Tawnie McDonald Conquers Maui’s Cycle to the Sun Race

  • Hawaii Sport Events
    Top Big Island male and female finishers- Penn Henderson and Tawnie McDonald.
  • Hawaii Sport Events
    Keauhou's Penn Henderson leads a group of cyclists along the winding road to the summit of Haleakala.
  • Hawaii Sport Events
    Kailua-Kona's Tawnie McDonald becomes the first Big Island woman in history to win Maui's Cycle to the Sun 36-mile hill climb on Saturday. McDonald finished in a time of 3:41:58.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the wide smile spread across Tawnie McDonald’s face as she powered over the finish line as the first female said it all.

In doing so, the Kailua-Kona resident became the first Big Island woman in history to ever win at Maui’s Cycle to the Sun Race held on Saturday — a grueling 36-mile uphill climb from the quaint town of Paia located at sea level, to the summit of Maui’s Haleakala that towers just over 10,000 feet — finishing in a stellar time of 3 hours, 41 minutes and 58 seconds.

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“It’s great,” McDonald said of her victory while trying to catch her breath. “This race — it’s just absolutely beautiful. You can see Molokini, the West Maui Mountains and Kahoolawe. And luckily, we had great weather.”

The win turned out to be a sweet redemption of sorts. At last year’s event, the 55-year-old found herself battling for first but ended up settling for second place, just 4 minutes shy from the overall women’s title.

This year would be different.

From her experience with fast road race starts where cyclists often find themselves jostling for position and surging over the initial miles to gain the advantage of riding with faster cyclists, McDonald was determined not to get “dropped” from the main group.

“I tried not to burn too many matches at the start, but ended up doing so just to try and keep up with some of the group surges,” she said. “But I pretty much ride my own ride and just try not to get caught up in all the mayhem. I watch my watts (power output) as I know what I pretty much can do.”

McDonald said that she found herself in great company along with a few strong male riders and Oahu’s Kristen Osborn, who is the current Queen of the Mountain Championship series leader.

The King and Queen of the Mountain Championship Series title will go to the top male and female who accumulates the most points from four hill climbing events in the state: Oahu’s Tantalus Time Trial, Kauai’s Pedal to the Meadow, Maui’s Cycle to the Sun and Big Island’s Sea to Stars races.

“It was fun because I was with Paul (Knoetgen) and Jennifer (Real) and we were the three with our Hawaii Cycling Club jerseys on,” McDonald said. “We stayed together till about half way, then I noticed that they started to fall back. Kristen fell back as well. I just pretty much kept my own pace and there were a couple of guys that I was able to keep up with. And actually, one them knew me back from Oregon.”

McDonald, who was born and raised in Colorado, said that she spent nearly 30 years living in Bend, Oregon before moving to Kona in 2015 to take on a position at Kona Community Hospital as their Quality Director.

Her main passion was running until eight years ago when she felt inspired after watching the Hawaii Ironman World Championships on television and thought, “I want to do that!”

Needing to learn two other disciplines, McDonald found that she was a natural when it came to the bike, but more like a fish out of water when it came to the swim.

However, her determination to compete at the world’s most grueling one-day sporting event finally landed her at the 2014 Kona start line where she finished in a time of 13:20:37.

And ever since moving to Kona, McDonald has been a cycling powerhouse, winning virtually every cycling event she has entered inclusive of two, back-to-back Sea To Stars victories. It’s no wonder she has earned the reputation as “the studliest woman on two wheels.”

Yet more than winning, McDonald says that she enjoys the journey and the social opportunities that riding her bike presents. Far from being very structured when it comes to training and racing, McDonald is quite the opposite, completely laid back and happy if she gets to squeeze in a ride or run before or after work.

The race itself certainly becomes the icing on the cake, and winning only merely reflects the joy McDonald achieves from a sport she feels truly passionate about.

Asked about what she enjoys most when competing in tough hill climbing events, McDonald thought for a second and said; “I actually enjoy it as I am less stressed when I know there is more distance. I can just breathe, calm down, not get excited – it’s actually better for me. I truly get to enjoy it.”

Big Island represents at Maui race

A total of eight Big Islanders made the interisland trip to compete at Maui’s Cycle to the Sun race.

While the overall winning time went to Japan’s Tomofuni Okubo, who powered his bike over the finish line in 2:47:29, the next two podium spots were nabbed by Canada’s Jerome Fradette and Justin Prior of Nashville, Tennessee, with their times of 2:52:14 and 2:54:12, respectively.

Keauhou’s Penn Henderson finished 7th overall in the competitive men’s field in a time of 3:01:53.

“I’m really happy to have the opportunity to be a part of this amazing race,” Henderson said. “I love climbing and really enjoy competing against some high caliber competition. It really doesn’t get better than this in Hawaii.”

Others who fared well in the men’s division were Pahoa’s Gytenis Litvaitis in a great time of 3:24:18, Paul Knoetgen of Kailua-Kona in 4:07:00, and Paul Escobar of Hilo with a time of 4:11:28. Kailua-Kona’s Frank Snow competed in the relay division.

Litvaitis, who originally moved to the Big Island about a year and a half ago for a job opportunity to help a friend with a business startup, said that since it didn’t work out, he eventually moved to the east side of the island to start his own business.

His passion for the bike had him entering last year’s Sea To Stars race, a 49-mile uphill grind from Waikoloa Beach Drive to the Visitor’s Center atop of Mauna Kea, an experience that left him inspired and wanting more. He decided that Maui’s Cycle to the Sun event was a must do.

“I love to climb with my bike and just wanted to gain some experience in racing in some of these epic rides,” said the 23-year old cycling coach and video creator. “To me this was just an appealing race. There’s not a whole lot of rides happening on the Big Island, and I love climbing, so when I heard about this race from a friend I just had to do it.”

While McDonald was well over ten minutes ahead of the women’s second place finisher, Canada’s Brandi Heisterman, who finished in 3:52:35, Ninole’s Jennifer Real helped to put a stamp on women’s cycling from the Big Island as she rounded out the podium with her time of 3:54:35.

Kailua-Kona’s Jelena Skopinceva also finished the climb in 6:24:54.

About Maui’s Cycle to the Sun Race

At 36 miles stretching from Maui’s North Shore town of Paia, through the upcountry Paniolo town of Makawao, to the rolling hills and expansive pasture lands of Kula, and finally onto the famous ribbon road that leads to the summit of Haleakala, boasts the longest and steepest paved hill climb race in the world – Maui’s Cycle to the Sun.

Riders climb 10,000 feet and encounter gradients as steep as 18 percent as they begin their journey at sea level before making their way to the summit.

For race director Donnie Arnoult, who owns a bike shop and a cycling tour business – Maui Cyclery and Go Cycling Maui – being able to organize this epic event right in his backyard for the last 11 years has been “pretty cool.”

“Having this mountain on the island, this is the tallest paved climb in the world and that’s the main attraction,” Arnoult said. “A lot of people seek out these really difficult climbs around the world and we just happen to have this race every year. It attracts an international crowd with a couple years having at least ten different countries here. We definitely get more hill climbers out here because there are not many events like this.”

Arnoult, who used to ride professionally as a Cat One pro racer, explained that back in the 80s the event was held as a charity ride for many years.

“It used to be more of a local’s event, not competitive,” Arnoult said. “It started in the 80’s, then it caved for a few years before coming back in the 90s and early 2000. Once I moved here, I decided to turn it into a real race to attract more real racers while still benefiting a charity. So I took it over in 2008 and I wanted it to have more of a race atmosphere and feel to it.”

The race is limited to only 200 participants, which allows Arnoult to truly put on a genuine first class event. From swag given out at prerace registration, to supported aid stations well stocked with water and fuel, and to what has become, the state’s best post-race awards party for cycling enthusiasts, this has certainly become an event on everyone’s bucket list.

Participants and their family members also enjoyed the rare opportunity to hang out with the famous actor Owen Wilson, star of Meet the Parents and Wedding Crashers to name a few, and who happens to live just down the road in Paia.

For Arnoult, seeing the smiles on everyone’s faces made all the hard work and effort toward organizing the event worthwhile.

“This one crushes me for awhile,” Arnoult said with a laugh. “After I put this one on, I need to take a break for awhile because I have another event the week before Christmas. It’s a pancake breakfast ride in Kula and we get about 100 people showing up. It’s a pretty cool gig. So I put on two rides a year.

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“For Cycle to the Sun, it’s probably a total of 10 months worth of getting everything into place from the paperwork and permitting, to contacting the sponsors, and then things start to get busy when registration opens in February. Then a month out is when it really starts getting crazy.

“This year we had beautiful weather at the start, everyone showed up on time, it started on time and it went off without a hitch. So yeah I’m happy. I think everything went pretty well and everyone’s happy.”