We have all heard of Pele - the ancient Hawaiian fire goddess, she who both creates and destroys. According to legend, this tempremetal goddess makes her home at the summit of Mt. Kilauea. Many visitors to the sacred mountain have witnessed her walking along Halema‘uma‘u crater, or have felt her presence envelop them from the shadows of her holy home.
But you might not have hear, sometimes, that Pele gets tired of Hawaii. It’s very hot there, in the mouth of her ancestral volcano. The humidity does nothing for her hair. And she gets exhausted from the endless labor of spewing lava everywhere, just to have greedy developers turn her hard-won new acres of land into golf courses and luxury condos. Even a goddess needs to get away sometimes and relax.
So, when the stress just becomes too much, Pele heads for her summer home. Somewhere cooler, drier, with great views minus all the fuss and muss of volcanic eruptions.
Where, you ask?
However, even though she’s on vacation, Pele still brings her creative and destructive powers along to the party. And her bad attitude.
How do I know all this? I am one of the lucky ones. I have met her on the mountain. Several times, in fact.
I first met Pele at the starting line of the 2017 Pikes Peak Marathon. As I gazed up at the mountain from my vantage point in Manitou Springs, I saw her face, clear as day, etched into the rocky summit. And I heard Pele’s voice in my head, taunting me. “You think you are a master trail runner?” she chortled. “Ha! If you set one foot on my flanks today, daughter, I can guarantee you this — your feet will find no sanctuary. You will trip over tree roots, stumble on rocks, and tumble head-first over boulders until you are a limping, broken mess. In short — I will destroy you.”
As an English teacher by day, I have studied up on mythology and I know better than to mess with Pele if she’s trying to pick a fight. Dejected, I decided to high-tail it out of harm’s way without so much as an ‘Adios,’ I dropped out of the race, too terrified to set one foot on the mountain.
However, as a student of mythology, I know that Pele’s moods are ever-shifting. Just because she throws lava bombs at you one day, doesn’t mean she won’t send you flowers and chocolates the next. So I decided to give Pikes Peak another go at the 2018 Ascent.
Pele was apparently feeling a bit coy that day. She didn’t mind if I stopped by for a quick visit — as long as I didn’t get too cozy. Halfway up the steep slopes of Barr Trail, we runners were halted by race organizers because severe thunderstorms with golf-ball sized hail were heading our way. As I began my descent down the mountain, I glanced over my shoulder and I caught a glimpse of the goddess on the distant summit, laughing at me as she turned away to drink a margarita and watch some soaps.
Fast forward another year and I’m a glutton for punishment, back at Pikes Peak for the 2019 Ascent. Standing at the starting line, I closed my eyes and spoke to the goddess. “I respect you,” I muttered, “but I am not afraid of you. You can keep thwarting my efforts to reach your peak but I won’t go away. We can play this game for decades or you could end it today by letting me complete my quest. It’s up to you.”
And then I opened my eyes. The race started. And my epic battle with the mountain was once again under way.
The first few miles of the race were — well — not easy. But they also weren’t as hard as I remembered from the previous year. My legs burned on the climb through Manitou Springs and onto Barr Trail but my lungs were clear, able to bring in all the oxygen I needed. Maybe Pele was finally on my side this time. I felt a bit like I’d been sprinkled with pixie dust as I bounded over tree roots, rocks, and boulders.
I reached Barr Camp a full half hour faster than I had managed a year before. And instead of being turned back by fickle weather, I could see nothing but blue skies on the horizon.
Mile No. 9 of the race turned treacherous. Slowed to a hike by the steepness of the trail, I was forced repeatedly to use my upper body to pull myself over rocks, hoisting myself forward via tree trunks, praying not to lose my footing and take a tumble. Several runners around me weren’t so lucky, ending up with bloodied shins and bruised egos.
When I hit the tree line at Mile 10, the rocks disappeared, and the trail became wide, sandy, and simple to navigate. I cruised forward, eating up the distance between myself and the summit the way I gobble nachos at Tequila’s on a Saturday night — relentlessly. I prayed that Pele would smile on me, making the remaining distance an easy trek to her summit home. And she did.
Except for the last mile.
Pele decided to prey upon my greatest fear at Mile 12 — my fear of heights.
The trail became a narrow ledge, vearing sharply left and right, peppered with boulders I had to haul my now-exhausted body over without a misstep, or certain doom awaited me. I looked up, briefly, at the trail ahead of my as it spiraled ever higher and instantly, vertigo engulfed me, threatening to send me crashing. I slammed into a rock, stinging my hands and knees. In my oxygen-starved brain, I heard Pele laughing at me.
Although it was a lie, I gritted my teeth and muttered, “I. Am. Not. Afraid. Of. You.”
I don’t know if that’s a wise thing to say to a trickster of a goddess. But it’s all I could think of at the time.
Every step along the last mile was torture. I was too terrified of the dizzying heights to look left or right for even a moment. I focused instead on the next step of ground in front of me. And then the next step after that. For what felt like an eternity, I picked my way along the rocks — sharp rocks, slick rocks, pointy rocks, rocks as big as dinner tables, rocks as small as a peach — all of those rocks that I had to step on or over to keep moving forward. I cried, I cursed, I prayed, I begged, I pleaded for this nightmare of a mile to end.
After 40 minutes, it did. Forty. Agonizing. Minutes. To cover just one mile.
As if from heaven itself, a hand descended from the haze in front of me. It was the hand of a volunteer at the finish line. Instinctively, I reached out and took his hand in mine, and he hauled me up and over the last boulder. As my foot hit the timing mat, I whispered, “I did it…” And then lost my mind.
I started crying. Like an idiot. Snot and tears slid down my face. But there’s not enough oxygen to cry like a sane person at 14,115 feet. Instead, I looked like a beached fish, gasping soundlessly, heaving, shaking, spewing saliva and tears in every direction.
“Come here, honey,” another race volunteer sang in front of me. Through my tears, I saw her holding out my prize — my finisher’s medal. I bowed my head for her to place my trophy around my neck. As I turned to walk away, for just a moment, I could have sworn I saw Pele’s smile peeking out from behind the volunteer’s eyes and then the vision was gone.
Pele — she destroys. But she also creates. I have learned that creation and destruction are not the opposites they seem; we must be beaten down, destroyed, in order to be reborn as something stronger and wiser. Pele broke me several times at Pikes Peak. But without her, I would not have become something even better — a woman who can say she completed the gauntlet that is the Pikes Peak Ascent.