Campus Recreation

History of the Kūkini

Ke Alaloa O Kūkini - The Long Pathway of the Swift Runner - 265 Mile Island Run

Hawaiʻi’s First Runners

Author: Dawn Henry May 16, 2009

Triathletes converging on Hawaiʻi’s Kohala Coast for the 6th anniversary of the Ironman 70.3 Hawaiʻi may be interested to know that athletic competition and elite running has been going on along this coast for quite a while longer than Ironman events have been taking place.

Hawaiian communities have existed along the sunny northwest coast of Hawaiʻi for at least the last thousand years. As years and generations passed, these areas grew and spread, and a system of trails was created to connect the various communities together. One of the more well-known trails can be found near the coastal pathways of the elegant Fairmont Orchid, Hawaiʻi, Ironman 70.3 Hawaiʻi’s host hotel and partner, and just steps from this year’s finish line. This trail, known as Ala Kahakai, meanders around the entire circumference of the Big Island, usually staying very close to shore.

Trails such as the Ala Kahakai were used by travelers of every variety in Hawaiʻi, from ruling chiefs, known as aliʻi, down to the merest commoners. Among the travelers generating the most excitement were the kūkini, the Hawaiian runners. Kūkini were often of royal descent, and were chosen for their vocation because of demonstrated athletic ability. They logged long training miles, worked on both speed and distance, and ate a special diet very similar to the foods suggested for triathletes today: lean meats and fish, and fresh vegetables, including a local favorite: yams.

The kūkini were employed by aliʻi to work as messengers – to swiftly carry messages between aliʻi living in different locations, to summon warriors to battle, to gather intelligence, and otherwise to do their chief's bidding. Legend grew around the fastest of the kūkini, and stories tell of kūkini going out for a run through villages spread miles apart and returning in the time it took to cook a fish, or unload a canoe. The taste for competition being perhaps a basic part of human nature, foot races among the kūkini took place, and spectators bet big on their favorite runner.

Keep the kūkini in mind as you bike and run through this hard-baked land of wind and lava on race day, or as you relax in an oceanfront massage cabana after the race. Without aid stations, energy gels or electrolytes, the kūkini swept along Hawaii's trails at something near the speed of light. You think your competition in 2009 is fast, and it is. But put up against the kūkini of old—where do you think the spectators would place their bets?

The Legend of Makoa

UH Hilo IMUA fitness program logo There lived in the time of King Kamehameha, about 200 years ago, a famous runner named Makoa. On all the islands of Hawaiʻi, his name and deeds were praised. He ran so fast that the flap of his malo would snap and his kīhei would fly straight out from his shoulders.

When Makoa was young, his swiftness attracted the attention of the ali'i. They made him a kūkini, a foot racer, and required him to receive special training to increase his strength and speed. He began by walking on his toes without touching the heel of his foot to the ground. Then he tested himself against other kūkini for short distances and at a moderate pace. While he trained, he ate special foods such as the flesh of birds cooked rare. Instead of poi, the pounded paste made of kalo root, he dined on roasted kalo, sweet potato, and breadfruit. In this way, he attained great speed and won many foot races, which were popular among the people. Makoa's friends and supporters frequently placed bets on him when he raced challengers from other islands and villages.

It was the custom of the great King to eat freshly roasted ʻamaʻama, or pond mullet, with his meals. That way he would remove the bitter aftertaste of the royal beverage, ʻawa, which was made from freshly chewed ʻawa root. One day, on a regular circuit of his lands, he rested at Kawaihae, the windy crook in the coast of North Kohala. There his retainers found no fresh ʻamaʻama available. “Send the swiftest runner to fetch the King’s fish from Waiākea," ordered the retainers. So Makoa made his famous run to Hilo to get the mullet from the King’s fishponds at Waiākea, a distance of over 80 miles.

Makoa left early in the morning. "Hū ka makani," said the people who witnessed the speed of his departure, "The wind blows a gale." Makoa raced across the steep and rocky terrain between Kohala and Hilo. His swift passing caused the ʻuki grass to wave to and fro, the lehua blossoms and leaves of the ʻōhiʻa to flutter. The distance would take an ordinary man four days, traveling without baggage. Yet Makoa returned with the ʻamaʻama before the sun stood high in the heavens. As the retainers unwrapped the leaf bundle and removed the limu covering the fish, they exclaimed, "It still lives!" The fish quivered, not yet dead.

Thus Kamehameha drank his ʻawa down and ate the fresh fish to remove the bitter taste from his mouth. To this day Hawaiians say that a runner who shows great speed is "He pōkiʻi no Makoa," Makoa's younger brother.