Sally Rizzo will be going for her third straight win in the women’s division of the Ultimate Hawaiian Trail Run on Saturday.
So, it’s safe to say the Koloa woman is well aware of the challenges and the difficulties that await in this event described as either a “beautiful hike or a horrible run.”
For Rizzo, it’s a bit of both.
There’s no denying the beauty of the views from the course on pristine private lands of the Knudsen Trust family that are normally off limits. And yes, she plans to charge hard from start to finish, so she knows there will be pain and suffering involved to reach the finish line first.
But for Rizzo, there’s another reason this fundraiser organized by Aaron Hoff and the Keala Foundation brings her back. And that is its commitment to keeping young people away from drugs and alcohol, and introducing them to a healthy lifestyle, instead.
“I think it’s really important what he’s done and continues to do for children in the community and people who struggle with addiction, just getting them hooked on fitness,” she said.
Rizzo has fought her own battles with drugs and alcohol and understands how hard it can be to overcome addictions — because she did it.
“I feel a close connection to that cause,” she said.
Winning the Ultimate Hawaiian Trail Run, twice, has been part of her process of proving to herself she could stay sober, finish what she started and “be part of something bigger.”
“It’s a beautiful feeling kind of connecting with myself,” she said. “Not the old version, connect with a clean version of myself.”
About 1,000 runners and walks, keiki to adults, are expected to participate in the event on Kahili Mountain that offers a 10k and 5k and a team category.
While they keep track of who’s the fastest, that’s not really what this trail run is about. The focus is on offering youth a path that leads away from drugs.
Hoff does not sugarcoat his message.
“Kids need an environment to build them up for what’s coming to kill them,” he said.
Drug addiction is problem on the island, he said, and youth need tools to defend themselves against it.
That’s why years ago he started a free youth fitness program for keiki ages six to 18 at Southside Sports Center at Kauai Christian Fellowship that offers lessons five days a week, year-round, on health and nutrition. It builds confidence in youth, provides a safe place outside of school and home and gives them goals, he said.
That’s why he expanded the program and opened a similar site in Kekaha.
That’s why he’s helping organize a gym for youth in Anahola that’s already attracted a strong following.
“We go to where the need is, not to where the money is,” he said.
Without it, he believes youth face a threat.
“This was created to have an environment to give kids a different outlet,” he said.
Hoff, born and raised on Kauai, has battled addictions in the past. He has been on the recovery side. Now, he’s on the prevention side. He overcame through faith and commitment to health and fitness.
He’s been clean and sober for two decades and has devoted his life to helping others get their lives back. He’s seen what can happen otherwise.
Healthy habits need to start young, he added, and if they do, they can have an impact that will last a lifetime.
“This works. We have results,” Hoff added.
While the program is free for keiki, and many volunteers are involved, there are still costs involved, such as providing transportation and healthy snacks. Which is, in part, how the Ultimate Hawaiian Trail Road came to be. It encourages people young and old to get out and exercise, and raises funds to benefit the Keala Foundation.
Hoff promises a new course with the usual tough climbs and rough terrain, sans the bottlenecks at the rope sections.
“It’s definitely the best trail I’ve designed and the end is even better than last year,” he said with smile.
Since last year’s home stretch included sand bags, walls, rocks, logs, ditches and mud, and called for climbing and crawling, this should be dozy.
“It’s all optional,” Hoff said, not wanting to scare anyone off.
Hoff said the 5k will be fun for all, great for families. Walk, take your time, soak in the surroundings.
“You don’t have to be in fantastic shape to do this,” he said. “We encourage everybody to come and support it.”
The 10k is demanding and for those in better physical condition. It will include some top athletes from around the world.
“It’s going to test every aspect of your fitness,” Hoff said.
Ryan Schultz of Texas completed the 10k course last year and called it “the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
He felt lost, lonely and overwhelmed.
“I talked to God twice on that hill,” he said. “It was like one of those awakening experiences for me as a athlete. I thought I was in shape.”
Schultz overcame, and he’s coming back this year, even bringing his family and business partner. He wants others to see what he saw, feel what he felt.
Schultz, a race sponsor, operates ROMWOD (Range of Motion Workout of the Day), a website that provides daily videos designed to improve athletic performance and promote recovery.
“We’ve taken yoga and made it cool for athletes,” he said.
He’s glad to see Keala Foundation’s good work being supported.
“The community is starting to recognize and appreciate not just the trail run, but what the Keala Foundation is doing,” Schultz said.
“It’s taken five years to build the foundation of the Foundation,” he said, “Now it’s like, ‘Let’s go.’”
Rizzo is ready.
The 29-year-old ran the Kauai half marathon on Sept. 2 in one hour, 38 minutes and was seventh overall in the women’s division.
In December, she competed in the world championship of trail running on Oahu and placed 52nd out of nearly 600 men and women and third in her age group.
“Aaron’s is definitely the hardest race I’ve ever done in my life,” Rizzo said.
A single mom with a full-time job, she can’t train as she would like, but said her success in the Ultimate Hawaiian Trail Run and other races gives her confidence to keep pushing — and believing.
“It showed me what hard work does, staying consistent and staying connected to that community and that cause,” she said.
Want to go?
Registration for the Ultimate Hawaiian Trail Run on Saturday is $115. Kids are free.
There is a 5k and a 10k. The 5k has a team category.
The first heat goes off at 8:30 a.m. and it all wraps up by noon. Turn off to staging area is just off Kaumualii Highway near Omao. Watch for signs. It’s best to show up early.
To register: www.ultimatehawaiiantrailrun.com