Friday, November 14, 2014

Kauai Marathon - Hot, Humid, Hills

After deciding to abort on the San Luis Obispo Marathon, it was time to plan its replacement run as I needed to get in another marathon this summer to leave sufficient time to recover and train anew for what would be my 50th marathon - Athens, Greece. There were many great races to choose from and I love making a race event into a vacation, so I concentrated my search on races in August or early September. This would coincide with the time of year Reesa and I normally go on vacation and still leave ample time to prepare for Athens Marathon in November. As I searched the marathon calendar web sites up popped my favorite island destination - Kauai. Its marathon fell at the end of August, right in the sweet spot of my target date range and what could be better than a beach vacation.

I had already completed two Hawaii marathons, the Honolulu Marathon was my second 26.2 and my all time favorite remains to this day, the Maui Marathon. Both are fantastic beachfront races that wind through great little villages, pass fantastic vistas and stay pretty much at sea level throughout the race. Once more like this? Sounds great.

However, Kauai isn’t like the other Hawaiian Islands. It’s beaches are rockier, its cliffs higher and the whole island is basically a sunken mountain. So you have fewer flat areas, much lush greenery and lots and lots of hills. The race would turn out to be much closer to my experience in The Great Barrier Reef Marathon, than other Hawaiian events. 

Thanks to a long endurance break since my last marathon in February and a lot of physical therapy and the hyrulonic acid treatments, my training for this race had mostly gone well. My knee I fear will never be the same. It creaks more now and crunches often when I flex it. And it nearly always hurts at the start of a run. But it quickly seems to get in a groove and leave me alone as I run, which gives me the confidence that I am doing all the right things to avoid injuring it. I had hoped this would all prove true in Kauai.

The week prior to the race, while vacationing on the island was glorious. Warm, dry and clear as a bell. All good things for a vacation; all not so great for a race. I jokingly asked my father-in-law to do a rain dance the night before the race, as Hawaii, like other tropical destinations specializes in humidity and heat, which become serious detriments to a runner by mile 20 or so. His dance must have worked because as I walked to the start line, down came the rain, scattering runners under palm leaves. 

The race starts very early in the morning on the main road in Poipu with local Hawaiian warriors bearing torches and giving a prayer in local language for a great day. Then, after the traditional singing of the national anthem we were off. No beach run here, the Kauai Marathon immediately turns inland and up the road toward Lihue, the largest town on the island. We started climbing, gradually, but almost immediately. After about a mile or so we came to a fantastic stretch of road called the tunnel of trees which is a section of road lined with local trees that form a natural canopy over the road. It’s quite the site to see and as it was still raining lightly, was a nice break from the wetness. From here the race moved along the highway only a short distance before heading into some nice inland neighborhoods. By this point I was running along side a woman who had flown in from Michigan for the race hoping to spend the week following the event with her boyfriend who was stationed on the island as part of his military service. She found out three days prior to the race that he wouldn’t be here, as his unit had been deployed to the Middle East. She would make the most of the trip enjoying the island, she said, but you could see the disappointment behind her eyes. As we were talking, a local Kauai resident ran up alongside us and joined the conversation. He was a transplant from Michigan now living on the island and working in agriculture. He had run this race before and gave us a valuable tip: Take it easy on the first half, as the second has more hills and is tougher. 

I knew the race was going to be hilly but wasn’t really sure how hilly it would be when I signed up. I was sensitive to the hills at the time I selected this event because I knew they might be tougher on my ailing knee. I guess I must have misread the elevation profile or simply carried too much confidence when reading it, because his warnings seems misaligned with my expectations. “At the half way point we’ll start to climb again, and it will keep climbing for the next 8 miles,” he said. Ooh, kay. 

The two Michigan youths were younger and stronger than me today, so I let them go on as I joined other runners passing along. One very cheery runner and her boyfriend came along doing the strides of a half marathoner (feeling good that only a few miles remained). She said hello and we got to chatting, all the while both thinking we had met before. Turned out she owned a small bakery that exhibited at a local farmer’s market three days prior. Reesa had bought cookies from her which were some of the best ginger cookies I had ever eaten. Once I put two-and-two together, I told her of my recognition and love of her baking. She smiled with appreciation and came to the same recognition. Her supportive boyfriend had also been at the farmer’s market and was again being supportive today, as he confessed she had talked him into today’s half marathon. It was clear from his tone that this was the longest he had run and was feeling a bit overwhelmed, but still supportive. Love makes you do strange and wonderful things, i thought. I wished him well through the next mile as we had topped the last hill in the first half and it was all down hill for him from here. For me, however, that long climb lay dead ahead. 

Up to this point, my father-in-law’s rain dance had proven to work but too early in the race. About six miles in the rain clouds cleared it was turning out to be another fabulously gorgeous, clear, sunny day. Normally I’d smile at this but as we full marathoners took the next turn I found myself looking up at a long climb and a full sun overhead. 

Prior to my knee injury I lived for hills. I could climb for days and cherished the pain and challenge that came with them. Today, however, the feeling a shifted to a bit of dread masked with confidence in myself and my training. The hill was indeed as long as the local had said. About six miles in, I was running low on steam and sadly had to walk. I rarely walk during a marathon. Even though many people successfully execute a run-walk method and even do so and turn in better times than mine. I find walking drains my energy and makes restarting a run tough. But this time the heat, humidity and incline got the best of me. Each time the hill leveled off, I returned to running, hoping that at the next incline I’d have the energy to return to a full run but each time, I was beaten back by the heat. I think I walked about five of the final 13 miles. After the big, long hill, the course didn’t go right back down, it went into a pattern of climbs, declines and more climbs for about the next four miles. It wouldn’t relent and fall into a steady decline until nearly one mile to go. While this might sound miserable, the views were spectacular. You couldn’t see the beach that often but the ocean was always in view and the gorgeous mountains, covered in spectacular greenery were ever-present. They don’t call Kauai, The Garden Isle, because it sounds good. As the course wound its way through the hills there were many friendly residents who came out to the road to wish us on. I was running low on water when I came upon a cute young boy who had set up a makeshift water station in front of his house. Good timing and a friendly smile were all I needed to partake of his hospitality. 

The race passes through farmland, cattle ranches, horse country and back down toward the beach. All beautiful and worth the pain. 

As the course finally declined consistently I was eager for the finish line. I had thought it would wind back onto the same road where it started; and where my wife and in-laws would be waiting, but then the course turned from that road and proceeded closer to the beach. A bit confused and worried that it might just climb back up again, the always welcome 25-mile marker made its debut. There wasn’t enough distance to return to the higher road where we started so it must be staying down along the shore here. I was right. The race ran through some pleasant condo complexes and past a few resorts before I began to here music in the distance. I was worn out by this point and looking forward to the finish, which came on a flat road with a view of a sandy beach. I crossed the line, winded and sweating. After getting my medal, I was handed a bottle of water which I immediately lifted over my head and doused myself. Next up were cold, wet rags which went right under my hat, followed by cup after cup of cold water released over my body. After what felt like ten minutes of dousing I was finally feeling cool. That humidity was killer. 

Right across the street from the finish line was the Sheraton beach resort which had a very inviting sandy beach. I immediately walked over and attempted to stand in the waves to give my legs an ice bath. But 26 miles had sapped my strength and the strong Kauai waves took me right off my feet. I didn’t care because the water was cold and comforting, so I battled the waves with what strength remained in my body as the cooling sensation flowed over me. Recovery took a bit longer from this one but it’s hard to argue against the need to play in the waves. 

Victory was tough coming but well worth it as today marked 49 marathons completed.  

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