Meet our new trail ambassador – Julie Takishima-Lacasa

Join us in celebrating our second 2017 American Trail Running Association (ATRA) Trail Ambassador presented by CamelBak, Julie Takishima-Lacasa from Honolulu, HI. Julie gives back to her trail running community as a runner, coach, club founder, and race volunteer. Check back with us each month as we introduce another ATRA Trail Ambassador presented by CamelBak. Photos by Stephane Lacasa Photography.

Now 41, Takishima-Lacasa started running at age 12 while living in the California Bay Area. “In PE class, we had to run a mile (for the Presidential Physical Fitness Test),” reflects Takishima-Lacasa, “I beat all the boys, I beat everyone. My PE teacher noticed and got me into a youth cross country club. We would go to regional meets with other middle schoolers, and for practice, we would run on trails. I guess that is where my love of trail running started.”

Takishima-Lacasa continued running cross country while a student at Santa Clara University and her first ultra run happened, in her words…sort of by accident. “I ran the Mt. Fuji 5 Lakes Challenge right out of college. My aunt was an aspiring Olympic Racewalker and I was in Japan visiting her and she was doing the race. So, I ran it. It was about 140km and circled around five lakes at the base of Mt. Fuji. It was incredible. There weren’t a lot of ultrarunners back then, I guess I stumbled on the phenomenon by accident.”

Her favorite ultra was not a race, rather a 100-mile fun run on the snowy Iditarod Trail. “We had to all our pull gear on a sled with a harness,” said Takishima-Lacasa. “There was no way to train on snow in Hawai‘i (the only snow is on Mauna Kea), so I ran down the beach pulling a truck tire attached to a rope.”

Born in Japan, Takishima-Lacasa held dual citizenship until age 18, when she chose her birth country over Germany as her country of record. She recently was naturalized as a US citizen and has lived in Japan, California, and for the past 15 years in Hawai‘i.

She was a race director for the Hawai‘i Ultra Running Team (HURT) trail series events for nearly 10 years and still volunteers at the HURT 100. Takishima-Lacasa never attempted that race and said, “The HURT 100 is my giveback race. Doing that same 20-mile loop five times and passing the finish line every time…you have to be so psychologically tough.” Not that Takishima-Lacasa is not tough, she is a clinical psychologist after all.

Until recently, there was one primary trail running club on Oahu, HURT. “HURT was my ohana, my trail running family that I trained with for years,” said Takishima-Lacasa. “About 5 years ago, I had some knee injuries…and it took a while for me to accept it. All of my running friends were ultrarunners. I tried to keep training with HURT and running long (20-30 mile trail runs on the weekends), but, eventually I decided I needed to stop ultrarunning and run shorter distances. So, I decided to start a club not to compete with HURT, but rather where the runs would be shorter, faster, and fun for all ages and abilities. I asked for HURT leadership’s blessing before I started the club.”

That club she founded with her best friend/trail sister Julie Ha, O‘ahu Trail Run Club (OTRC), hosted its first organized run on January 1, 2016 with about 15 or 20 people. The club meets weekly on Sundays at 7:30am, rain or shine (although in 2016 there were two weather issues that preempted the run – lightning one time, and torrential rain the other – if the run is cancelled, there is a group Facebook post by 6:30 a.m.), to run one of the dozens of scenic trails around the island of Oahu. Each week the club meets at a different trail. The venue could be along a valley floor, along the ridge of a mountain, or through a rain forest. Along with some of the most picturesque views any trail runner anywhere could imagine, these trails are also much more technically challenging than the average trails found elsewhere in the world, even when they are dry. Long stretches of rain can cause some of these trails to become even more challenging to navigate, but this doesn’t hinder the dedicated members of the group from showing up each week ready to run.

Nominator Kelly Jeffers writes in his nomination letter, “Julie uses her many years of experience and uncompromising dedication to the safety of every OTRC member to give tips and directions as to how each person should safely and responsibly run these trails. And since the OTRC is open to people of ALL ability levels, coordinating these runs and ensuring everyone stays happy and healthy each week is no small responsibility. But, even people who join us for runs for the first time quickly become comfortable when Julie communicates what to expect and how to handle it. This fosters a very welcoming environment for anyone of any ability to get into trail running, which many people know is a great way for those looking to live a healthier lifestyle come to meet and get to know one another. If it weren’t for her, many of the people we know would have never gotten into trail running in the first place.”

Admitting that one of the reasons she started the club was for selfish reasons, her bigger impetus was to introduce people to all the runnable trails of O‘ahu. “Much of the trail running on this island is focused on two trail systems, but there are a ton of shorter trails that people don’t really run as much,” says Takashima-Lacasa. So, she keeps a master list of O‘ahu’s runnable trails and posts the location of each week’s trail run which vary in length up to about 10 miles.

“Some folks don’t consider what I consider runnable…runnable. I guess whatever the trail presents is runnable to me. There are a lot of washed out roots and rocks, and right out of the gate at most runs there are significant inclines. People tend to get used to it once they build up strength, endurance, and stamina. At first, many power hike, then alternate with running. Although our trails are technical and particularly challenging, you’re often rewarded with a waterfall, or a summit lookout.”

On the runs, animal sightings can include mongoose, Jackson chameleons, geckos, lizards, chickens, roosters, feral cats and wild pigs. Since most trails are shared with hunters, there can be a lot of hunting dogs, which can be kind of wild. On the plus side, there are no snakes, or dangerous spiders.

Each run starts with a huddle where advice and trail running tips are shared. Since there are all shapes, sizes, and paces of the runners who range in age from teens to mid-60s, Takishima-Lacasa created a system to be sure everyone is safe by leading the front group and stopping at every intersection to wait for the next group. When the next group reaches the intersection, the first group continues on the trail to the next intersection. This way, no one gets lost. “Everyone looks out for one another. There is some waiting that happens, that is the trade off. Some may prefer to run hard/non-stop. Our trail runs are more of a community activity.”

After the runs, birthdays are celebrated, and sometimes there is a tailgate, or a group brunch at a restaurant. The group coordinated a race outing at the 2016 XTERRA World Trail Championships in December, followed up by a potluck on the beach. More race outings are planned in 2017 starting with the HURT trail series in March, and also a club dinner.

The club now has tech T-shirts provided by Lululemon Hawai‘i (club member Audrey Scott is OTRC’s Instagram administrator as well as the club’s Lululemon liaison), embossed with the club logo designed by Takishima-Lacasa’s husband who is also a professional photographer and sometimes stages photo shoots during club runs.

On the club’s first anniversary on January 1, 2017, there were about 30 or 40 runners ready to take on the run that morning. Reflecting on the past year Takishima-Lacasa, who makes sure she is always at the runs, said, “Starting and maintaining the club was more of a commitment than I could have known, but it has been so rewarding.”