Getting Lei’d on Oahu
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Xterra Trail Run World Championship draws a sundry crop of athletes
Racers content with everything from slick mud to hot Hawaiian sun. Courtesy of Xterra
Sometimes, it feels as though the road-running and trail-running scenes are worlds apart—the first, a crowded place of precise training plans, Olympic-caliber athletes and beeping watches, the latter a backwoods land of mud, bearded champions and kegs of beer at the finish line.
But every November, these worlds collide on Hawaii’s picturesque island of Oahu at the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship, where nearly 1,000 runners—many of whom are dedicated track or road runners toeing the line of their first-ever trail race—show up to compete for the right to call themselves World Champions. Competitors run the gamut from former Olympians to trail newbies to pros like four-time XTERRA World Champion Max King, from 10-year-olds to 75-year-olds, from Croatian expats to New Zealand up-and-comers to Native Hawaiians. And, come race day, just about anyone from this motley crew might find themselves atop the podium, sporting one of the race’s champion orchid leis and flashing smiles for the cameras.
Max King (left) and Ben Bruce battle for the lead at the 2011 World Championship. Courtesy of Xterra
Take Nozomi Wade, a 56-year-old, elementary-school teacher from Lawrenceville, Georgia, who began running just five years ago.
“When I announced to my family that I was going to start running, everyone was shocked,” she says. “My husband, James, and my son thought I would quit in a day.” But she stuck with it, and after running her first trail race at the XTERRA Georgia Series, she was hooked. Three years later, she and James made the journey to Oahu for the 2012 Worlds, and she found herself crowned—lei’d, that is—a World Champion in her age group.
“I still remember my name being called. I was in total shock,” she says. And, she adds, “What really stood out was how the superstars were so nice to ordinary runners like my husband and me. I really do not get that feel when I am at a road race.”
Because the age groups are in five-year increments, from age 10 and up, the opportunities to be named a champion are abundant. And, yet, this very possibility draws such a broad smattering of competitors to Oahu that winning one’s age group is no walk in the park, either. At most trail races that offer age-group rankings, runners in outlier brackets can count on winning their groups simply by showing up and crossing the finish line. In contrast, at the 2013 XTERRA World Championship, 71-year-old Ron Macy’s time of 3:12:23 was not quite fast enough to earn him a podium spot; three other men in the 70-74 age category were faster.
Wade found herself among stiffer competition in her age group this year as well, with an unprecedented 15 competitors in the women’s 55-59 category; she placed sixth.
The 21-kilometer course is run entirely on Kualoa Ranch, a 4,000-acre working cattle ranch on the east side of Oahu, where a handful of blockbuster movies and TV shows such as Jurassic Park, LOST and Hawaii Five-0 have been filmed. Only open to runners on race day, the course ripples through a lush, mountainous valley and along ridges that overlook the Pacific Ocean. Much of the race travels crushed gravel doubletrack or dirt roads, with a few rooty, mucky singletrack sections thrown in for good measure. Other than a couple of minor bottlenecks at the beginning of the singletrack portions, the course accommodates its large number of participants well.
For the seasoned trail runner, the course is less technical than most, including the majority of other trails on Oahu. For those new to the sport, though, Kualoa Ranch’s relentless hills, shallow creek crossings and muddy stretches are enough to pack a wallop. One section is so steep and slick that a rope is in place to aid descending runners.
Overheard on one of the shuttle buses from Waikiki to the race that morning, one first-time trail runner whispered to another, “I don’t really know what to expect, but I feel like I’m about to run up Mount Everest.”
Sophie Hus-Zic and Zeljiko Zic are XTERRA regulars. Photo by Zeljko Zic
Indeed, almost no part of the course is flat. It begins with a gradual but seemingly endless climb into the woods, before breaking into roller-coaster terrain that undulates through the valley. At mile 9, the so-called “Death March” hill on an exposed trail climbs roughly 500 feet in under a mile and reduces all but the front runners to a sweaty hike of the when-will-this-be-over variety. At the finish line, runners are given a medal emblazoned with the word “SURVIVOR.”
XTERRA has deep roots in off-road endurance sports—and the story begins on Oahu. In the late 1980s, the Oahu Visitors Association tasked a man named Tom Kiely with creating more publicity for the island. His first project was to establish a lifeguard-skills competition, the Hawaiian International Ocean Challenge, in Waikiki, that drew international talent. His company, Team Unlimited, filmed the event for broadcast on ESPN.
In a single day, millions of viewers witnessed the sparkling beaches and blue waters of Oahu—and it set the stage for the island to become known as an athlete’s paradise. (The big kahuna of the triathlon world, the Ironman competition, took place on Oahu from 1978-1980, but in 1981, race organizer Valerie Silk opted to move it to the less-populated Hawaii Island—“the big island”—where it continues today.)
Following the inaugural Hawaiian International Ocean Challenge, Kiely and his crew at Team Unlimited established new local competitions to televise, including windsurfing, road cycling, mountain biking and, eventually, the multidisciplinary sport that would come to define XTERRA—off-road triathlons.
In 2006, XTERRA formalized its own Trail Run Series and introduced 28 races in six regions—SoCal, Chesapeake Bay, Tennessee, the Midwest, Utah and the Ohio Valley. Regional age-group champions were then invited to the XTERRA Trail Run National Championship, which has moved twice since its inception, from Incline Village, Nevada, to Bend, Oregon, to Ogden, Utah. Today, more than 80 XTERRA trail races exist worldwide.
The first World Championship was held in 2008—complete with a $10,000 prize purse, a nationally syndicated broadcast and hundreds of competitors.
“We knew how epic a trail race at Kualoa Ranch could be,” says Trey Garman, Vice President of XTERRA. “It’s a magical place. Two of our XTERRA staff have even married at the ranch.”
The World Championship at Kualoa differs from other championships in that there are no qualifying standards or race prerequisites; anyone can show up to run. Unlike many major trail races, it has never sold out—so many of those who compete are locals or runners vacationing in Hawaii, who hear of the race and decide to sign up spur of the moment.
Runners who place at XTERRA Nationals are, of course, encouraged to compete at Worlds—but, as of yet, no financial or travel assistance is available for elite athletes to come compete at Kualoa Ranch.
“Many competitors make a vacation out of it, as it’s a destination race and the location sells itself,” says Roberto Mandje, 31, of Boulder, Colorado, who placed 5th overall this year. “That being said, it’s quite far to travel and not the easiest financial decision for many to make. I’ve had elite mates of mine asking about the race, and wishing they could afford to go.”
Though the cost of travel to Hawaii, no doubt, limits the diversity of the race’s entrants from a socioeconomic standpoint, both the age and geographic diversity of competitors trumps that of the average trail race. In 2013, racers hailed from 36 states—including many runners who were born overseas but currently reside in the United States—and more than a dozen countries.
For runners accustomed to toeing the lines of their hometown road or trail races with fellow locals, the exhilaration of racing against competitors from all over the world is appealing. This benefit is perhaps even more the case at XTERRA than at other international races, since the off-road format offers a number of other, sometimes-surprising perks, especially to those approaching it from road-running backgrounds—a more laidback vibe, beautiful scenery and, in the words of 2013 Overall World Champion Patrick Smyth, “a certain authenticity to relationships across all competitors.”
The 27-year-old from Salt Lake City, a former NCAA track and cross-country runner with a slew of post-collegiate top-three finishes at USATF races, adds, “The trail courses all require a level of grit and grind that is fundamentally different from the very orchestrated and controlled settings of road and track races.”
“The outdoors and extreme venue seem to create a wonderful sense of camaraderie,” says Lucy Smith, 46, of Sidney, Canada, who has been a competitive runner and triathlete for 36 years—and was the 2012 XTERRA Overall Female World Champion. “There is a calmness and relaxed atmosphere, even though people are extremely competitive once the gun goes off.”
Mandje, who competed in the 1500 meters at the 2004 Olympics for Equatorial Guinea, agrees. “Running around the world has always given me a great sense of joy and connectivity, [but] I’ve always said I would stop running when I stopped having fun, which is why I jumped into trail races last year—to recharge my batteries.”
A brief stretch of pavements leads from the Pali Lookout to the 11-mile singletrack Maunawili Trail. Courtesy of Xterra
When any event bills itself as the “World Championship” of its sport, it positions itself for critique. In a sport where various organizations—the American Trail-Running Association, the World Mountain Running Association, the Mountain/Ultra/Trail subcommittee of U.S. Track and Field (USATF) and the International Skyrunning Federation, to name a few—have wrestled for the honor of governing body, the concept of what constitutes a true championship remains fuzzy.
“Even though [the XTERRA World Championship] doesn’t have a qualification standard,” says Polina Babkina, this year’s Female Overall Champion, “it’s very competitive. Some of the best Canadian and Japanese trail runners come to Hawaii to compete.”
Babkina, 26, was born in Russia and came to the United States in college to play tennis, before discovering her knack for running and switching to cross country. Today, she lives in Hawaii—“It’s the perfect place for people who enjoy outdoor activities,” she says—and routinely crushes it at road and trail races alike. She is hoping to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials.
In addition to events like the Montrail Cup, La Sportiva Mountain Cup and USATF Trail Series that bill themselves as championships, another handful of races have emerged as such as well. Races like the Western States 100, the North Face 50 Endurance Challenge and the Ultra Race of Champions (UROC) draw deep fields of trail-running talent and, in some cases, offer significant prize purses that stoke the competition even higher. The male and female champions of last year’s Run Rabbit Run 100 in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, took home $10,000 apiece. By comparison, XTERRA’s top male and female World Champions each pocketed $2,000.
Many of the top athletes would like to see the XTERRA prize purse grow to help the event gain distinction. Max King, the reigning Overall Champion from 2008-2011, says, “XTERRA Triathlon has been built into an important part of the pro-triathlete calendar with some pros really focusing on just XTERRA and off-road triathlons. Hopefully we’ll see the same growth here, that prize money will increase and there will be a qualifying scenario to get to Nationals and Worlds.”
Nevertheless, one advantage that XTERRA has over other self-proclaimed or de facto trail-running championships is the fact that it offers world-class competition at a non-ultra-distance race. In this way, given that only a small percentage of runners ever run ultras, XTERRA caters well to the trail-running community at large. Furthermore, organizers pride themselves on being as passionate about welcoming newbies as they are about attracting champions from the established elite.
“I get many calls from athletes asking if they will be out of their league at the event,” says Emily McIllvaine, XTERRA’s Trail Run Series
Manager. “I always tell them that we have runners of all abilities and that they will be in good company.”
Garman adds, “We have celebrated young and old from all walks of life since our inception.” And, according to many of the loyal fans of their Trail Run Series, that kind of talk isn’t just corporate lip service.
“How cool is it to get to packet pickup at Nationals or Worlds and have the XTERRA staff greet you by name!” says Nozomi Wade, who attributes much of her love for trail running to the friendly folks she met at her first XTERRA race in 2009. “Trey and Dave [XTERRA staff] are out on the course making sure we are doing well. They spot us and call out! Even when you think the climb is sheer torture, you hear your name and you feel the energy.”
In addition to the open 21K World Championship event at Kualoa Ranch, participants can opt for a 10K, 5K or 1.5-mile Adventure Walk. A special Kids Sprint is held for the wee ones. Many of the race’s “repeat contenders” are those who appreciate its family-friendly atmosphere—and are more than happy to make their annual pilgrimage to Oahu a family vacation.
“My daughter Maia  was out there racing the 5K,” says Lucy Smith, who has visited Hawaii at least once every year for the past 15 years. “She finished third-overall female and won her age category. When I saw her, she looked radiant and happy, and told me how proud of herself she was for being so tough. That made my day!”
Faces of the 2013 Xterra World Championship
Patrick Smyth, 27, of Salt Lake City, Utah
- Environmental-Science Graduate Student
- Ran 1:16:38; Placed 1st Overall
- Smyth originally began running in high school to get in shape for basketball season, and discovered his talent. He attended Notre Dame on a track/cross-country scholarship, earned seven All-American certificates and, in 2010, topped the podium at the World Cross-Country Championships in Poland. The 2013 XTERRA National Championship was his first trail race.
- Favorite Oahu Pastime: Visiting the North Shore, watching surfers and eating macadamia nuts.
Roberto Mandje, 31, of Boulder, Colorado
- Professional Athlete, Fitness Model
- Ran 1:26:53; Placed 5th Overall
- Born in Barcelona, Mandje has lived in more places than most people will visit in their lifetimes—Egypt, Mali, Honduras, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, South Africa, Swaziland, Hawaii and more. Primarily a road and track athlete, he jumped into the 2012 World Championship after a disappointing race season. “I walked—OK, limped—away with some great memories,” he says. “A new fire was lit.”
- Favorite Oahu Pastime: Playing on the beach and running the Pupukea Trail.
Lucy Smith, 46, of Sidney, Canada
- Professional Athlete, Coach, Speaker and Mother
- Ran 1:37:55; Placed 2nd Overall Female
- Smith grew up hiking and running outdoors in rural Canada, and has been a competitive athlete since she was 10—in every discipline from cross-country to track to triathlon. She has podium finishes all three XTERRA Trail Run World Championship she has run, with an outright win in 2012. As a coach and speaker, she loves connecting with runners from all over the world.
- Favorite Oahu Pastime: Watching albatross with her children at Ka’ena Point on the North Shore.
Nozomi Wade, 56, of Lawrenceville, Georgia
- Elementary-School Teacher
- Ran 2:56:01; Placed 6th in Female 55-59
- Wade began running at age 51 and quickly fell in love with the trails. She now wakes up at 4 a.m. every morning to train before heading to the elementary school where she teaches. “I often talk to my young students about the beauty of running and the preservation of nature,” she says. “They are eager listeners and go home and talk to their parents about it.”
- Favorite Oahu Pasttime: Visiting beaches and getting together with old friends.
Matt Battley, 19, of Auckland, New Zealand
- Mechanical-Engineering Student
- Ran 1:29:57; Placed 8th Overall
- Coming from a competitive family, Battley began running at a young age and has been racing at XTERRA events in New Zealand since 2011. This was the first year he and his father, Mark Battley—who placed 7th in his age group—traveled to Hawaii. “We Kiwis felt we had a bit of an advantage from our home technical races as we blitzed past people down that steep singletrack hill,” he says. He placed 1st in his age group, Male 15-19.
- Favorite Oahu Pastime: Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay.
Exploring Trails on Oahu:
Two days before the race, I met up with Justin and Kim Lottig, avid runners who moved to Oahu from Pittsburgh eight years ago. Justin had offered to take me out for a little shake-out jog on part of the HURT (Hawaii Ultra Running Team) 100 course. Put on by the local trail-running club, HURT takes place on Oahu every January, and consists of five 20-mile loops of technical, root-laden trails.
From the Lottigs’ house in Honolulu, a short drive to the trailhead took us through a tunnel of lush, overhanging vines. The hot afternoon sun spattered through and dappled the ground below.
When we reached the trailhead and ran into the woods, it swallowed us immediately into its dark folds. The canopy of bamboo trees and vines was so dense that even in the middle of the day, it felt like dusk. Some sections of the trail were smooth, offering easy footing and a chance to look up and enjoy the scenery. Others were such a tangle of thick, gnarled roots that running became impossible. We tip-toed gingerly through these sections, and I understood why so many runners have snapped their ankles on the HURT course.
“How’s the heat and humidity for you?” Justin asked me, as we began climbing the spine of a ridge.
“It’s warm,” I panted, feeling sweat trickle down my back. “It was 26 degrees and dumping snow in Colorado the morning I left.”
“26 degrees?!” Justin exclaimed. “I don’t even have a point of reference for what that feels like. I think they keep the cold room at CostCo here at 35 degrees.”
I laughed, and then we fell temporarily into silence, our breathing too labored by the climb to speak. Along the way, Justin stopped several times to point out interesting things—a glimpse through the trees of Pearl Harbor, or a cache of strawberry guava dangling over the trail. “Invasive species,” he said, plucking a few of the bright red, golf-ball-sized fruits off the branch. Handing me one, he showed how to suck the tangy, sweet meat out of the fruit and spit aside the seeds.
As we popped out on a ridge, a partial rainbow greeted us—arcing from the purple orchids at our feet and disappearing into a gray blanket of clouds that had moved in over the valley. Rolling, green hills and mossy peaks surrounded us, the ocean glimmering behind them. A quick burst of rain sprayed over us like a sprinkler—and then, within moments, it was gone, the beaming sun hot once more, the air thick and languid.
On our way back down, Justin pointed out a stone bench, designated “In Loving Memory, Jay Kent Bien.” Bien, I learned, had been an avid ultrarunner, father to Pacific Northwest ultrarunning phenom Rod Bien, and a longtime Hawaii resident who’d died unexpectedly during a run in 2003. Engraved at the bottom of the bench were two words:
Best time to go: Year-round.
Accomodations: For the full-blown tourist experience, stay at the plush, family-owned Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach, where surfing lessons, great food and race-day shuttle departures are all within walking distance. Or, if you’re traveling on a budget, try the nearby Waikiki Beachside Hostel.
Getting Around: A rental car is recommended for exploring trails on Oahu, though a public bus (www.thebus.org) is also available. Waikiki itself is very walkable, and XTERRA shuttles are available on race day to take runners from Waikiki to Kualoa Ranch.
Be a Tourist: Enjoy a surf lesson at Waikiki Beach, where the waves are gentle and forgiving for beginners. Take a tour of Pearl Harbor. Check out the views at the 200,000-year-old volcanic Diamond Head or the Makapu’u Lighthouse—both hikes (mostly paved) of under a mile from their respective parking lots.
Good Eats: Refuel after a run or surf session with Hawaiian specialties like laulau (pork or fish wrapped in taro leaves), poke (cubed, seasoned sashimi), an acai bowl or a traditional “plate lunch” (typically a combo of rice, noodles and meat). At night, indulge at the epic salad-bar buffet at Duke’s Waikiki, polished off with a slice of legendary Hula Pie. Or, for something unique, try the “lasagna” at Greens & Vines 100% raw, vegan café.
Travel Savvy: Car break-ins are rampant, particularly at trailheads. Don’t keep valuables in your car, and leave your car unlocked so thieves won’t be tempted to smash its windows.
- Tantalus Trail (10 miles): Steep run through eucalyptus rainforest to the 2,014-foot summit of Mount Tantalus, where spectacular views of Honolulu await.
- Aiea Loop Trail (4.5 miles): This mountainous, often muddy loop overlooks the Halawa Valley and central Oahu.
- Maunawili Trail (up to 22 miles): From the Pali Lookout, this runnable backcountry trail is 11 miles one way, with views of the lush Ko’olau Mountains and Waimanalo Valley.
Visit hurthawaii.blogs.com for more detailed trailhead info.
This article originally appeared in our March 2014 issue.