Runner signs up for a slice of Hawaiian hell

CENTURY STRIDE: Alex East of Asheville runs in last year's Cloudsplitter 100-mile trail race in Virginia. Photo by Jesse Kokote

“We wouldn’t want it to be easy” is the slogan for the Hawaiian Ultra Running Team’s 100-Mile Endurance Run. 

Alex East, 27, of Asheville signed up anyway for the grueling Jan. 13-14 race through the mountains overlooking Honolulu. 

For decades, the HURT100 has been the granddaddy of trail events. It forces runners up and down 24,500 feet of elevation changes as well as 20 stream crossings over its five, 20-mile loops. Up to 140 runners, chosen by lottery, have 36 hours to complete the race or get the dreaded designation of DNF, or did not finish. 

East, a toxicology scientist, has had his sights set on this race for a while. It will be his 10th 100-mile competition and the most daunting. 

Xpress spoke with East the week before the race and checked back in after the competition. 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Xpress: Have you always been a runner?

East: Yes, but not a fast one. I was the second-slowest runner on my high school team. I had a friend who used to pace me. He’d pace me for a while, go into the woods and smoke pot, then catch back up with me. We used to get destroyed in meets. I’ve always been tremendously slow.

How did you get into running 100-mile races?

I paced a friend in 2015 and did 39-ish miles. I was hooked. I ran my first 100-miler in 2017 when I was 20 and going to UNCA. I was the youngest finisher then. Since then, I’ve run at least one 100-miler every year, so the HURT will be my 10th, but it’s the toughest challenge so far.

What is the appeal? 

[The races] appeal to me because you don’t have to be overly athletic to run 100 miles. A misconception is that it’s a run. It’s not. You can do a 20-minute per mile pace and still finish in 36 hours. That’s a comfortable walking pace for most people. In a mountainous 100, even the first finishers walk part of the time.

What’s your goal for HURT?

To finish in 35 hours and 59 minutes. But I don’t want to just survive. I’ll push myself to go faster if I can. But to finish is the goal. 

What do you like about ultrarunning?

This is the only sport in the world where the more you suck, the more people like you. The people who finish quickly, they get to go home in the wee hours of the morning. There aren’t a lot of people at the finish for the first runners. 

For the people who struggle, sometimes the sun is setting on the second day when they finish and everyone’s there at the finish line. And at the end of the race, if someone finishes just before the time limit, that’s huge. You could miss finishing by five minutes. It’s exciting. People are just staring into the woods waiting for this person to come out.

I’ve never had the honor of finishing last, but I have been in the back of the pack a few times. It becomes all of us against the course, encouraging each other to finish. It’s a great community.

How is this race different from the other nine you’ve run?

It’s a really tough course. The 2019 finish rate was 29%, and this year, due to a course change, it climbs 26,750 feet over the 100 miles and with a 36-hour cutoff. That time limit makes me pretty afraid. In 2022, I completed the Hellbender 100 in Old Fort, which is 24,000-foot elevation change with a 40-hour cutoff. It’s an experience I will draw on a lot.

How do you keep going?

I have the tools and tricks to get through HURT. First, you have to be able to be lonely or bored. You’re running through the woods for hours and hours by yourself, much of the time in the dark. You go through the whole emotional range. One mile could be euphoria, and the next you’ll be feeling sorry for yourself. Mentally, I look at what I am going to go through and I prepare for that. 

What are the major safety risks associated with HURT100? 

Despite being on trail all day and night, it’s really a safe sport. It’s low intensity without changes in direction and hard impact, which are factors that cause injuries in other sports. I haven’t had any injuries from ultrarunning. My feet were destroyed after Hellbender, but they healed.

I have hallucinated out there — a string of rocks turned into snakes and I saw people in the trees. Primal-fear type stuff. If you’re that exhausted, eating more will make stuff like that go away. And sleeping after the race is done helps too, of course.

Is anyone going with you?

I’m going out with my dad, who’s my primary crew member, and my sister. I want it to be like a Formula One pit stop. I have a spreadsheet of times I want to hit at each aid station. My dad will have that and tell me what I have to do. My sister will refill my pack with food and water. I don’t want to stop too long at the aid stations. If you sit for 15 minutes, you have to make up that time on the course.

What about the motivation to get you across the finish line? How do you keep going?

There are several motivators, and I cycle through them throughout the race. For one, I’m from Cary and went to UNCA. I want to represent Western North Carolina and UNCA. I looked through the finishers and I only saw three finishers from North Carolina in the past 10 years. 

Generally, West Coast runners do well at events like these, so I want to represent the entire East Coast, too. My training mountain, the Snooks Nose Trail from Curtis Creek campground up to Green Knob, is tougher than the HURT course. Snooks Nose climbs 3,100 feet in 4.5 miles. I want to represent this place and these mountains.

Mentally, I look for rewards. I only allow certain things along the race. I have an MP3 player and I’ll only turn it on after about four hours. At mile 60, I might reward myself with my music or a particular snack. 

Reset is another trick. I just need to get to this aid station rather than think about the whole race; 60 miles and beyond is tough. Another reset is changing my shirt or hat. Or brushing my teeth, that’s big because I’m eating 500 calories per hour.

I just keep cycling through what motivates me. A big one is I don’t want to let my family down or my run club or WNC. Or maybe I just want to do a Facebook post and be cool. Whatever gives me a boost at that moment.

Xpress received this email on Jan. 15 at 9:37 p.m. Hawaiian time: 

Just got done in 34:23:30. I am absolutely smashed. 


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