The Run to the Sun began in 1977 as a personal challenge between two teachers and a former student. Dipping their feet in the ocean at Kanaha Beach before the sunrise, Maui High cross country coach David Sakugawa, Haiku School teacher Bill Carroll and Steve Sobaje began their jog to the summit of Haleakala.
“We just wanted to see if we could run to the top of the mountain,” says Sobaje. With Bill’s daughter Ann providing water and food in an escort vehicle, the three made it to the summit in less than seven hours.
It wasn’t their intention at the time, but these marathoners and Valley Isle Road Runners members ended up founding a challenging uphill race that continues to this day. In fact, Sobaje still holds the best time finishing the race: four hours and 45 minutes, which he ran in 1987.
“Starting at sea level and ascending to 10,000 feet, it’s the only race like it in the world,” says race director Bram Denhaan. Presented by Valley Isle Road Runners and Hawaiian Ultra Running Team, the 36-mile ultra marathon course starts at the Maui Mall and climbs to the 10,023-foot summit of Haleakala.
With thighs and calves as defined as their determination to make it up the mountain, participants are not novice marathoners. Endurance is key.
“We get extreme types from all over the world come and run this race,” says Denhaan. Extreme is a nice way of saying that many of the runners are as unique as the racecourse.
Running barefoot and taking smoke breaks throughout, Kawika Spaulding of Hawai’i would crack open a beer or two after he crossed the finish line. “One year, when he finished our race, he put on his tennis shoes and took off into the crater,” says Denhaan.
Then there’s Cow Man.
“Cow Man had two sets of bull horns he would wear while running,” says Sobaje, “One for training and one for racing.” One year after finishing the race, Cow Man shocked race organizers when he decided to run back down the mountain.
Then there is Stephen Ley from Honolulu who loves the Run to the Sun so much, he tattooed the entire RTS logo on his chest. Every time he finishes, he tattoos another running man petroglyph on his arm.
This endurance run tends to attract an older crowd—the average participant age runs between 30 and 40. There are many 50 and 60-year old runners.
“It’s a race against yourself, a personal challenge,” says Denhaan, who believes the younger crowd is more attracted to a faster-paced, more competitive race. The average finishing time of this competition runs between seven and nine hours, with a strict 10-hour time limit.
Now in his fifth year as director, Denhaan—a full-time firefighter in Kahului—will step down at the end of this year’s race. He plans on running this year and hopes to beat his best time of seven hours and 40 minutes. Denhaan expects 70 individual runners and 10 teams of three to join him in the race up the mountain.
Despite its popularity, the Run to the Sun has never made a profit for its organizers. In fact, it barely breaks even. With 109 volunteers and 21 aid stations, as well as police, ambulances and nurses, the event is truly a labor of love. There are no prizes except the reward that comes from pushing yourself past personal doubt and perceived limits until you reach the summit and its cloud-shrouded silence. MTW