Hillary Trail Arataki to Piha February 21st 2012

As part of my training for the Tarawera Ultra next month I decided to run the Hillary Trail, starting from the Arataki Visitors Centre and seeing how far I could go. My aim was to get to Bethells Beach but knowing I could stop at Piha if need be, or go as far as Muriwai if I got to Bethells early enough and had enough gas still in the tank.

This will be quite a boring, detailed post for my own reference to learn what I did wrong and what I can do better next time. I warned you!

The result

I stopped at Piha having decided at Karekare that it would be best to stop there. I also lost the trail, although if I’d been intending to go on I probably would have back tracked and found it again. In the end it didn’t matter; I ran down the road to Piha, all the way to North Piha and then back along the beach to finish after 45.5km in 7h18.

It’s a tough run with a lot of hills, and I probably walked half of it. My plan had been to walk all the hills right from the start and I stuck to this.


Before this run, the longest I’d run before was the West Coaster Marathon (42km) in 6h50 which is also on part of the Hillary Trail. Parts of the course are on Houghton and Lake Wainamu Tracks (south to north) and on Te Henga Walkway south to north and back again.

From that experience, I expected to go at about 6kms an hour for this run, and this turned out to be about bang on. I also had a feeling I’d take at least one wrong turn somewhere, given I was running on unfamiliar trails and I wasn’t wrong there either!

The run

I started off from Arataki just before 9am and had an enjoyable first couple of hours with a predominantly downhill run. Hamilton Track, near the beginning, is known as the home of the “mud monster” and with the recent rain (including it bucketing down around midnight the night before) I became well acquainted with it 🙂

After the Karamatura Campground there’s a pretty big hill and some slow going but the first cellphone reception I’d had since starting, so I fired off a text to the family to let them know how I was getting on.

A bit more up and down after that and then coming down to Whatipu a very big up and down (and up and down again) on the Omanawanui Track. I found this fairly morale sapping because every time it appeared to be levelling out it would go up again, but the views were awesome. I was relieved when I finally got to the top and saw the trig station. Looking ahead there was another peak which I was secretly hoping I wouldn’t have to run over but I knew I would…

Finally down at Whatipu I had a quick toilet stop and filled up my drink bottles which I’d finished on the way down Omanawanui Track; well timed there.

Then on to Karakare and Piha which was another set of hilly trails with a beach section in the middle. I had a note on my map that I might be able to refill my bottles from the Pararaha Stream but thinking back now I have no recollection of passing a stream that I could have filled my bottles from or even the campground that looks like is on the track.

You can’t fill up with water from Karekare because the water needs to be boiled or treated, and I had hoped my water would last until Piha but it unfortuantely ran out with a few kms to go. I guess it was getting hotter and I was drinking a lot more than the Arataki to Whatipu leg.

It was around about Karekare that I made the decision that I would probably stop at Piha. I wasn’t eating enough (see below) and my body was getting pretty tired. I think it’s important to listen to your body and do what it tells you in these sorts of circumstances.

Running up Comans Track I saw the Piha cell phone tower and immediately stopped to text the family again – first time in about 4 hours – to let them know I’d stop in Piha and to come pick me up in a couple of hours.

I made a wrong turn on Mercer Bay Loop Track (see my notes below about my map) and then turned left instead of right onto Piha Rd partly because of my poor quality map and partly because I couldn’t see any trail markers. At this stage I was committed to stopping in Piha anyway, and figured the road down to Piha was better because I was going to end up there anyway.

The catch was that because I was now running downhill on the road I was going much faster than expected and ended up an hour earlier than I’d told my dad to pick me up. So I ran to the end of the beach on the road, keeping an eye out for where the trail was supposed to start again as a reference for next time, and then back along the beach stopping at the stream under Lion Rock to wash all the mud off my legs.


Given how far I was potentially going to be running, I needed to make sure I was going to consume enough calories so I didn’t run out of energy. This resulted in some nerdy calorie calculations and a breakdown of what I needed to eat each hour during the run written down on the back of my map, with the plan that I’d eat a small amount of something every 15 to 20 minutes.

The plan worked quite well for the first couple of hours but then there was a lot of uphill and I didn’t feel like eating again for a while and kept slipping behind the food plan. Eventually I knew I needed to eat but just couldn’t bring myself to do so and finally managed to force some more scroggin down.

Part of the reason I stopped at Piha was that I was concerned I hadn’t eaten enough and would run out of energy before getting to Bethells. Looking now at what I consumed vs the energy burnt, I would probably have been able to get there as long as I kept drinking my electrolyte drink. I still had plenty of that so there was no worries there.

This mistake in my calculations was that I hadn’t factored in how much I would be walking, which means less calories burnt over all. For my own reference, I ate approximately 1750* calories and burnt 2900 (*not including breakfast or electolyte drink when driving to Arataki).

The map

I had a print out of the PDF map from the Hillary Trail website but it really wasn’t big enough and high scale enough to be truly useful. I also didn’t keep it in a waterproof bag and it had pretty much fallen apart by the end of the run so on the whole was fairly useless. Next time I’ll buy a proper map and take better care of it.

As a result of the lack of decent map, I made two wrong turnings and could easily have made another couple in places where the trail wasn’t marked quite so well. These were:

1) After the Huia Dam you hit a road and it forks. There weren’t any trail markers I could see and it was really hard to tell from my map which way I should go. I took the most likely looking route and luckily was right; before too long there were roadside trail markers.

2) At Karekere when you come off the beach there’s no marker to show if you should go left or right. Even looking at my map now it’s clear you should go left and I did. But it’s then really easy to miss that you turn left off the road only a short way along the road. Again, I think a better map would have solved this, but still easy to miss.

3) At Mercer Bay Loop there’s a single trail marker. Coming from the south, you’re supposed to go left but it’s not clear from the marker what you’re supposed to do. If my map wasn’t pretty much disintigrated at this point I think I could have worked out I was supposed to go left but in the end I went straight ahead, skipping part of the trail. I ended up at the same point though.

4) Once you arrive at the cell tower / car park at the end of Mercer Bay Loop it’s not immediately clear where to go. Having said that, there is only one way to go along the road and I was fairly certain it was the right way to go, but it would have been nice to have a marker to confirm it.

5) At the end of road you are supposed to turn right into Piha Rd but for the life of me I couldn’t see any trail markers. I think if I’d been intending to go on to Bethells I would have gone right anyway but decided to go left and safe myself having to double back if I was wrong; going left meant I’d end up at Piha regardless of being on the trail or not.

6) I ran along Piha Rd North and trail looks like it crosses from the beach over the road and into the bush. I was keeping an eye out for trail markers or sign posts but couldn’t see any. However I suspect that because I’d given up the run at this stage I probably wasn’t looking carefully enough.

Lessons learned

Get a decent map and look after it. At any trail intersection when there is any doubt, stop and consult the map.

Experiment with other foods and more liquid like foods which are easier to get down. Try some other gel brands to see if I can get them down more easily.

Do more hill training.

Will I run the Hillary Trail again?

Last night after finishing and reflecting and discussing it at the Hillary Trail Runners Facebook Group and FB Running Calendar Page I wasn’t so sure. It’s a tough run and I know no matter how fit I am I’ll end up walking around half of it. I prefer trails that aren’t so hilly and you can run most of but there’s something about the Hillary Trail and I know I’ll be back.

I’m already contemplating a day where I park the car at Karekare and run to Bethells and back to do that section properly and get a decent run in. Watch this space!