Runnin’ with Rani: Remembering the queen of trail running

  • Sylvia compete in the annual Jingle Bell Beach Run every year with her family. (Courtesy Photo)
  • Sylvia Ravaglia rips up the trails at the HURT 100-mile ultra race in 2015. (Courtesy Photo)
  • Sylvia Ravaglia.
  • Sylvia Ravaglia became the first Big Islander to finish five consecutive HURT Hawaii 100-mile ultra endurance trail runs on Oahu. Pictured, Ravaglia crosses the finish line in 2018 with her daughter, Tiffany. (Courtesy Photo)

Personal columns are a rarity for me — but sometimes certain events strike deep, compelling my inner thoughts and feelings to resonate.

A few weeks ago on New Year’s Day, a woman who I admired as an athlete and friend passed away. Well, to be quite blunt, she was tragically killed after being hit in broad daylight by a motor vehicle while doing what she loved most, running.

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I still find myself welling up in tears thinking of dear Sylvia Ravaglia of Kamuela. Trying but failing to gain a grasp on the many questions racing through my mind that always begins with, “Why?” More tears fall when I think of her husband Mark, their beautiful daughter, Tiffany, and how a senseless act could end someone’s life in an instant. It is just a complete and utter sadness.

At a youthful 42 years of age, Sylvia was one of the most passionate people that I ever met. Passionate about life, her family, her horses, the endurance sports community in the realm of swim-bike-run, being a swim coach and her unrelenting determination to push her body beyond imaginable.

Sylvia truly lived each day, each breath to the fullest. Everyone knew what a ridiculously talented athlete-Energizer bunny she was who accomplished more on two feet than anyone could ever hope for in a lifetime.

She was truly a champion of ultra-endurance trail running events. For anyone who may not understand what “ultra” might mean, think of running 100 miles non-stop, day and night, rain or shine, over the gnarliest trails, through muddy and rocky terrain with only the moonlight and stars to guide the way. Or maybe competing in a double Ironman-distance triathlon race, three-days of swim-bike-run encircling the Big Island all for just the fun of it.

That was Sylvia, and after my first interview with her in 2014 post completion of her first HURT (Hawaii Ultra Running Team) Hawaii 100-mile endurance trail run in Oahu, I told her she was absolutely “nuts.”

“I truly enjoyed getting the chance to experience what a day really is and how it made me feel to go through it,” Ravaglia said in that interview. “Seeing the stars at night, then the sun rising, the different sounds around me, made me so much more aware of the world and how it changes through time.”

With her body feeling beat down but not broken, I should’ve known her answer when asked if she would consider doing the HURT 100 again, or any other agonizingly long endurance event for that matter. Without hesitation she replied, “Absolutely!”

Later that year she competed in the prestigious Ultraman World Championships — a 6.2-mile swim, 171.4-mile bike, followed by a 52.4-mile double marathon here on the Big Island.

“I don’t know what it is, but I may have a fatigue addiction,” Ravaglia joked before the race. “I definitely like the curiosity of not knowing how (the race) will turn out when I have never done it before. It is very satisfying to accomplish a goal you never thought you could.”

I asked how in the world she gets through Ultra marathons and races in one piece? She said, “I’m not super fast, but I can go for a very long time. I love the training. Once I get started, it becomes meditative, it’s very pure, I’m able to mentally drift – it’s Zen.”

Every year after accomplishing one feat after another, I found myself calling her for an interview – she was practically on speed dial. Another race that comes to mind was when she won the Inaugural Mauna to Mauna Ultra in 2017 — a 155.9-mile self-supported footrace spanned over seven days (multistage) that began at Coconut Island in Hilo and finished on the beautiful grounds of the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel.

It was touted as one of the most remote self-supported (meaning no outside assistance) stage footraces in the world, as competitors were required to ascend and descend two massive volcanic mountains — Maunakea and Mauna Loa — for a total elevation gain of 22,238 feet.

Of course, Sylvia breezed through all seven days with a smile — beating most of the men’s field and topping the nearest female competitor by over three hours. That’s when I told her she achieved “Queen” status — earning her the title I created just for her, “Queen of Trail Running.”

“Winning the women’s race at M2M was a shock I am still processing,” she said humbly. “It is certainly very special to me that a Big Island resident could win this event covering so many miles of the Big Island. I think I’m still a bit confused that the Big Island resident happens to be me.”

My last interview with her was in 2018 — the year she became the first Big Island competitor (male or female) to finish five consecutive HURT Hawaii 100-mile endurance trail runs. Sylvia’s goal was to complete five and be done, and in her words, “one that began as an ugly dream five years ago.”

“Back then it was just a total fantasy,” she said. “Back then, I wasn’t even sure that I could do one as I didn’t know what it would actually entail doing HURT the first time around. And I never seriously thought that it would be possible that I could do five. But now, here I am, I just completed my 5th HURT 100 in a row.”

Knowing it would be her last HURT 100, she purchased 200 silicone bracelets in advance and gave them to every volunteer out on the racecourse while she ran. It was her way of giving back and saying “thank you” to those who helped her when she needed it the most.

It also turned out to be a reality check when a false alarm from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency sent out a high alert message to the entire state that we were all in imminent danger of a nuclear catastrophe. Sylvia said she immediately thought of her husband, Mark, and their 10-year old daughter, Tiffany.

“I think that HURT offers us a chance to really appreciate living in this beautiful world. For 35-hours, I get to live in this world where everything is good, where all the things that are scary in the world don’t exist, and where everyone loves to run and be one with nature. And then we had this bomb scare. Luckily, it wasn’t real.”

Sylvia said she became an emotional wreck prior to crossing that finish line. The last few miles allowed her to reflect on all five of her HURT finishes and it was the first time she would run in with her daughter.

“Probably the most special thing I did for my 5th HURT was having my daughter Tiffany pace me in during the last 7 ½ miles,” she said. “That was really special for me and it made me really emotional and happy to be able to finish with my daughter.”

Sylvia paved the way for all women distance runners on the Big Island, and throughout the State, giving us the motivation that no matter how ridiculously hard it may seem, we can do it if we just put our mind and heart to it. No distance is ever too far and no challenge is ever too great, it’s the adventure that awaits.

As I arrived with my family at the Hawaii Preparatory Academy campus on Sunday along with hundreds of others to celebrate the life of our dear Sylvia, one question lingered on my mind. How do we proceed forward, how do we go on after something like this? After listening to Sylvia’s closest friends share tears while describing this beautiful woman, this wonderful mother and wife, this “Queen of Trail Running” and endurance events, the answer became quite clear.

You proceed forward the way Sylvia would. You keep going, head down, with one foot in front of the other, to pave a new path for a new adventure and see where that takes you no matter how daunting it may seem. And always, smile and be happy.

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“I know this is physically hard but I’ve learned to flip the switch and not be negative,” said Ravaglia in a previous interview of enduring tough moments. “I tell myself that it’s okay, to keep going, and learned that if I don’t panic and just check in with myself, then I can get through it. It’s the acceptance. It doesn’t mean you have to mentally fall apart. Be happy on the inside.”

To help honor Sylvia’s memory and to support her daughter in continuing everything her mother loved like student scholarships for summer trail running opportunities, a GoFundMe page has been created. Donations can be made to the Sylvia &Tiffany Ravaglia Aloha Fund.

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