The daily work you put into training at the gym not only applies to the physical and mental challenges you face in a workout, but also the challenges and goals that life presents you with. Meet SISU Member Shawn Boom who uses his fitness to take on incredible physical feats and who recently finished up the 155 Mile Mauna to Mauna Ultra Race in Hawaii this past May. Read his account on the race below.
Originally posted on Shawn’s Running Blog.
Mauna to Mauna Race Report
After finishing the Tahoe 72 mile run in the fall of 2016, a friend suggested that I check out something called “self-supported stage racing”. In the Tahoe race I had went out without a crew and carried (or in some cases stashed along the route) all of the supplies I needed for the ultramarathon (an ultramarathon it considered anything longer than a standard 26.2 miler). While I had never heard of the concept, I came to learn first-hand, first through research and then through full immersion, that these self-supported stage races are an animal of a different kind. I’ve seen my share of ultra-events that last through sunrises and sunsets, sometimes a couple of each, but so far nothing has come close to the experience that I found at the Mauna to Mauna event on the big island of Hawaii.
The race was a 7-day event covering a total of 250 km (155 miles). When I signed up I wasn’t sure what to expect so a lot of internet learning ensued. I watched videos from the Grand to Grand and Marathon De Sables, two big races that have a similar format and somewhat equal distances. I saw a handful of great youtube videos about what to expect and various strategies on equipment, training, packing, nutrition and feet care as some major topics. I learned that competitors carry all of their equipment for a week in a backpack which is generally not much bigger (but way more expensive!) than what the kids take to school. The one I took to the starting line was 20 liters in volume, with a 4 liter front pack and this became my turtle shell to haul all of my gear along the way.
People have asked quite a bit about how the format of these races work. I had no idea when I was learning about them either. While other events may differ, this one had a set mileage we had to cover each day. Every morning we started at 8am and ran until we finished that day’s course. The mileage was:
- Day 1:26.7 miles
- Day 2:19.1 miles
- Day 3:20.2 miles
- Day 4 and 5: 48 miles (this day is combined into two because we ran overnight which meant that for me I started at 8am on Day 4 and finished 25 hours later on the morning of Day 5)
- Day 6:29.1 miles
- Day 7:5 miles
The total elevation gain was 22,000 feet which was about 6,000 feet more than the course originally planned for. It’s hard to comprehend how much this kind of elevation gain is so suffice it to say it’s a LOT, and generally speaking for each foot of gain there was a foot of loss – and going down can actually be considerably tougher than going up in many cases.
The faster you finish each day, the more time you get in camp to recover your body in preparation for the next day’s task. In addition to covering the miles, we had to carry all of our gear with us. This realization opened up a whole additional set of questions when I was first learning. Would I bring a change of clothes for each day? How, with my appetite being so ferocious, could I carry 7 days of food with me? Could my shoulders handle carrying this much weight? What were the sleeping arrangements going to be like? How could I carry that much water? What was the bathroom situation?
Even up until the first day some of these questions lingered. I learned that this was part of the lesson – not everything can be planned. Attitude often matters more than preparation or knowledge of the details and that was absolutely the case in this epic week.
The planning that I did included a lot of trial and error on every piece of equipment. There were mandatory and optional equipment components to “the kit” or the pack and gear you take with you. Even though it consumed many evenings over many months, I researched every piece of my kit meticulously. My computer had an average of 3 tabs of gear open in google at any one time. I would spend hours each evening reading about ultralight rain ponchos, compass and knife combo-kits, what the best weight to lumen ratio is for a running headlamp (we needed two), and of course what backpack would be best suited for the job. With this being such a niche group, I discovered that most of the people’s reviews I read or watched were actually at the race or had done sister races, because it turns out that the community of characters who does this stuff definitely are active participants in the sport and in their own lives.
The mandatory and optional gear can be found at http://m2multra.com/m2m-equipment. I’ll work on sharing the full inventory of my kit separately and trying to contribute to some of the equipment reviews and recommendations so a future first timer like me has more information to peruse.
Each racer had to carry all of her mandatory gear, each day. The ideas of the course was to run across the Big Island of Hawaii, camping by night and running by day. Because of the difficulty and some last minute changes by both landowners hosting our camp as well as property owners who needed to grant rights to have us pass through, the course ended up still traversing the island but did include some bus shuttles throughout the week to get us from one camp to the next before the start. I am sure that the amazing race directors will continue to work with the Big Island contacts they made to develop this course into a fully contiguous race in the future, without the need for shuttles.
I drew on some internet forum feedback, and the experiences I’ve had from various ultras in the past to develop a training plan. It included many, many weekends chalked full of back-to-back days of long runs where on a Saturday I would plan to do a 20 miler, then a 30 miler on Sunday. The training protocol was relentless, or shall I say that it would have been if I actually had followed it. As it turns out, after a marathon in February and a long week of training after (up to 80 miles that week including a 30 miler on top of the marathon) I went on a snowboarding trip for 3 days. During the trip my calf muscles got extremely tight and when I returned home, rather than taking a day or two for recovery I went too hard straight into running again. Because I overdid it, I battled a posterior tibialis problem (think Achilles tendon pain meets shin splints) for March and April, the two prime training months. I struggled to walk during this time, as every step in daily life, from walking through the airport to commuting from one conference room to the next at work, was excruciating.
While running wasn’t a big option for training during much of the lead up to the race, I cross trained with Crossfit SISU in Excelsior, MN to work on strength training, mainly with my upper body to rest my foot. As I was staring down the start day in Mid-May, I met Dr. Jordan Roby who is an amazing sports medicine doc referred by Pat and Thomas at SISU. He made me hold all training for 2 weeks in April and worked on cross-friction massage, Graston treatment, and used the suction cups we all saw during the summer Olympics which left interesting bruise patterns all over my legs. I didn’t think I’d be able to race but Dr. Roby got me healthy with 3 weeks to spare before the start.
With my training plan completely blown, I focused on getting to the starting line healthy even if I wasn’t well conditioned. My longest run in the 3 months prior to the event was 10 miles. Fortunately, when I work from home I was able to use a 20 lb weight vest at my standing desk to get my shoulders and feet conditioned for the load I was going to carry. I also had mounted my computer on my home treadmill so was able to spend long days both working and walking slowly at 2-3 miles per hour. It’s amazing how a 10 hour day at that speed can add up to considerable mileage, which doesn’t do much to condition the aerobic system but gets the feet and mind used to moving for long periods of time without the impact of running. Over the course of a couple months the vest became part another part of my wardrobe and I could wear it for 8-12 hours without really noticing, although the neighbors certainly thought I was weird doing yardwork with it (and they were right). Without the running miles under my belt, this was the only thing that made me feel like I was ‘training’. It was a false sense of security but also one of the first lessons of this race in that you have to assess your situation, use your limited resources and what you can with what is around, and manage through the situation you are in at that moment. My lack of readiness was certainly a tough situation.
Hawaii’s Island time is 5 hours behind my central time zone. I flew out on Thursday, May 12th to get in town, organize my kit, and adjust to the time zone before our Saturday departure to the starting line. After a 3 hour flight to LAX and a 5 hour flight to Kona, I landed on the Big Island and met two of my fellow racers at the airport. We shared a cab to the hotel 35 miles away. When I arrived, I couldn’t sleep and I awoke on Friday to spend 5 hours organizing my kit, moving the freeze-dried meals that made up most of my food from the pre-packaged plastic into Ziploc bags. One of the first things I bought when getting my gear organized was a kitchen scale. I can now tell you that a sandwich sized Ziploc bag weights 4 grams. If you imagine the part of the Ziploc that clicks together, then think about the extra plastic above the part that clicks…you can reduce another ½ gram by cutting that off. This is how relentless the weight management portion of the strategy is. So for 5 hours I moved dehydrated food from the plastic it came in to a lower weight Ziploc bag. Each day had a full set of food in a freezer sized Ziploc. Most days consisted of:
- · 2 oatmeals
- · 1 starbuck’s instant coffee
- · Sometimes a Pro Meal Bar
Lunch: Ate while running
- · Macadamia nuts or sunflower seeds (tried to get 1000 calories from them – high fat which I have trained my body to digest during long, slow efforts)
- · Chia Seed bars – quick carbs
- · 1-2 gu packets or cliff shot bloks
- · Pro Meal Bars
Post Run Snack:
- · Protein shake and some kind of a bar
- · Freeze Dried food – I had never had these before but for a couple hundred grams you can pack 800+ calories by simply adding hot water and letting a buffet of different meals emerge such as Biscuits and Gravy, “Lasagna”, Ham and Eggs, and Sweet and Sour Chicken.
Before Dinner Snack:
- · Chicken or Beef Bone Broth
- · Miso Soup
- · Tea – something warm to keep the stomach feeling full, a constant battle for me.
The race required 14,000 calories for the 7 days to comply with the rules. I brought 19,000 calories, which after informal polls of others, I would guess was 2,000-3,000 calories more than the average competitor. It also made my pack weigh ~21 lbs. when many others were in the 17-18 range. I had bought a great kit of lightweight gear so the weight difference wasn’t in my equipment, it was in the extra calories. I figured it was worth it to me, however, as I get extremely hungry after even my shorter runs.
Arrival and Gear Check
On Friday afternoon, May 12th, we checked in. The pre-race process was like I’ve never seen before. I’m used to trading my name for a bib and 4-safety pins upon check-in. As I walked into the beautiful open air room overlooking the pacific ocean, I was greeted by name from Tess Geddes, the wonderful co-director of the race (which is also run by her lively husband Colin). I had never met but she had clearly been paying attention to the facebook group because she knew me right away. This gave an instant sense of family and community, which continued all week with everyone involved. I was ushered in to a set of tables full of waivers for liability, photography and videos (there were a handful of film crews and documentary folks seemingly around all week looking for their footage). Another table had scales to get pre-race weight of the runners, and yet another to do a full inventory check of all mandatory gear and calories. At the gear-check table we met the volunteers and medical crews who we would get to know by first name throughout the week. They opened our pack, looked at of every piece of gear, and had us write our number on everything (in case it was lost we were given time penalties so we could ensure that we left not trace along the course). After check-in I went back to my hotel room, where I was bunking with an amazing Israeli runner, Assaf, and I worked on trying to reduce my pack weight from the 22.5 lbs that had just been weighed in, to something more manageable. It seemed that even with my gram counting, I was still off by multiple lbs. versus what would be ideal. Assaf has done events like this before and had a pack weighing 5 lbs less than mine, so he helped me relentlessly cut gear. It became a joke between us about how I was going to be bringing an inflatable pillow and how evidently I should skip the pillow and instead use my shoes to rest my head on instead – every gram counts. I tossed my pillow reluctantly into the bag that was staying behind in storage. After he was done I sought the advice from the race commissioner who did the same thing, which is to say he systematically eliminated every creature comfort I had brought, which combined saved me 2.5 lbs. I was worried about how much I had taken out and what I would regret later. Yes, I found later, there were deep regrets to be had!
- · Inflatable pillow
- 5 electrolyte tablets / day for my water (35 total)…I already had electrolyte pills, these were just a luxury to make the water taste better
- · Extra running shorts (turns out the answer to one of my questions is that you DON’T bring a change of clothes…you run all week in one set of running gear)
- · Specialty Rain Poncho (yes, the one I spent hours researching…I ditched this for a much lighter single use, emergency only rain poncho to meet the mandatory gear requirements…this was the one piece of my kit I desperately wished for as I got into the race)
- · 2,000 calories – he laughed that I already had 19,000 and suggested I could lose some of the tailwind powder (gets mixed into water and used for carbs as you run).
- · Extra pair of sandals which I had planned to use at camp in the evening rather than the one pair of running shoes I was bringing. The idea was to give my feet a chance to dry out while my shoes did the same. I traded them in for the lightweight, bleached white disposable slippers in the hotel room closet which would serve as my evening foot attire for the week because they saved me 300 grams.
After eliminating my gear it was time to fill the belly. That evening we were treated to a dinner I enjoyed sitting at the table with the medical crew, all of whom were volunteering from their day jobs (mainly as ER docs) and most of whom have made a tradition out of using their PTO time to come support various races like this. I came to appreciate just how amazing and important they are to every single runner on the course. For the full 155 miles, one of them was planted every (appx) 6-10 miles making sure we were safe. They had seen all of the common ailments that plague runners in these kinds of events and therefore had exceptional advice and care for everything from nausea to blisters. I also appreciated their no bullshit approach to giving advice. There wasn’t much sympathy prescribed, mainly just facts, because after all everyone may have had different issues to get through medically through the week but we shared a common tolerance for pain and discomfort and we had indeed placed ourselves voluntarily into this misery. Facts mattered more than sympathy if we were going to get the job done.
On Saturday we left at 12pm from the hotel where everyone loaded up on shuttles and drove from the West Coast (north of Kona) to the East Coast (Hilo). I learned during this drive just how rugged and raw the lava fields were. Everywhere I looked, there was black lava. Even under the grassy areas it was lava. I later learned that touching the lava was like touching razor sharp coral – and falling on it was tragic.
We stayed at a Volcano Winery the first night. They treated us to a ‘last supper’ buffet at the camp after a 30-min pre-race briefing as seen in the photos below:
|At the pre-race briefing the weight of what’s about to happen started hitting me|
|Pre-Race Briefing the night before Stage 1|
There were 10 tents set up, each able to hold 10 racers. I was in tent 3 and got to meet my tent-mates who were each amazing individuals and I couldn’t have picked better people to spend the week with.
Camp looked like this:
|What a typical camp looked like|
|I was tent 3, thank god for amazing tentmates|
After getting the tent situated and having dinner, we were treated to a view of the active volcano where we saw the lava flow – a dramatic first evening on the course.
|Volcano the night before the start|
Then at the volcano, the rain started. And it didn’t stop.
The first 3 days we were soaked. The temperatures were cool, probably ranging from 35-55 degrees most of the time. We ran 26.7 miles on the first day which included a mix of road running, farmland, trails, river crossings, and jungle. We rolled into the finish line, each on our own time, but all to a mess of wetness, mud and slop. It was so wet that by the time we finished the miles from the first day, the camp crew hadn’t yet finished setting up all of the tents. We stood around waiting to get out of the elements and from that point through the next 2 stages of 19.1 and 20.2 miles, our clothes did not dry. We rung them out, hung them up inside the tent (which did no good to dry them, just had them dripping onto the floor and getting our sleeping gear wet), and hoped they would marginally dry overnight. Each morning we woke up in cold weather, music blasting “Shape of You” as our alarm clock in the 5:45am morning darkness, and had to put on our wet running gear for another day. Play that song for anyone who spent the week on the volcanos and I promise it will bring back instant flashbacks! Shoes were soaking wet, so much so that as you walked water would squeeze out of them and sloshing was the main sound. We ate our dried breakfast, stood in the rain for the pre-race briefing, and headed out again for another 7-10 hours of running in the rain. It sounds miserable, and it was, but it’s also a journey that we took with others experiencing the same thing who all knew we were doing something special.
I was shocked at how very few conversations all week I had with people who mentioned anything negative, despite the circumstances we chose to place ourselves in. It reminded me of a rule I now have in these events…’bring nothing negative to the trail’. It’s not fair to yourself, or to others trying to have an experience, to bring negativity into the journey. Dark thoughts certainly come up, but you have to recognize them quickly, address them immediately (usually food or a technical issue with gear is the problem), and them move on without spreading toxic energy. On the first day, at the first checkpoint, a volunteer said “what do you want”? I asked, “what do you have?” as if I were in a normal marathon and they may have jelly beans or bananas as a surprise. They responded with “water”, so that’s what I had and all that they offered the rest of the week. While they provided water and shelter, the rest was up to us.
After the 3rd day we made our way to the west side of the island which was better in terms of weather. Having covered 75 miles in the rain, this was a welcomed treat. My challenge was that with 4 miles left on day 3, I was freezing cold and hitting a dark moment so decided to run faster than I should have for the conditions I was in. I stepped wrong on a rock and my Achilles instantly hurt. I limped back, really worried that my race week was over. I was in the rain, freezing cold, couldn’t stop because I risked hypothermia, and was facing my biggest fear of the week – a DFN (did not finish, which I’ve never had in my running career). I elevated my foot all night and took anti-inflammatory drugs hoping that I would recover during my sleep and be ok for the 48 miler the next day. That night I reflected on the first 66 miles of wet, cold, hungry running and started really appreciating how all we really need in life is to be warm with food, water, shelter, and people we care about. The ‘extras’ in life beyond that started to get stripped away and what mattered most became more and more clear each moment for the rest of the journey.
|The Stick that helped me finish 48 miles on the volcano|
|Another with the stick. I wanted to name it “Wilson” after Castaways. I would have made a face if i was carrying a sharpie.|
My first steps on day 4 were to the port-a-potty. In addition to giving us water and tents, the port-a-potty was the other luxury. Evidently many races like this one don’t afford the runners the niceties of an enclosed bathroom and communal holes in the ground are common (thankfully these were clean and amazing). The first step hurt bad. By this time in the week I had taken to wearing my ziplock bags on my feet to keep them dry while I went about the camp. It was too wet to wear my bleach white slippers through the slopping mud. My Achilles was aching with sharp, shooting pains but I decided I would drug up with Aleve early (can’t take it during the run or it risks Kidney issues), and at least start the day to see if it would magically go away. In the first mile, it hurt horribly but I found a stick in the brush on the side of the and broke away the extra branches, snapped it a bit over waist height, and carried with me for the next 47 miles to act as my ‘running cane’. It turned out to be a full day of limping from 8am on Wednesday to 9am on Thursday. We climbed 9,000+ feet on Mauna Kea and I struggled every single step. I used my headband wrapped around my wrist to create a strap on this artificial cane, and after getting blisters on my thumb and palm from the rubbing, I put a sock on my hand to protect it. I ‘ran’ / limped all day and into the evening. At about 8pm I was 12 hours in and standing on top of the volcano. Having climbed above the clouds I saw the sunset from above, I’ll never forget standing at the top of this volcano, which looked like mars with the black rock and sand landscape, as the starts emerged. It turns out that the top of Mauna Kea is a world renown astronomy spot with, literally, the best star gazing in the world. I took in the sunset as checked in at the turn around on the summit and began to descend the trail I had just spent the day running up.
I was then in a race against the clock. My foot hurt but it threatened to get to 30 degrees at the elevation I was at. I needed to get off the volcano and back to the finish line, 24 miles away, as fast as possible. I did a ridiculous speed-limp for the next 14 miles before I become ineffective at traversing the terrain. The elevation gain and losses were dramatic and I would not be surprised if the average pitch was a 35-40 degree incline or decline. In the darkness of the night, at 1am, I decided that I would stop at a sleeping check point and get a bit of rest. I took my sleeping bag and mat out of my pack and slept under one of the canopies they had set up. I got a bit over 2 hours and woke back up after 3am to put on my wet, cold clothes again and brave the very cold temps. I was shivering uncontrollably and feeling very nauseous from the elevation.
To warm up I started doing pushups, which was a ridiculous thing to do at 3am on a volcano, but I needed the bloodflow to get moving without taxing my legs. Before hitting the trail again I needed to make myself eat. I took the warm water that was provided and rehydrated my powdered meal and after the first bite I was ready to throw up. I held physically held my mouth closed with my hands to keep the food down and finally got into a mental place where I could eat the rest of the meal, each time I swallowed was a battle to keep it down. I knew that throwing up would severely impact my ability to finish because I didn’t have enough calories to replace what I would lose and it was unlikely I could eat and digest more food to sustain me to the finish that morning. My stomach began getting upset and I was very glad to have taken extra toilet paper with. I am not going to lie, there are moments of pure loss of shame in these races and I absolutely pulled off the side of the volcano, hung my ass over the side of a rock, and am sorry for what I left behind. A few miles down the trail, as the sunrise started emerging, I checked in with the last checkpoint crew. I had my third blister emerging and sat down for the first time to ask the aid station for help/advise on what to do. The wonderful doc pierced it with a needle (see image) and before squeezing it to drain the fluid she said, “oooh, this one is going to be juicy”. She squeezed it and it immediately shot straight into her eye. I felt so bad but she didn’t miss a beat and just kept helping repair my blister. I suggested that next time the piercing hole should be on the runner’s side of the wound so it shoots toward them!
|Blister Repair – I’m still recovering 30 days later from the blisters|
|Thankfully this one isn’t my blister but the gravel inside of it was absolutely something I dealt with. They would break open during the run and there was no way to clean them at night so they would heal over the gravel and need to be opened and cleaned. Gnarly.|
|At the 48 mile stage finish with a smile – an obstacle overcome|
Eventually I limped to the finish around 9am.
|What a standard finish line looks like – not like the typical
commercial marathon we are used to!
The shuttle bus picked us up and took us to the next camping location, which was AMAZING. We had graduated from rain and volano elevation to the beach. The sun was out, 85 degree weather was greeting us, and we had all afternoon on Thursday to recover and get ready for Friday’s 30-miler. There were public beach showers and the race directors even treated us to a can of cold coke and a warm donut – – free calories that we didn’t have to carry! Evidently this is a tradition at these races and was a very welcomed treat.
|“I hear there are donuts today?”|
Each day throughout the week there were a couple people who would drop out. The bar was high for entry, so everyone in the race was already proven to be tough as nails. After the long stage on day 4-5, statistics were sound that nobody would suffer that much and drop. To my knowledge, everyone that made it through the 48-milers went on to finish the race. That afternoon everyone rested hard. Many of us found a piece of concrete in a public shelter and grabbed a nap.
The last big test was day 6. We faced 30 miles and I was really worried about my foot. I soaked it in the ocean for an hour after the long stage, but also had new blisters to contend with (like most folks). As we got into the first few miles of this stage, I took off from the start with my stick, headband and sock setup. I babied my foot for the first few miles but then figured that I would see if I could run through the pain given that it was the last big stage. I was constantly calibrating how hard I could push through the pain versus when I was going to do damage that could have me out of
|Afternoon nap in public shelter after
the 48 mile stage. People thought we
running for months after. After about 5 miles I got rid of the stick and was able to run again. Every 30 or so steps had a sharp pain but I figured out how to manage through and I had a great stage. We traversed some amazing terrain including a private ranch that covered about 7 miles. It was blazing hot and hard to get good footing with the volcanic rock at every step, but I was running without my stick. We were making our way back to the ocean.
|Seeing the ocean in the distance – marks the end of the stage|
As I came across the ranch, in between valleys of volcanos, and crested a hill that showed the ocean where the finish line was going to be the next day, it gave me shivers filled with energy.
The end is always in mind but imagining it in your head verses beginning to see it unfold and emerge right in front of you, it answers all of the questions of “why”. The back of my hands were getting so sunburned at this point that they were blistering, my lips were bubbling with their own blisters and constantly popping and refilling with fluid, and my feet had 10 different blisters competing for space inside my shoes. I had rubbed my hands raw holding my walking stick, and yet I started laughing to myself out loud, giddy about where I was and what I was accomplishing.
|An amazing landscape to run through|
After getting to camp in the late afternoon of the day 6, 30-miler, I knew I was going to complete the beast. The next and final day we had a ‘charity 5-miler’. We woke up, strapped on our much lighter packs (each day I had eaten through about 1lb of dried food so I’m guessing the pack was now about 14 lbs), and headed to the finish. It was insanely hot but it didn’t matter. My amazingly supportive, (and always tolerant with my crazy pursuits), wife Bethany was waiting for me at the finish line. I knew that the week was about to come to an end in a celebration with so many new friends who thrived during the journey. I will never forget coming around the corner of the Hapuna Beach Prince Golf course, hearing the finish line cheering about ½ mile before I could see it, knowing that people ahead of me and behind me were experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime moment, and how lucky I was to be with them.
|The finish line sprint after 155 miles|
Many people ask why people do races like these. The ‘why’ of these events can’t be explained, only felt, in moments like these. The feeling runs deep and never leaves but the more times you get it, the more it compounds and accumulates and the more you want it again. The addiction of accomplishment despite all odds is my personal “why”. The mind is what makes accomplishments happen more than anything and everyone needs to know that while every situation’s successful outcome is measured in different ways, whatever is in front of them can be battled and conquered. Each night at camp as we would return to our tents, the volunteers would hand deliver printed out emails that were sent through the website. One friend and former colleague mentioned how he was sharing the race journey with his kids each night at dinner and using it as a chance to teach about goal setting and battling through tough stuff. That’s what this is about for me – knowing that the message transcends running and can enter the real world.
To cross the finish line is like a drug and the moments between when you see it coming and when you cross are the times a runner like me feels most alive, and immediately wants it again.
These are the moments that are earned and what you earn can never be taken for granted. Running is for gratitude.
|Bethany waiting for me at the finish (with beers and strawberries,
both of which were shared with new friends and the most amazing treats ever)
|Finish line with the race directors, Colin and Tess Geddes. Thanks for the amazing event!|