It was love at first light. The trail weaves a connecting path through many toanga – the Waitakeres, home to our fast disappearing coastal rainforest including beautiful groves of kauri, rata and pohutakawa. Wild, isolated, rugged coastlines with dramatic cliff faces and the towering walls of sand dunes (black) of Bethells that contrast with the wild surf pasted sand beaches (white) and dangerous rips of Piha. The primordial, green, scrawny spine of a peninsula that marks the way to Whatipu. My childhood hero and adult inspiration, the guy on our five dollar note, Ed.
They named it Hillary in honour of Ed and opened it in January 2010 to mark the second anniversary of his passing. The Hillary family have a close association with the area. The Waitakeres are where Ed went to relax, reflect and plan his expeditions. He sought solace there when his first wife and daughter were tragically killed in Nepal. When I was 10 we had to do a speech about a humanitarian. I picked Ed. My blow-by-blow account of the first ascent of Everest went down well with my classmates. I was told I could represent the school in the regionals on the condition I rewrite my speech to include material on building Sherpa schools and hospitals.
The Hillary Trail is a four-day tramp but the Waitakeres is served by an intricate network of trails and for years keen runners have ventured into its depths to recharge and explore. Shaun Collins, a Waitakeres local, keen trail runner and owner of Lactic Turkey an events business http://lacticturkey.co.nz/ came up with the idea of extending the Hillary trail by 10km to make it 80km thereby creating a mostly off-road ultra trail running event for Auckland.
Years of negotiations with the Auckland Regional Council followed. One of the main sticking points was developing a plan to minimise the risk of spreading kauri dieback. With the backing of the Hillary family, the event finally got the green light in 2014. There are three options 16, 34 or 80km.
Team Welly check out the finish line the evening before the race, Eddie, Grant, Marta, Pawel, Sarah, Gareth and Sharron
With a couple of ultras under my belt I was ready to form a party of like-minded buddies to see if we could conquer our Everest.
Map of the Hillary course, plenty of coastal views
Getting to base camp
Like many approach marches ours did not go entirely smoothly. Most of us committed to the race a year before we had to run it. In theory this should have enabled a solid build up but training for ultras is the top priority of pretty much nobody who has a day job, a family and non bionic limbs. A fair bit of juggling family commitments and rehabbing injuries ensued. By the time February rolled round none of us was feeling confident.
Coming from Wellington we planned to do the race unsupported. The Hillary poses some unique logistical and environmental challenges if you’re not local. Most notably the humidity, Auckland traffic and the gap between the course start and finish.
Flight delays pushed us into the admittedly fairly liberal, rush hour traffic zone. Leaving the air-conditioned airport the wave of heat felt like an electric blanket. Am I in Auckland or Singapore? The car air conditioning made no impression as we stop started our way north drinking bottle after bottle of water to combat the wilting. After race registration we found our way to a supermarket that didn’t sell alcohol. Alcohol is not an essential part of pre-race preparation but it generally features fairly prominently in post-race recovery, assuming you can stay awake – not this time. We arrived in Muriwai somewhat later than we had planned and immediately went to check out the race start so we would know where to come to catch the 4.15am bus in a few hours.
Finally at our accommodation kitchen set up issues saw us “cooking” our dinner using the microwave. Hungry hens were keen to eat said dinner if we left it unattended for more than three seconds. Most of the team were running in Salomon shoes which don’t have a lacing system that lends itself to securing timing chips but only some of us had found plastic ties at registration. Time to test our improvisation. A few hours later we resorted to coffee bags for our caffeine hit, definitely a poor substitute for the stove top pot brew. No towels. I sort towels via a series of 3am texts so we can dry ourselves after a post-race shower.
Nothing else can possibly go wrong I think naively as we board our bus to the race start. West Auckland is a vast place. The streets are undifferentiated in the dark. We take a couple of wrong turns, the most interesting seeing us pull off an elaborate turning manoeuvre to get out of a narrow cul-de-sac while an insomniac home occupant looks on talking excitedly into his phone. We give the driver a spontaneous round of applause when he delivers us to the Aratika visitor centre with 15 minutes to spare. We’ve made it to base camp.
Cool Runnings – Arataki to Huia (14km)
The start line and we bid farewell to speedsters Marta and Pawel, photo by Grant
Arriving at Arataki about 5.30am it’s already warm enough for t-shirts as we quickly get ourselves organised and take a few photos. After a race briefing from Shaun and a welcome from Sarah Hillary who is a keen trail runner and one of the tail end charlies for the day a sea of head torches venture from the Arataki Visitor Centre into the forest. Conditions are perfect for running and for my first time ever I’m feeling more excited than anxious about the race. This is going to be a Fun Run.
Then I turn on my torch. No light. The torch worked just fine in a darkened room earlier while I was melting on the horizontal for a couple of hours and turning it on to check the time every five seconds. For some reason it has given up now. I bet the Fenix will die before I finish this run too. What am I going to do later today when I have no torch? No negative self talk I tell myself. Yeah my head switch works! Switching off the useless torch I borrow the light produced by the torches all around me. Fortunately we are at the start of the race, the trails are narrow and there are plenty of people around with functioning lights who can’t get past me.
When I ran these trails just under a year ago the Slip, Pipeline and Parau tracks were coated in clay the consistency of treacle with the adhesiveness of wet ice. Just enough stick to coat your trainers and quadruple their weight but sufficient slipperiness to enable constant slip ups coating your butt with clay as well as everything else. Today all the tracks are dry. The clay remains glued to the trail and runners get to maintain their footing, dignity and pace of choice.
The first couple of hills pass quickly, the technical down hills are fun, negotiating the only major stream section between the start and Huia is straightforward. I’m feeling really energetic which is unfamiliar territory for me as I usually start races badly. Perhaps having run this section before is giving me confidence or maybe it is due to the sprained ankle enforced taper. I overtake Sarah who is already struggling with an injured knee, and Grant who is carefully pacing himself to avoid going out too quickly, both will go on to show tremendous courage as they battle through a tough day. Gareth and Eddie are within shouting distance and will stay close all day. Pawel and Marta are long gone as expected, we won’t see them again till evening.
Last stream crossing before the Huia Dam. Photo by the wonderful people at http://photos4sale.co.nz/
Kauri forest on the Parau track from my run through Easter 2015
I charge down the final downhill of the first section past spectacular stands of adolescent kauri, leaping tree roots and rocks, passing more circumspect runners who promptly overtake me when we hit the road that leads to the Huia Dam. The leap frogging that characterises ultras has begun. I’m forced to stop several times to pull up my socks. I purchased some new wool ones at Wellington airport because they perform well in the heat. I’m breaking the “never try anything new on race day” rule and wearing them. The socks are too thin for my trainers and keep slipping under my feet on the uphills. This is going to be a real-time sucker if I don’t figure out a more sustainable solution.
Meantime we are back to downhill and flat so I speed on past Huia to Karamatura Farm, with Gareth and Eddie. We are all feeling groovy as we ditch our head torches, keep calm and carry on.
Sweltering scenic wonderland – Huia to Whatipu (12km)
Coastal views from Omanawauni, photos from April 2015 run through
At first glance, unless viewed with your eyes shut, the elevation profile for the Hillary is intimidating but on closer inspection the elevations are less cause for concern, especially if you are used to Wellington trails. While there are loads of ups and downs the ups are not significant in a world where we tend to measure 200m climbs in Mt Victorias. Most of the elevations on the Hillary are a single Mt Victoria.
The first section of uphill on the way to Whatipu is an exception though, we have 400m to climb. On the other hand we have 2km over which to do the climbing and we are heading up the beautiful Karamatura valley to Karamatura Forks. The forest is slim shady and although I’m still having to stop at regular intervals to reposition my socks I’m enjoying myself immensely. We are soon onto the Donald McLean and Puriri ridge tracks which I run largely by myself. Across the road onto the Omanawauni track and a few runners catch me up including a guy wearing an orange long sleeve shirt. I ask him how he is coping with the heat and he tells me the sleeves are his strategy for avoiding sunburn. This alerts me to my failure to put on sunscreen at Huia, it’s an omission I will repeat for the rest of the day. My arms are still peeling as a consequence.
Omanawanui is one of the most scenic trails in the Waitakeres, I could run it every day easily. It features a narrow peninsula with great views over the Manakau Harbour and Manakau Bar. You can see vast swathes of coastal vegetation laid out before you on the right and a big drop off on your left. Classic Hillary terrain. It’s not a trail for those who don’t like heights. I find the sense of light, space and living on the edge liberating. I lift my arms skywards in delight, pretending I’m a bird, momentarily jealous of the drone flying overhead which probably has even better views.
Approaching the trig above Whatipu, photo by the wonderful people at photoforsale
From the trig at the top of the hill overlooking Whatipu the trail drops abruptly to the valley floor. I pass a couple of people not appreciating the downhills and assure them the aid station is within spitting distance.
Rainforest roller-coaster – Whatipu to Karekare (11km)
Still feeling great, a sign the hydration and nutrition is going well I manage to leave the Whatipu aid station minus one of my drink bottles. I smile wryly glad I notice before I have run more than a kilometre. I back track to retrieve the bottle. It’s forecast to reach 29 degrees today so I need all of my three bottles for the longest water free section between Piha and Bethells. I down a salt based electrolyte tablet recommended to me at the 11th hour by the guys at Kiwi Velo in Wellington. These magic supplements are my secret weapon for avoiding meltdown.
After passing beside the Whatipu campground where campers applaud us it is back to hilly rainforest as we climb a Mt Victoria equivalent on the Gibbons track. The day is really starting to heat up, my skirt is leaking water and sticking to my thighs, my cap is dripping moisture onto my sunburnt neck and down my back. I’m glad we still have tree cover. The gradient levels out before heading down the Muir track which boasts some great zig zags and takes me into the Pararaha valley where I encounter my first Hillary Trail hut of the day. Marshals offer me water from a tap. I don’t need any water though just a pointer as to which direction to head and then I’m on board walks, through the marsh beside the sea then climbing again on the Buck Taylor track avoiding the sand dunes that are part of a scientific reserve. This climb is again through beautiful forest and at the top we turn left on the Zion Hill track.
The climbing for this section is over now as we drop steeply through a pohutakawa glade all the way to Karekare. With one eye on the time and thinking about the need to reach Piha before the 3pm cut off I don’t linger here stopping long enough to fill my drink bottles, down another magic salt tablet then head on.
Coast and rainforest, photos from April 2015 run through
It Aint Half Hot Mum – Karekare to Piha (9km and 45km)
Up the Conmans track we are climbing near cliff tops as we crest Mercer Bay. Wind adapted flax and cabbage trees cling to the hills reminding me of Wellington. A breeze would be nice right now. We are on the outskirts of Piha and must run on a gravel road followed by a sealed road. It feels strange to be running past houses and to encounter traffic after hours in the bush. Without tree cover I have a waterfall of sweat pouring down my forehead and back. I think cool thoughts. Eventually, to my relief, we head back into bush. In an effort to cool down, I’ve tucked my skirt up into my waist band to keep the sopping wet material off my legs. I must look quite a sight but I don’t care. There are some stream crossings which provide the illusion of coolness and then we pass Kitekite falls. These falls are magnificent. I’m tempted to stop and join the swimmers but I know the Piha aid station is close.
We emerge at the end of Glen Esk road where a marshal breaks the news there are several more kilometres to the aid station at the Piha Domain. This section seems to go on forever, partly because my watch is telling me I’ve already run more than 45km, I forgot to pause it for my Whatipu back track. I focus on putting one foot in front of the other and going as quickly as I can. I also untuck my skirt as I’m expecting to see some people I know at Piha.
At the Piha Domain right in front of the people I know I switch to a dry skirt and hat, but decide not to risk swapping sox as they are behaving now. The chocolate I had stashed in my drop bag has liquified so it stays where it is. I quickly down some crisps and pretzels give my nephew whose birthday it is a sweaty hug and head off after Eddie and Gareth. No sign of Grant or Sarah or my sister, the latter I subsequently learn, has gone looking for me on the wrong hill.
Melting moments – Piha to Bethells (18km)
I conserve energy by walking along Piha beach focusing on iconic Lion Rock while mentally editing out the crowds milling around for a surf competition. Again I’m reminded that we are close to a major urban area and a popular recreation spot. Soon I’m back in the sanctuary of nikau forest and climbing up Whites track. I’m with a couple of other runners so I ask them about the next section as I have not done it before. It would be fair to say they give it less than glowing reviews and I brace myself for a tough three hours.
We hit the Anawhatau road and travel across farm land onto the Kuataika track. This track has great views and traverses two valleys albeit on uneven stony ground that is hard on the joints. Two big climbs followed by descents to streams. I fill up a drink bottle and soak my legs. Since leaving Piha I’ve noticed the clouds building up in the sky, it feels like rain is coming. At the bottom of the final technical downhill it starts to drizzle then rain heavily. I’ve left my raincoat at Piha but it doesn’t matter, it is still far too hot for a coat. The rain however, changes everything. The humidity abates and the temperature drops a vital few degrees and suddenly running becomes easier.
I emerge from the forest and run beside Lake Wainamu, through marshland past a waterfall then past the towering walls of the Bethells sand dunes. A few day trippers are sliding down the dunes to a soundtrack of screams but most are heading for their cars to get out of the rain. It isn’t obvious where I should go but the screaming sand surfers point me in the direction the last runners have taken.
At the Bethells aid station I again catch Eddie and Gareth. The helpers here are wonderful clearly understanding how runners are feeling at the back-end of a big day out they offer to fill my bottles telling me they know fingers don’t work well at this stage. I appreciate their empathy but fill my own bottles, grab some wet crisps and a couple of peanut butter sandwiches and leave. We have the option to collect our head torches here but I don’t bother. I don’t want to waste time trying to find mine in the box, the light has died, and I intend to finish before dark. The aid station people reckon three hours to go but I’ve run Te Henga before and back myself to do it in less.
I Can See Clearly Now the Rain Has Come – Bethells to Muriwai (16km)
At Bethells I encounter long-sleeved orange shirt guy again. On hearing about my head torch plight he kindly offers to run the last part of the course with me in case I need light. I tell him I’ll be fine and wave him on. He and his companion have not done this section of the course so it is my turn to provide some tips on what to expect. From the aid station we cross farmland then do a brief climb over to O’Neils Bay. After the bay the climbing gets more serious up to the cliffs which we traverse for the next 9km.
Even in the rain and mist this is one of the most dramatic sections of the course. I’m loving the cooler temperatures which have reinvigorated me. My pace increases till it is similar to, then quicker than, the speed with which I ran the first section over ten hours ago. I’m going to run a negative split! Te Henga has a clay surface though and it takes very little moisture to convert it to slippery mud catching out runners in road shoes or simply not experienced in these types of conditions. I manage quite a bit of leap frogging.
In the back of my mind I’m repeating Marta’s assessment, “anyone can run 16km when they are going home”. We will compare notes later and laugh about the fact that the gorse on the course has been trimmed back – not something that happens on Wellington trails. I hardly notice the rain and mud as I hustle along past a slip where one of the marshalls asks me to relay a message to the race helpers ahead that conditions are getting dangerous. I run past a guy in a wheel chair and offer some words of encouragement noting he is getting cold while waiting with helpers for more assistance to get him off the track.
After the cliffs that mark the gannet colony I banter with the last marshal on the walkway. I tell him he is a hero for staying out in the rain. He replies that people think he is a hero for braving the heat all day. He cheerfully admits he’d rather be running the course than marshalling as he points me towards the final kilometer of course that leads to Constable Road. No mention of the stairs. No worries, I’m psyched for the stairs and I can see long-sleeved orange shirt guy half way up them. At the top of the stairs we join forces for the final section.
I congratulate some 16km runners as I overtake them, advising them they are crazy for running stairs. They laugh pointing out I’m the crazy one for doing 80km. I don’t stop at the Constable Road aid station as there is only 6km to go, mostly road with a short bush track descent and a final plod along the beach to the Muriwai Surf Club. Long sleeved orange shirt guy and I ran together in companionable silence. The wet slap of shoes on road counts out our rhythm. Going under 14 hours, my goal for the day is looking feasible. We pass our accommodation but I scarcely notice. I’m in “going home” mode .
We pass several marshalls all of whom repeat the phrase “not far to go”. I pass several runners walking the final beach section and then I’m almost caught by surprise as the finish line appears. Nothing left to do but cross it. I eat so many crisps a helper gives me my own personal bag. I grab some dry clothes from my drop bag then get out my phone to photograph Gareth and Eddie as they finish. I manage to get a blurry photo of Gareth but when Eddie arrives my fingers have stopped working and darkness is fast closing in. Just as we were preparing to depart, me clutching the remnants of my giant bag of crisps, Stephen and Shelby finish so we give them a big cheer too.
Gareth finishes his first 80km race
We’ve heard conditions on the trail are now so bad the last runners have been turned back. I’m gutted for Sarah and Grant who end up getting to run 70 instead of 80km and face a long wait to get back home.
Te Henga gannet colony, magnificent coastal cliffs and the infamous Constable Road steps, photos from September 2015 run through
Long sleeved orange shirt man and me running Oaia Road, Photos by the wonderful people at photoforsale
I’m delighted for Pawel and Marta who have blitzed the course, and for Gareth who has run his first 80km and for Eddie who has battled epic cramping to make it home. Huge thanks to Shaun and the team. The Hillary is a great adventure, I’d recommend it to anyone.
10 things I learnt
Auckland knows how to do a great grass-roots, local community based trail running event – three cheers for Shaun, Ranger Stu and their 140 strong magnificent team of helpers.
Having supporters is tremendous but fairly boring for them, there is always plenty of support to be had on the course, make sure you give as much as you receive.
No matter how well you prepare stuff is going to go wrong, so focus on making sure your head switch works.
Rules are made to be broken. Sarah ran in my spare speedcrosses, they were way better than her road shoes would have been. My woollen socks cost me a bit of time initially but saved me from lasting damage in the form of blisters and chaffing. My Kiwi Velo inspired salt tablet experiment paid off.
Surround yourself with people who show courage in the face of adversity, they will inspire you!
Perspective and positivity are traits worth cultivating.
Hot conditions mean liquid food is best and your best food will turn to liquid.
Melting down means you need more salt and you’ll get more blisters and chaffing.
The Waitakeres are not the Tararuas – no scratches on our legs, the hills are smaller but melting is a serious risk!
Smashing your goal time feels awesome.