Saturday, 25 February 2017

The Hillary Ultra, NZ 2017

I first familiarised myself with The Hillary Ultra, NZ trail back in 2015 as part of my focus on the Skyrunning Oceania Series. That time I travelled alone and managed to finish in a time of 9:57:45 for a new course record. The following year my good friend Gill Fowler raced The Hillary Ultra. Prior to heading off to race, Gill and I discussed the course and I encouraged her to get my course record as I thought she could lower it further. Unsurprisingly Gill did lower it to 9:55:52. As Gill’s time was so close to mine I thought that there was the possibility of taking 1 or more seconds off her time this year.

For this year's race Brian accompanied me to Auckland as he was entered into the 34km run. Both of our goals for the event were very different. Mine was to run strong for the entire 80kms, his was to enjoy the scenery and to just finish. We were both fortunate enough to again stay with Brian’s Aunty Bev and Uncle Jack in Auckland. It is always good to stay with them as they are both very active people and are considerate of runner’s requirements (rest, diet, sleep, preparation, relaxing, napping, recovering, etc) as Bev is familiar with the marathon distance having done many road marathons before.

Photo from Arataki Visitor Centre. The Hillary Ultra Trail is somewhere in that forest.
The day before the event, Brian and I attended race registration then headed up into the hills of Waitākere Ranges Regional Park to the 80km start line at Arataki Visitor Centre. The only other time I had been here was for the start of the 2015 race, which was prior to first day light. I naively thought, at the time, that the race started at first light and so I missed out on the impressive views of the bay, dam, Auckland and surrounding dense forest. This time in daylight I took the opportunity to enjoy the views and wander around the visitor centre which proved a nice way to relax prior to the next morning’s early start.
Pre-race nerves.
Having Brian with me this time round meant that I could sleep in until 4:30am before we had to get up and head directly to the start line at Arataki Visitor Centre. This year I had with me a good head torch, something that I had overlooked last time. The race start was the usual affair, with a short but humorous race briefing by race director Shaun Collins, followed by the gathering of runners under the inflatable start line arch, before we headed off in darkness along 80kms of The Hillary trail. A brief countdown proceeded the start, then it was a short moderately paced run up through the visitor carpark which allowed for self-seeding to occur and avoided any hostile jostling prior to the single track through the first of many forest sections.

The first of many kauri dieback prevention foot wash stations.
Running through the dense forest is an unusual experience for me. The bush I run in at home is sparse and you can see for a fair distance into it, even with a head torch. The forest along The Hillary Trail, in comparison, is very dense and it is difficult to see much further than just a few metres. Occasionally my head torch would pick up a glint of reflected light and I had no idea if it was a beady eye from an animal or just a droplet of water, either way it kept me distracted while running this night section.
A runnable ascent.
After about half an hour of running the sky above started to get some colour in it. Gradually the light from my head torch became less effective as the day dawned. By this time we were well and truly into the race and had covered much undulating terrain. Through these early stages of the race I found myself running pretty much by myself as the field had already spaced itself out around me. At the first aid station, Huia, at 14kms, I was told I was 7th overall which is unusual for me to be so far up the field this early on.
Hands-on-knees technique is very effective on steep hills.
The first climb after Huia marks the start of the "big" climbs for the day. At around 360m ascent over 3km the first climb is steep but semi-runnable. The trail zig-zagged through lush forests, but after about half an hour of climbing the forest starts to open up and revealed a view of the ocean which only got more spectacular as the trail ascended. Near the top there is a permanently fixed chain to help runners up the last steep incline that revealed an amazing panoramic view. Memories from last time I raced here in 2015 kept resurfacing and I remembered stopping at the top briefly to take in the beauty and it did not disappoint this time either. Down below I could see the next check point  at Whatipu (24kms) and another runner ahead. I caught that runner, Tom Ennever, at the aid station, and we continued to run together for awhile until I dropped him on the following climb, but he soon caught up again. On this climb I found two other runners. One of them, Nathan Bycroft, ditched his fiend and joined my bandwagon on the ascent. Nathan and I continued to run together pretty much the rest of the race. It was good to have some company and we used each other to set the pace and keep each other honest.   
Descending is a form of controlled falling.

When I'm running with other people I imagine that the gap between us is bridged by a rubber band. This "rubber band" is a metaphor for the mind's ability to keep my body within a reasonable distance of the person I want to follow. In this race, following Tom and Nathan, I allowed this rubber band to stretch out a little by letting them stride out on the flatter terrain, but I lifted to close the gap in order to pace off them. The furthest I let that rubber band stretch was when they would be a few bends ahead on the trail, but most importantly they stayed within sight meaning that I didn't let that rubber band "break". As soon as that rubber band breaks it is difficult to be able to mentally and physically lift the pace again to catch up. It is a technique I use in training runs and races alike and the results are remarkably consistent.

The Piha checkpoint is the starting point for the 34km runners, of which Brian was one of them. When I arrived there was no one there which meant that I’d missed the start of the 34km race, so in my mind, Brian became a hare and I was a fox. Not often do I get the chance to chase him down, this would be a first under race conditions, so I relished the opportunity this time round.  From the Piha checkpoint the trail makes its way onto, then along, the beach through the tidal zone of dense black sand. After a kilometre of flat sandy beach running, which took a toll on the legs, the trail heads back into the forest. It wasn’t far up the hill before I came across the tail enders of the 34km pack. They were pacing themselves early and I managed to pass with ease on the single trail, in pursuit of the next 34km runner ahead. I continued this process for the remainder of the race, always keeping Tom and Nathan within sight.
Sometimes I had to take my eyes off the view and focus on the trails.
The following checkpoint was at Bethells. I arrived as the 16km runners were being briefed prior to their race start. I didn’t waste much time at the checkpoint refuelling as I wanted to put as much distance between me and the “fresh” 16km runners as I could. As all runners (80km, 34km and 16km) finish at the same finish line in Muriwai, this last section of trail from memory was going to get crowded. I made it about 1km along the trail before the 16km leaders caught me. They were setting quite a pace and treating it as a sprint. I managed to take advantage of these 16km runner’s movements and pass a few 34km runners. It was a nice change from having to call out “passing” as I’d been doing for the last 15 or so km’s.
Near the top of the second big climb from Bethells I came across Brian, sitting down on the grassy slope. He was looking pretty exhausted and wasn’t in much of a hurry to move. I told him to get a hurry on, but I could tell the interest wasn’t there. He passed me the car keys along with some motivation, that I was on record pace if I just continued running strong. Brian’s pretty good with his stats, and I trust what he says, so I used his words as motivation to run on and potentially give the record a nudge.
In between crowds on the coastal track from Piha.
 The single trail, which winds in and out of the coastal cliffs, was by this time becoming pretty crowded with energised 16km runners and exhausted 34km runners all passing and being passed alike. Occasionally I’d get called a “speedy” 16km runner, which at times I felt like correcting them saying that I was an 80km runner, but by this time my energy was reserved purely for running.
Always happy to finish.
Crossing the finish line outside Muriwai Surf Life Saving Club was a tremendous relief. The whole day I'd been focused with my running and to finally stop running was a massive relief. I stopped the clock at 9:56:56, just 64 seconds off Gill's course record, but a 49 second PB none the less (bloody long way to run for such a small PB in my honest opinion). It's not the first time I've missed out on a course record by mere minutes in an ultra. My primary goal in races is to always finish, which I did, so I'm happy. Now it was a matter of filling in a few hours while I waited for Brian to finish his sight seeing tour. One stand out feature of New Zealanders is how friendly they are and it was easy to strike up a conversation with people at the finish line while I waited.
Shaun Collins, The Hillary RD, and the hand made trophy.
I'm glad I made the decision to return to The Hillary. It's good to see how the event has grown. Personally I think that the views in the first 50kms of the course are some of the best, but that is still not enough motivation to get Brian to step up to the ultra.

The Hillary Course Profile


It is a good feeling when you can rely upon the same gear again and again knowing that it fits well and performs superbly.
Ultimate Direction Body Bottle 500ml
The Hillary Course Map


  1. Love your sense of humour Beth! Always a great read. Looking forward to doing this one sometime, maybe next year... Catch you soon, Lou

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