I’d run the full Hillary Trail once before as part of a group during Midnight Midwinter Madness a couple of years back, and have run most of the trail multiple times during other running events or while out for training runs. And now, finally, Shaun Collins of Lactic Turkey Events had managed to get approval for an official event on the Hillary Trail, aptly named The Hillary. Naturally I jumped at the opportunity and was one of the first to enter the day entries opened.
There was an 80K event, starting from the Arataki Visitors Centre near Titirangi, a 34K from Piha, and 16K from Bethell’s Beach, all finishing at Muriwai. I lined up with 43 others to start the inaugural 80K event at 6am on Saturday March 29th 2014. All up, there were well over 200 people across all three events.
There was a 2km loop around the nature trail at Arataki to spread the field out a bit before heading down Slip Track. I wasn’t pushing myself too fast down Slip as Glenn Goldie came past in a hurry, calling back that he thought downhill was my speciality… Maybe so, but the there’s some big loose rocks and stones on Slip and I didn’t want to “slip” and break an ankle in the dark this early into the race!
There were still a few other runners around on Pipeline Track and the Lower Nihotupu Dam Rd as we continued on in the dark, our headlamps lighting the way. By the time I got to Hamilton Track, the field has spread a bit more. I was surprised to pass Shannon-Leigh Litt and another runner along Hamilton, and sped along to catch up to another group consisting of Gerald Waters, young super stars Heather Davidson and Reegan Absolum, and a couple of others.
We ran more or less as a group down Huia Dam Rd, now in daylight, but they were a little bit too fast for me, so I watched them gradually move away. I entered the Karamatura / Huia aid station as most of them were leaving, and Simon Clendon commented that posting to Facebook as I ran must be slowing me down! (I have my phone set up to do a group SMS to my wife, father and Facebook, and fire them off when I walk up hills in coverage areas.)
I love running around this area, and even the big (but short) climb up Karamatura Track is enjoyable. Before too long it was up and down and up and down the big open peaks on Omanawanui Track, where Allan Ure from Photos4Sale was waiting to photograph us. I made some wise crack that it was a terrible place to take photos because we’d all be walking, but as you can see from the photo below it was a truly excellent place! Omanawanui is truly stunning and I highly recommend even just a walk up there some time.
“Here come the bees”, Allan said to me as I passed him by. I wasn’t sure what he was talking about, but then saw a helicopter camera drone flying high above the track. Down at the Whatipu aid station I could see the pilot with some sort of big glasses on and a remote control. The results were spectacular; if you check out the trailer on YouTube, you’ll see a couple of shots from the drone.
I was feeling great as I continued on to Karekare, but hadn’t seen any other runners since soon after Huia so it was nice to see the friendly faces of the volunteers and marshalls at the aid stations and key intersections. Mark Colthart, who’d I run Midnight Minwinter Madness with, was manning the Karekare aid station and I found out I was only 10 to 15 minutes behind the crowd I’d been running with down to Huia, and in 17th place. I was feeling good, and doing well.
After the next hilly section, you come out on Log Race Rd and run back along Piha Rd for a while before heading back into the bush down to Kitekite Falls. I looked back a few times and could see runner number 18 behind me, and this is where your mind does silly things on these sorts of long runs: I sped up a little to keep the gap up, and then flew down the trails to Kitekite Falls and then on to Piha. I do love to run downhill, and using that to keep ahead of the next runner added to the fun!
The next aid station was at Piha where friends Christian Stockle and Tracy Benjamin were volunteering. They filled up my water bladder and helped with my drop bag, then it was on my way again along the beach. The sand was really soft, so the sensible thing to do was run down to the harder sand, even if it was slightly further to run.
I passed Bryony McConnell along the beach, but she decided to catch up, and we ran together for a while until we reached White Track. This is a reasonably long climb up and I’m very slow on hills, so she soon left me behind and I was passed by another runner on the way up.
I was now around 50km into the race and my legs were starting to get pretty tired; Kuiataika Track has a big series of descents, followed by a big uphill, and another series of descents and my legs were tired enough that I couldn’t run downhill as fast as I would have liked.
I was having no issues with calorie intake, but my stomach had been feeling pretty empty for a long time and it was from here on to the finish that I started to get a bit of nausea and the feeling that I really needed to have a spew. I’d been using Perpetuum, which is like a liquid food, and although that and the fruit and few chips I’d been eating at the aid stations was more than enough, it wasn’t filling up my stomach and my fast metabolism wasn’t helping with the empty feeling.
By the time I got down to Lake Wainamu, I’d fallen slightly below the average pace required to finish under my target of 12 hours (9 minutes per km) and managed to run at a fairly consistent 8:30ish pace along the easy river section to the Bethell’s aid station, knowing I’d need to “bank some time” for the hills ahead on Te Henga Walkway.
Shannon-Leigh Litt caught up to me just before the aid station and we left together (and just as Ryan Cooke arrived), but she gets stronger the longer these events go on for so only stuck around long enough for me to tell her what was ahead for the rest of the race.
Te Henga is easily one of my most favourite places to run, so it didn’t take much for Allan Ure to coax a smile out of me just above O’Neill’s Bay. This really is a spectacular place for photos:
Ryan usually wears a fairly bright orange shirt at these events, so I could usually see him whenever I looked back. It was maybe half way along that he caught up to me and I let him pass; he was looking very strong with only a few kilometers to go, but I was struggling along with tired legs.
I must have run out of water soon after that, and had a couple of little rests. By the second one, it was obvious I had no chance of finishing under 12 hours and all those little demons that strike came out to party. But then I told myself that I could finish and that the time didn’t matter any more, even if I walked the rest of the way. So up I got and faced the hill climb to where a couple of photography guys were waiting, and those nasty steps at the end of Te Henga Walkway.
One of the guys jogged after me with his big bag of camera gear and we chatted for a bit. I let him past when I needed a breather on the stairs, so he went on ahead. As I walked up the path to the Constable Rd aid station, lo and behold the volunteer was running back to me with a bottle of water – the camera dude had told him I’d run out. I love aid station volunteers!
I took a few minutes there and put my polyprop on before I took off again; I’d been going so slowly and the day was cooling down and I didn’t want to get too cold.
There’s a road section (and a short bush section) from this point on to the final section of downhill trail, and I got passed by one last runner along the way. But the end was near, and I was feeling good again, and only need to walk a short part of each of the couple of small road inclines.
After the downhill trail section, there’s a road section which goes around to where the gannets are. There I met the world’s most happy, energetic volunteer, who ran along with me telling me where to go. It was only for a couple of hundred metres but she said “I’ve never even run this far before”. It wasn’t until I rounded the rock that I figured if she’d been doing that all day, she’d probably covered 10 to 20kms going back and forward for all the other runners!
Finally, the beach and only about a kilometer to go. My pace was picking up anyway and I saw an orange shirt ahead. Thinking it was Ryan and I might catch him, I picked the pace up again (I found out at the end it was actually the last 34km finisher!). And then I was off the beach, up the road and running around the field to the finish. There were a lot of people I know still at the finishing area and I finished even faster with a big smile to all the cheers.
I crossed the line in 12:21, so not too far off my goal time of under 12 hours. I said to Shaun Collins afterwards that it was a tough course and a tough day, but the finish made it all worthwhile.
After finishing, I said I wouldn’t do it again. The next day (Sunday) I said I wouldn’t do Tarawera (just two weeks earlier) and The Hillary in the same year again. By Monday, of course I’d do them both again, I just need to train even better than I did this year.
So here’s looking forward to next year’s event. Hopefully Auckland Council will permit the event to go ahead again, as I believe this can truly become an iconic event on the New Zealand running calendar.