story by Monique Cole
photos by Phil Mislinski
The legendary akabill hits the
"church of the holy trail."
If you’re one of those people who think that everyone in Hawaii takes it easy all the time, you’ve obviously never met the members of the Hawaiian Ultra Running Team. With the quite-intentional acronym of HURT, this group is the local contingent of a global community whose hobby is running distances that make a standard marathon look like a stroll in the park. We’re talking about 100 miles of steep, muddy hiking trails above Honolulu, for instance, or a thirty-six-miler that starts at sea level and ends at the 10,023-foot summit of Haleakala.
"Ultra-runners like to be called crazy," asserts John Salmonson, the self-proclaimed "boss" of HURT. Members of the loose-knit running group don’t pay dues or fill out membership forms, but they do proudly wear the team’s insignia: highly coveted T-shirts emblazoned with the HURT logo, which are sparingly dispensed by the boss. "Once someone gets a shirt, they’re a member," says Salmonson. "But they have to have run an ultra, and we have to like them. If they’re cocky or something, then they don’t get a shirt."
HURT was formed about two decades ago, but the roots of ultra-running in Hawaii go much deeper. In ancient times, all land transportation was over rugged footpaths, and an elite status was enjoyed by rigorously trained kukini, swift runners who delivered messages, spied on enemies or fetched items from great distances for their chiefs. Their fleet-footed feats became the stuff of legends, such as the stories of one such runner on Oahu named Ulua-nui, who could bring a fish from Kailua to Waikiki by way of Waialua—a distance of about seventy-five miles—and deliver it still wriggling.
Today, Ulua-nui’s modern heirs create new legends in Island ultra-marathons, like the HURT Trail 100, a hundred-mile race held each January on trails through the rainforest near Honolulu. To get an official finish time, HURT 100 runners must complete the distance in less than thirty-six hours, and so far the course record is just over twenty-five. Along the way, the runners nourish themselves with high-fat, high-sodium snacks like ka¯lua pig sandwiches and Spam musubi. And, no, they generally don’t stop to sleep.
Catra Corbett demonstrates
in the HURT 100.
Often, they’re not exactly "running," either. Toward the end of the race, what the entrants are generally doing can be more accurately described as shuffling, stumbling, or lurching. The key to finishing is what is known in ultra-running parlance as "RFM," for "relentless forward motion."
Ultra-runners will concede that the hours—or even days—on the trails take their toll. "I ran 85,000 miles, and that’s all my knee could handle," says Salmonson, who gave up running five years ago after knee surgery. Doctors had advised him long before to switch to swimming or other low-impact sports, but he was too hooked. "I ignored them for ten years, and now I can barely walk," he says. "But I would do it all over again."
Salmonson stays connected to the sport by helping to organize races and by supporting his wife, PJ, who continues to run ultra-marathons. "It really gets under your skin," she says. "You do things that are in bad judgment, but you love it so much you can’t stop yourself."
It’s not uncommon at a 100-miler to see runners continue on when their bodies are giving them clear signs to stop, like blisters, blackened toenails, swollen feet, hallucinations and a complete inability to keep food down. All of this, of course, begs the question, "Why?"
It certainly isn’t for money, since race purses are generally nonexistent. Nor is it for fame; ultra-marathons rarely make it to prime time. Still, says PJ, "There’s nothing like going out for a whole day on the trails and running and running. The difficulty of the sport creates a sense of camaraderie among the people doing it."
For one of HURT’s more colorful members, a fifty-nine-year-old known simply by the name of akabill (no last name and the first letter is always lower case), the allure is spiritual. "Ultra-running is not to be explained," he says. "For most non-athletes, what we do cannot be understood, cannot be comprehended in the traditional sense. I don’t expect people to ‘get it’ unless they go out there and ‘do it.’"
Like an ultra-running evangelist, akabill has brought many nonbelievers into the fold. His best Sunday shoes are a pair of worn, muddy trail sneakers in which he leads weekly group adventures through Oahu’s forests. "His love and enthusiasm out on the trails was infectious for me," says one convert, a former road runner named Jeff Huff, who was introduced to akabill by a mutual friend. "It’s kept me going."
For akabill, ultra-running is not just about the races and the training. Sometimes his Sunday runs become weekend-long adventures on neighbor islands. One of his favorites, dubbed the Haleakala¯ Lunar Classic, is a forty-mile run through the alien landscape of the volcano on Maui, under a full moon. Taking a friend or two, some trail snacks and lots of liquids, akabill starts at dusk and finishes at dawn. The same route takes most backpackers three to five days to complete with overnight stays in cabins along the way.
Runners in the 2002 Tantalus Triple Trek.
Call it impressive, amazing, even incomprehensible; just don’t call it crazy in akabill’s presence. "Sometimes when people talk about ultra-running being insane," he says, "I tell them that successful ultra-runners are generally successful people in the rest of their lives, too. Then I run off a string of names and professions of ultra-runners I know." That string might include a dreadlock-sporting archaeologist from Colorado, a nuclear physicist from New Mexico, or the director of oncology at Tulane University’s cancer center.
Even wacky akabill has a Clark Kent alter-ego. During work hours, he’s Brian Molmen, general manager of a Waikiki condominium. On Mondays, he takes time off to "play with clay" at the Hawaii Potters Guild. Each Wednesday, he eats out at a variety of restaurants with an eclectic dining group, which includes an Army colonel, an art curator and a retired astronomer. Weekly, he volunteers to help coach a high school cross-country team. And on top of all that, he manages to squeeze in training runs that total forty-five to seventy-four miles per week, so he can continue finishing 100-mile races even as he pushes sixty.
"If people ask me how, at my age, I can do what I do, I tell them that I get my strength and energy from my ultra-running," akabill says. "I can do what I do in the rest of my life because, and only because, I’m out there training three times a week and spend Sundays getting refreshed in the Church of the Holy Trail."