Runnin’ With Rani: Kaloko hill climb equal parts beauty and beast

For nearly three decades, cyclists and runners from near and far have gathered at the bottom of beautiful Kaloko Drive to challenge themselves on Kona’s most iconic climb.

The prestigious Pedal Till Ya Puke, Run Till Ya Ralph 6.5-mile hill climb event, as it is called, continues to be a true testament of courage, strength, mental tenacity that serves to reveal the core of every athlete’s soul. Sunday’s races proved no different.

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Beginning in 1991, the event has survived the insurmountable challenges often associated with organizing an annual event, but thanks to Peaman and his Frozen Pea Production crew, it continues to thrive as the longest running and cycling hill climb event on the island.

Both riders and runners ascend 3,000 feet in elevation over a grueling 6.5 miles, with several sections showcasing a punishing 17-20 percent grade — a difficult climb not for the faint of heart. And the scene at the top of the climb never gets old. Cyclists and runners in agony, bent over and gasping for air, holding back urges to dispel that morning’s breakfast – hence the fitting name for the race.

But there’s something unique about climbing to the top of Kaloko that makes everyone feel like a true champion.

Maybe it’s the feeling of accomplishment of enduring the searing pain of burning lungs and legs that comes with the rapid change in elevation upon the unrelenting ascent? Or maybe it’s bearing witness to the exotic lush green scenery, with wildly growing yellow ginger and blue hydrangea as you are humbled by the cruel, yet beautiful journey into the clouds?

For whatever reason it is, people in Kona will most certainly refer to you as being “pupule” — crazy, nuts — for taking on such a daunting challenge.

I remember the first year I attempted Kaloko. It was 1999 and while completely naïve to the rigors such a climb entailed, it was a race that assembled the “Who’s Who” of talented runners and cyclists across the state.

Toeing the line that year was the legendary Karl Honma of Waimea and Oahu’s Rachel Graybill, who was considered to be the top female runner in the state, along with numerous other Big Island talent.

As Honma shot straight to the front and set a hard, unforgiving pace for himself, Graybill and I attempted to follow his footsteps and within a minute, both of us were nearly out of breath with the effort. I had in mind to “conquer” Kaloko, regardless if that meant win or not, but I soon realized my novel mistake. There was no conquering such an epic climb, my only way forward was to embrace what lay ahead.

With every turn of the steep, winding Kaloko Drive, Graybill gained a few more strides on me and eventually, began to slowly pull away. Being the veteran runner that she was, she respected the climb long before I did and in doing so, had made peace with the agonizing reality of running up such a beast of a hill.

And in the end it paid off, for both Graybill and Honma, as she sailed through the finish line claiming the women’s crown in 1 hour, 4 minutes and 12 seconds. Honma set the overall course record at a sizzling 52:13 – a time that still stands today.

I finished as second female overall and had learned valuable lessons of patience and perseverance that would help my running career for many years to come.

On Sunday, now 20 years later, I once again stood at the bottom of Kaloko Drive but this time, alongside four-time defending champion, Cody Ranfranz. While there were several sections of the hill that had me gaining on Ranfranz it was never enough – he continued on to finish ahead to win his fifth consecutive title in a fabulous time of 1:02:18.

Ranfranz’s victory tied Honma’s winning streak at five a piece, although Honma still owns the course record and a total of 10-Kaloko titles. I crossed the finish line in second place and claimed my tenth women’s division title in a time of 1:03:26. The ever-consistent veteran runner and triathlete, Jon Jokiel, finished in third at 1:08:07, with Gerald Gruber winning the road bike division with his time of 1:13:04.

“I’ve always been good on hills, but this hill is indescribable,” Ranfranz said of the reason he returns every year. “The challenge, even as painful as it is, keeps drawing me back to keep doing it. Today was knowing that you were behind me that kept me going, but one definitely has to have a strong mind especially going around some of the corners. So part of it is the challenge and the other part is that it’s my final send-off, just going out with a bang for summer before I head back to college.”

And not everyone who competed in the 6.5-mile race had done the climb before. Kailua-Kona’s Kyle Katase was among the few who decided to try something new.

“It was very vertical, really tough, but a lot of fun at the same time,” said the 2011 HPA graduate after crossing the finish line in fourth overall at 1:18:11. “It was all brand new to me as this was the farthest I’ve ever run. I usually do 2-3 miles runs and then I decided to do this run. While I’ve driven this road to the top before, there were portions where I didn’t feel I was running – it was walking up the vertical sections but the straightaways were fun to run.”

Katase said he grew up as a competitive swimmer on the island, competing in open water swims such as Hapuna, King’s Swim, Kukio and Cinco de Mayo, but rarely ever gave much thought to riding a bike or running until he watched his older brother compete in Honu, also known as Ironman 70.3 Hawaii.

“Watching him finish inspired me to want to try this,” said Katase, who works with his dad at Royal Hawaiian Sea Farms, growing and selling limu (seaweed) to local businesses in Kona, Hilo, Maui, Oahu, Kauai, Las Vegas and California.

“I didn’t do any Peamans growing up so I did my first Peaman about a month ago as a few of my friends were doing it,” Katase said. “I had a lot of fun and I’m trying to get into triathlons. I think something like this is a great way to get introduced to triathlons as my goal is to do Lavaman and Honu next year and hopefully, maybe someday Ironman.”

For those who didn’t feel like doing the full distance, a 3.5-mile climb was offered. Kealakehe high school cross-country standout, Leann Hamilton, won in a great time of 43:07. Sara Abernathy was next in 44:32, with Bill Culhane and his famous canine companion, Buddy, rounded out the top three with their time of 52:14.

Captain Cook’s Frank Miller, a lifetime runner and private criminal defense attorney who specializes in DUI cases, estimated that he’s competed in the climb on at least 5-6 occasions. He finished the 3.5-mile course in 1:03:22.

“Today I did the 3.5-mile course, but mostly walking,” Miller said with a laugh. “I keep coming to a horizon and think ‘this is it’ and then there’s another hill before the finish line.”

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The event also included a longer course 17-mile climb that began at the bottom of Hualalai Road and Kuakini Highway due to the cancellation of Saturday’s Sea To Stars bike race.

Kailua-Kona’s Caleb Barville took top honors with his time of 1:18:21, with the next two spots going to Volcano’s Todd Marohnic and Dan Hill with their times of 1:33:56 and 1:34:39 respectively.

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