Riding the Volcano

It’s day three of our 310 mile bike ride around Hawaii’s Big Island, and I’m feeling stoked. The landscape resembles an alien planet with olive green ferns and lichen framing black lava boulders. My boyfriend Jon and I pedal our Cannondale touring tandem up the 4,000 foot Kilauea volcano. The sky’s a little overcast, and with the total weight of us and the bike, our struggle against gravity up the steep grade slows our pace. But who cares? We’re biking around Hawaii! We’re fit, we’re strong, we’ve been training, we can do it!

The first day we rode along the Kohala Coast in the auspicious treads of the Iron men and women who had come before us. We fought the headwinds and from the back seat, I deciphered the messages spelled out in white coral against black lava along the roadside – “We love you Dave!” and “Kristianne Rocks!”

Yesterday we rode forty-eight miles along the southern tip of the island. This morning I’m sore, but up to the challenge of our most difficult tour yet.

The brown, gray and dusty green landscape curves away and up in front of us. We’ve done fifteen miles already, and I think we’re about halfway. I smile smugly. Look at us. Biking around Hawaii. We’ve already put over two thousand miles on our tandem, touring the coast of Maine, the San Juan Islands, and other parks like Bryce, Zion, the Grand Canyon, Banff, and Jasper.

Jon reaches his grimy, gloved hand back to my handlebars and pats my fingers. We pedal in silence as the wind picks up, the grade increases, and a few raindrops hit my hair through the helmet vents. I look down at the bike computer on my handlebars. Our blinding pace of eight miles an hour has slowed to six.

The wind has increased and I duck my head and shift down to the drop bars.. I’m considering patting Jon’s shoulder and suggesting a break when a lime green clad rider shoots past us. I try to focus on the number pinned to his back, when a second rider in red zips by, calling out a cheery, “Hey guys!” in an Australian accent.

Wordlessly, Jon and I pick up our pace. We’ve been doing leg presses at the gym, biking 70 miles up and over the Palos Verdes Peninsula and along the Southern California coast where we live. We’re trained, we’re fit, we can beat this volcano. No sweat.
Suddenly, riders begin passing us by the dozens, averaging at least ten miles an hour faster than we’re doing.

“Is it the Ironman?” I yell to Jon over the wind.

“No,” he grunts. “Ultrathon. It was in the paper.”


Rain pelts us from the east and we lean hard to our right not to tilt in the wind.

“What’s an Ultrathon?” I shout.

“Double Ironman,” he calls over his shoulder. “Five mile swim, 225 mile bike, 52 mile run.”

“In a week?” I yell as my socks squish in my shoes.

“Three days.”

These people are nuts.

I look down at the Cat Eye: 4.8 miles an hour.

An orange jerseyed rider streaks past us.

“She’s not pedaling!” he shouts to Jon with a smile and an Italian accent.

I wish I had a dollar for every cheeseball who has used that joke.

I feel Jon shifting around in front, wiping the rain off his glasses. I pull my feet up more forcefully with each rotation. We’re at mile 22 and I try to fathom having already swum five miles, with this ride up the volcano just one segment of a century – all in the same day.

Rain creeps down the inside of my windbreaker and along the back of my neck, and I can squeeze water out of my gloves like a sponge when I clench my fists. I focus on the yellow line on the road beneath my feet as a few more miles slowly pass.

Just when I’m certain my whole macho trained cyclist persona was a fantasy, and my legs won’t go another inch, let alone the remaining hundred and fifty miles we have to go in the next three days, the rain eases a bit and the light shifts. The wet porous holes in the lava along the roadside begin to sparkle. My quads are cramping, but the odometer reads 29. The edge of the giant crater at the summit comes into view, looking like the Grand Canyon, only black and white like in a Turner Classic movie before they colored it in. Over the top of Jon’s green helmet, a rainbow spans the roadway like a welcoming gate.

The Ultrathoners’ dusting of us has been forgotten. We triumphant tandem riders approach the volcano finish line!

We stagger into the Volcano House hotel, shower quickly, and shuffle on our wooden marionette legs into the dining room. As my eyes adjust to the dim lighting, I see dozens of rowdy revelers crowding the tables. It’s the Ultrathon athletes on the first night of their event, slapping each other on the back and chowing down like the 101 Dalmations at a single food bowl.

Jon and I sit wearily by the window, eating bread and crackers and waiting for our meals. Eventually, I lift my cheek from the tablecloth to hear a red-faced waiter explain that the kitchen has had an unexpected slowdown. It seems the Ultrathon participants have ordered two or three entrees each.

Jon studies the taut bodies of the athletes, still inconceivably energetic as they bounce about the dining room. I look out the rain-streaked window at the black hole that is the crater. They’ve stolen our hot-shot-volcano-riding thunder, made us look like we were pedaling a tricycle up the mountainside, and now they’ve eaten our dinner. I make fists of my hands and look over at Jon.

“I’m wondering,” he says, glazed eyes focused on the feasting crowd. “How long do you think it would take us to train for an Ultrathon?”


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