The three men, young and shirtless, are running fast on Ke Ala Hele Makalae on a sunny Sunday morning. They make it look easy.
There’s Michael Miller, 2015 Island School graduate who won the KIF track and field championships in the 1,500-meter and 3,000-meter events.
There’s Kaeo Kruse, a senior at Kamehameha Schools-Kapala, a state cross-country champion.
And in the middle of that trio, wearing a black hat, is Pierce Murphy.
The 2011 Island School graduate is arguable the finest runner to emerge from Kauai. In high school, he excelled in track and cross country. He set records in distances ranging from 800 meters to 3,000 meters. He won state titles.
His success, to the surprise of some, continued at the University of Colorado in Boulder. In three seasons, he earned a slate of awards and honors: All-American status four times — twice in track and twice in cross country. He was a member of two UC mens teams that won cross country titles. He posted personal bests at 5,000 and 10,000 meters.
He is, to sum things up, among the nation’s best distance runners.
Heading into his senior year as a Buffalo, he’s expected to be one of the Division 1 school’s top runners and leaders.
But on this Sunday morning, he’s one of a talented trio cruising along, enjoying each other’s company. It’s their first time running together this summer and it will be their last. Murphy had to catch a late flight off Kauai as he returns to Boulder, Colorado.
The 21-year-old was home for about three weeks in July. Surfed, swam, hung out with family, and of course, ran.
That talented trio stops near Murphy’s silver Nissan truck parked near the lifeguard stand at Kealia Beach. Asked if there’s any competition between them, there’s laughter.
“He would kill us,” Miller said, grinning.
“He’s kind of slow. He tries to keep up with us,” Kruse joked.
Murphy, the laid back and quiet type, simply smiles. So, how was the run?
“It felt good. It’s not like I was going too hard,” he said.
But he’ll be back at it soon, building to about 100 miles a week as the Buffaloes defend their NCAA Division 1 cross country title.
The son of Shawn and Doreen Murphy of Kilauea is looking forward to his senior season with high hopes: More personal bests, more All American honors, another team title, remaining injury free and treasuring his final year of collegiate running. Oh, and busting his butt, too.
“I’m not going to slack off, just give it my all this last year,” he said.
UC coach Mark Wetmore
Despite Pierce’s impressive high school credentials, the Murphys, mainly Shawn, had to convince Colorado running coach Mark Wetmore that Pierce could consistently compete at that level.
“Pierce wasn’t a blue chip distance recruit out of high school,” Wetmore said. “Or, I should say, no one but his dad thought so. His dad kept telling me, ‘He’s really good!’ We liked his potential, and were worn down by his dad, and gave him a shot.”
Wetmore’s initial impression of Murphy, a walk-on, was that he was a “happy, mellow, surfer-dude-like kid, who everyone liked. But it took a while for us to realize he would keep getting better.”
Wetmore thought Murphy might evolve into a support runner, similar to those on Tour de France teams whose job is to protect and set things up for their number one rider.
“But he just kept getting better. It could be argued that he is now our best guy, and the others run in support of him,” Wetmore said.
Murphy has had an impact on the Buffaloes.
“I had no way of knowing how important he would become to our team culture. You can imagine that there can sometimes be ego frictions among young male athletes,” the coach said. “He destroys all of that. He is a member of all the cliques, or maybe it is none, or maybe they are members of his.”
Murphy made things easy for his coach. Didn’t question. Didn’t complain. Didn’t demand. What he did do, was run.
“He is disciplined and laid back at once somehow. I wish we could bottle it,” Wetmore said.
The transition from high school to college wasn’t as difficult as Murphy expected. Sure, runners were bigger and faster, the competition fiercer, but he settled in. He found as he grew stronger, he, too, could run farther and faster.
“Every run was hard in college, but I got used to it,” he said. “It wasn’t so tough I got to the point and said, ‘I’m not going to do this anymore.’”
Basil Scott, who coached Pierce on Kauai, said Pierce played soccer his sophomore year and didn’t really get serious about running until his junior year at Island School. His mileage was low compared to other top runners.
“So, he developed a little more slowly, but I think his pace of development was just right,” Scott said. “By avoiding burnout, injuries or sickness, he has been able to continuously improve in college, and that has made all the difference.”
His days include classes in mornings, workouts in the afternoon, and studying and finishing homework in the evening. Welcome to the grind.
“My whole day is pretty booked,” he said. “Everything is planned.”
For his success, he credits Wetmore.
“Doing what coach says, making sure I’m not slacking off or going over what he says,” Murphy said. “Just being diligent with running and stretching and post workout.”
Wetmore said Murphy’s strengths are good aerobic capacity, surprising speed and great discipline. But his unique single talent is that mellowness. He can hammer out daily 15 mile runs, then go surfing. No problem for the kid from Kauai.
As a senior, Murphy is expected to be one of the Buffaloes’ big dogs.
“He will be critical to our aspirations in cross country,” Wetmore said.
His college running career has gone well — perhaps better than even Murphy expected.
He believes he is physically stronger — 145 pounds on his toned and muscled 5 feet, 8 1/2 inch frame — and mentally tougher. Being a full-time college student seeking a bachelor of arts degree in film while keeping your spot in one of the country’s most respected running programs demands discipline.
“I knew I was going to get faster in college. I guess I’ve become faster than I thought,” he said. “That was nice.”
Killer training sessions, where legs buckle and lungs gasp, come with the territory of running for the Buffaloes.
“It always pays off in the race,” he said, “and that really feels good.”
He’s better at racing than training, he said. Key is dealing with pain that comes with running near top speed for miles, then switching gears, cranking it up, as the finish line nears. It’s that make or break point of a race when guts matter most.
“It’s a lot more mental than physical,” he said. “I know everyone out there is hurting. It’s whoever can hold that pain the longest will make it.”
Those who know him say Murphy has plenty of guts.
“On race days he has amazing focus, and at the end of a race when the body says stop, he can start sprinting, still in focus,” Scott said.
It was in first grade when he joined a jogathon in Hanalei. Every lap, he earned a stamp on a card. Even then, Murphy pushed himself.
“I was really competitive when it came to that. I remember knowing who had the most laps,” he said. “I guess I was a little fast when I was a kid.”
He played a lot of soccer, too, and discovered he had endurance. In ninth grade, he realized he was a “pretty good” runner.
“I can do something with it,” he thought.
And he has.
“On the purely physical side, he can hold a fast pace better than anyone I’ve ever measured,” Scott said.
But it’s not all about personal bests and being an All-American that matters to Murphy. There’s the simple joy of the sport he has come to love.
On Kauai, one his favorite places to run is Wai Koa Loop in Kilauea. No cars. Few people. Just a path that takes him and the Nike Pegasus on his feet past trees, brush, flowers, mountain views and waterfalls.
“After the run I always feel good,” he said.
He’s not sure what will come with running after college. A professional career? A shot at the Olympics? Murphy shrugs.
“That will play itself out. We’ll see what happens,” he said.
What he does know is what it takes to do well in running or anything in life, for that matter. It’s the same thing that got him here in the first place: dedication and perseverance.
“Just keep working at it,” he said. “That’s what it takes, I think, working hard and not giving up.”