You start on the grass beside the Water Board fountain on Honolulu's Makiki Heights Drive. There is a level half mile, under thorny kiawe trees, before you begin to climb a long ridge. You pass palatial homes nearly hidden by orchid, breadfruit and mango. Further up, the eternal cloud over the mountain covers the sun and you enter tropical forest. Norfolk pines wave about in a freshening wind and eucalyptus peelings crackle underfoot.
A mile on and a few hundred feet higher, the forest becomes jungle. Guava, koa and ironwood, hung with enormous split-leaf philodendrons, close in above. Flowering ginger forms a ragged, chest-high carpet up every ravine and mixes its penetrating sweetness with the pungency of rotting guavas. You cannot breathe out, only in and in. A squall barges through the foliage and you thrash in the rain, slipping on crushed avocado. It feels good to be cold.
At the summit a stone span crosses to an adjoining ridge. You descend, no longer struggling, allowing the earth to draw you freewheeling down the slope. The jungle divides, and there is a view of the canyon and Honolulu's galling high rises and beyond, the sea, throwing back the white afternoon sun.
You meet a runner laboring up from the green depths. "Hell, this is nothing," he snorts. "You ought to run New England in the fall."
Cross-country too often has been portrayed as the last bastion of the puritan work ethic, a sport where miles are counted not as units of joy (as are touchdowns or baskets) but of suffering, a sport whose motives are so pure as to be incommunicable. Certainly the runner, at least initially, must have the will to endure. But when he has attained basic fitness, the sense of ordeal ebbs. Through his fatigue he begins to appreciate this most primary of athletic relationships: a man crossing the earth, unaided, as it presents itself to him.
Steve Prefontaine, Oregon's NCAA champion, calls it sanctuary. "It's a great relief from the monotony of running around a track. Six miles on a track drives me crazy. Six miles across the Coos Bay sand dunes is a lot of fun."
The rewards of cross-country may be unrelated to competitive success. This is not to say that one cannot derive satisfaction from winning, but if competition is the runner's only goal, he is clearly deranged. He would pursue Sophia Loren for her money, order Russian caviar for its protein content.
The two most widely practiced sports that offer virtually no professional opportunities are swimming and track and field. Swimmers are notorious for retiring as teen-agers, but many runners, especially distance runners, carry on for decades ( Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia won the Mexico City Olympic marathon at age 35). Elaborate physiological arguments have been put forth as to why this should or should not be so. For the runner the answer is clear: you cannot swim through a forest. The elements of boredom and meaningless pain are present in swimming—with its incessant repetitions and changeless surroundings—to a degree not found in running freely over the country. The swimmer continues only so long as his urge to dominate drives him. The runner races one day a week in the autumn. The rest of the time he can indulge his esthetic sense.
New Zealander Jack Foster says, "I run from three to 15 miles five days a week and 20 on Sunday over hilly sheep farming country or through forest. I don't think of running as 'training.' I am not prepared to let it be anything but one of the pleasures of my life."
Foster recently set the world record for 20 miles. He is 39.