Uphill Battle obstacle course modeled after trek through Himalayas — so yeah, it’s difficult

  • Competitors heave sandbags over a wooden wall at the start of Saturday's Uphill Battle on the University of Nations campus. (Photos by Tom Hasslinger / West Hawaii Today(
  • Matt Caldwell drags his sled up the long, cement hill on the University of Nations campus.
  • Thunder Frost shows the pain of carrying a 75-pound sandbag in one hand while walking with 30-plus pounds above your head with the other.
  • Shad Ceci eyes up the distance to get 100 pounds over the fence. If he misses and it drops, it doesn't count.

The happy faces walking downhill carrying boogie boards on the way to the beach started to make me mad.

I was dragging a sled, that’s why.

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I had eight minutes to get to the top of a cement-covered hill that jets up the University of Nations campus and the sled, stacked with weight, was inching up the incline behind me, fastened to my body through shoulder straps.

When you’re five minutes into such a climb your calves have long tied themselves in knots and every second listening to the metal scrape is agony on top.

So when smiling faces pranced past, I got a little annoyed.

I did what anyone would do in that situation. I snapped at my judge, Erin Crain, who was walking next to me encouraging me, but also making sure I didn’t cheat, which I almost did.

“How much time do I have,” I snapped, but really, it was more of a wheeze.

“Huh?” said Erin.

My chest was heaving. I didn’t know if I had enough to speak out loud again. Somehow, I did.

“Two minutes,” Erin said. “You have plenty of time.”

Two minutes can be an eternity. Sometimes 10 seconds can. These two minutes were just that; scrape, wheeze, scrape, wheeze, but eventually, I crossed the finish line. It wasn’t the be-all, end-all finish line, it was just that finish line.

When my head started to clear, I apologized to Erin, but I was bent over and my apology came out like a cough, so I had to repeat that, too.

“You’re fine,” Erin said. Later, when it was all over, she just laughed at me. “Now go run up the rest of the hill and run another lap and I’ll pick you back up for your next event.”

The events that litter the Kailua-Kona course make up the Uphill Battle, a grueling challenge created by Respect the Corners CrossFitters, Tiger Hill and Blake Casteel.

West Hawaii is a hub for athletic community races. Every weekend you can find swims, runs, bike races, triathlons. It’s home to other CrossFit challenges as well. Pohaku’s Double Trouble and the All Star Roundup in Waimea both draw in competitors every year, even from other islands. The Sea to Stars bike climb, the party that is Lavaman, Ironman, the list goes on.

But the Uphill Battle — it’s third annual running was Saturday — is carving out a unique niche. It’s modeled after a trek through the Himalaya mountains, something Blake and Tiger did back in 2015, delivering Bibles to two villages. The difficulty of the journey at 13,000 feet floored them, which is saying something because both are built like bricks.

“So humbling,” Tiger said of the experience. “So, so humbling.”

Respect the Corners — more on the meaning of its name later — is a gym at the University of Nations, and these guys and gals get after it. They workout using the high endurance cross training method at full tilt. But the competitions they host aren’t platforms to preach.

Rather, Blake said, they just use CrossFit to be healthy and meet a swath of other people. If you have questions or want to learn more about their faith, feel free to ask, but otherwise, CrossFit is actually a pretty good networking model.

It’s the best avenue, Blake said, he’s ever experienced meeting people.

“Like you,” Blake said to me mid-interview. We met at a different event about two years ago. “You’re a journalist. How else would we have met?”

But back to the course.

Another thing those guys learned on their trek, which they do every year, is how disheartening it proved turning a blind corner only to see the trail pitch even higher. The mental component of being ready for the unknown was a huge physiological and physical test, and something they wanted to mimic.

So after the start of Uphill Battle, you never know.

It began this year with 30 sandbag throws over a wall. After each throw, the competitor had to crawl under a gap at the bottom of the wall to pick up the 75- to 100-pound bag to throw it over again. I accused Tiger of trying to crush souls.

“We don’t like to see people crushed,” he laughed. “We like to see people challenged like they’ve never been challenged before.”

I threw all 30. Then it was off into the hills above Kailua-Kona where all the rest was waiting.

There was rowing, bear crawls, deadlifts and more. It was in the heat of the third event dragging the sled that my spirit started to sink.

The long cement hill also had narrow cement speed bumps. When your slowing moving sled hit one of those, it needed that much extra oomph to get over, a tiny grain of salt on a wound. I was almost at the finish line when I saw, at the last speed bump, an opening on the road’s shoulder where I could just move a few paces to the right to avoid it.

“Don’t do it,” Erin said before I even took my first step that way. She must have seen my hips starting to adjust. When you’re breaking down it’s almost comical how basic you become. But here’s where the gym’s name comes in. “If you cut corners here, you will in real life, too.”

She was right.

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I inched, scraped, finished, wheezed, coughed, and regrouped. That was the key, regrouping.

When I did, I connected back to the trail and was off.

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