It was feat of grueling endurance, filled with ups and downs and moments of despair, before victory was finally achieved. And that was just poor Shaun Collins getting council approval for this event! But at last we Aucklanders had our very own offroad ultramarathon to be proud of.
Maybe it’s just local pride showing through, but I reckon this course is easily one the most spectacular going around. The Hillary Ultra is a veritable smorgasbord of spectacular scenery, featuring stunning coastal vistas, secluded valleys, meandering forest streams, towering sand dunes and majestic Kauri.
Not that any of that was visible when we assembled in the darkness for a 6am start. The enthusiasm for the inaugural event had been apparent in the lead up and there was undeniable buzz in the air as we assembled outside the Arataki Visitors Centre for the race briefing.
At the start line we paused for a special moment as Sarah Hillary delivered some brief but stirring words. Then we were off to make history.
The first couple of km took us through the tunnel under Scenic Drive and around the Nature Trail before we hit the Hillary Trail proper. The trail started with a decent descent down the aptly named Slip Track, initially a well-formed path but soon growing rockier and steeper. I know this track well so I knew to keep eyes (and headlamp) pinned to the ground, to avoid any ankle-breaking rocks.
I hadn’t slept well in the lead-up to race, averaging about 4-5 hours of sleep the previous 3 nights, so I’d been a bit apprehensive about how my body was going to shape up. As it turns out, the lack of sleep didn’t seem to bother me at all and me legs were feeling great. I had been aiming for 12-13 hours but I began to think that a faster time might be on the cards.
As dawn arrived I was making my way along the edge of the Lower Huia Reservoir, in the company of a few other runners. Amongst them were a couple of impressive youngsters – 15yo Reegan and 21yo Heather. They were aiming for a sub-12 hour finish so I figured if I kept them in sight then I had a real chance of beating my target time.
As we entered the Omanawanui Track, there were a group of four of us – Heather, Reegan, Gerald & I – and the marshall helpfully called out 17,18,19,20 as we passed.
I don’t care how many times I run this trail, I’m still blown away by the awe-inspiring view out over the harbour as we climb up the exposed ridgeline. As we started the descent into Whatipu, I heard a buzzing sound off to my right and was stunned to see a quadcopter hovering nearby. We caught a glimpse of the footage in a short video teaser at the prizegiving the next morning, and I can only say that there was a collective gasp from everyone as we caught the first aerial shots over this spot. Sensational!
You can check out the 2min video here.
The girls at the beach-themed aid station at Whatipu were great and I was thrilled to see a familiar face in offroad-junkie Annette. After a quick hug and a water-refill I was energised and off again – ready for yet another steep hill of course! The leg to Karekare featured 2 bigs hills – first up Gibbons Track and then again over Mt Zion – punctuated by the pictureque Pararaha Valley. I found myself running alone quite a bit on this section and again up Comans Track and down into Piha.
I caught Reegan and Heather again at Kitekite Falls as they waited patiently for some walkers to cross the stream and then I passed them before reaching the Piha aid station. Heather blasted through the aid station while I was filling up my reservior – does she store water like a camel? – and then I followed about a minute behind onto the beach.
I’d learned my lesson about beach running at the Kauri Ultra in November, when a 1-2km section on soft sand had turned my legs to rubber. So I headed straight to the hard sand even though it meant running further, happy to sacrifice a bit of distance to preserve my legs.
I was feeling pretty good up Whites Track and Anawhata Road and passed one or two other runners. I kept up the hot pace down the first hill on the Kuitaika and to a lesser extent the second, but my quads were really starting to feel it on Houghton Track.
I’d passed Gary on the downhill, because he having trouble with his knee, but that didn’t stop him easily passing my on the last uphill to Wainamu Junction and I didn’t see him again. I was running with Frank by this stage and we kept each other going to the Bethells aid station. The long leg and hot sun meant that I ran out of water at Wainamu Falls when I was already feeling a bit dehydrated and I had to go another half an hour without any fluids.
It was a good feeling leaving Bethells knowing that I was on the last leg. I continued to run with Frank for quite a bit of this section, before he pushed on when I stopped for a toilet and food break. But shortly before then I think it was Carl who passed us like we were standing still. I thought it was pretty rude to be looking so fresh at this stage, while poor Frank and I were reduced to just putting one foot in front of the other!
The views down the coast were of course spectacular, but it was a bit of a tease to see Muriwai in the distance. It looked so close but I knew there was still a lot of work to be done.
I’d been dealing with some minor nausea in the second half of the race – nothing major but enough to just take the edge of my running. I was just eating biscuits and nibbling on a hot cross bun and washing them down with fluids to keep the stomach happy.
This last section was a bit of a slog for me, although I suspect the same could be said of many other runners too. I’m just grateful that the views made it so much easier.
It was a real milestone hitting Constable Road, but that 2km road section always seems soooo long! Once I was back on the track then it all started to happen quickly – the gannet colony, beach, metal road and then the finish line – wahooooo!
I managed to finish in 14th place in the open section in a time of 11:05, which exceeded my expecations by a long shot, so I was thrilled. It was great to see Reegan & Heather come in not too far behind. These younguns are only going to get faster so it’ll be a relief for me to move into the veterans section in the not too distant future!
As always, it was great to celebrate with family and share experiences with the other runners. My brother-in-law, Paul, had completed the 16km with some mates and it sounds like they’d had an great time.
Cogratulations to Shaun for an awesomely successful event. It’s been a long time coming but the result was worth it.
And of course a big thank you to all the volunteers out on the course. It’s not just the food and water but the smiles and words of encouragement that make it so much easier and contribute to the occasion.