POIPU — Knee deep in thick, sloppy mud on the back of Kahili Mountain, Carlz Soderstrom drifted in and out of consciousness.
“One foot, and then one foot, and then one foot,” she told herself, like a skip in a recording.
The 29-year-old athletic apparel company owner from Melbourne, Australia, had come to Hawaii to have fun and get dirty at a high-endurance trail run. Now she questioned if she’d make it out of the jungle alive.
What she didn’t know at the time she was telling herself to just push forward was they had left the marked trail and traversed up the mountain. Around seven hours after starting — most competitors finished in an hour or so — they were eventually tracked down by Garden Island Motorcycle Club riders Eli Camara and Mark Stiglemyer, who came to the site after organizers called them.
The Ultimate Hawaiian Trail Run, a rugged, mountainous sporting event organized by CrossFit Poipu, took place Saturday on a wild, freshly cut trail. About 400 competitors crossed streams, slipped and sank in mud holes, grabbed trees for balance, carried sandbags and otherwise scaled the mountainside in a race that seemed more a game of survival than running talent.
The terrain, typically closed off to the public, was provided to the event organizers by Knudsen Trust. The trail was an opportunity to experience a part of Kauai that is otherwise closed. And it was a chance to push one’s mental and physical limits.
Orange tags tied to tree branches that runners were instructed to keep on their right side of the trail kept competitors on course.
Soderstrom has a soft face, the kind of muscular physique that’s not uncommon among CrossFit athletes. But only one lung. When she works out, it’s not uncommon for her heart rate to reach 190 beats per minute — almost double the target heart rate for someone her age with both lungs. At 220 beats per minute, Soderstrom typically blacks out.
Soderstrom wasn’t trying to win the 10-kilometer race at Kahili Mountain Park. She simply wanted to enjoy it. Bring on the sweat and mud, she thought.
When she crossed the starting line, she was running with the pack. But sometime after the second checkpoint the other competitors left her in the dust.
That is, all but Nicole Brown. Brown, also from Melbourne, had traveled to Hawaii with Soderstrom to compete in the race. From the start, the Aussies ran side-by-side, taking in views of the lush scenery. They paused on several occasions to snap selfies with the GoPro cameras each carried. They laughed and they slapped at the mosquitoes swarming their calves and knees.
Then, as expected, the pair fell behind.
And now, what seemed like an eternity later, Soderstrom was fighting with the one screaming thought that had taken over her mind: I’m going to die.
She was dehydrated and exhausted from scaling one vertical wall of mud after the other. Her eyes were rolling in the back of her head. She could barely feel her feet.
They had been climbing and crawling for what seemed like forever. The finish line had to be near. She looked up, spied a pink ribbon tied to a branch and forced herself to keep going.
“One foot, and then one foot, and then one foot,” she drummed.
“Keep going, Carlz!” Brown panted.
The girls climbed and crawled for 10 minutes more.
Despite her encouragement, Brown, a nurse, knew her friend wouldn’t be able to go farther. Soderstrom could barely grip the roots they needed to climb. Her face had become ghastly white.
There was no other solution. So she tried to keep Soderstrom conscious, all the while assuring her, and herself, that they were almost at the finish line.
A helicopter passed overhead. A few yards away, Brown spotted a clearing. Almost without thinking, she started scaling a tree that looked like it would elevate her to the clearing where she figured she might be able to flag down a rescue team. A helicopter, she decided, was their way out.
But Soderstrom had crumpled to the ground. Brown couldn’t discern whether she was still conscious.
When she reached the clearing, Brown heard an engine of a different sort. Then, a far-off voice: “Stay where you are! We’re coming!”
Soderstrom, who had been drifting in and out, started to cry.
Seven hours after the 8 a.m. start of the race, Garden Isle Motorcycle Club riders Eli Camara and Mark Stiglemier had found the missing racers. They had mistaken an extreme motorcross trail marked by pink ribbons for the race trail designated with orange ones. In those seven hours, they had traveled up and over Kahili Mountain and then began an assent up the next mountain. All told, they had traveled 26 kilometers, or about 16 miles.
Sipping an iced coffee at the Grand Hyatt Kauai on Tuesday, a rested Soderstrom recounted the tale.
“I kept thinking, ‘I’m really fit, how am I not able to do this,’” she said. “Now we know we were on the wrong trail, but we thought we were on the right trail, and I think that’s what kept us alive. If we had known we were lost, we would have panicked. We didn’t have food, we didn’t have water, we don’t know anything about the Hawaiian jungle. Are there poisonous spiders, poisonous snakes?”
Aaron Hoff, the CrossFit Poipu owner who organized the race, said they got word of the possibly missing runners around an hour after the start of the race. Racers who knew the pair finished the event and said their friends should have crossed by now.
They alerted organizers and about 15 volunteers began searching the mountain.
Hoff said the racers somehow found an old side trail that had pink and white ribbons from a previous motorcycle event — the Hare and Hound.
“I don’t know how they found that side trail,” he said. “We were all baffled.”
Organizers called in the Garden Isle Motorcycle Club riders, who came, rode the trail and found Soderstrom and Brown.
A third racer also got lost following the same trail and was found by club riders about an hour later.
Hoff said they thought the trail was clearly marked but will mark it well next year and keep Garden Island motorcycle riders all around the course to prevent anyone from getting lost again.
Hoff was happy they tracked them down.
“We were blessed,” he said.