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When determining the best runners in history, it is so easy to focus only on runners that existed in the last fifty years. Because the race times of these runners are forever etched in the record book, it is easy ignore runners of other past cultures. One culture that was renowned for excellent runners was ancient Hawaii.
Prior to uniting as the Kingdom of Hawaii under the Hawaiian king Kamehameha, Hawaii was made up of multiple chiefdoms. Sources tell how these chiefs relied on swift young men called kukini acted as messengers, spies, food transporters, and ran down stray goats and other animals. These elite athletes negotiated rocky and steep trails to serve their chiefs. Every year, the kukini would compete against each other at the annual Hawaiian new year festival called Makahiki.
The idea of the kukini is so popular that Nike has named of its shoes models after these swift ancient runners. The book Hawaiian Mythology re-tells many legends passed down from ancient Hawaiians of exceptional runners. Some of these stories are amazing considering that these runners did not have the modern technology that runners enjoy today.
For example, Ulua-nui was a famous runner who, it was told, could catch a fish in the town of Kailua on the east shore of of the island of Oahu, run to Waialua on the north shore, and then finish his trip at Waikiki on the south shore so quickly that the fish would still be wriggling. This is a distance of approximately 80 miles.
Ancient Hawaiians were the ultimate ultra marathon runners. For example, the great runner Kalamea could run around Maui in a day, Pakui could circle Oahu six times in a day, Ku-hele-moana and Keakea-lani could circle Oahu twelve times in a day; Kama-a-ka-mikioi and Kama-aka-ulu-ohia could run around the island of Kauai 10 times in a day.
Obviously, these tales are extremely exaggerated. Oahu, for example, is about 110 miles in circumference. Running 12 times around Oahu in one day is simply not possible. However, these legends show the tremendous regard that the ancient hawaiians had for the elite runners. Much like Paul Bunyan or George Washington and the cherry tree, the oral tradition of Hawaii passed down the feats of their running heroes from generation to generation.
Before we assume that the runners of the present day are the best in the history of the world, we should keep in mind that many other amazing runners have run on the same ground on which we run hundreds and thousands of years ago.