beach. Julien, Bill and I were fully exhausted. Our crew, who had hiked for hours to meet us, cheered us on and further clothed us as we stumbled to the summit. After 16hrs of travel we made it to our tents. We gobbled massive amounts of soup and food then proceeded to pass out filthy and tired in our sleeping bags.

After some short sleep, we were on the road connecting Hawaii’s volcanoes. The sun was intense and the temperatures fairly warm. We all three were sore and tight from the big first day, but eventually our legs limbered up. Bill was moving well and was holding a great pace on the smooth terrain after yesterday’s technical and very challenging run. The long flat section between the volcanoes went fairly quick and before we knew it we were ready to climb the taller of the volcanoes, Mauna Kea.

Bill, Julien and I were thoroughly acquainted with each other by now and quite enjoying our time together. Long miles demanded that we help pass time talking about our backgrounds, running and lives. Bill had an amazing story of going from an out of shape and significantly overweight guy to being a successful mountain ultra-marathon runner. His journey from a place of poor health to being a top 150 finisher at UTMB is truly inspiring.

While the ascent up and down Mauna Kea would be the most challenging part of our journey statistically, the quality of single track trail, views and fact that we were conquering our biggest and last climb, made the task enjoyable for all three of us. As Bill had correctly predicted, his pace only got better as we went along. We made it up Mauna Kea faster than we had estimated, which only added to our sunset celebration. Our support crew doubling as videographers, photographers and drone fliers were doing an amazing job driving all over the island to make sure we stay hydrated, motivated, properly fed, oriented and bedded at night. These guys executed a hard job with great class.

The sunrise start to the third day was easier and somehow less stiff than the second day. Confidence had improved since our humble, slow beginning on the beaches of Volcano National Park. We were all confident and excited for our last day running across Hawaii. We bombed down the single track to the Mauna Kea visitor center where we began the rough jeep road portion of the adventure. On the jeep road we were treated to some surprises, both good and bad. The scenery was spectacular. We could see down to the ocean and experienced amazing inversions where we were the only part of the island and ocean above a thick blanket of clouds. We came across the spectacular Silversword plant that looks just like the name implies, a yucca like plant with bright silvery white limbs. The protected and rare Silversword plant only lives on the high volcanic deserts of Hawaii, so it was a treat to get to see the plant on our run. Another not so pleasant surprise was that the jeep road consistently climbed and descended with an average altitude of over 9,000ft, which was utterly exhausting. We were laser focused on completing our mission to reach the beach and we kept an awesome pace, but it was a huge challenge. The video crew on several occasions commented on how they had gained a new found respect for trail ultra-running and the amazing feats these athletes accomplish on the trails. We were now on our 3rd ultra in three consecutive days. Bill had his best day on this last day where he frequently pushed the pace making Julien and I work hard, all while being the most conversational of the group. The final surprise and challenge on the jeep roads would be a locked gate about 27 miles short of the highway. The closed gate forced us to be without aid for the second half of our last day and re-routed our film and support crew all the way back and around 4+ hours to the highway. Jeremy, one of the photographers, decided to join us and take on the longest run of his life. Jeremy would end of capturing on GoPro one of the most magical and scenic sections of our run. Verdant rolling fields, rainbows, wild turkeys and views of the deep blue ocean surrounded us as we ran gradually down to the jungle. Bill’s spirits were at an incredible high. Bill was non-stop entertainment with jokes, stories, questions, etc… Bill was running phenomenally well on this last stretch of trail, moving faster and more impressively than ever before. Jeremy was ecstatic with excitement and the joy of running an amazing point to point stretch of trail in Hawaii. The team was happy. The jungle finally surrounded us and we began the steep descent down to my favorite place on the big island, Waipio valley. Two near vertical canyon walls surround a flat but narrow valley floor where a fairly large river meandered quickly to the ocean. At the meeting of the river and ocean was an assortment of fruit trees. Coconuts littered the white sand beach where powerful waves crashed. We jogged along the white sands full of joy, pride and emotion. The trip was complete, we made it and more importantly, we completed this epic trip together as a team. Hugs, high fives followed by a spontaneous dive into the ocean finished our journey.

We ran through the amazing landscapes of the Big Island, summited both volcanoes, created a special bond with the island and left with a special friendship and memories with each other that we will never forget. To say the Julbo Hawaii Trail Session was a success is an understatement, it was a dream come true for everyone. Huge thanks to Julbo, Seb, Dino, Thibeau, Jeremy, Josh and the people of this one of a kind island that overflows with magic.