These first two miles are pretty dreamy and tough. I kept hearing myself silently repeating, “fast feet, fast feet.’ Tripping and getting banged up here was NOT an option. With the technicality of the trail being about a 10 out of 10, concentration and focus was a must as I tried hard not to drag a toe and clip a rock or root. There is no cell service and no way out except going back the way you came.
Having run out here multiple times now, I felt prepared for the unexpected and was ready to lean into whatever might come my way. Here’s what I brought in my UD vest: Garmin in-reach, 500mL Gnarly Fuel 2.o, Kaytadyn water bottle filter, my “UTMB kit” (space blanket, Advil, bandaids, elastic bandage, spare light, matches, water proof jacket). I was traveling pretty lightly, hoping the drier weather we had experienced the first couple days of our trip would proof to make conditions a somewhat dry and quick trip.
What’s interesting about running in Kauai is how weather effects the conditions. There’s the obvious - if it rains it’s slick, but maybe not what you think of as slick. Rain definitely makes it more slick to run, but the rain also washes away this unique phenomenon of slimy mud that seems to evolve when the temperatures are warmer mixed with dry conditions. Almost if the dirt/mud was sweating? Anyway, it was a hot, humid one already. I was loving the rabbit tank that I was wearing which on the website says, “Made from our new ultra- light, superior mechanical wicking, fast-drying rabbitSPEED fabric.” This was a true statement. Although I was sweating buckets, it was un-noticeable as I trotted along ducking through spiderwebs.
It seemed like I was on track for a fast effort when I arrived at the first river crossing 2 miles in just seconds off from where I wanted to be. This is the first of three water crossings on the Kalalau Trail: Hanakapa’i at mile 2, Hanakoa at mile 6 and Kalalau at mile 9.5. Each of these crossings are dangerous and inconsistent, Meaning, you could cross through one just fine, but on the trip back through it hours later, a storm high above in the mountains could send down several inches of rainwater changing the flow and it could be a rager. I’ve dealt with that scenario one time before having to go almost waist-deep through a strong current on bouldery rocks in the riverbed. I would NOT recommend doing that again. Lucky for me, crossing the Hanakapa’i was totally fine and I smiled as I walked through the ankle-to-calf deep water. Conditions were pretty ideal. It was just me, the moon and toads still everywhere as I continued to get comfortable with my pace.
It was still dark with a little sliver of light opening up on the horizon behind me. Because of the dense jungle, absurd footing and need to push, I kept my headlamp on extra bright and was able to run miles 2-6 into the Hanakoa Valley without a lot of interruptions. This four mile section climbs in and out of several smaller valleys as the windy trail hugs the western most shoreline coast of Kauai. The experience begins to get more dramatic as you can see and hear the lapping waves crashing into the coast below. You could also smell the salt in the air and smell the mix of guavas and wild grapes squished into the decaying leaves along the trail. It was magnificent.
I got down into the Hanakoa Valley several minutes ahead of schedule and tip-toed along the path where campers were still snoozing away in their tents. This valley is the first permit-able camping spot where overnight hikers will pause on the 1/2 way mark on the Kalalau Trail. I tried to look somewhat “runner casual” clearly passing through in a hurry. Usually crossing the river here requires a small pause and a strategic look around as where to pass through. Today though, the current here was hardly noticeable as I hopped from rock to rock and continued on my way.
There’s a sweet little uphill section coming out of Hanakoa before it spits you out into this incredible valley where the red mud and lush green spires take your breathe away. I was just thinking to myself how unusually dry these downhill switchbacks were when out of nowhere a black and gray wild goat launched itself from the trail above me. It baaaaaa-ed at me like it was taunting me, and I went full throttle down the trail pushing the pedal down trying to keep up with it. That was hilarious and didn’t last long, thankfully because the mountain angle shifted and I needed to slow up to shuffle carefully across the Crawler’s Ledge section of the route.
If you google “crawler’s ledge”, you’ll find some amazing footage and experiences from travelers passing through this memorable mile 7. It’s a tight trail that is only about 2 feet wide is some places. That might not seem like that big of thing except if you look over to your north or northwest, you’ve got a sharp drop off of a 50 foot gorgeous red cliff into the Windex blue ocean. Deliberate footing and focus was on my mind through here as I tried to soak in the beautiful adrenaline-filled moments. I was still on/or below my target times, but knew the return trip would be harder as the temps increased and the foot traffic did too. On I went.
The next 3 miles are pretty exhilarating as you can see the Kalalau Valley getting closer and closer. You have come out the jungle now and are running on (sometimes) hard-packed dirt/clay/mud mixed with mossy boulders and random overgrowth from all sides. It wasn’t unusual for me to hurdle over a few downed logs and big branches through here. After a few more small stream crossings which included soaking my hat to cool down, I arrived at the beautiful Kalalau Valley sign. Getting to this point was a new record for me, but that’s not the end, just sort of a landmark and overlook. It would be about a mile more from here running fast down the big red hill, along the trail through the campers along the beach valley and then getting to touch the Kalalau waterfall before turning around and making my way back.
I had the best welcome party as my feet hit the sandy Kalalau Beach. A family of goats were out for a morning gallop on the trail. The super tiny kids were yelling for attention as I began creeping up closer behind them. So cute, and I had to slow down a bit or I would have run them over. That would have made for a funny story. The funnier story was actually arriving at the “end of the trail” waterfall and there was a couple (who thought they were alone) showering under the spray. I totally started laughing as I thought, “crap, how am I going to touch the waterfall with these naked folks washing their hair in the falls?!?” Ahhhh, I just kept my eyes down, said a quick “good morning - sorry’, high-fived that glorious wall behind the falls and got out of there. Not the sentimental half-way pit stop I was envisioning, but that was fine. 2:22 to the falls. Time to cruise back to the start!
The eleven-mile return trip went really smoothly. Just as I had imagined, it warmed up to the low 80s as the sun came up. The golden rays lit up the multiple tones of green canopy and jungle floor. It was not an easy time out there, but motivation and desire have a way of providing an added push. There was also something that I kept repeating to myself during the way back when I would get distracted, or off-focus from moving my feet as fast as I needed to go. “Stay in the moment”, I would repeat over and over. I had no reason to stress about times or effort, at this point things were going fine and I just needed to remember that I was okay and to enjoy the moment. This mantra really helped and put a healthy sense of gratitude in my heart. I could not believe that I was able to move so freely and comfortably in this rugged terrain and felt an overwhelming happiness that my own self propulsion was making this happen.
I motored down the last hill to the Kalalau start/finish trailhead area silently pumping my fists overhead. Complete elation filled me up. Tourists probably laughed and pointed wondering what in the world was this girl doing as I clearly was not dressed as a backpacker or day hiker. I was unaware of anything else at that point except the time on my Suunto: 5:08.58. I DID IT, I shaved almost 20 minutes off my previous FKT time here.
All in all, it was just a great day. It was a thrill to have the chance to do this again and feel like I could have kept going for mile and miles. I know I’ll get a similar tropical opportunity as I line up to race the HURT 100 in Oahu in a few short weeks. This experience was invaluable as a confidence boost and cemented my love for the Kalalau in all its humble glory.
A few reminders for anyone attempting this experience as a hike, run or FKT in the future: spend some time reading up on this sacred place. Get to know the lay of the land and what you could potentially encounter. Make sure you purchase and carry the proper permits to have legal access. Most importantly, look around and experience all that the Kalalau has to share with you. A hui hou!