Nearly 250 participants took to the beautiful trails of Puuwaawaa Forest Reserve on Saturday to celebrate the 12th anniversary of the Run for the Dry Forest 10K, 5K, and Keiki Dash running events.
It was the largest turnout for the annual event, which began in 2005 to help increase public awareness, involvement and education of the historic Puuwaawaa region. Each year, net proceeds of the event help to support conservation, preservation and restoration efforts of dry forests in Hawaii.
“I feel good that it’s grown to a really good size, but I don’t want it to get too much bigger,” said race director Lyman Perry, a botanist with the State of Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife, who works primarily with endangered plant species. “I am really proud of this race but I couldn’t do it without all the help.
A large part of the event’s growth can be credited to Perry’s ongoing partnership with People’s Advocacy for Trails Hawaii (PATH), a non-profit bicycle, pedestrian and trail advocacy organization.
“This will be the biggest turnout as typically we are around 200 to 250,” said Tina Clothier, executive director of PATH. “We started the morning with 265 registrants and we’ve had more people sign up since we opened registration this morning.”
Clothier said that PATH has been the fiscal sponsor of the event from the beginning and supports the race with volunteers, race materials as well as the online registration structure.
“I think the word is out for this particular race and it’s a very popular race for the people who know about it and do it,” Clothier said. “So I think word of mouth is really spreading it.”
And, the event has grown to become more than just a challenging trail race.
“We now have the interpretive booths, guided hikes, and a keiki run — just something for the whole family,” Perry said. “We hope to have food booths in the future so people can hang out for little longer.
Puuwaawaa was once considered the most botanically diverse forest in Hawaii. But wildfires and more than a century worth of grazing by domestic livestock and feral animals removed much of its native vegetation, leaving few remaining patches of dry forest.
Today, Puuwaawaa is protected and lies on the northern flank of Hualalai’s dormant volcano, extending from sea level at Kiholo Bay up to a mile in elevation near the volcano’s summit.
Puuwaawaa is the namesake of the greater ahupua’a (traditional land management area) in the North Kona District, and is managed as both a state forest reserve in the upper regions and a state park near the lower coastal areas.
Meaning “the many-furrowed hill,” the higher Puuwaawaa region features an exotic native dryland forest, home to endangered bird and plant species and its most prominent landmark, an ancient volcanic cinder cone.
The towering grassy mound, shaped like an upside down Jello mold, is what draws immediate attention to those who travel the upper road of Mamaloahoa Highway from Kona to Waimea. This unique natural landmark of Puuwaawaa boasts being the oldest surface feature on all of Hualalai and is said to have formed from an explosive burst of lava over 100,000 years ago.
Each year an endangered plant or animal from Puuwaawaa is the event’s featured theme to raise awareness and education on these exotic wonders. This year’s featured plant was the Ohia (Metrosideros polymorpha), which is the most abundant native tree in the state of Hawaii and is also battling a lethal fungal disease (Ceratocystis), also known as Rapid Ohia Death.
“We thought this year was a good year to feature the Ohia tree to bring attention to the plight of the Ohia because of Rapid Ohia Death,” Perry said. “It is such an important tree for our water sheds and it’s the most common native tree. It grows from sea level to 8,000 feet in a variety of habitats. It’s extremely resilient, like the people of Hawaii, so we thought it was a fitting tribute. We wanted to bring more attention to the fact that a lot of trees are dying because of this introduced disease.”
As one of the few off-road footraces on the island, much of the attraction to those competing in the longer 10K (6.1-mile) race was the challenge of conquering the single-track trail circumventing the majestic cinder cone while witnessing some of the most breathtaking views from atop.
Competitors began their trek at the Meeting House and took a lap around the reservoir before heading up a steep, winding trail with loose rocky footing and an elevation gain of 1,200 feet during the first three miles.
Defending champion, Patrick Stover, said he had to devise a plan as he awoke feeling exhausted from a busy workweek.
I didn’t want to start off too quickly because I knew we had to run up this big hill,” said the 30-year old Kailua-Kona resident. “So I decided that since there was really no one here to challenge me, I decided to try and run up this big hill without stopping for the first time.”
Stover said he initially started out running with a group until he hit the hill where he “pushed it but not too much.”
“I wanted to see if anyone would challenge me and try to stick to hold on,” he said. “But I noticed most dropped off and once I opened a gap, then I felt I could relax a bit.”
From there, Stover was solo all the way down the volcanic cinder cone to defend his title in an impressive time of 42 minutes and 3 seconds.
“Today was really beautiful, you could see all the mountains and the air quality was really clear,” Stover said. “It’s a very scenic course so even if you are having a hard time at least you can look around and feel one with nature.”
The battle for second place turned out to be a good match between Germany’s Timm Gaertner and Keauhou’s Penn Henderson.
Henderson led Gaertner by over a minute upon circumventing the summit of Puuwaawaa, but struggled navigating through the crazy descent toward the finish line. Gaertner blew by to claim second in a time of 44:28, with Henderson holding onto third at 46:33.
On the women’s side, Bree Brown easily defended her crown by winning her third consecutive title in a time of 46:49, her fastest finishing time at Puuwaawaa.
“It was good to come back and be a part of this race because this was my first ever trail race,” Brown said. “Right after I quit triathlon two years ago, Pat (Stover) knew I was going to get into a slump and so he was the one that told me to come do this race and got me hooked into trail running.”
Brown added that she didn’t partake in trail running for the prizes or to win, but more for the journey in trying something new. Puuwaawaa has also become a special place for Brown and her son, Kainoa.
“Ever since he was little we’ve been coming here,” said the 38-year old Kahakai Elementary School teacher. “Even if we didn’t have shoes on, we’d hike with our slippers to the top and so this has really become our spot. He even broke his arm at the top of that hill.”
Following Brown in the women’s division were Keaau’s Amy Young and Sylvia Ravaglia of Kamuela. Young finished in a time of 49:05, with Ravaglia in third at 52:18.
In the shorter 5K footrace, Kailua-Kona’s Elliot Parsons lead wire-to-wire to win in a stellar time of 21:05. The win was his second victory out of eight consecutive years competing in the 5K race, and his eighth year helping Perry organize the Run for the Dry Forest events.
“I work for the Division of Forestry and Wildlife with the Department of Land and Natural Resources,” Parsons said. “I am here at the Puuwaawaa State Forest Reserve to help implement a management plan that was passed in 2003, that includes all kinds of objectives including forest restoration, public outreach, environmental awareness, and working with school groups.”
Parsons said he usually only competes in the 5K as he feels that he can only get away for so long before returning to race organizational duties. As soon as he crossed the finish line, Parsons immediately disappeared to get more water cups for the refreshment booth before returning to the interview.
“It was good, it felt better than expected,” Parsons said of his race. “And I felt fairly strong but I was really happy that it was over. I tried to convince myself always that my position was in jeopardy and I never turn around to look back. I just go as fast as I can.”
Next to sprint across the finish line was Kailua-Kona’s John Ferdico in 23:07, followed by Hilo’s Koa Matsuoka with his time of 27:17.
Kailua-Kona’s Cary Aurand claimed her first 5K women’s victory, while finishing third overall, in a fantastic time of 25:45.
“I’ve never done this race before so I did not know the course, but I knew it wasn’t going to be as tough as the 10K,” Aurand said. “And I had no idea that I was in first. It was a struggle towards the end but I felt good. I think I might do the 10K next year.”
Noelani Vargas, of Kamuela, and Kailua-Kona’s Lisa Vos Drutar secured the next two spots with their times of 26:54 and 28:32 respectively.
Perry, an accomplished long distance runner who will compete in his 23rd consecutive Honolulu Marathon next month, credited the event’s success to the ongoing support and partnerships with PATH, U.S. Forest Service, Ironman Kokua program, Big Island Running Company, Bike Works, Costco, the amazing volunteers and Elliott Parsons, the project manager and ahupuaa coordinator for Puuwaawaa.
“So I encourage people to come out, volunteer at Puuwaawaa to learn something about this beautiful place that they live. And if they can give back a little bit, then it would be a more meaningful life experience for them to live here if they understand what’s happening on their island and backyard.”