Black lava fields jutted out from tropical landscapes, and farmland turned into volcanic peaks
If you want a running track that comes with jawdropping scenery, head to Hawaii, says Lauren Strasser-Spinosi
When I learned at Christmas that my long-term partner was considering a future without me, I did my best to change the outcome. An idea somewhat out of character, I posed the idea of training together for a half marathon in Hawaii. I had several friends who were doing 5km or longer races and thought the idea of working together toward a common goal in such an exotic location would rekindle our romance.
To say I am not an athlete is a gross understatement. I was never one of those people who got up early to feel the wind in my hair, felt alive by exercising in nature, or glistened after cycling 100 miles. Every mile was a struggle. So, staring down this massive goal was exceptionally daunting to say the least. Friends recommended several training programs for complete exercise beginners but found that I could not even complete the Day 1 plan from my current state. Embarrassingly, I needed a programme just to get me to the starting point of going from the couch to running 5km.
I started slowly, walking a quarter mile down my street and back. The next day I got up and did it again. The third day, I did it again, all the while telling myself I just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
By the second week my knees felt like they were on fire. I decided to try swimming to build up lung capacity and endurance while giving my knees a break. I was able to get into a groove of walking a few days each week and swimming on the alternate days.
While, it turns out, the relationship didn’t make it past the finishing point, I was determined to cross the line in Hawaii. I joined a running group who were taking part in the Kona event and I adopted their training programme. I had a goal to focus on, and a trip of a lifetime to get excited for.
In late June, I flew with the team to Hawaii. I arrived in Kailua-Kona a few days before the race feeling somewhat prepared and completely terrified. Stepping off the plane into the small airport, I was fully unprepared for the immense, unique beauty of the Big Island. It was vast and quiet and peaceful. It was at once stark and lush; black lava fields jutted out from tropical landscapes, and farmland turned into volcanic peaks. I found a hammock strung between swaying palm trees overlooking the deep blue sea – the perfect spot to watch the world go by.
The night before the race, our training group enjoyed a pre-race carb-loading dinner, which was designed to give us plenty of energy for the next day. Then it was straight to bed, ready for the early start.
On race day I woke up at 3am after a short night of sleep and jumped out of bed like it was Christmas morning. I quickly donned my race gear, grabbed the pre-packed essentials, and hit the road. By 4am, I was lined up on Ali’i Drive near the back of the pack when it hit me – I was really doing this, and it was almost time. I may have panicked a little.
The sun was not yet up when the full marathon started. The gate was full of hundreds of trained athletes looking for a first-place finish. When the gun fired, they took off in waves like the ocean caressing the shore. It took several minutes for the furthest back to cross the starting line. There was a break before the half marathoners were again lined up by expected finish time, then we were set free as well. I was near the back of the pack, just hoping to finish.
The Kona Marathon runs along the same course as the running portion of the Iron Man Triathlon – through the town, along the breathtaking coastline, then up into the hills of the countryside and back. The half marathon runs the same course but turns around sooner. I think I was about one mile in when the batteries in my music player died, leaving me with only unbelievable beauty and my thoughts. I told myself to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
However, if the scenic stretches of countryside didn’t spur us on, the cheering of the spectators definitely did. Everyone seemed to have spilled out from their seaside home to help cheer us across the line.
Throughout the race I had conversations with others who were walking or jogging at my pace. We all had different reasons for being there, and none of those reasons was to win a medal. It was life-affirming and made me feel like I was truly where I was supposed to be at that moment. Every mile was another mini-goal accomplished. I didn’t feel defeated when the marathon winner passed me heading for the finish when I had not yet reached the halfway point; I was already exceeding my own personal best. I just wanted to finish.
The bulk of the celebratory crowds had scattered by the time my final running-mate and I saw the finish line. Despite blistered feet, achy muscles, and a nervous system in shock from hours of continuous motion, I crossed the finish line in just over four hours. I ran across the finish line, using the last of my adrenaline. Volunteers were ready to take our photograph in front of the finish line and congratulate us on our hard work. But they only saw the reward – the blood, sweat, and tears that brought me to that moment were mine to cherish.
I’m still not a runner. But I learned that year that I can overcome any obstacle life has to throw at me, even if it’s myself.
Photography: Kona Marathon and Lauren Strasser-Spinosi