"Running gives you the ability to create your own internal motivation and your own intrinsic fortitude so you can overcome obstacles."
Irie Burk Thomas has been racing XTERRA since he was four. He and his parents live in Lahaina, where they have been taking Irie onto the trails since he was a baby. His mother is a marathoner who pushed Irie’s stroller up the duck pond hill to get back into shape, and his father Erin is a former college football player who runs the Napili and Kapalua trails.
“I used to make fun of people who played sports that didn’t require a ball,” said Erin Thomas. “What was the point? But after playing football, I was an aching piece of muscle. I started doing yoga and stretching and realized there was life after muscle building. This led me into cardiovascular activities and then running and then running on trails. Now I realize that runners are some of the best athletes.”
When Irie was four, he rode his balance bike in the Hula Grill XTERRA Kapalua 5K event. The following year, his “uncle” Freddy was one of the dirtbike riders who drove cameramen and medics on the course.
“Irie wanted to be like Uncle Freddy and rip up and down the hills saving lives,” said Erin. “But that was in 2016 when it was muddy and it was a frustrating day for him on his bike. This year, he wanted to do the run with me.”
The two trained all summer, but about two weeks before the race, Irie caught a staph infection from swimming in the ocean after the Wahikuli Pump Station released into the ocean by mistake.
“Irie was in bed and on antibiotics for about two weeks before the race, so I wasn’t sure how he would do,” said Erin.
But Irie smashed it, coming in 238th out of 432 runners and running the 5K in 44 minutes and 22 seconds.
“I didn’t push him,” said Erin. “It was about his pace. When he wanted to stop, we stopped and when he wanted a break, we took a break.”
This wasn’t always the case for father and son. Initially, Erin wanted his son to do well at and enjoy the sports he enjoyed.
“Trail running was part of a parenting metamorphosis for me,” said Erin. “Irie has done every sport because I coach so many sports. But he was never one of the standout players. He doesn’t play football and doesn’t even like football. Plus, Irie is into art and music, so I just figured he wasn’t going to be a diehard athlete like me.”
At first, Erin was disappointed that he couldn’t share the sports he loved with his son.
“Then I realized that it wasn’t about me,” said Erin. “It was about what he wanted. I realized I had to give up my expectations and stop pushing him. It was all about giving up that intensity and letting him find it on his own. He’s my son and I am going to love and appreciate him no matter what. So when he wanted to run the XTERRA, of course I let him.”
Erin is a digital media teacher at Lahainaluna High School. Paradoxically, he doesn’t have either TV or internet.
“We read, we go outside, and we talk,” said Erin about their home life. “We listen to music and dance and do art. We have conversations.”
Erin said that his family exercises for the same reason they stay unplugged.
“Exercise brings us peace,” he explained. “We live in a place where the root is aloha and love and peace and happiness but you’ve got this human element that is trying to exist and survive in that, which can cause conflict. It takes a lot to live in this world, but exercising in nature balances out the stress in life. There are so many mental and emotional and spiritual benefits.”
For now, Erin and Irie will continue to run at their own pace along the Maui trails, exploring and enjoying their island.
“What do I see as the benefit for Irie?” asks Erin. “I see freedom. Running enables him to be free. He can set goals and he can knock those goals out of the park. He can be tired and he can learn that he can still accomplish. Running gives you the ability to create your own internal motivation and your own intrinsic fortitude so you can overcome obstacles. That’s what I want for my son – to be free.”