Hiking the Kalalau trail

There was only one thing I had my heart set on doing when I went to Kauai: hiking the Kalalau trail.

Meandering along the north coast of Kauai for 11 undeveloped miles, the trail offers access to remote beaches and breathtaking vistas. An overnight stay (and a permit) is generally required to complete the 22-mile round trip, so I opted to do a shorter hike and see Hanakapai’ai Falls, an 8-mile journey.


Originally, I planned to do this hike earlier in my stay, but a stomach bug meant that my body wasn’t doing anything more strenuous than laying on the beach for several days. Friday was my last full day on the island, so if I was going to see the Kalalau, I knew I was going to have to muster up some strength. I stopped at a gas station on the way and bought some Gatorade and water and then made my way to the trail.

For what it’s worth, the Kalalau trail is one of the most popular hikes on Kauai. If you arrive at the trailhead much after 9 a.m., the parking lot will be full and you’ll end up parking in a crater ridden lot down the road. Many people seem to ignore the no parking signs and leave their cars by the side of the road as well. It was a swath of humanity when I went: church groups and families, people with children, and people with selfie sticks… generally just a lot of people, many who appeared to be in much worse shape than me. While I knew I wouldn’t be running this trail (my original plan), there was a part of me that felt like even in my weakened state I had to be in better shape than the retirees in sport sandals. Not the most charitable thoughts, but it got me motivated.Kalalau9From the get-go, I got the sense that people may show up unprepared for this hike, because there were constant reminders that “YOU ARE ENTERING NATURE AND IT MIGHT NOT BE SAFE.” A collection of signs just past the trailhead warned of cliffs, flash floods, and falling rocks. Later on, signs warned of hazardous waters and rip currents, with hash marks detailing the number of visitors killed. Two days before my hike, 32 people had to be rescued when rising waters made the Hanakapiai Stream impassable.

The trail went up for the first half mile or so and then leveled off at what was essentially the side of a cliff. From there, it was another 1.5 miles to Hanakapiai beach. I tried to pass as many people as I could on this stretch and avoid getting stuck behind groups. I like hiking alone, with nothing to distract me, but Kalalau was far from remote. Still, each vista seemed more beautiful, and I even saw some humpback whales swim by in the waters below.


Pretty soon, the trail was descending and I was at the infamous Hanakapi’ai Stream river crossing.


On a good day, this crossing requires hikers to remove their shoes and wade across thigh-deep water. On a bad day (i.e. when its been raining), the stream swells, making crossings deadly. Fortunately, crossing was no problem on this day.


For many, the rocky, cairn covered beach at Hanakapi’ai seemed to be the turnaround point. Couples snacked, played with feral kittens, and watched the powerful surf. No joke, you do not want to swim here. I stayed long enough to snap some photos and then continued on.


From the beach, the trail turned south towards the interior of the island, following and eventually crossing the Hanakapi’ai stream a few times. One crossing had ropes to help keep you above the water, but another was just rocks. It was easy to see how one could get stuck if it rained.

The trail started to get crowded at this point; solitude was no longer an option. I listened to a surfer guy give his girlfriend lessons in Hawaiian and tried to stay a few steps ahead of two brothers from Philly. The trail was pretty level; I wished I had it in me to trail run, but I was still feeling pretty terrible. Finally, I caught my first glimpse of Hanakapi’ai falls.


I arrived at the base of the falls about 30 minutes later. The air there was cooler thanks to the mist; the water was downright frigid. After a 2.5 hour hike in 80+ degree heat, I was surprised to find that I didn’t want to go swimming.

Traveling solo (and being in crowded quarters), it was hard to capture how truly tall and majestic the falls were. They were movie quality. One of the brothers from Philly tried to take a photo for me, but warned that he couldn’t get the whole waterfall in the picture. I tried…

Kalalau blog

I didn’t stay long at the falls. The air was cold, it was kind of crowded, and my bad stomach meant that my picnic consisted of a yellow Gatorade, which I sipped while walking. I passed even more people on the way down than I had on the way up… I wished I’d started earlier.

But before I knew it, I was back at Hanakapi’ai beach and warm enough to take a dip in the stream. It felt delicious.


Shoes back on, I booked it back to the parking lot, pausing every now and then to take photos of the vistas. Before I knew it, my glorious hike was over. Though, between the traffic and the heat, I couldn’t wait to get out of there and head to town for a shave ice. But I have a feeling that I’ll be on Kauai again, and that when I am, I’ll venture to Kalalau.

How running helped me get into grad school

So, here’s something I never thought I’d say: I’m going to grad school.

Turning what was once a daydream into reality only took me… oh, about a decade. When I was a reporter I’d often have an hour or two after I’d filed my stories until I actually got edited. Sometimes, I’d kill time perusing the Harvard Kennedy School website and fantasize about studying there. I had no intention of leaving journalism just yet, but I had an inkling that I might need to figure out a Plan B, and HKS appealed to me. I even started filling out an application one year, though I balked when I saw that I’d have to take a standardized test and write essays. I wasn’t that committed to the idea. Yet.

Fast forward a few years, and the time began to feel right. A lot had changed since those afternoons in the newsroom. I’d moved to Massachusetts, gotten out of journalism, and taken up running. I’m not sure how much the first two had to do with my ultimate success, but I know without a doubt that were it not for running, I never would have gotten into grad school. What? Yeah, running.

Sure, plenty of non-runners get into grad school. But for me, running made something that once seemed daunting, even impossible, a reality.

For starters, running taught me the value of a training plan. Runners have to take the long view. You don’t go from the couch to crushing miles overnight. You don’t get into grad school overnight either. The process takes months, even years. I approached my application the way I’d learned to prepare for races: I came up with a goal, set a training plan, and stuck to it as best as I could. I hadn’t taken math since Bill Clinton was president, so I signed up for a class to brush up on geometry and algebra. I took the GRE one Friday in July, and did respectably. I attended prospective student days, met with professors, and talked to colleagues who has completed similar programs. Just hours before the application was due, I hit send.

It showed me how to deal with setbacks. 
Things don’t always go as planned. Race day comes and maybe there’s a 30 mph headwind, maybe there are three feet of snow on the ground, maybe you simply don’t feel well. That’s how it went for me. I took tests, wrote essays, and submitted my application. After months of waiting, the email came with a decision and guess what? I didn’t get in.

Three years ago, that would have been the end of the discussion, I didn’t get in, and so I wasn’t going. But over the past few years, I’ve had the honor of getting to know some pretty great athletes who have set ambitious goals and serious training plans in motion only to fall short of the mark. A couple friends trained for months and then missed qualifying for the Boston Marathon by just a few seconds. Another watched her Ironman dream fade away after she developed a stress fracture in her hip. Did these folks say forget it and walk away from their goals? No. They savored the taste of disappointment, regrouped, and set out after it again. And so that’s what I did. I spent the next six months analyzing my training plan for weak spots and working to remedy them.

I knew the value of sharing my goals with others. One of my mistakes the first time around was that I told almost no one what I was doing. I figured that if I didn’t get in, I wouldn’t have to share my disappointment with others. But silently applying for grad school was like going out on a deserted road and hoping to run my best time. I always run faster when I’m surrounded by people who are cheering me on. Why wasn’t I doing the same here?
I learned to ask for help. Yes, running is a solo sport. But there’s a lot to be gleaned by asking others for help. What shoes do you like? How do you stretch that muscle? Do you have a good track workout? Will you pace me in my race? Good runners are constantly seeking and offering assistance. But when it came to grad school, I felt almost bad about soliciting others for help. There’s a woman I work with that I really respect. I knew she’d likely have some good advice for me, and that she’d likely write me a great recommendation. But she’s a really busy person and I didn’t want to impose. When I didn’t get into school, I wondered whether this person’s advice and endorsement might have made a difference. So I reached out and asked if she’d meet with me for 30 minutes. She was delighted, offered some great pointers, and was enthusiastic about writing a recommendation for me. As a result, I felt much better about my application the second time around.

The next two years will be a challenge. I plan to continue to work full-time while taking classes. It won’t be easy, but I feel pretty good about it. After all, running also instilled in me the value of endurance training, and taught me that just because something is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t also fun.
And while I may have less time and less money over the next two years, you can bet I’ll keep on running.

Dateline: Koloa, Kauai, Hawaii

After weeks and weeks filled with snow and sub-zero temperatures, I decided enough was enough and booked a trip… to Hawaii.



I spent a night in L.A. and then went straight on to Kauai. After six hours over the Paciifc, I got my first glimpse of the island’s ragged peaks and red cliffs from the air. As the plane descended over the ocean, I looked out my window and saw a humpback whale surface, a telltale puff of air and water rising from the sea like smoke. I knew then that I was in for something special.

I’d expected to feel as ambivalent about Hawaii as I do so many Caribbean islands: tropical places full of tourist traps, sometimes dirty and unsafe, hard to distinguish one from the other, and too hot to make you want to do too much. I couldn’t have been more wrong. A strong native culture permeates the islands, with gentle reminders to “live aloha,” something the locals practice as well as they preach. The water is crystal clear, and a steady trade wind takes the edge off the heat.


secret beach

A lot of folks I talked to were surprised to hear that I planned to spend all 10 days on one island. They encouraged me to hop over to Maui or Oahu to see the sites. But quite frankly, I felt like I could have spent three weeks just in Kauai and not gotten sick of it. There were numerous hikes I wanted to do, beaches to laze on, and shave ices to eat. On the few occasions I returned to the same spots they felt different: the ocean is always changing, and each day brings new things. One day you might see some iridescent silver fish while swimming off a beach, the next day it might be a sea turtle. You never know.

Also, how do you get sick of views like this?


Or this?

IMG_9365Waimea canyon

And the food… oh, the food. Hawaii seems to have adopted the best of everything: Asia’s rice and raw fish, the so-Cal beach culture’s tacos, and a cornucopia of tropical fruits. Even the papaya was palatable, and I never like papaya. Coconut (my favorite, in all forms) was ubiquitous.

My favorite local dish however, was poke, Hawaii’s answer to tuna tartare. Made from whatever fish and ingredients are on hand, the possibilities are endless; it’s served in upscale restaurants on porcelain plates, as well as at the local grocery store in plastic containers. Often, the grocery store varieties are quite good, and super affordable. My favorite poke spot was the Koloa Fish Market, on the south side of the island. Little more than a counter and a cash register, the market makes several varieties of poke, as well as traditional Hawaiian boxed lunches, which are definitely worth a try. I liked the avocado best (so creamy!), but the Korean version, with a slight kick of spice and sprinkled with sesame, were also quite good.


Of course, when you aren’t in Hawaii (or even if you are), you can make poke yourself pretty easily. All you need is access to sushi-quality fish. Here in Boston, you can find this at a few wholesalers that sell to the public, as well as Whole Foods. The key to good poke is to be sparing with your ingredients; you want to add flavor, but you don’t want the fish marinating in a pool. It’s not ceviche.

Here’s a primer to get started, but feel free to edit depending on what’s on hand. Avocado, sriacha, and onion make great additions.

Classic poke

1 to 2 pounds of sushi grade ahi tuna
1/2 to 1 pound white albacore tuna
a few Tablespoons of sesame oil
soy sauce
3 scallions, sliced thinly

Dice tuna into bite sized pieces and put in a bowl. Add enough soy sauce and sesame oil to just coat the fish- you do not want any extra in the bottom of the bowl. Add diced scallions, sesame seeds, or hot sauce, if desired. Serve immediately.