For the past 24 years, one hill in Kona has served as the ultimate climbing challenge, offering a true testament of an athlete’s courage and strength. At a distance of 6.5 miles with gradients up to 20 percent, the ascent is not an easy task, nor does it attract a huge field. The finish scene at the top is always the same: cyclists and runners in agony, bent over and gasping for air, holding back urges to dispel that morning’s breakfast.
Yep, this is the Kaloko Hill Climb, better known as Pedal Till Ya Puke, Run Till Ya Ralph.
To anyone who asks how many hills one must conquer to get to the top, the answer is pretty easy: There is only one hill. Racers start at the bottom and finish at the top, using the form of mobility best suited to their strengths: road, mountain or a triathlon bike for cyclists, and just plain old rubber soles for runners and walkers.
It can be easy to forget the grueling nature of the race when the beauty of Kaloko is so breathtaking. Lush green forestry parallels the steep winding road along with mystical Hawaiian fern trees and blue hydrangea in full bloom. The air is filled with the sweet aroma of wild yellow ginger and the sounds of native birds as athletes climb to heights above 4,000 feet.
With fickle weather conditions notorious of Kaloko Drive — where it can be clear, blue skies one minute, and cold and rainy the next — nearly 50 eager participants lucked out to warm and sunny conditions for Sunday’s event.
In the race to the top on two wheels, Kailua-Kona’s John Howerton — last month’s Ronde Von Kona champion — pedaled his way to the front with hopes of claiming his first King of the Mountain title. Howerton’s early lead was short-lived as he was passed both by Volcano’s Todd Marohnic and 16-year-old Chris Prater.
Following Howerton, who remained in third place by the halfway mark, were Adam Ankrum and Kym Kiser. As the steepness of Kaloko turned muscle into concrete, Marohnic continued to extend his lead.
With a small crowd awaiting his arrival at the top of Kaloko, Marohnic stood on his pedals to power his way through the finish line in a great time of 47 minutes and 43 seconds.
“It was hard,” Marohnic said. “You just have to stay in that discomfort zone. I maintained a pretty hard pace from the beginning. There was no reason not to, no reason to save anything in the tank.”
The 55-year-old, who lives by the motto “gray is the new blonde,” has completed every time trial cycling event put on by the Hawaii Cycling Club this year for a total of eight races. Marohnic believes his consistency in training and participation in these fun events helped improve his overall fitness, resulting in faster finishing times.
“I am definitely happy,” Marohnic said of his win. “I thought my odds were pretty slim but happy that I made the drive over to Kona. And, I get to keep the trophy with me for the next year.”
Next to crest the hill was Prater in 49:22. Even more impressive was that Prater conquered Kaloko using a triathlon bike, not the friendliest mode of transport for such a steep climb.
In a great race for third overall were Howerton and Ankrum. The duo remained close throughout the race, but with just over a mile to go, Ankrum found another gear to shift past Howerton, finishing in 50:15. Howerton was fourth in 51:02.
Last year’s champion and the only female in the cycling race, Kiser, crossed in fifth overall in 52:43.
There seemed to be no competition for Volcano’s Billy Barnett in the running race as he cruised to victory, claiming his first Run Till Ya Ralph title in 56:04. Barnett used this race as preparation for the Volcano Rain Forest Runs half-marathon slated for Aug. 16 — an event he has won three times.
Following Barnett was Kailua-Kona’s Jon Jokiel who finished strong with a time of 1:02:41. Jokiel was the 2009 Run Till Ya Ralph champion. Rounding out the men’s podium was Laupahoehoe’s Alan Ryan in 1:06:58.
In the women’s competition, Miki Stevens was first to the top with the time of 1:23:35. The battle for second was a close one between Katie Rice and Linda Goeth. Rice was able to hang tough to finish second in 1:30:14, with Goeth close behind in 1:31:02.
In the shorter Papa Pea Plod 3.5-mile event, 11-year-old Duke Becker made it look easy as he zipped to the top in a speedy time of 42:59. Following Becker was his father, Danny, who crossed in 43:24. Tim Wiley was a few minutes back in third at 45:12.
A radiant — and pregnant — Melissa Braswell took the women’s title in 50:32.
The Mad Dog Mile event seemed to be the feature event for families with young children. Aidan and Brandon Kiernan took first and third place, finishing with times of 8:02 and 8:54 respectively. Jacqui and Todd Kiernan followed with times of 11:49 and 14:27.
Alec Ankrum finished second overall in 8:04, with the rest of his family — Aiden, Archer, Laura and Adam — happily completing the mile together.
Mike Schiff, with his children Amanda and Henry, also came out for the fun as well as Lauren, Evan and Norm Jones.
But the biggest kid of all and who will always remain a youngster at heart was Peaman, who finished his mile in 23:41.
It was another epic day up Kaloko, and the best part was seeing our island’s youth coming out in droves exuberantly determined to challenge themselves with a formidable task. Indeed, a true testament of courage and strength.