Notes On Roller Skiing In Hawaii

October and early November, just as you’re waiting for first snow, is the bleakest time in Northern Europe. In case you’re lucky enough not to know: it’s dark, cold, wet and overall depressing. In times like these you find yourself thinking you’d rather be as far away from it as possible… Well, Hawaii – with a time difference of 12 hours from EET and location just north of the Equator – fits the bill perfectly. It’s one of those tropical paradises with no distinct seasons, just eternal summer and 12 hours of clear skies and sunlight every day. But is it feasible to have a long working holiday / training camp there with a focus on roller skiing? This year, I wanted to see for myself, and here’s what I found out.

Feelin’ da Aloha

The state of Hawaii consists of eight islands, the largest of them being the Island of Hawaii, usually called the Big Island to avoid confusion. Actually, the islands of Oahu and Maui attract more visitors, but based on a previous holiday long ago split between the two and a look at the map, I assumed the other Hawaii islands would be too crowded and/or small for a training camp extending beyond a few weeks. By contrast, I expected the Big Island to offer much space (more than the rest of the state combined – it’s about 400 kilometres to drive around the island) with plenty of roads to ski and ride, in addition to exotic jungle and volcanic moonscape wilderness to hike.

Views from Mauna Loa, an active volcano

Roads and traffic

To get the bad news out first: in practice, a large proportion of Hawaiian main roads proved downright unsuitable for roller skiing and somewhat ill-suited even for road cycling. Motor traffic is heavy, fast and loud (a lot of people drive intimidatingly oversized trucks with noisy off-road tyres), and the roads are often winding, narrow and steep, making a bad combination with skis without brakes. As far as I know, there are no bike paths outside the largest towns, and the shoulders of the main roads are often pretty peppered with debris. Perhaps it’s because they have no need to brush the roads after every winter like in Finland?

Not all Hawaii roads are accessible by roller ski

Then again, outside the trunk routes, there are some good options such as dead-end backroads or older roads superseded by newer highways. However, these are spread out across the island, and therefore it seems impossible to find a place to stay on the island with direct access to more than one or two ski-worthy roads. Hence, there’s no way around the fact you are going to need to commute by car to have any variety in your training. Also, since the trunk roads are less than ski-friendly, it is hard to do any sensible loop runs, and instead you have to settle for doing the same roads out and back several times.

On the bright side, when you do find a nice spot, of which there are many, I assure you – like a quiet interval hill or an undulating stretch of backroad with a beautiful view overlooking the volcanoes or the ocean – that’s not necessarily a bad thing at all. I completed most of my roller ski workouts on the quiet and scenic 15 km Old Mamalahoa Hwy between Waimea and Honoka’a, and hardly ever saw more than a few cars during my usual 2-hour workouts. Another favourite of mine (especially on a hot day) was the equally tranquil one-lane Mauna Loa Observatory Road starting to ascend from an altitude of 2,000 metres. The gradient is quite gentle for the first 5–7 kilometres, allowing you to also ski down the hill fairly safely (20–40 km/h on regular-speed Marwe skis), and the scenery facing the gigantic Mauna Kea volcano is nothing less than thrilling.

I might also add there was not a single negative experience with other road users whilst roller skiing on Hawaii. Probably because it’s a rare activity there, people seem curious or amused rather than annoyed by the odd roller skier. They would pass you from a safe distance with a smile, make friendly gestures and sometimes even walk up to chat or crack jokes about the obvious lack of snow there. In contrast, as I rode my road bike, there were couple of times when someone honked the horn for no reason or passed me dangerously fast and close, presumably just out of spite. But that is a universal lowlife behaviour, by no means exclusive to Hawaii.

It’s not all sunshine on Hawaii – the wet side, specifically

I explored all of my roller ski tracks first on a road bike, and would happily ski any of them again. For anyone interested, the GPS logs are available on Strava (October–November 2018). In addition, for someone with the fitness and a driver to give them a lift down, there are plenty of climbs with different gradients to ski; in most cases it is only the descent that would be too hazardous.

One curious bonus about the roads on Hawaii is the asphalt itself. It is very finely grained and easy on the ferrule, as if designed for roller skiing. Maybe it has something to do with the light and porous volcanic stone the whole island is made of? Even where the blacktop is old and cracked, it still provides perfect grip for ski poles. Over the several hundred kilometres I skied in six weeks, I did not break a single ferrule and only sharpened them a few times, whereas in Finland you’d have to do it after every run to spare your elbows from the pain caused by overextension due to slipping poles.

Prime Hawaii asphalt at an altitude of 2100 meters

Where to stay

Hawaii is said to boast all of the dozen-or-so climate zones found around the world except arctic tundra, so the landscape is more diverse than anywhere else I’ve been. The difference in temperature between sea level and the highest peak (there’s a road all the way up!) on a normal day is close to 30 degrees Celsius, dropping about 7 degrees per every 1 kilometre of altitude. And while the side of the island East of the 4-kilometre-tall volcanoes, which catches almost all of the precipitation, looks like a full-blown rainforest, the West side is strikingly dry and sunny. This makes the two-hour drive from Hilo to Kona through different microclimates feel like a speed lapse video from a road trip across a large continent. And where else can you start a bicycle ride in the morning at 30 degrees and hit the freezing point (on a cloudy day) at an altitude of 4200 metres in about five hours, if you’re extremely fit (full disclosure: I took nine!)?

Soaring through the clouds at an altitude of 4000m

The average temperature at sea level fluctuates just below 30 degrees Celsius, with very little seasonal variation. While that may be optimal for sipping mai-tais in poolside bars or laying idle on the beach, most skiers would find it a little uncomfortable for training. However, for anyone planning to stay there on the dry-side of Hawaii like most visitors, if you don’t mind breaking sweat, you can absolutely get a good roller ski workout on the main road, the Queen Ka’ahumanu Hwy, which also happens to be the venue of the bike leg of the world-renowned Kona Ironman race. That road has a gentle profile and wide enough shoulders to share with all those ironman hopefuls; it is just a little too hot, windy and noisy for my liking. If you go ski there, just be sure to bring a lot of beverages. I don’t think the old rule of thumb of a bottle per hour applies there!

Very sweaty at sea level

Concerned about excessive heat, based on a little online research and consultation with the local bicycle club, I chose to stay in the village of Waimea at an altitude of about 800 metres. Indeed, it proved to be a climate sweet spot with comfortably warm weather in the daytime and cool at night; plenty of sunshine and the occasional light spray of rain to keep the air fresh and the flora flush and bright-coloured. Due to the central location, it also provides convenient access around the island. While there are no resorts or big hotels there, they have plenty of Airbnb’s to suit different preferences and budgets, and potentially providing a more authentic view to the easygoing island life of the locals, especially when staying a little longer. Besides, who wouldn’t get bored (and bankrupt!) in a resort after a few weeks anyway?

Having just mentioned cost, logistics-wise I spent a little short of €2,000 on the flights from Helsinki to Kona including some travel class upgrades and extra baggage. The Airbnb, which was a 2-room garden house (ohana) was about €2,500 for six weeks and a pick-up truck allowing me to haul my sports gear and blend in cost about €1,500 to lease. In terms of living expenses, Hawaii is currently a little on the expensive side for the euro-based visitor, but by no means prohibitively so. In practical terms, think rather Norway than Switzerland. In addition to staying in an Airbnb and renting a used car (starting at about €500/month for a run-down compact), a pretty penny can also be saved by not eating out all the time and not drinking too much local craft beer and expensive Kona coffee – but they sure taste good!

That’s a happy commuter if I ever saw one!

The Verdict?

From a European perspective, on purely athletic grounds, there are arguably even better places closer to home. For example, it’s hard to beat Mallorca for pre-season roller skiing and Gran Canaria for road cycling, since both islands have more roads and less traffic than Hawaii. And head-to-head, there’s no match for those summertime hikes in the Italian Dolomites, either. However, if you have already been there and want something else for a change of pace, the Big Island is definitely worth a shot. At least, if you can spare a couple of weeks or more to justify the 24-hour travel time and to recover from the inevitable jet lag.

Better yet, on a more balanced perspective, if you are looking to combine a multi-sport training camp with a holiday in beautiful and diverse surroundings, there’s no shortage of places to see or things to do on those recovery days and afternoons on Hawaii (if you’re not mostly stuck indoors working on your laptop, like your author). Or maybe you’re out scouting for best places in the world to lead an active lifestyle on a long-term basis – in these scenarios, the Big Island of Hawaii would definitely rank very high in my book.

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Ilkka Korhonen, a native of Finland. Life-long background of moderate activity, including road cycling for ultra-long distances and time trialing. Having skied some as a schoolchild like all Finns of his generation, was reconnected with the sport twenty years later through a wager to train for two months and get a medal in Vasaloppet (complete the race in <1.5 * the winner’s time). Failed that by half an hour but succeeded the next year. Subsequent goal was to double-pole the course, while beating his brother’s PB… Managed the first part, kind of, but at a cost to placing and finishing time – so the quest continues.

Employing himself, as of season 17/18, as a communications consultant and translation contractor in financial services and central banking affords him the freedom make his own schedule and apply a high-volume exercise regimen as well as the resources to chase the sun or snow and collect those Worldloppet stamps. Athletic career highlights so far mainly consist of a Vasaloppsmedalj (pictured) and a few Strava KOMs, but hasn’t lost faith that “the next season” will be the best ever.

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