The tears rolled out in uncontrollable bursts, like they would never stop. Then, Bree Brown thought maybe it was all wrong, maybe it had been some big, inexplicable mistake.
That’s when she texted her friend, her personal long distance running inspiration.
“She didn’t text me back,” Brown said Saturday, a few minutes after being the first female finisher in the 14th annual Hilo-to-Volcano ultra marathon. “That’s when I knew it was true.”
She didn’t want to believe it because it was so incongruous, so out of place with who Sylvia Ravaglia was, and what she represented to the growing core of women who run long distance on the Big Island.
They thought of her as the Queen of women ultra runners on the Big Island, and in some sense, throughout the state, because of Ravaglia’s remarkable determination and dedication to the discipline. She was not the fastest woman ultra distance runner, though it would have never been a surprise to see her on the podium, accepting another medal for her age group or gender. She was, you could say, without fear of contradiction, something else.
Sylvia Ravaglia was seen as the first, the driving wheel, the beating heart for women runners on the Big Island.
“She was like the ‘no excuse girl,’” Brown said. “She was a force for all of us.”
The mention of her name always conjured an image of her indefatigable drive, as evidenced by running the HURT 100 — the Hawaiian Ultra Running Team’s 100-mile endurance run — in a remarkable five consecutive years, and then there was the Peacock 55-miler, and on and on, so you understand the irreconcilable shock for so many that Ravaglia, 42, was killed on New Year’s Day when she was simply walking on the side of Kawaihae Road in Waimea, when a truck crossed the double yellow line, struck her down and killed her.
This was a death that seemed to impact every one of the 199 people — a record high number, according to race director Bob Wedeman — who showed up in the predawn darkness and rain at Coconut Island to begin the 31-mile, uphill climb from the Bayfront to the 4,00-foot level at Volcano.
Those weren’t just raindrops running down the cheeks of so many at the start, they were tearful evidence of the mute pain felt by so many who couldn’t make sense of this woman’s life being so needlessly cut down.
“It’s horrible,” Wedeman said, “it’s heartbreaking for the obvious reasons, it wasn’t her fault, she was innocent. It’s a very tight-knit running community here, we all recognize that, and while everyone may not be close friends with everyone else, we all knew Sylvia, she was a fixture.
“People were teary-eyed at the start — you just don’t see that — but this was a different occasion.”
At some level, ultra running for women on the Big Island just crossed the Rubicon into something apart from what it has ever been.
“She broke the ice for all of us,” said Sarah Stover, a distance runner herself who aspires to run ultras one day, and the wife of men’s runner-up Saturday, Patrick Stover. “She was the first of us to do these things, she was doing marathons and ultra’s before Bree, before all of us.
“She made us all realize, as women, we can do this. A lot of us used to follow our husbands or other men we may have known, and we would support them in their runs, their marathons, and we would run 5Ks or 10Ks, but it was her example that showed us we can do this, too.”
So what’s changed?
“I’m not predicting,” Stover said, “but I feel like it may get us more involved, it may be the example that gets more women on the Big Island thinking beyond running 10Ks, it may get more of us thinking about doing more. I’ve never run an ultra, but I’m thinking about it now.”
Another longer term possibility is that the death of Sylvia Ravaglia may inspire people to contact politicians and make demands about the real life issues involved in the need for expanded running/cycling lanes on Hawaii Island.
That would be a fitting cause for the future, but it was the past that was on everyone’s mind Saturday. Dozens of runners had Ravaglia’s name written on their shoes, one relay team named itself in her honor. Men and women alike felt her presence, or her memory.
“With her ultra experience,” said Patrick Stover, the top Big Island finisher, “she was someone I looked up to, someone I admired. She was absolutely influential, I just had a ton of respect for her.”
On the back of Stover’s shoe, he had her name written on the left heel, her husband and daughter’s name on his right heel.
“I definitely came into this emotional and shaking,” Stover said, “but as I got going, I was thinking more of the run itself, but then as I got closer to the end, I thought about her a lot. I was definitely in the ‘hurt box,’ I was struggling and I was really thinking about her, about toughing it out for her and that helped, that pretty much got me through at the end.
“It’s very painful of all of us who knew her,” he said, “but now, this (event) is over and I just feel privileged to have known her.”
It was a sentiment shared by 198 others in there Big Island running community Saturday morning.
For them, the memories will never die.
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