Race Report: The 2016 Hillary Trail Run

Having signed up for The Hillary Trail Run nearly six months ago, it was finally my moment of truth and the moment of truth for the other 80 runners who had entered the full 50 mile / 80 kilometre race from Arataki to Muriwai. Whatever the result it was going to be one hell of a ride, and the day really did not disappoint.

My wonderful wife who has suffered through my adventures and tolerated my bad habit of obsessively pursuing dubious goals once again supported me through the race, starting off with dropping me off at Arataki Visitors' Centre on scenic drive at 05:35am on Saturday 27th February. After a trip to the bathroom and briefing by the ever-upbeat race director, Shaun Collins, I and the other runners trouped over to stand underneath the inflatable arch which marked the start. Sarah Hillary briefly addressed us and wished us well on our adventure, and we were off and running through the dark up in the Waitakere Ranges.

Arataki to Huia - Walk the hills
The actual start of the Hillary Trail is pretty narrow, so to thin out the field we were taken round a loop of the nature trail the other side of Scenic Drive. I'd place myself about a third of the way back in the field at the start, so had to queue briefly going through the tunnel under the road to stomp through the first of many disinfection points. While the first half of the nature trail was all downhill, what goes down has to come back up, and I was surprised by the number of people who charged up the hills, where I slowed to a brisk walk.

Because I hadn't done much night running during my training, I'd done a recce of the first 8k of the course by headtorch light a week before the race, so I felt confident dropping down from the visitors' centre on Slip Track. I found the roadways fairly unmemorable and I remember the race almost in flash photographs of headtorch light through to the watercare depot and the junction with the bush track proper, by which time it was slight enough to dispense with the lamp. The first significant climb followed, up through the rough and steep Parau Track over to the first aid station at Karamatura Farm, and much like previous times I have run through here people have started to go off piste; there's a particular section which is dark and the trail markers not that easy to see, and where a false trail heads off right and uphill. Most people realised their mistake very quickly and lost only few seconds.

The welcome sight of the Huia Dam came up quickly after and despite having tried to keep an eye on my GPS watch and my best intentions at Arataki, I felt like I'd gone out a little bit quickly. Still, I had walked all of the hills religiously, and felt strong heading down to the campsite and river crossing. Even though I'd been on the trail 1h50m the adrenaline was still flowing well and it was a good thing I'd written myself a note for each drop bag with instructions and words of wisdom - "Ditch headtorch, pick up water, pick up food, put on sunscreen, grab hat" and "Don't go out too fast" respectively - otherwise I'd have probably blown through without a second's thought.


Grinning like a maniac at the Karamatura stream crossing.
Huia to Whatipu - Don't go out too fast*
Undoubtedly my favourite section of the whole trail, section two starts with a wonderful jog up the Karamatura Valley before heading up the longest climb on the trail to the forks. I'd made a conscious decision to take this one at a very deliberate pace as it can be a real killer, especially when you've another 65 kilometres to go. The trail teases you in many places, where it eases off and cajoles you into a gentle jog only to rise up again around the next bend.

Despite my gentle plod uphill, I soon hit Karamatura Forks and turned off towards Donald McLean and the slightly undulating track towards Whatipu, which pretty soon becomes severely undulating; although I didn't find the hills quite as punishing along Omanawanui as they often look. I did get a scare heading up to the trig point itself; a deep thrumming noise made me briefly think there was a wasp's nest nearby and my pace spiked as I tried quit that section of track as soon as possible. It turned out to be one of the drones filming the race and taking advantage of the magnificent views out across the Manukau Heads and the occasionally deadly waters over the Manukau bar.

Without pausing at the top, I headed off down the next dip in the ridge before trotting down the steep descent to the aid station at Whatipu. With only a brief stop to cover off the essentials, I was soon off out across the campground to the start of the ascent up Coman's towards Pararaha and munching on some liquorice for a bit of variety.

Whatipu to Karekare - Revel in the beauty of what you've just run
By this point, despite being only a third into the race I was starting to feel some fatigue so I took it reasonably easy on the ascents but still jogged gently along the tops and downhills. I knew that at some point I was going to have some downs as well as the magnificient ups of the first two sections; however I didn't expect them to start quite so soon. Still, I kept on plodding and made decent time over to Pararaha. When we had started off, it had been nice and cool - although still warm enough for me not to require any extra clothing beyond my thin singlet - but the morning had gradually heated up, and it was clearly going to be a scorcher. With little wind to take the edge off, the slosh through the ford in the remote Pararaha Valley was an ideal refresher. If I wasn't on a mission, I would have probably sat down in the ford and taken a breather, but onwards and upwards.

The second ascent of the section was fairly uneventful. I enjoyed the descent down into Karekare, but didn't real feel in a fit state to push hard. Slogging along the road to the aid station in the head, I was greeted by the slightly surreal vision of a woman dressed all in black, wearthing a feather-cut wig and with her face painted. The music I'd been hearing should have been a clue; the aid station theme was Kiss. "Rock on!" I said to her. "Yeah!", she replied giving me two thumbs up and then pointing me to the gazebo under the trees. My hydration pack was filled and I took my promised five minutes in a chair, chatting to another volunteer who'd had a crack at the 80k the year before. I also took the time to check my food and scarf down a few squashed fly biscuits before heading up the next track.

Karekare to Piha - Don't panic!
By chance, the notes I had written to myself in the drop bags seemed almost prophetic. While I had been going strongly so far, and was looking like getting to Piha in just over seven hours, the wheels started to fall off a little bit on the way up and out of Karekare. I'm not sure if it was self-fulfilling prophecy, but I really did have to be careful not to panic on the ascent up to log race road. I still felt strong in a cardiovascular sense, but I could feel an ache in my quads building up, and during the initial ascent they started to break out in cramps. Not as bad as the ones I got in my first ever marathon - Rotorua in May last year - which felt like I had been shot in the legs, and of a slower, more knotting quality, but painful all the same. By experience, I know that they will diminish if I keep going, but would they be OK for another 45 kilometres.

I treated the jog along Log Race Road and Piha road as an unenviable task to be completed before being able to descend into the bush again. Halfway I saw my support crew in the form of my wife and two sons drive past on their way to the next aid station. By contrast, I really enjoy the mostly-downhill run along the top of and then past the bottom of Kitekite Falls; it feels like one of those sections where you can cut loose a little bit and not regret it too much later. Despite the cramp I still made decent speed all the way down and then along to the Piha Domain, arriving in a shade under 7h10m.

Arriving at Piha aid station.
Despite promises to keep time spent in aid stations to a maximum of 5 minutes and my three previous quick stops, I decided to take a longer break and put some more solid nutrition down me. Katrina had brought some cold pasta, a marmite sandwich with plenty of butter and a few other bits & pieces; although I wasn't quite sure what was going to hit the spot. One of the pirate crew at the aid station remarked that from his experience, I should take a bite and I'd soon know if I fancied it or not. With some trepidation, I took a bite. It tasted good. I took another. It tasted even better. After a whole sandwich, followed by a few mouthfuls of cold pasta I decided it was probably time to stop eating if I didn't want to see it all again halfway up White's Track. I was getting antsy and it was time to get going again, so at 7h20m exactly I dragged myself out of the chair, kissed my wife and kids goodbye and staggered up the road towards the beach. Even just the 10 minutes in the chair I'd enjoyed enormously with the pirates had been long enough for me to stiffen up noticeably.

Piha to Bethells - Just put one foot in front of the other, then alternate
Unfortunately, my brisk pace earlier in the race was now starting to tell a little. I managed to jog to the beach, but it was clear that I was about to enjoy one of the low patches that the books all talk about. I walked the beach to try and minimise the additional strain on my legs, knowing that there were 18 long kilometres to the Bethell's aid station, including the notoriously "harsh keeper of souls".

I felt that I had scarcely quit the beach before I had to break out of my gentle jog and start walking up White's Track. I didn't stop walking until I reached the top of Anawhata Road and had begun the descent into the jaws of Kuataika Track. By this point the cramps in my quads had returned viciously and I was starting to have serious thoughts of dropping out, the only issue being that were I to do so I'd still have a damn long walk and/or wait. On quitting Piha I had wisely told my wife not to stop in at Bethells to avoid the painful drive, and to only meet me at Muriwai. I don't think I would have dropped at the next station, but not having crew there removed the temptation.

Unfortunately, pretty much of Kuataika Track was taken up with slow plodding; I was only able to jog gently on the downhills and couldn't summon the speed of my dry run only a couple of weeks ago. My feet had started to ache in addition to the considerable pain from my cramping quads; although miraculously I had no blisters at all despite the several unavoidable soakings along the way. While taking a 2 minute breather on the steepest section of the Kuataika Track, I was joined by an American runner with whom I had talked briefly on Omanawanui Track. He was still looking strong, but we walked up the steep climb together for about 20 minutes and talked about his experience of ultra running and my lack of it. When I mentioned the cramps, he kindly offered me some salt capsules to see if that would take the edge off. They seemed to help a little and we completed the climb together before he headed off at his own pace shortly before we headed down to Lake Wainamu. My GPS watch ran out of battery shortly afterwards, leaving me feeling even more adrift.

The technical descent down Houghton Track went reasonably well; although it's hard to do quickly even when your legs aren't wrecked. On the other hand, the tour of Lake Wainamu was a trudge. I've run it a few times and always find it a pleasure because of the beautiful setting, pleasant running surface and easy gradients. Not so much on Saturday. It took me about 50 minutes to complete the 5k to the aid station.

So far the rain had held off; although it was looking increasingly ominous. It finally broke as I crossed the bridge just before the aid station at Bethell's. A few drops became a shower, which blew into a torrential downpour just as I got under the cover of the gazebo. The fantastic crew did a great job of refilling my hydration pack and washing the black iron sand off my feet as I changed my socks. Knowing not to sit down as it was quite likely I'd not be able to get up again, I ate some of the sweets on the tables before doffing my hat and heading into the downpour.

Bethells to Muriwai - Remember, a jedi's strength flows from the force
In the few short minutes at the aid station, something must have changed. Whether it was the food from Piha finally taking effect; or maybe the salt caps. Possibly I'd just got a grip of myself when I realised that barring any disasters if I left the aid station then I'd almost certainly make the finish. Whatever it may have been, I found that I could move well again. I wasn't going to be worrying anyone with my blistering pace, but it came together again as I ran (yes, ran) across the grass to the start of the first ascent along the walkway.

Te Henga can be a bit of a dicey proposition at times and race day was going to be one of those times unfortunately. While it wasn't particularly windy, the torrential rain had started to turn the bare earth in some of the sections to liquid mud. In particular, the orange-coloured clay soils had got churned into a mixture with the frictional qualities of Teflon. From my recce on Auckland Anniversary Day, I knew that there was a narrow section up ahead where there had been a slip in the year since the last Hillary Trail Run, but I wasn't quite prepared for the experience of having to navigate this obstacle around a couple of other runners who were having severe difficulties owing to a combination of the conditions and shoes with insufficient grip. I wasn't entirely happy even with my Innov8 hybrid trail/road shoes and would have preferred something with a bit more grunt. The two folks who were having issues managed to back off from the hard bit with a bit of encouragement; I and the other runners who had since arrived clambered around the difficult section via the sandy slope just underneath the difficulty. As a brief aside, long distance running seems to simultaneously break down the barriers between people and remove the normal filters that people put in between their brains and mouths, so it was at this point that I seem to remember commenting positively on the impressive testicular fortitude of the lady runner who crossed the slope confidently and without pause in front of me. I hope she wasn't offended. This liberty of opinion became a bit of a theme of the last 16k of my race. The two of us, plus another couple of runners around at the time headed off promising to let the volunteers at the aid station know that people were starting to have serious issues**.

Things were starting to look up. I could run. I was pretty sure I was going to finish. The 15,376,205 steps (I actually tried keeping a total on my last recce, but lost count) up to Constable Road wasn't giving me that much pause for thought. I even jogged straight past the bench of doom, nemesis of my 34k Hillary Trail Run in 2015.

Like the sirens of Homer's Odyssey, the bench of doom calls to you.
It wasn't long before one of I and one of the other runners from the slip came across some other folks demonstrating the colossal stones they had in their possession. In an inspired piece of commitment, a paraplegic runner in a wheelchair was working his way along the trail with the support of three mates. All had been going well until the rain had come down, but they were still making their way along a stretch at a time until they has reached a bit of a step in the trail. Not an issue for us, but quite a serious challenge for them. The runner I was tagging along with got stuck in while I provided moral support until they'd negotiated the tricky bit, when we loped off once more.

With only 6k to go I was getting the job done, with only the Constable Road stairs and the final road section to complete. I was able to jog the flats, run the downhills and walk up; I even made it all the way up the stairs with only one brief pause to let a kilted runner pass, with whom I'd been playing tag since Karekare. I thought I'd seen him for the last time coming down Houghton Track, but he just kept on coming back again and again so I remarked that he was like a Scottish Terminator.

Reaching the top of the stairs, there was only time for a brief pause at the aid station to grab a handful of sweets and launch into the final road section. I'd been wondering about using my iPod for music to keep the momentum going, but decided it was too wet. I'd been soaked through for a couple of hours now and hadn't really been troubled by any thoughts of cold, as I'd been moving enough to generate some heat. The road section and final trail down to the gannet colony felt like almost an afterthought, as if quite suddenly the soaring and crashing of my spirits and physical state had ended to be replaced only with silence. I can't even remember the pad-pad-pad-pad noise of my shoes on the road surface as I speed walked and ran the final few kilometres.

I'll admit to walking the final 200 metres of the stretch on Muriwai beach so I had enough left in me to run around the loop of the Surf Club field. Both my kids hopped out of the car and joined me for the final loop, and as I crossed the line in 13:13:51 I was handed my badge by the man who had persuaded me to enter the full 80k after a few beers in Laingholm Fishing Club over 6 months ago. I hugged him, the man whom I had spent much of the preceding half-day cursing and it was a fantastic end to my race.

Soaked, knackered and feeling a thousand feet tall.
Shortly afterwards, despite having had no blisters or lost toenails and no other injuries to speak of, other than gorse splinters from Te Henga, everything hurt like hell. But that was more or less expected.

*Each section is titled according to the words of wisdom I left in the drop bag.

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