The Unsung Heroes of Trail Races

What does it take to prepare yourself for a race? Your training cycle includes miles upon miles of local roads or trails, the allotted time for recovery and possibly cross-training, and loads of mental preparation for the big day. Then you reach the start line and everything is in place, markers are set, aid stations are strategically placed throughout the course, goodie bags are organized, and medals are ready to be claimed. The unsung heroes who manage these races go through their own preparation to make race day come to life.

  From races like MOAB in Utah which are widely known and popular, to smaller ones like Run for the Hills in Nebraska, all take time, effort, and mental capacity of their own to put together. Recently we chatted with TANRI Brand Ambassador, Melanie Koehl, who's been organizing the HURT (Hawaiian Ultra Running Team) Mango Madness race in Honolulu, Hawaii for the last 10 years! Being a Mango Madness racer prior to taking over, Melanie always had a love for the sport, her local land, and for the community that comes along with it. When the previous organizer was unable to keep managing Mango Madness, Koehl knew she couldn’t let this race die out and willingly stepped up to the podium! 

 Preparation begins months in advance. Applying for permits is one of the first obstacles to get through and it’s a tedious one at that. One must provide extensive documentation consisting of maps of the course or at the least a general area of where the race will be taking place. Proof of a means of urgent communication must also be established in order to be able to contact all participants with news in the event of an emergency or natural disaster, as well as proof of a means of tracking racers in order to ensure everyone makes it back to the finish without getting lost. Similar to a business plan, every detail about the race from the number of participants to proof of tournament insurance must be outlined and turned in to local city officials for review. Sometimes, the permit will not even be handed out until the day before the event, but the process could take up to six months to be approved. 

  The hassle of submitting the permit for approval is truly only the beginning. What makes Mango Madness unique, aside from the beautiful views of Hawaii, is that Koehl likes to keep racers on their toes and never offers the same course twice, taking the mystery even further by not disclosing the course prior to race day! Though Koehl usually doesn’t go over 12 miles, the high elevation gain, hill repeats, and technical terrain make this race a challenge, even for veteran racers! To build these courses Koehl explores her local trail systems herself for any fun or hidden paths she might find along the way, including some dating back to the early 1900s. “We found old trails from Kamehameha Ⅰ. There used to be sandalwood on this hillside and they used to sell it to China for incense, so they would make these natural lava rock pits in the forest, and they would fill it with sandalwood. When it filled up they would haul it down the hill, since it filled these pits they knew that it would fit in the ship's portal and the ship would be set to go off with it. We found this trail and cleared it out, surprisingly it wasn’t that bad and hadn’t been taken over by non-native grasses.”

  As if finding a trail and marking it wasn’t difficult enough, now comes what most racers anticipate the most the medal you get to place around your neck at the finish! There’s a lot of pressure on the design of medals to be unique, flashy, and representative of the race itself. Being a graphic designer by trade, Koehl gets to merge her two passions in life and use her skillset to add a more personal touch to the design behind the medals, logo, and swag. “I’ve done medals where I had the design lasered on and then I hand watercolored each one. I like to take the look of the medal and make the stickers, and the shirts and trucker hats all matchy-matchy. It’s like marrying my love of running in the trails and design together, so it’s like my happy place.” 

  Though Koehl genuinely enjoys organizing Mango Madness each year, it takes a village to put these races together, Koehl admits that she relies heavily on her trail running community to get her through every year. “If you haven’t volunteered in a while, think about volunteering. I know a lot of people like to run the races but they have to be put on somehow, and it’s actually really rewarding. When you’re sitting out and you’re cheering people on they see that and they remember that, be a volunteer at least once!” Koehl also feels a sense of gratitude once racers are crossing the finish line and hearing, “that was so fun, I love that new section, that was the hardest thing ever, but I loved it!” 

  The unsung heroes that put together races year-round are a very special part of both the running and their own local communities. Often times races will either encourage racers to fundraise or, in Koehl’s case, utilize the entry fees to cover costs and donate the rest to local charities. Over the pandemic, another of Koehl’s races, the Run Mauka Challenge (Hawaii’s first virtual vertical)  2020 and 2021 donated over one thousand dollars to the Hawaii Food Bank when food shortages drastically decreased for many families. 

It’s clear that there’s a special kind of magic that surrounds our sport, we encourage you to consider paying it forward at least once a year and cheer your local running community on!

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