Hurt So Good
It was some time in the middle of the night, somewhere in the middle of the mountains between Manoa and Nuuanu that Sue Lohr stopped running, just for a second.
Lohr had been running for nearly 24 hours at that point — since 6 a.m. Saturday, and now it was early morning Sunday — and had been having a bit of a tough go. Earlier that afternoon, she already had been feeling terrible — her stomach had been acting up and she needed a painkiller just to push through.
So by this time, Lohr needed a boost of energy. She bent forward to pull a ginger pill out of her backpack. Suddenly, she jolted back awake.
Without realizing it, she’d fallen asleep standing up.
But even then, she pushed ahead. After she snapped to, she took off running again.
Lohr, an environmental engineer in her 50s, was among the 125 runners at this year’s HURT 100 that took place Jan. 14-15, a 100-mile race through the mountains. Created 17 years ago by the Hawaiian Ultra Running Team, and organized by HURT’s founders, husband and wife John and PJ Salmonson, the HURT 100 is said to be one of the most challenging races of its kind — known as ultramarathons, which include anything longer than a marathon (26.2 miles) and typically involve trail running. HURT 100’s average finishing rate sits at only around 40 percent.
Yet, despite the difficulty, HURT 100 — and indeed the growing trend of ultrarunning in general — has become widely popular, attracting hundreds of applicants from all over the world each year. While running anywhere close to 100 miles might sound insane to most people, these extreme endurance athletes relish it.
“I think the difficulty alone is one of the big incentives for people to run,” John says. “They want it to be hard. I know that sounds crazy, but that is kind of the mindset.”The HURT 100 trail begins at Hawaii Nature Center in Makiki (the entry point of the popular Makiki Valley Loop Trail) at 6 a.m. on Saturday. From there, it stretches up through Tantalus to Pauoa Flats, then down to Paradise Park, back up to Pauoa Flats, all the way to the Jackass Ginger trailhead in Nuuanu, before heading back to the Nature Center. It’s a 20-mile loop with about 20,000 feet of elevation that runners must complete five times before 6 p.m. Sunday.
“This trail beats you up,” says 43-year-old runner Alex Garcia, who owns local event lighting and design company Mood Event. “You are just climbing up and then going down all day long.”
All night long, too. “In the middle of the night, you will see people who will say, wake me up in 10 minutes, but for the most part, most people don’t (sleep),” explains Steve Villiger, who has run the race in the past and volunteered this year as part of the HURT Patrol, which traverses the course to check up on runners.
Resting at all, in fact, is pretty rare. While there are three aid stations throughout the loop — each with an impressive array of food including pizza, fruit and vegetables, peanut butter sandwiches, bacon, burritos, chips and more — runners typically only spend a few minutes there, tops.
Jeff Frank, a 33-year-old who works at Energy Excelerator, for instance, says that he spent “as short as possible” at each station — just enough time to load up on boiled potatoes and replenish his powder energy mix.
“A lot of people can lose time by sitting down — your body starts thinking that this is an opportunity to sleep,” Frank says with a laugh. “It is really about getting in and out.”
The course itself is laden with a number of inherent difficulties. There are streams to be crossed and wild boars to be reckoned with. Plus, there are loose rocks and jutting roots — making for obstacles in the best of circumstances, and turning into hazards in the rain and at night.
For athletes coming from elsewhere, Hawaii’s heat and humidity also can be jarring. Sam Drove, a 34-year-old from Canada, was toward the front of the pack — and the first woman — as she rounded into her third loop mid-afternoon on Saturday. But she ended up dropping out around mile 50, she says, due to the heat.
Hallucinations, likely due to sleep deprivation, have been reported by extreme distance runners. Temporary blurred vision can occur during a race, and gastrointestinal issues, as well as fractures, cuts, bruises, and twisted ankles are all common.
But all of that is hardly enough to dissuade runners.
“That is just part of ultrarunning — you gotta keep going, you can’t stop,” Villiger says.
This year, there was a woman who slipped on a rock during her first loop — landing right on her ribs.
“She cracked her ribs,” PJ says. “But she continued on to finish the race anyway — not comfortably, but she was determined to finish.”By the time Garcia pauses about 200 yards from the finish line to wait for his girlfriend Rachel Parker who’s not far behind, he says his legs are “trashed.”
It’s approaching the 6 p.m. cutoff time, so Garcia has been running for just shy of 36 hours.
“I don’t know which blisters I got, but the balls of my feet feel like hamburger,” Garcia says.
This marks Garcia’s sixth HURT 100, and third finish (Parker showed up a few minutes later, and they ran the final stretch together) and despite his current exhausted state, he says he loves it.
For many ultrarunners, it seems to be the extreme challenge itself that attracts them to the sport.
HURT’s slogan is “we wouldn’t want it to be easy,” and a lot of the runners got into ultras after doing marathons and looking for something even harder.
“There is something about putting yourself to the ultimate test and really, really challenging yourself,” says 36-year-old Michelle Barbieri, a veterinarian with the National Marine Fisheries Service.
“It is a pretty unique endeavor as far as pushing yourself to your absolute limit — and that is my favorite thing about it,” says 29-year-old Adam Arguello, an engineer from Wyoming who came here with girlfriend Maggie Edmiston to run the race.For all of the physical challenges, though, runners agree that the biggest difficulties are more psychological.
Part of that has to do with the very structure of the race: the loop. John admits that they purposely made the course into a loop as a sort of psychological torture.
“The repetition and coming back to home base is what makes it really difficult,” John says. “When you finish three loops, let’s say it’s 3 in the morning, you’re sleep deprived, your family is there, your hotel is waiting for you, and you have a choice between dropping out or going up this killer monster hill.”
The psychological elements make the already difficult nighttime even more of a struggle.
“If you have anything bad going on in your life, and you’re out there in the middle of the night all by yourself, you start thinking things, and these demons can affect your motivation to do it,” says Garcia.
“When the sun goes down, it’s that self-doubt that pops into your head — ‘this really hurts’, ‘why am I doing this?'” says 42-year-old Joseph Pope, a Navy officer from California. “A lot of times, those thoughts creep into your head because you are not eating enough or drinking enough, so when you get to the next aid station, sit down, reboot, grab some food. And just tell yourself that you are doing this because you chose to do it and you like it for some reason.”And for some reason, a growing amount of people do like it.
In recent years, ultrarunning has seen a surge in popularity. When John and PJ first started doing ultramarathons in the 1970s, there were only a handful of them in the country (the first was the JFK 50 Mile, started in 1963). Now, it’s into the thousands, and UltraRunning Magazine reports that the number of ultramarathons has doubled in recent years.
These races now attract thousands of entrants, and it seems like the harder, the better. Every year, runners sign up for races like Badwater, which bills itself as “the world’s toughest footrace” and spans 135 miles across Death Valley in the middle of summer. And the Barkley Marathons, dubbed “the Race That Eats Its Young,” seems to be more of an odyssey than anything else, winding through a series of steep, hard-to-navigate mountains in Tennessee. It’s only had 15 finishers since 1986.
But for as difficult as these races can be, runners say that anybody can do it — anybody who can be determined enough. And therein, perhaps, lies the appeal.
“It is something that is impossible to do, but you can do it if you just persevere,” John says. “You just have to keep going and not quit — and I think that is the mystique of it for most runners.”
“One of the things that seems to be a consistent theme in ultrarunning is that the people who tend to be able to get through the races have positive mental attitudes,” says Frank. “For me, it has been a way to train my mind to stay positive and find optimism in dark places — and that resonates in the rest of your life.”
It’s that mental fortitude that Frank says helped propel him to eighth place this year.
“I think the major thing is just the challenge of setting big goals that you don’t know if you can achieve, and working toward them,” John says, “and realizing that you could do more than you thought you could.”By mid-afternoon on Sunday, a crowd starts to gather.
A number of competitors already have finished — this year’s winner, 40-year-old Michael Arnstein from Kailua, came in at about 2 a.m., and throughout the day, others steadily trickled in — and more than that have dropped out. But the lawn fronting the finish line in Makiki fills up with people to greet the remaining runners.
The bystanders’ enthusiasm seems not to diminish at all; every time a runner comes in, there’s the crowd clapping and cheering and screaming like it’s the first time.
Amid the people in the crowd is Gary Robbins, the current HURT 100 record holder (at 19 hours and 35 minutes) who is a sponsored ultrarunner from Canada. He’s not even competing this year, but he still made the trip just to volunteer.
“I compete at different ultras around the world, and this one is just super special,” says Robbins, who’s been coming to HURT for the last eight years to either run or volunteer. “I love the community — there is so much commonality amongst people, a friendships-forged-through-suffering kind of thing.”
As 6 p.m. edges closer, in comes Lohr.
She had been moving pretty slow, she says, through portions of the course, so she had to race through the last leg to make it in on time. But from looking at her run into the finish line, you would never have known the difficulties she had had earlier in the course.
When asked what was hurting the most, she demurred: “I actually feel good. I feel really good.”
What got Lohr through the rough night was a card that her mother had sent her right before the race.
“She said, ‘Enjoy your beautiful adventure,'” Lohr says. “And I thought, you know, instead of looking for the finish line all the time, enjoy it in the moment. And that is what I tried to do.”
For more information on HURT, visit hurthawaii.com.
EXTRA TIDBITS: THE ORIGINS OF HURT
In the 1970s, a then-20-something PJ saw people running the Honolulu Marathon and decided that she wanted to give it a try, too. So PJ began going to a gym after work to train, and there she met John and a group of other runners who also were training for the marathon. They all began working out and running as a group.
“After a couple of years, we started running on the trails, and just loved it — we couldn’t get enough of it,” PJ recalls.
Once they had a couple of marathons under their belts, the group of friends turned their sights to bigger challenges. John — whom PJ calls the “Pied Piper” of the group — entered the Race to the Sun on Maui, a 36-mile run up Haleakala, and the rest followed the next year.
Soon, the group was traveling the country doing more 36-mile runs, then 50-milers, eventually building their way up to 100-milers. Hawaiian Ultra Running Team was born. Back home, they began hosting their own trail runs. These days, in addition to the HURT 100, HURT puts on a series of shorter races throughout the year.
For all of HURT’s success, the Salmonsons have chosen to have the group remain a nonprofit. To date, they say, they have never made a dime from the race. A lot of ultraruns make their money from sponsorships; HURT is sustained simply by modest race fees and relying on a dedicated group of volunteers.
A large part of the decision to remain nonprofit was founded on their desire to keep their HURT community intact. The type of camaraderie that HURT was founded on — “We totally bonded with each other because we spent so much time running together,” PJ recalls — has stayed in the group.
“We can’t run anymore, but we can be there and be uncle and auntie to all these new runners,” John says.
That is, in fact, what many runners — as well as John and PJ — say keeps them coming back to the HURT 100.
“It is a selfish thing,” John says. “This is like a big family for us.”