The Hillary is an 80km ultra marathon, 34km run and 16km run/walk, following the Hillary Trail in the Waitakere Ranges in Auckland, New Zealand. I ran at the second edition of the 80km ultra on Saturday March 14th 2015 but failed to finish, missing the cut off at Piha, and wouldn’t have continued even if I got there in time. This was my first ever DNF at a running event (Did Not Finish); there has to be a first time for everything!

I ran The Hillary last year hoping to break 12 hours, and finishing in 12:21. This year I just wanted to finish, expecting it take maybe an hour or two longer. This lowering of expectations was due to not running much at all since the Tarawera Ultra five weeks earlier because of a) sore feet, b) a melanoma extraction from my neck requiring two minor surgeries and c) having a puking stomach bug the previous weekend. I had self-belief that I could do it, and no expectations that I wouldn’t finish.

The Hillary is a point to point run from the Arataki Visitors Centre near Titirangi to Muriwai, so you either need someone to pick you up at the other end and take you back to your car at the start, or get up hideously early to get to Muriwai to catch the bus at 4.15am to the start line. So my alarm was set to go off at 3.05am for the hideous option! Unfortunately, I couldn’t get to sleep and then kept waking up, so I think I had maybe 2 to 3 hours of disrupted sleep before heading out to Muriwai…

We started in the dark at 6am, but it was going to be a really hot day and was already very humid and warm by the time the sun came up. A course change due to a slip on the official trail meant a somewhat hillier start, and I found myself struggling a bit on the first uphill section.

Towards the end of the first section, a guy called Rupert* caught up with me, and we ran together for the next few kilometers down to Huia and up the start of Karamatura Track, talking about the trail and running etc. Unfortunately I found the climb up Karamatura really difficult and had to stop for a sit down and have a gel. I’ve climbed up that trail a number of times before and never struggled quite like that, so I knew I was in for a tough day.

There’s some nice downhill and then some undulations after Karamatura and I managed to catch up and pass some of the people who’d passed me when I was having my moment, but the climb up the Omanawanui section was another big struggle. By the time I got to the seat on top of the second peak of that section I knew I was going to be pulling out, and sat down for a little rest. The next runner passed me and asked if I was OK and I said I was fine. A couple of minutes later I headed down the hill, walking the whole way down.

About 200 metres from the bottom, I changed my mind, realising that I could just keep on walking instead of running and see how far I could get, either to Karekare or Piha. At the foot bath station at Whatipu, I asked Richard, one of the race managers, what the cut off at Piha was, and he told me it was 2.30pm. I figured I could just about walk and run there in time, so I should keep on going. A few minutes eating food at the aid station and I was off on my way again. At this stage I was about 4h30 and 26km into the race.

There was a lot of walking and not much running between Whatipu and Karekare, but I was in good spirits. By the time I got to Karekare, I knew there was no way I could get to Piha before the cut off and even if I did that would be enough for today. So more walking and the occasional run for the trail section from Karekare to Log Race Road, and then a shuffle-run down to Piha to “finish” 46km in a shade under 9 hours.

So it was my first DNF, but I was happy with my day despite the struggle, I think probably because I was going to pull out at 26km but persevered on and knocked off 46km.

Why did I have such a tough day? I’m not entirely sure, and think it must have been due a combination of factors. It wasn’t simply from lack of training or running recently, because I’d run 50km in the Waitakeres seven weeks previously on a lot of the same trails without much running beforehand, and hadn’t struggled in the same way.

So perhaps it was not enough running, combined with the heat and humidity of the day, combined with having been sick the previous week, combined with lack of sleep. I wouldn’t have thought any of that would have affected me, but perhaps all four factors added up to it. I don’t know.

What I do know is that this failure isn’t going to stop me, and I will do better next time.

(* I hadn’t met Rupert until this race, and thought that I’d found someone I could run with all day, but alas it was not to be. He had only run about 30kms as his longest run over something like 4 to 5 hours and, although I didn’t say it at the time, I wondered how he was going to manage to run 80km in the Waitaks on that training. However I am pleased to see that he finished 13:54:59 – what an amazing achievement – and I look forward to seeing him out there again.)

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