I had the opportunity last week to set the female unsupported fastest known time (FKT) on the magical Kalalau Trail in Kauai.
The trail is a mind blowing, technical out and back shoreline bonanza that covers a little over 20 miles with around 9,500 feet of climbing. It begins at the island’s most northern point at Ke’e beach and continues onto the turnaround point at the waterfall in Kalalau Valley.
If you were to zoom in on the little rock in the middle of the ocean called Kauai, take your finger and outline the western coast. That’s it. You will also hear that area referred to as the Nā Pali Coast. With that type of elevation gain, you can count on miles and miles of rolling hills with sheer drop-offs into the ocean if you misstep. It’s a combination of trying to keep your feet on the jungle floor while looking around at the amazing Windex-blue colored ocean crashing below you. The weather can wreak havoc without much notice when hard winds blow in sheets of rain or it can be hotter than a Finnish sauna.
The trail is in pretty good shape despite the never ending lush vegetation, slick mossy rocks or roots in your way. With every step, it feels like a constant decision-making process with trying to calculate correct foot placement for good traction and safety.
I’ve been running different sections of this trail for several years now. I’ve only done the full out and back one time. That one time was a powerful experience that I’ll never forget. I was struggling quite a bit after my mom’s passing from ALS a few years back. I craved the isolation and solace that being out on this primitive trail would provide as a place to recharge and run free while on our family vacay – not a fast run, just an adventure type run.
I remember how brutal the rain was on the way out to the valley during those first ten miles. After taking a little bit of time there at the turnaround, I began my run back to where I started. My heart was felt as heavy as my legs did at that point.
As I began the climb out of the valley up the big red hill, a giant brightly colored rainbow filled the westward sky and followed me the entire way back to the trailhead start. That’s a bunch of hours to have a rainbow that significant aimed in your direction. My mom had a thing for rainbows and I took great comfort in her companionship on that route with me. It lifted my spirits and started my wheels turning when I could return and run this route again.
As fastest known time efforts have become a little more talked about in the last couple years, I knew that I wanted to make the Kalalau Trail a priority for me and hitting this FKT goal in my mom’s memory. As ready as I was to give it a go, timing and circumstances just never lined up. On our visit to Kauai in 2017, I had an Achilles injury that kept me from running the whole trail at the speed I would’ve liked to. I didn’t attempt it. In 2018 until just this summer, the road out to Ke’e Beach was closed after damage from a devastating storm that flooded northern Kauai. The Kalalau trail was closed and not accessible for almost a a year and a half. I wondered if I would ever get back out there.
Fast forward to our trip this year. After obtaining the necessary new permits to be out in the wilderness on my own, I was ready to go. It had been a really great year, I was feeling really good and ready to take it on. I prepared as if this were a race. Trained and fine-tuned where I could and tapered a little to ensure some gas in the tank.
I packed my Halo vest as lightly as I could: two Vfuel gels, a Trailnugget bar and a full 500ml Body Bottle with water. I also brought my empty Katadyn BeFree flask to filter water from the many waterfalls and streams I’d be crossing. There is an emergency kit that I carry along on all my runs longer than 15 miles which contains an emergency blanket, steri-strips, duck tape, $10, and waterproof matches. I also snuck in my Ultra Jacket v2 in case the weather got the best of me.
My husband dropped me off at the trailhead in the dark with only the sounds of roosters crowing and the ocean crashing onto the beach. I was happy to look up and see the bright stars in the sky before turning on my headlamp. It was clear and I knew that would make for a fast route if the weather held up through the morning. My goal was to make it under seven hours, which would be an hour and a half less than the other time I ran it.
I set time goals along the way according to the miles and elevation. Those milestones were important so I knew how my progress was going. The humidity was so thick I could cut it with the stick I was running with in my hand to bust through the giant spiderwebs. Before the sunrise, you have to maneuver through hundreds of giant toads that act like orange construction cones in the path.
Fact: I squished several, and I’m really sorry.
Because of the inherent risk of microburst flooding in three main stream crossings, having what I would need in case I got stuck out there overnight was really important. With no way to communicate back to my family that I would need help, I knew I would be on my own if I needed it. Better safe than sorry.
The day was phenomenal. I’ve run multiple hours out here and always have encountered some sort of rain or drizzle. This day though, there was not one drop of rain. The river crossings were low, the waterfalls were a sweet relief to dip my head in and wet down my hat to keep my core temperature down. I was shocked to get to the turnaround point in the beautiful Kalalau Valley in about 2 1/2 hours. I did all I could to not lolligag and spend time taking pictures, but it was so breathtakingly beautiful. I snapped a few here and there, filled up my bottle at the waterfall and headed back.
At this point I knew I would get under my goal time. But, as the sun and the heat picked up, I knew that I needed to stay focused and keep moving as my return trip would be a lot slower than the first half. I was running freely and happy. I found out when I can let go of the stress and expectations that I make up for myself, I can run in this flow state which isn’t necessarily super fast, it’s just a real consistent push. I was excited to be feeling so well and remembered the sweet experience with the beautiful rainbow following me back the last time I was out here; this motivated me to keep plugging along as my body starting to get more tired and hot.
I knew the end (or the beginning) of the trail was near when tourist traffic started getting heavier. There were so many families out enjoying the day and this beautiful part of the earth. What a cool thing for them to have made the effort getting out there enjoying this amazing place. Big apologies to each of them I might’ve splashed with mud or made nervous by running a little faster get to the end.
I finished the run in exactly 5 hours 30 minutes. This was well below my goal time and accomplishing the female unsupported fastest known time on the Kalalau Trail. This has been a dream of mine for so long, and accomplishing it reminds me that hard work really does pay off. I’m grateful for a wonderful husband and kiddos that sacrificed a little surf time to support my running shenanigans. Mahalo!