By Jessica Kirkwood
Since Matt Fober began running at the age of 30, he’s lost more than 80 pounds. When Rec Hancock began in his early 20s, he turned to running to help overcome his alcohol addiction. As a child, Alex Ramsey ran middle distance races around the grassy outdoor tracks of his elementary school, eventually earning himself a track scholarship. Although these men began their pursuit of running for different reasons, they agree that running is not only about split times and miles logged, but is one of the pinnacles of the human experience.
After meeting at different running events on Maui over the last couple years, Fober, Hancock and Ramsey have a contagious enthusiasm when it comes to distance running–especially on Maui turf. Together they’ve conquered the astounding 36-mile climb from sea level to the summit of Haleakala. They’ve charged through the towering Eucalyptus trees of Polipoli, hiked the relentless knee-knocking hills of Makawao Forest Reserve and sped across Hana Highway’s undulating twists and turns. And come August, they will travel to the heart of the Colorado Rockies to compete in one of the most prestigious ultra-running events on the planet: the Leadville 100.
An “ultra” marathon is any distance above the classic 26.2-mile marathon, and the legendary “Race Across the Sky” is a grueling 100-mile run through extreme and treacherous terrain that starts and finishes at the highest incorporated city in America. It’s basically the Burning Man of ultra-running: expansive, exhausting, desolate, exhilarating and, eventually, a bit euphoric. Elevations reach 12,600 feet and never dip below 9,200 feet; there’s a total gain of 15,000 vertical feet. To put that into perspective, it’s like running up and down Haleakala from Paia, then nearly right back up again, but rarely dipping below the cool, thin-aired altitude of the summit.
“Leadville just has this history and mystique that I think you look for in your first 100,” says Fober, who has one 50-mile race under his belt. “It has these beautiful surroundings, and all at elevation. This is a big personal dream. It’s a bit overwhelming, but extremely compelling.”
Hancock agrees–especially about the overwhelming part.
“Logically it makes no sense,” says Hancock, who was inspired to enter after his recent 8,800-foot ascent of Mount Lemmon in Arizona this December. “The longest race I’ve done is a marathon. But in my heart it feels perfect. When I came home I saw that Matt and Alex had signed up. So I just did it. I’m so looking forward to being out on a 100-mile quest with these two guys.”
To prepare both mentally and physically for Leadville, they’re planning many more runs through the bright red cinder cones, clouded landscapes and past the glistening silverswords atop Haleakala.
“Haleakala is special,” says Fober. “There’s no way around it. Whether you’re spiritual or not, when you stand up on Haleakala, and you’ve gotten there mostly by foot–you feel closer to God. Whatever that means to you.”
Some runs begin and end under the stars. Some are sunny and warm, while others welcome howling winds and frosty breath. Some days the miles pass without much thought and with great ease, while others bring pain and discomfort demanding their focus. There are days when they learn the hard way how much salt, sugar and water to take in, while on others, everything falls perfectly into place. They’ve dealt with swollen feet, blisters, blackened toenails, sore backs and even hallucinations. But that’s all a part of the allure. Distance running puts them in a place that goes beyond the physical to a place that can’t be explained.
“At first running was about losing weight, competing, and seeing how much I could improve my times,” says Fober, who was first inspired to run by his friend Dylan, and by pushing his son Jonah in his stroller. “You know, all the typical stuff. But with time it changed drastically. Now it’s the everyday stuff that I really enjoy: my early morning runs to work, seeing the sun rise, having that time to myself to really just think things through. It’s a real soul-cleansing experience.”
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In 1983, Ken Chlouber, founder of the Leadville 100, first had the idea to host an ultra-marathon to help put the once-booming mining town back on the map. He was apparently told by a local hospital administrator that such a race would most likely lead to someone’s death. “Well, then we will be famous, won’t we?” Chlouber is said to have responded.
Towards the end of the race, it’s said that most Leadville competitors aren’t really running so much as they are shuffling or relentlessly stumbling; anything that resembles forward motion. Last year just 358 of the 795 runners who began the race reached the finish line under the 30-hour cut-off. The rest were broken by dehydration, malnourishment, nausea, delirium, hypothermia, altitude sickness, rolled ankles, twisted knees and muscles turned to stone.
There’s no doubt that ultra-running is a bit kooky and extreme, but even in ancient Hawaii ultra-running roots go deep. The term kukini once defined a select class of men who were swift distance runners. Often of royal descent, they were employed as spies to carry messages between neighboring ali’i, to summon warriors to battle and to fetch items from great distances. They logged long training miles and ate a diet of lean meats, fish and fresh vegetables such as kalo, sweet potato and breadfruit. Kukini also competed in foot races at the annual New Year’s festival, the Makahiki, where spectators would bet on their favorite runner.
Legend has it that the great runner Kalamea could run around Maui in one day, Pakui could circle Oahu six times a day, and Kama-a-ka-mikioi and Kama-aka-ulu-ohia could run around the island of Kauai 10 times a day. The story of Makoa, who resided on the Big Island, ran a distance of over 80 miles to fetch ‘ama’ama, or pond mullet, for King Kamehameha. Amazingly, he returned before sunset, with the fish still quivering inside a bundle of ti leaves. To this day, Hawaiians say that a runner who shows great speed over a long distance is “He poki’i no Makoa”–Makoa’s younger brother.
“It wasn’t until I found running that I really started enjoying all the blessings Maui has to offer,” says Fober. “There are so many amazing, untouched trails here.”
When they’re not passing their time following in the footsteps of ancient kukini, they all have unique alter-egos. During working hours, Ramsey busses tables at Flatbread in Paia and landscapes in Haiku; Fober is a chef at Nick’s Fishmarket in Kihei, while Hancock works at Terminix as a licensed pest and termite inspector. But on their off-hours, running has become something of a necessity.
“I live to run,” says Hancock. “It’s become an embedded part of my being. I quit drinking three years ago. It [running] wasn’t the key fixture in quitting, but it was very helpful. It continually helps me to connect to something greater.”
It was a similar story with Fober. “Running has been key to overcoming many negatives in life,” he says. “I struggled with substance abuse, unhealthy eating and an unhealthy prioritization of work over family life. Running really helps me put things in proper order. Plus I lost 80 pounds in the process! When I’m doing positive healthy things for myself, I became a better husband, father, chef and friend.”
Both Fober and Hancock have tall, solid statures, broad shoulders and tattooed arms–physiques more akin to football players than they do distance runners. But looks can be deceiving.
“After my first marathon, my body was so torn up I could barely run for 10 minutes,” says Fober. “I had to completely start over. I began rebuilding my stride, learning about mechanics and about nutrition. I wasn’t gonna do it blindly anymore.”
And he hasn’t. In fact, he’s become such an efficient runner that this past January, after running more than 30 miles the day prior, he and Ramsey ran the Maui Ocean Front Marathon side by side–barefoot. With strides short and economical, the duo cast smiles and threw high fives to nearly every spectator and aid station volunteer on the course. By their playful demeanor you’d hardly believe they were running at all.
“Alex is one of the most positive people I’ve ever met,” says Fober. “He has this incurable optimism. You can’t be around the guy and not smile.”
Alex Ramsey has a small, compact frame, tanned skin and a grin that is wildly contagious. He’s the free-spirited, bare-footed guru of the group. He says going shoeless has taught him patience–take it slow and focus on proper technique. It has also given him strong calves, tough soles and helped him to better connect with his environment. “My awareness is more heightened and I become my surroundings,” he says. “I have better conversations with the Earth. I get to know the pavement, the woodsy trail, the scree, the pebble, the sand.”
But even to an upbeat shoeless runner, not all paths are inviting to the unshod foot. On long runs, he often keeps a pair of lightweight Luna sandals perched between his lower back and running shorts, just in case the terrain gets too tough. He even has a scar on his lower back from chaffing to show for it.
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The ancient kukini Makoa is said to have practiced proper running technique: to walk on his toes without touching the heel of his foot to the ground in order to increase his leg strength and speed. It’s safe to assume that Makoa wasn’t wearing rubber-soled sneakers. Maybe Ramsey is on to something?
These men are minimalists in both their running philosophy and appearance; they don’t really follow the model of modern racers. Instead of using structured training schedules, they go by what feels best from day to day.
“I just put in the miles and let my body do the talking,” says Hancock.
And rather than getting decked out in the most contemporary racing attire, like a hydration pack, Coolmax t-shirt, compression socks and a heart rate monitor, these men keep it simple. Ramsey, for example, sometimes prefers to log his miles in cut off jean shorts and nothing else.
“I think Alex has the best insights to his body of any runner I know,” says Fober. “I believe he’ll fare well at this distance because he’s so efficient and talented and knows how to adjust to changing environments. Rec is just gonna charge this thing. He’s got one of the biggest hearts out there. And in a 100, that can carry you when your legs don’t want to.”
And no one completes a 100-miler without heart. Apparently, a runner can be feeling really terrible at mile 30 and again at 70, but then just five miles later feel great. That’s what’s special about running such an irrationally long distance; going through those peaks and valleys, both literally and figuratively, and persevering through them.
But just as you can’t complete a 100-miler without heart, you can’t complete it without preparation and humility, either. Consider Anton Krupnicka, Leadville’s 2006 and 2007’s overall winner. In 2009 and 2010, he was forced to abandon the race. He admitted to not only miscalculating his nutrition but possessing a dangerous undercurrent of pride: “You can never lose respect for the distance.”
The distance may be daunting, but the experience will be engaging and invaluable. When they toe the start of Leadville at 4am on Aug. 17 and dash into the darkness, the sun will eventually rise and illuminate nearly the entire flank of snow-topped mountains they will traverse. Those mountains contain deep forests, turquoise lakes, mountainside vistas, eerie ghost towns and long, hot, dusty roads. But while they’re treading those Rocky Mountains trails, they hope to hold Haleakala’s wisdom in their hearts.
Other than receiving Leadville’s famous finisher’s belt buckle and finishing in less than 25 hours, Ramsey is most eloquent when expressing his goals for Leadville. “Being mindful of the setting sun, the smell of pine, the smiles of supporters and seeing the people who have gathered together for this time, really seeing them,” he says. “That’s my goal.”
Cover design by Darris Hurst. Photos by Sasha Prince