HONOLULU (KHON2) — When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, many people stuck at home either picked up new hobbies, started new businesses or ordered a Nintendo Switch.

Paolo Piro said everyone must have had the same idea because they were all sold out when he tried to get a couple for himself and his daughter. After a month, he decided to go a different route, one that required wheels.

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“I ordered myself a unicycle and her a skateboard,” said the 48-year-old dad. “We had both wanted to learn to ride our respective vehicles. This way, we could learn to ride together in open lots in our neighborhood.”

On May 6, 2020, Piro started to teach himself how to ride a unicycle, and as soon as he was thrown to the ground, he was hooked.

“I have always loved a good challenge,” said Piro.

For nearly 25 years, Piro worked as a graphic designer, printer and small business owner until he closed that chapter in 2017. Since then, he’s been pursuing his dreams as a cartoonist, and now, as a unicyclist.

“I’m known in the unicycle community as the Unitoonist,” he said. “I’m hoping to get good enough to pick up sponsorship.”

For his one-year unicycle anniversary, or “universary” as he calls it, Piro was planning to ride from Phoenix, Arizona — where he was living at the time — to Venice Beach in California.

However, an unexpected change resulted in his move to the Big Island, just outside of Kea’au, where he does work on a small farm; he has also done a lot of construction work over the years to make ends meet.

On May 6, 2022, Paolo Piro will attempt to ride his unicycle from Mauna Kea to Hilo Bay.
(Courtesy: Paolo Piro)

“After landing here, I was amazed by just how mountainous the terrain is here,” Piro said. “At first, I struggled a lot with all the hills, so I felt an equally hard challenging one-year ride would be to ride from the top of the great Mauna Kea to the ocean.”

According to Piro, that’s 13,803 feet of declination on a unicycle which hasn’t been done in one ride. He added that Hilo Bay happens to be the shortest ride from the peak to the sea at 46 miles.

“With an additional six miles and 4,000 feet of climb to the summit from the ranger station before the ride even starts, the overall trip is 52 miles,” Piro explained. “But it’s all about the altitude, not the distance.” 

Last year, Piro attempted to ride from Mauna Kea to Hilo Bay but fell 10 miles short of that goal.

“I simply ran out of daylight,” he said. “It got super dark and then started raining hard. I could only see the faint glow of the edge stripe in the road with my headlight too dim to cut through the downpour. I would hit bumps I couldn’t see that I was too exhausted to handle, then have to wait for a car to pass to see well enough to remount in their headlights. When I made the call, I was exhausted and crying. I felt so defeated to get so close and not finish. That is when I realized I’d be doing it again this year.”

This year, Piro has been pushing himself to do better by becoming stronger and going faster. The most important thing he has learned is time management. Click here to follow his journey.

“I failed once — it is not an option to fail twice,” said Piro. “Ultimately the dark is what defeated me.”

Piro also discovered that the distance from the ranger station to the top is double what he thought it was. Last year, he arrived at 7 a.m. This year, he plans to get there at dawn.

“But most importantly, I’ve worked on my speed,” he said. “My average speed was about 7.2 mph last year. I’ve gotten my average up to between 8.2 and 8.5 mph since then. This will make a significant difference.”

Another big change this year is no longer riding alone.  

“The Maunakea Rangers were incredibly kind and checked on me regularly. This year, however, I’ll be riding with a special guest,” Piro said.

That special guest is one of Piro’s personal unicyclist heroes who offered to join. And after Piro reaches his goal? He said he’ll probably never do it again.

“It is pure brutal self punishment,” said Piro. “Plus there is the matter of respect for the sacredness of Mauna Kea. She calls me to do the challenge, but to play on her after, that would, in my opinion, be disrespectful to local beliefs and customs.”

For Piro, the best part of riding a unicycle is that it never stops being challenging. There is always something else to master. Unicycling, he said, has also completely changed him.

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“I was not healthy when I started riding two years ago. I am now the strongest and healthiest I’ve ever been,” he said. “It has also taught me how to never accept failure. Unicycling is not about being perfect it is about always improving. Every fall, every injury, has been a learning experience. It only becomes failure at the point when one quits. This is now how I see all of life. The outcome may not be what one expects, but if one learns from it, one grows.”