The Kilauea Iki Run

By John Piekos

It was January 4th, 1996 and it was my first day of vacation on the island of Hawaii, otherwise known as "the Big Island". I had just spent most of the past day, over 12 hours, on the long flight to Hawaii. I hadnít run in three days and was itching for a nice, energizing run. I was staying several nights at the Kilauea Lodge, located in Volcano, Hawaii, just a mile away from the Volcano National Park. I chose this bed and breakfast because of its proximity to the park Ė I wanted to spend a few days exploring the park and visiting the volcano craters and lava flows before hitting the beach resorts for the remainder of the trip. Secretly, I had looked forward to this part of the trip because I had heard from friends that there wasnít much of an opportunity to get many good runs in Hawaii because the islands consist mainly of highway-like roads and resorts, hardly enough runnable terrain for more than 2 or 3 mile runs. The Volcano National Park was an opportunity for me to get in some longer runs, possibly on some hiking trails. I was eagerly looking forward to it.

You can imagine our disappointment when my friends and I arrived at the park and found it closed. Being a national park, it was shut down (along with every other government agency) as a result of the budget crisis brought about by Clinton, Gingrich, and company. However, where there is a will, there is a way. After talking to the friendly woman who served breakfast at the lodge, I discovered that there were several ways to discreetly hike into the park, avoiding detection. For the remainder of that day, several friends and I followed her invaluable advice. Being virtually the only ones in the park, we had the opportunity of a lifetime to witness, without the crowd of humanity, the incredible beauty Volcano National Park had to offer. I knew that the next day I would use one of these "secret" entrances and venture into the park for a run Ė being an avid runner, how could I resist? My friends and I went on several hikes that day, one of which took us to the floor of the Kilauea Iki crater. We decided not to cross the crater because we didnít know if it was safe. My friends said that it probably wouldnít be a good idea to run across it, especially alone. Those were words that I would soon unintentionally disregard!

I got up early the next day. It was about 6:45AM and time for my run. I was itching to go. I reached the secret trail into the park in about 10 minutes. I decided to take trail different from the one Iíd taken the day before. Before too long, I realized that this trail dumped me into the other end of a parking lot that we had walked through the previous day. Several trails intersected this lot, including the Kilauea Iki crater trail. It was like magnetism Ė the Kilauea Iki crater was beckoning me.

I saw a sign pointing the direction to the crater rim trail. I followed it, unable to break the spell the volcano had cast on me. The trail was narrow, with dense rain forest on both sides. Gradually leading downhill, this was the perfect running trail. It was perfect except for the footing, which was packed dirt with frequent patches of volcanic pumice stone. One fall on that stone and my knees and palms would be gouged badly. My pace was quick but careful. It was a beautiful morning to run and I didnít want to ruin it by tearing off layers of skin on various parts of my body! I was feeling good. Pumped up. The morning was quiet. No sounds of mankind, just the sounds of the rain forest and the soft sounds of my feet on the trail. I had just started wondering if I would see any animals when, just ahead, I spotted them. Two pheasant-like birds in the middle of the trail, one male, one female, judging by the colorful feathers on one as compared to the other. Could these be the rare Hawaiian Nene birds that I had been reading about? These guys didnít want to fly, but instead scurried down the trail ahead of me. The trail was very windy and I lost sight of the birds around a bend. Just when I thought that they had ducked into the dense underbrush, Iíd catch sight of them again. My pace quickened every time I spotted them Ė they were setting the pace of the run and all thoughts of careful footing were lost. My new goal was to keep these birds in sight. After several minutes my feathered friends split up, then each slipped into a different narrow off-shoot trail. My running companions had abandoned me, but I bumped my pace up about 30 seconds per mile. This run was getting better and better.

Up ahead, I spotted several signs. The one pointing to my right suggested that I run an additional 10.4 to reach the ranger center. Tempting, but maybe a bit to long for today. The other sign indicated that the Kilauea Iki crater was just .6 mile ahead. I knew now that I was destined to run across the volcano crater. Taking the crater path, I knew that in about 3 and 1/2 minutes Iíd be on the crater floor. The trail started to get steeper and become narrower. It was now a single-track trail and I was pushing aside overgrown grass and branches. It appeared that this trail was not used that often Ė perhaps it would have been cut back if the government hadnít shut down the park, I thought. Or, perhaps this trail wasnít used much due to unsafe conditions on the crater floor. I started to worry. Surely there would be a sign somewhere if the crater were unsafe, right? I was already over 4 miles out, and in my mind, there was no turning back: I was going to run across the Kilauea Iki crater. My adrenaline surged.

The trail finally emptied onto the crater floor. It was a breathtaking sight. The crater walls on my right and left reached hundreds of feet into low-lying clouds. The crater floor was flooded with shifting fog. A large pyramid of stones, a cairn, marked the trailís entry onto the crater floor. However, with the morning fog, I couldnít see the next marker. It had to be over 100 yards away, hidden neatly behind the foggy mist. I figured my best bet was to run along the edge of the crater to see if I could hook up with the trail. I thought that running randomly across the crater might be a bad idea. There could be cracks and crevasses and other unknown dangers (hot lava?) so I decided to take a safe route. Little did I know that the edge of the crater was covered with large broken plates of pumice angled every which way, mixed with crushed gravel-like pumice. Every step I took seemed to land on unstable ground. Either the pumice plate shifted under my feet, or my foot would slip in the shifting gravel. I had to hook up with the actual trail soon. After "running" several hundred yards, I spotted it: a worn footpath about 100 yards away, identified by several bordering stone pumice pyramids. Unfortunately, between the trail and me was 100 yards of unknown, foreboding crater floor. At a nervous, slow trot, I hopped small crevasses, slid down large jagged slabs of pumice angled every which way, and generally avoided the small plumes of smoky gas that escaped from various cracks in the crater floor. It took me several minutes to reach the trail, but once I reached it, the excitement of my surroundings got my adrenaline flowing.

A friend once told me that ancient places hold special energy. Surely this was one of those special places. There I was, most likely the only person in the Volcano National Park, smack dab in the middle of a volcanic crater. Surrounding me, leaking through the swirling mists, I caught glimpses of the crater wall that I had just come from. Over the clouds of mist and the peacefulness of the crater floor floated the sounds of the surrounding rain forest. This was truly one of the most beautiful places in the world.

I resumed my run, feeling strength flow throughout my body. Now that I was back on the crater trail, I figured all I had to do was follow the trail markers and Iíd be all set. What I didnít anticipate was that the walls of fog that surrounded me didnít allow me to see for more than about 100 feet in any direction. This didnít seem like a big problem until I looked for the next trail marker. It was nowhere to be found. At this point, I started to get a little bit nervous. With the lack of visibility, I could easily lose my sense of direction and end up running around in circles over potentially dangerous terrain. But it was not to be so. I zigged and zagged several hundred yards to my right and left, hopping over small crevasses and avoiding the random plumes of mist escaping from the ground. Twice I lost the trail, only to spot a small outcropping of rocks suddenly emerging from the mist ahead, leading me back to the trail.

Suddenly, the sheer cliffs of the crater wall emerged through the fog. I had made it across the crater floor! One last challenge remained, climbing the crater wall. I had hiked this section of the trail the day before so I knew the terrain: a series of steep switchbacks running right up the crater wall. Hill training for the 100th Boston Marathon, I thought, and aggressively started up. The trail was rocky, steep, and just plain tough. I donít know which were burning the most, my lungs or my legs, but it didnít matter. Surrounded by the beauty of the forest and having just conquered (some might say "survived") the crater, I was running on a natural high.

I reached the top of the crater unscathed. It was an easy 2 miles back to the bed and breakfast, though I donít remember much of it. My mind was racing, recounting every step of my journey on the Kilauea Iki trail, my best run ever.


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