Tag Archives: Triathlon

Hiking Kilauea Just Before the Eruption

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Hiking Kilauea Just Before the Eruption

In light of the recent eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano, I wanted to tell the story of our hike down to the lava flows on the East Rift at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.   It was a strenuous long hike – 2.5 hours out and 3 hours back – with the reward of seeing the lava glowing brightly as night descended upon the island.   During the hour we spent near the constantly shifting lava flows, I remember being nervous and feeling in the pit of my stomach that the earth was alive beneath my feet.   Could the volcano blow at any moment?  As it turns out, it did not that night in late March but just 5 weeks later, it did.

This year, it was my youngest son’s turn to go on a big trip so he accompanied me to the Big Island of Hawaii.   My plan was to take him on some great adventures while also competing in the Lavaman Triathlon a second time.   When a high school friend posted some cool photos of a lava hike they’d taken on the Big Island, I wanted to check it out.   How cool would it be to hike across dried lava fields to witness real live lava flows?

Amy highly recommended the guide they’d used so I checked out the website – Active Hawaiian Lava Tours, liked what I saw and booked my son and I on the expedition.   Active Lava Hawaiian Tours, https://www.activelavahawaiiantours.com  It was a somewhat pricey tour at $135 per person but well worth the opportunity to see this awesome natural wonder.  Later, my two daughters decided to meet us for the trip and joined us on the lava hike.

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The map above shows the two main area where the Kilauea Volcano can be viewed.   The caldera at the visitor’s center to the north and about an hour’s drive south, the east rift.     Our tour at the east rift started just south of the small town of Pahoa, near the south entrance to Hawaii’i Volcanoes National Park.    We were headed to Kalapana on the southern coast – a drive that is surprisingly rural with beautiful dense palm forests lining the narrow roads.   IMG_3898As we approached the rendezvous site,  barren black lava fields stretched out several miles toward the ocean beyond.   Getting to the tour site was a bit confusing with directions like “turn just past the bike rentals” and “look for the yellow house down a block or two” and we thus, made a few wrong turns.   Turns out that the modest yellow house/cabin we were looking for was located down a bumpy dirt road in a black lava field surrounded by a few dozen squatter shacks, piles of seemingly abandoned vehicles, water tanks, construction materials and just an occasional tree or plant rising from the uneven black rock.   Talk about at the end of the road.

At the Kilauea Visitor’s Center in front of the caldera.   Photo 1:  Tristan and me.   Photo 2:  Tristan and Madelaine.  March 23, 2018

 

Surprisingly, we arrived early and waited on the lanai with several other people while our guide Matthew introduced the plan and let us use the bathroom.   He was very bubbly, informative and friendly.   Unlike other tours groups, he informed us that we would not be biking to the entrance of the park tonight but rather, driving and then walking about a mile to the gate.   That’s cool, I thought.   I was happy to walk a little more since my triathlon was just days away.

After making sure that our water bottles were full, snacks were packed and our day packs secured, we were ready.  By 4 pm, eight of us boarded a van for the short drive drive out of the black lava neighborhood and down the stark uninhabited road toward the entrance to the national park.   Along the way, there were several tents set up to rent bikes but little else.   I surmised that one could do this expedition without a guide but since parking was several miles away, renting a bike to ride into the entrance was more expedient.   At the park gate, several dozen bikes were locked to metal posts nearby.   We stopped to take photos and continued our walk down the road; perhaps a mile or so.

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About a half mile into the park, we entered the lava fields.   The surface of the dried lava was black, gravely, uneven, hilly and full of cracks.  There was no established path or direct route.  Each step was a challenge to avoid tripping or twisting an ankle.   I was especially careful and unfortunately slow, since I didn’t want to injure myself before my triathlon that weekend.   I worried that my young son Tristan might have difficulty but at 13, he’d recently grown 6 inches, slimmed up and magically transformed into an energetic and strong young man.   He was a billy goat on this trek — no problem!   My daughters Megan (21) and Madelaine (30) were similarly light on their feet.

The hike was long and rocky.   The kids taking a break for me, the slow one.

 

Our guide used GPS to set the trail but as dusk fell, we could see lava glowing in the distance — a worthy destination to aspire too.  We were joined by other small groups of people – couples, tour groups, families with small children and grandparents, college kids – hiking in the same direction.   In truth, the going was tough and the hike took hours.  By 6:30, we finally reached the fresh lava flows.   Arriving at sunset was the prime time so we could really relish the glow of the lava in the dark.

The lava flows weren’t like the rivers you might see in films, however.   They were little flows of maybe 2-6 feet extruding from crevices in the black rock.   At places, you could look over at the ridges of rock rising next to you and see the lava glowing deep inside the cracks.   There were many such extrusions and you could walk around and take photos.  Nothing was moving too fast that you couldn’t get out of the way.

At one point, my kids headed over to a larger flow about 30 feet away which required that I climb over a few mounds of loose rocks.   I hesitated since I was nervous about all the lava around me.   I took a few deep breaths and finally heeded their calls to join them.   As we posed for photos, the heat of the lava was so intense we tried to hurry.   When I turned around a few minutes later, I saw that a new small river of lava had emerged right over the path I had just crossed.   My heart palpitations had been justified!

In the distance, lava was visible on the slopes of the volcano as it rose up miles toward the caldera.   Other, more adventurous hikers made their way up there but we were content to wander around closer flows take our photos.   Our guide advised us on the most dramatic poses to maximize the affect of the lava.  As night fell, it dawned on me that the hike back might be even more difficult in the dark and rallied for an earlier departure.   Unfortunately, being the laggard in the group, my entreaties fell on deaf ears.  I  had to wait for everyone eager to see the glow of the lava in the dark.   After an hour, we set off with headlamps on and flashlights.   Although the hike back took more than three hours, everyone arrived back uninjured and full of tales of a once in a lifetime expedition.

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My three travel companions, Madelaine, Tristan and Megan.

 

After nearly seven hours on the trail, we were starving and hoping to treat ourselves to a hearty dinner.   Unfortunately, the nearest town of Pahoa literally closes down by 10 pm so we resourcefully found dinner at the local gas station — yogurt, milk, sandwich wraps, cheese sticks did the trick.   It is sobering to see the news of the continuing eruptions of Kilauea and the destruction occurring in the area that we visited.   The roads we drove to reach the tour no longer exist and quite likely, the little yellow house and its neighbors are also gone.  Perhaps, even the gas station where we found our dinner is also gone.  Our thoughts are with the residents of Pahoa, Kalapana and the area near the volcano.

A little video of the lava flow:

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Kayak Swim Patrol at the Boulder Ironman 2015

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Kayak Swim Patrol at the Boulder Ironman 2015
Getting ready to push off for the race start.

Ready to push off for the race start.

At this point in my life, the closest I will ever get to doing an Ironman is by volunteering at one. Having done triathlons on a smaller scale for almost 20 years and even participating on several triathlons teams, I can relate to the euphoria of crossing the finish line after months of hard training.   That feeling of accomplishment is something I love and at times, tempts me into actually considering putting the Ironman on my bucket list.   But, after a few minutes of dreaming about it, I come to my senses and realize that its a crazy thought.   When I think about the necessary year of intense training, the potentail injuries, the family support and missed obligations, the expense and the actual task of covering 140.1 miles in the water, on the bike and on foot, it all seems like too much.   On the other hand, watching my friends and others  complete this goal  gives me that  euphoric feeling — especially when I watch athletes cross the finish line close to the 17 hour deadline.

Megan and I suiting up with life jackets for the kayak swim patrol.

Megan and I suiting up for the kayak swim patrol.

Eager to experience  the adrenaline rush of seeing thousands of determined athletes attempt to reach the extraordinary goal of finshing an Ironman, I decided to add my name to the list of volunteers.   Inspired by my daughter who told me about the openings on the kayak swim patrol (a role I filled twice at the Ironman Wisconsin), I signed on too.    As a member of the swim patrol, our job is to patrol the swim course as the athletes embark on the first portion of the race — a 2.4 mile swim.

The Boulder Reservoir at 5:30 am. We are waiting for our orientation before we head out for the 6:25 am race start.

The Boulder Reservoir at 5:30 am. We are waiting for our orientation before we head out for the 6:25 am race start.

In preparation for the race, those of us with boats were asked to bring them up to Boulder Reservoir two days early for inspection and drop off.    On Friday afternoon, I made the 45 minute drive up with two kayaks — one for me and one for Megan — and to pick up the coveted parking pass which would give us early morning access to the Rez parking lot.    Even the athletes would have to bus to the start line of the swim so I was happy to be able to drive right up to water’s edge and leave once my job was completed.    With our shifts starting at 5 am, Megan and I headed up to Boulder the night before the race to stay with my friend Patty.    Up by 4:15 am, our lack of sleep was rewarded with fewer miles to drive, little traffic and an early arrival to our pre-sunrise shift.

Megan paddling to her station on the swim course.

Megan paddling to her station on the swim course.

We assembled with dozens of other volunteers near the lifeguard headquarters on the beach and scrambled in the dark for our volunteer t-shirts, snacks and water bottles.    Rows of kayaks, paddle boards, jet skiis,  piles of paddles, life jackets and more lined the quiet beach.   As the glimmer of the new day began to appear on the horizon, an official Ironman captain greeted the group for a brief orientaiton.   He underscored the importance of our role in helping athletes in trouble and identifying any potential problems.    We lined up for whisltes, extra flotation devices, warning flags and jerseys with the number of our locations on the swim course.    Megan and I dragged our boats from the secure storage area and prepared to embark on our mission.

Working the "hot zone" at buoy #2, I had a perfect view of the Boulder Flatirons.

Working the “hot zone” at buoy #2, I had a perfect view of the Boulder Flatirons.

Having experienced the thrill of working in the “hot zone” at the Ironman Wisconsin — the beginning and the end of the race — I picked the yellow jersey for Zone 2; an area just 500 yards from race start.   Once in the water, I realized that the race start was clear across the reservoir and started the mile long paddle to my position.    When I could hear the inspirational tunes blaring at race start, I knew I was close.   After positioning myself with a view of majestic Flatirons in the distance, I paused to take a few photos and waited for the race to start. Once the horn sounded and the splash of hundreds competitors hitting the water commenced,  I knew the water would soon vibrate with the movement of thousands of athletes.

Within minutes the fastest swimmers reached my zone and the calm waters turned into a frenzy. Fortunately, the weather conditions were close to perfect with few clouds in the sky, warm water and air and almost no wind.   But even with perfect conditions, there are inevitably problems with so many swimmers getting in the water at once —   shoving, kicking, gasping for air, panic as tight wetsuits choke precious breaths and also, the glare of the sun rising in the East — the direction of the first leg of the swim. Within 10 minutes, the first swimmers started to pass buoy #2.   As the cluster of swimmers thickened, panicked ahtletes started to signal to me for help and some even grabbed onto the boat.   For the most part, I was able to communicate to the swimmers that I wanted them to grab the bow of the kayak.  Several times, however, desperate swimmers tried to climb on top of my boat and nearly tipped me and my kayak into the churning waters.   I was less worried about getting dunked  than how I’d get myself back into  the kayak.   Fortunately, I was never had to face with this dilemna. In an effort to  reassure stranded swimmers I said things like ” How are you?  You’re doing to be fine.   Relax, hold on, catch your breath.  You’ve got this!”  Sometimes, they stopped because of a tight wetsuit restricting their breath, other times because they’d gotten the wind knocked out them from a kick or a shove.   Of the 20 or so swimmers who grabbed ahold of my kayak, all of them were men and all were able to get their wits about them to continue.

After the majority of swimmers had passed the 500 meter mark, I was directed to head to a new position on the race course.   IMG_9455Paddling a mile across the reservoir to another leg of the swim course, I enjoyed the sweeping views of the front range and the perfectly calm waters.    Once I reached my destination, I found  myself lined up with a fleet of extra kayaks and paddleboarders.   The frenzy of the “hot zone” was over and I was able to sit back and cheer the swimmers on.    I saw several friends swim by and started to calculate how much time was left, the distance to the finish line and whether the stragglers would  make it.   I also spotted a strong swimmer pulling a little boat carrying a young handicapped man.   I wondered if this was the father son duo made famous in the news.    If it so, I was honored to witness this endearing testiment of fatherly devotion in person.    With 20 minutes left in the race, a boat captain signaled that I could head to shore if I wished.   But, as I made my move, I was lured by he roar of the music at the swim finish and by the joyous congratulations broadcast to swimmers as they completed this leg of the race.   I couldn’t help but linger on the sidelines to vicariously experience one  euphoric moment after another.   And as so many of we Ironman addicts can attest, the most exciting moments happen in the last few minutes  of each stage of the race.    When the last few competitors  are collectively cheered, conjoled and willed by a fleet of enthusiastic volunteers, often with seconds to spare, to victoriously cross the finish line and keep their spot in the race.   Woohoo!!  Woohoo!! Woohoo!!

IMG_9471 By 9 am, Megan and I had pulled our boats ashore and were ready to pack up.  Playing a key role in the pivotal journey of so many was as awesome as was having the opportunity to be on the water at sunrise.   Can’t wait to do it again!!