The Magic That is XTERRA Trail Running at Kualoa Ranch
“Good luck,” she said in her sweet Aussie accent, as we disembarked the bus in a grassy field on Oahu’s windward side. “My name is Alex.”
Over the past forty minutes on the bus ride from Waikiki to Kualoa Ranch, Alex had shared her story with me. She’d arrived with her mother from Melbourne, Australia, not more than 24 hours before. They’d started exploring Waikiki almost immediately, discovering the pop-up tents and group yoga and running demonstrations on the grassy area at Waikiki Beach Walk that was all part of an expo for the world championship of the sport of trail running. Alex had packed her running shoes, being an avid runner back home, and deciding why not, signed up for the 10K trail run.
For some reason—one that I had begun to question in the days leading up to the race when I started hearing about a certain hill—I, too, had signed up for the 10K course. I had considered switching my bib number for a 5K one, but the race organizer had promised some amazing views in the back of the valley. “You can do it,” he said, and I began to imagine the images I could capture on my handy dustproof, waterproof, shockproof camera.
The XTERRA Trail World Championship takes place every November on Oahu on the grounds of Kualoa Ranch, a 4,000-acre, working cattle ranch--yes, there are cows.
There is no qualifying process to enter the XTERRA, so young, adventurous sorts like Alex and old, adventurous sorts like me are welcome to join in—the 21K championship course or more do-able 10K or 5K courses.
All distances start and finish on a hard-packed dirt road at the mouth of Kaaawa, a pie-shaped valley wedged between two mountain ranges where I suddenly found myself immersed in a crowd of eager runners and with the heart-shocking blast of the starting canon, it was either run or be run over. In the mass of bodies, I immediately lost sight of anyone I knew—Alex or otherwise—and before I could get my long-under-used running legs under me, the course turned inland and began a steady three-quarter-mile climb that stole my breath.
I could hear the steady beat of my heart pounding in my chest when, at the one mile mark, the 5K course peeled off, making its downhill return through a pasture back toward the ocean and the starting line—now the finish. For some reason, even though I had yet to find my stride and I felt my body temperature ratcheting up, I dumped a cup of chilled water over my head and kept going.
The trails of Kualoa Ranch are normally closed to the public, and I admit that—along with the views—was part of the allure of the 10K course.
From here, the 10K course turned undulating, weaving in and out of shade—thankfully—across a giant mud puddle and past the remains of the “lost city of Atlantis” from some Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson movie. I admit: I stopped for a selfie in front of the temple;-) I wasn’t the only one.
For the 21K’ers, the course continued deep into a tropical rain forest, featuring several stream crossings before going vertical again and again and again until racers popped above treeline along a spine separating Hakipuu and Kaaawa valleys and offering distant views of the blue, Pacific Ocean in all directions. This must be where the trail topped out at 751 feet with a stretch labeled as the “Kualoa Death March” on the course map. I also heard about a descent so steep and narrow and muddy in parts that ropes had been installed to aid runners.
Thankfully, my course didn't include more uphills and razor-thin ridge lines. I finally found my stride somewhere about the three-mile mark and discovered I was enjoying running the switchbacks and four-wheel-drive road through a pasture and by those cows to the finish where, breathless and in need of Gatorade and a banana, I ran into the race organizer.
“Was I right?” he asked.
“What?” The synapses in my brain weren’t exactly firing on all cylinders at this point. Sure, I’d finished and was standing upright, but the heat had taken its toll, and I could tell I would be sore the next day.
“Aren’t the views great?”
“Oh, yes. The views. Great,” I said. However, I realized, it wasn’t the scenery that made the 10K for me. Sure, I took a few pictures of the valley, but, honestly, I spent more time looking down at the trail—making sure I didn’t trip and fall. So, I remember the gravelly, four-wheel-drive road; the rocky, single-track; the mud puddles and stream crossing; cows; and grassy switchbacks. I remember the woman wearing an Australia jersey in front of me. The two Japanese women with whom I played tagged on the course. And the local Hawaii couple who joined me as we stopped on the side of the road to let one of the ranch’s tour buses pass. I hadn’t trained for the race—hadn’t run more than the length of the driveway with my dogs—so I had planned to walk the course. But, instead, I was inspired to run—at least, the straight-aways and downhills—and enjoyed it. Maybe the scenery had something to do with the inspiration. Nature does have its hypnotic effect on me. So, even though, I hadn’t stopped to gape and photograph her scenic riches all that much, nature imprinted me with her goodness in another way.
About the time I was thinking about catching the bus back to Waikiki, I found myself in front of the awards stage, where names were being called and awards given for first, second and third places finishers across all races, all age groups. When I happened to look up, I saw her climbing the podium for first place in the 15-19-year-old age group.
“Alex?” I called. It was my new Aussie friend from the bus.
“I can’t believe it,” she said, again and again, once she’d collected her award and prizes, her smile impossible to extinguish, her unabashed joy refreshing. Her mother took her picture, then, took my picture with her. “This is the best holiday ever,” Alex said.
And, to think, her holiday was only just getting started.
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