Word by: Mimi Middlebrooks
Photos by: Jonas Hill
This is the story of five friends coming together to run a half marathon in the crater of a volcano on a remote Pacific island. It is a story of friendship, a quest for true belonging, and a rad adventure that we will remember for the rest of our lives.
While living on Maui a couple of years ago, Jonas dreamt up the idea of running in the crater. He ran the 11 mile Sliding Sands Trail by himself in 2018 and since that run, he’s had this vision of extending it to 13.1 miles and convincing a few friends to join him. Fast forward to November of 2019 in Boulder, CO., and turning this running dream into a reality is Jonas’ new number one priority (besides the wedding of two of our very dear friends, of course). We texted a few friends who still lived on island to gauge their level of interest in adventure/suffering. A couple of friends said no thank you, but as expected, a few responded with a resounding hell yes, let’s do this. And thus, our team of thrill seekers was formed: Jonas, Brandon, Will, Katie, and myself (and shoutout to Kellyn who was all in but had to work).
An important part of this story is understanding the path leading each of us to do this run. I’ll spare you the novel and share just a small tidbit of each of our running journeys:
Jonas’ interest in running is fairly new compared to his other outdoor interests. Last year he ran a marathon without training and proved to himself that he does in fact enjoy the sport. And he recently began training with bigger goals of accomplishing an ultra-marathon. This run was easy for him but he wasn’t doing it to set a PR or to prove anything to himself. His dream for this experience stemmed from a deep craving for camaraderie and that sense of being bonded by a shared experience. He’s more interested in achieving this as a team, photographing our journey, and having a story to tell to inspire others to seek this same feeling.
Brandon is a husband, in his first year of fatherhood, and one of the most stoked people that we know. Prior to receiving a text about this run, Brandon was not a runner. But that didn’t stop him from believing that he could do this. For eleven weeks, he trained for this half marathon with a steady pace and steady perseverance. Now not only is Brandon a father, a husband, and a role model to us all… but he’s a runner.
Will is a question-asker, a truth-seeker, and a connoisseur of the wildest and most thrilling things in life. Will is the kind of guy that would climb a mountain in dress shoes if its all he had with him, or ride a piece of cardboard that’s in the back of his truck if the swell is good. The point being that it didn’t surprise us when Will was up for this spontaneous running adventure and that he crushed it with little to no training.
Katie is my closest friend in Boulder, CO and we work together. One day we were standing around small talking and I told Katie that I was taking a trip to Maui in January. I had only known her for a couple weeks and I kid you not, her immediate response was, “can I come?” Like a crazy person, I said yes and luckily, we became great friends since that moment and she agreed to join us on this adventure. The way that Katie believes in herself and in others is contagious. When she experiences something, someone or somewhere she finds amazing, she is like an alien on planet Earth who discovered it for the first time. Something as simple as a blade of grass gets her excited. She is compassionate, she is funny and she is a badass athlete.
And then there’s me, Mimi. Moving my body in the outdoors is one of my greatest passions but I’ve never considered myself a runner. Upon moving to Colorado in September, I could barely run 2 miles. I started training for this run in December and my body’s ability to adapt to distance blew me away. I’ve always been the kind of person that sees myself as 6 feet tall when in reality I’m 5’2”, but this journey has taught me that I am as strong as I dream of being. It has taught me that I can do anything I set my mind to and that I too, am a runner.
Now, to set the scene. We’re about 2,500 miles from the mainland coastline. It is a perfectly clear day on Maui and the five of us are crammed into a Jeep Wrangler listening to Funkytown by Lipps, Inc. and making our way up the winding road of Haleakalā Highway. It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, so the National Park entrance was free and it felt like a fitting day to fight for something we wanted to achieve.
We parked at the end of the trail and put our thumbs out to catch a ride to the top of the crater. A couple picked up three of us first. We were excited to brag about our impending run in hopes to fill us with a bit of confidence. Upon asking these strangers questions about their lives, we soon learned that the man sitting in the passenger seat had just completed running a full marathon in each of the 50 states and Hawaii was his final race. We were immediately humbled and inspired and felt like we were in the presence of a god. He’s planning to run a 100-mile race in a month, which helped us to believe that this was just the beginning of our own running journey.
After a slight delay, due to failed hitchhiking attempts by the other half of our crew, we finally began running. At the rim of the crater, we had a breath-taking view of the Mars-like landscape beneath us. We huddled together, said a prayer for safety and fun, and began our descent. The first six miles were cruiser downhill strides on fine bits of lava rock. We filled the air with conversation and excited disbelief that we were living in the present moment of this run finally happening.
The rim of the crater, where the trail begins, sits at 10,023 feet of elevation. We made our way down to ~6,000 ft by mile 7 and the final two miles we climbed back up to 8,000 ft. It was about 50 degrees out and not a cloud in the sky. Thankfully our lungs handled the elevation well and we cruised our way past endemic silversword plants and around deep red cinder cones. Running through this landscape felt like connecting with the beginning of time. We were experiencing geological formations that were millions of years old while thriving in the strength of our young bodies. This experience made us aware of the brief existence of our lives compared to the timeline of our planet and grateful for the privilege that is running.
Miles 8-10 were rock hopping over sharp and loose lava rock, testing our balancing strength. Just at the end of the stretch of loose rock, Katie rolled an ankle. As she sat off the trail, fighting off feelings of defeat, a Nēnē goose fearlessly approached her. She thought out loud, “God, is that you?” in hopes for some comedic relief in this moment of despair. Moments later, a stranger approached us offering an ankle support compression sleeve. Katie cried in disbelief of the magic of the moment. The island provided for us and we felt equipped and energized to finish our run strong. We ate a few energy gummies and continued on toward the ascent that was ahead of us.
Our ascent up the switchback trail looked more like a fast-paced walk/jog than a run, but we persevered up the 2,000 ft. climb. With each turn we gained a higher perspective of the trail we had just traversed in the crater beneath us. We were rewarded with a rainbow covered in fog followed by a circular rainbow as we continued on to our final mile. We crossed over from the trail into the parking lot with immense joy and an overwhelming amount of group accomplishment. It was amazing to witness how sticking together like a pack led us to this moment of victory.
This experience was more than just running a half marathon. We were all seeking personal growth through accomplishment. Jonas was in search of feeling part of like-minded community and telling a story. Brandon wanted to become a stronger person and thus a stronger father to his daughter. Will was seeking an experience that will transition him into leading the life he longs to live. Katie did this to test her self-worth and to feel her own physical, mental and spiritual strength. And I did this run as a quest for true belonging within myself.
I am so grateful to the Native people of Hawaii and our granted access onto this sacred land. I am grateful for the U.S. National Park Service for preserving and defending this public space. I am grateful for my friends that join me on these sorts of searches for genuine connection and fulfillment in life. I am grateful to have an able body and to have the privilege of being able to run.
All it takes is one dream. And with that dream, anyone can become a runner.