The Good, the Bad and the Awesome
There is a strange phenomenon that occurs on the ascent of the Constable Road stairs. No matter how many times I try to count them, I never actually arrive at the top with a definitive answer.
Perhaps it is something to do with oxygen deprivation, or maybe it is one of those body extremity defensive shutdown things, where the maths engine stalls in deference to the, “pumping blood, breathing and not dying” systems; but “260-ish” is about the best I can come up with.
It doesn’t really sound a lot in the grand scheme of things, after all the Sky Tower run is around 1050 steps and I’ve done that a couple of times, but at the end of a torrid 28km they can seem like a heroic challenge thrown down by a trail deity with a somewhat warped sense of humour.
“Think you’ve conquered Te Henga, eh smart guy? Not yet sunshine! There’s just one more little detail.”
This Saturday was the start of a bit of a taper to dial back before the event, so I went along with a couple of friends who will be doing the 16k on a bit of a course recce from Bethells to Constable Road. The last time I’d been on this bit was an out ‘n back from Bethells in January so I was curious to see how the trail was holding up and how much the gorse had grown.
The answers were ‘reasonably well’, and ‘Lots’.
The stairs however, remain the same.
We are now two weeks out from the day and this is the time in training where the bits and pieces of the course start to coalesce into a coherent shape in my head and a rough plan of the day emerges. It will be embellished and fine-tuned somewhat over the coming days as I go over it in idle moments, tweaking, adjusting and improving.
‘I have a plan my lord, so cunning you could pin a tail on it and call it a fox’
It sounds simple and mostly it is. Plan the run and run the plan.
Knowing what to expect and when is a big part of it and having a good level familiarity with the course is key to that.
I’ve run the whole 34km course twice before and individual bits of it many times in a variety of weather, so I think I have a good handle on the terrain and the challenges that lie ahead.
My training to date has encompassed most of the route the race will follow and also some selected other harder bits of the Waitakere’s and other places to work on the areas where I know I will need to be on my game.
The plan in my head has phases and milestones, checkpoint times and a fuelling schedule. I have practiced each of the elements to varying degrees, to the point where I now have my gear and food list tested and locked down and my target average pace is on track.
It is truly a thing of beauty.
It is also not likely to survive in its original form much past the start.
‘No plan ever survives contact with the enemy unchanged ’
Whether due to the conditions on the day, injury, track conditions and unforeseen events or just the excitement of the race and the starting buzz, sometimes I’ll find myself an hour in and already the pace is off, the timetable skewed or I’ll notice that I can’t remember my last drink of water. Damn!
That’s OK, stuff happens and we need to be adaptable. Picking early on when things start to diverge and modifying the plan on the hoof is just part of the game. The main thing I have to remember is to keep the basic objective in mind, which is to keep putting one foot in front of the other until I run out of track. (Hopefully at Muriwai!)
To achieve this, I know that in general terms I will need to keep moving, stay hydrated, and keep fuelling. If I’ve done enough training, then the pace will look after itself, provided I don’t go out too hard to begin with. One of the most important things I learned last time is that regular body state checks are essential and I shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to breeze through the aid stations. Taking a few minutes to cool off and get a good idea of where my body is at is much more important than getting away before the start of the 16km folks at Bethells Beach.
In a nutshell then, that’s really the sum of the plan. Everything else is decoration.
So, all that duly noted, here’s a bit of a run through of the 34km course as it looks in my head.
‘Over the hills and far away…’
The 34km will begin with a pre-race briefing in the field behind the campground at Piha where Shaun will tick off the main points about Kauri dieback control and check that everybody has stuff like water, a survival blanket and an emergency whistle, (or if the guy from last year’s Double Rainbow is there, an emergency Blues Harmonica).
Then we’ll amble down to the start line, which is from Lion Rock to a marker that Shaun will jam into the sand loosely at right angles to the beach. Last time at this point the lead runners of the 80km came through Piha so we gave them a few minutes to get clear before we kicked off.
A blast from the air horn will set things in motion and I expect that’s the last I will see of Zara for several hours at least. Oh well, at least we will have shared a start line.
The greyhounds will all pelt off in an attempt to get to the first Trigene station before the crowd and yours truly will saunter down onto the harder sand below the tide mark and trot northward toward the North Piha surf club about a kilometre away up the beach. Running in sand burns my calves pretty quickly, so I’ll be taking it fairly easy to begin with and using the opportunity to warm up the muscles some more and let the faster runners get on with it.
At North Piha, it is back up off the beach by the surf club and a short backtrack to the Marawhara stream and the first Trigene station. It’s worth considering at this point whether to empty the iron sand out of the shoes, it kind of packs into the toes and can get pretty abrasive after a few km. (You’ll still find the stuff leaching out of your shoes 6 months from now though).
The Marawhara track through to Whites is an enjoyable easy run – albeit whilst looking out for head high pohutukawa hazards. A couple of shallow stream crossings close together and then it’s on to Whites track and the climb to Anawhata Road.
Whites is a steady climb of a bit over 3km and 250m in elevation. I have an unfortunate tendency to push it a bit hard this early in the piece that I will try to keep a rein on. Steady as she goes is the plan, we’ll see how that turns out.
Popping out into the sunshine again there’s a short stretch of Anawhata road and then it’s across the farm to the start of Kuataika. This is the 5km mark and from the gate I can look across the valleys at Kuataika trig, as it begins to dawn just how far I have yet to go.
Through the gate and down into the first leg of the ‘W’. This bit used to be a fun hurtle of yellow clay that got excitingly slidy in the wet, but someone recently has dumped a load of large chunks of road metal from the gate down to the loo at the Gentil stream crossing. I guess it’s easier for farm vehicles, but definitely harder on the feet.
Once past the steam however, we’re back to a slithery clay plummet all the way down to the Anawhata stream and the next climb. Again, I will have to dial back a bit on the uphill to keep the heart rate from going all lactic on me as we slog up to the pointy middle of the ‘W’ and then open up again for the steep scuttle down to the Kuataika stream before the big climb back up to the top of the ridge.
Just at the top where it begins to flatten out there’s a short side track to the Trig that we will ignore today, but from where there are spectacular views, both back to the Anawhata Farm, (encouragingly distant) and forward all the way to Muriwai, (Ummm, yeah. A reeeally long way!).
Incidentally, running back to Piha from here leaves you with a really cool symmetrical GPS elevation profile. Kind of a ‘Double W’. Try it some time.
A gently undulating and easily runnable km or two from here and we get to Wainamu Junction. This is more or less the 10km mark and a good point for a status check and a snack.
Then we go left onto Houghton track and my favourite bit of the entire run, a fast, gnarly all out plummet down to Lake Wainamu.
Along the way, I will have been leap frogging one or two runners of similar speed, often losing ground on the climbs, and making up a bit downhill. Houghton however, is one of those places where I’m really in my element and I have a chance to claw back some of what I lost on the big uphill sections.
From the bottom of the hill we skirt the lake on our left and then run along through the stream beside the big dune.
By now it will be well after midday and the heat is likely to be blasting off the black sands, but luckily we aren’t too far from the first of the aid stations in the meadow just across the Waitakere stream at Bethells Beach.
Last time I arrived not long before the start of the 16km and I was keen to get away ahead of them so I didn’t stop for long. As I’ve mentioned previously, this was a mistake of fairly major proportions and ultimately pretty pointless as their sprightly fresh legs quickly caught up and they hurtled past me before I’d even got to O’Neill’s Bay.
This time I’ll take a few more minutes to checkpoint and cool off a bit before venturing out into the blast furnace again. I’m picking it will be every bit as hot, (if not hotter) as last year and I really don’t want to have to go through that whole meltdown routine again.
Leaving Bethells, we will make a couple of short-ish climbs interspersed with faster bits as we make our way around the corner for a couple of km before we reach O’Neill’s Bay and the bottom of Heartbreak Hill.
Looking at it on the run last Saturday from the perspective of a morning start at Bethells, it’s actually not so bad. Certainly nowhere near as steep or long as the Kuataika side of the ‘W’.
But on the afternoon of race day at the end of more than 2 ½ hours and 20km of hard running, as the mercury begins to shoot up the thermometer it is going be a real challenge in the hot sun.
About 2/3 of the way up there is a glade of stubby pohutukawa clinging to the hillside that forms a kind of leafy cave. Here in the blessed shade we can pause and catch our breath before the final assault on the summit. This was the high-water mark of my 2015 Hillary 34k and I spent a fair bit of time here watching other over-heated runners come in and gasp for a bit before heading out again. When the wind is in the right direction now it sometimes seems like you can still hear the sound of gentle weeping among the branches.
We are now only a few hundred metres from the top of the hill, with just the zig-zag to negotiate and then the view opens out to the South and West as the cliff path gives way to grass. From the photos on Facebook, it is somewhere near here that I think Shaun is putting his new water stop, which will be a welcome addition.
The Te Henga cliff path from here meanders and clambers another 6km or so to Constable Rd. In some places it is narrow and crumbly, in others wide and grassy as it sweeps around the headlands with impressive views of coast, sea and sky. Looking back we can see all the way to Anawhata Farm and ahead, the big sweep of the northern part of Muriwai Beach up to South Kaipara Head.
The track is up and down, but mostly runnable, if a bit prickly. The legs got a bit of a lashing on this last outing, but hopefully it will have been trimmed back a bit by race day. One of the big things to look out for will be the flax leaves lurking cunningly in long grass where you can’t see what you are running on.
Eventually we’ll round the headland at Tirikohua Point and head inland up above Bartrum Bay, where (in half a km or so) we will catch our first glimpse of The Stairs of Despair rising majestically out of the scrub like an Aztec step pyramid awaiting today’s batch of sacrifices.
Somewhere up there is a veritable feast of Valhalla, where heroic track warriors will be rewarded with piles of tasty vittles’ and plied with carb-laced nectar. But first there is the small matter of a couple of hundred (ish) individual mini-precipices to scale as the track rises nearly 150m in a very short time. Do keep a count as you go and let me know how you get on.
The Constable Road aid station will be another good place for a system status check (and possibly oxygen and IV fluids) and then it’s onto the road for the final stage. This is where my shoe dilemma comes in.
I’ve been mostly training in my IceBug Zeal, with an occasional outing in the IceBug Anima 3’s.
On the gnarly trails so far, hands down I prefer the Zeal. They’re lighter, more responsive and grippier than a grippy thing (with added grip sauce). Which is not to say the Anima 3 isn’t a great shoe, it’s also grippy and really comfortable and has been awesome on harder surfaces and as a general purpose shoe it’s hard to beat.
The thing is, for Piha through to Constable Road I want to wear the Zeals, but I know that when I hit the road after 28km of trail, my feet will be tired and possibly a little sore and the Zeal has zero padding. The Anima’s would be perfect at this point, but there aren’t any drop bags for the 34k and I don’t currently have a shoe lackey organised to ferry my kit around. (Would be great, wouldn’t it? “Shoe Boy! The Number 3’s and a chilled electrolyte, forthwith!”)
Fortunately, I think I have a cunning solution that will let me continue to the finish, namely a pair of IceBug Insoles that I will carry in my trusty pack and deploy once I get to the road section. I’m going to experiment a bit more with them over the next couple of weeks, but so far it’s looking like a good plan.
Constable Road is an easy gravelly decline that we would normally avoid by ducking into the short bush track on the right for a bit of shade, but apparently people were marshalled down the road last year. Anyway at the bottom is the burning black tarmac of Oaia Road, with a sweaty km or so and a deceptive little bit of elevation that doesn’t look much but which I’m definitely going to feel at about 30km.
Finally, on the left we’ll come to a stretch of grass and the last bit of track, down past the low Pohutukawa branch with the helpful pointy orange plastic warning triangle at head-stabbing height and out to the stairs by the gannets and down to the beach.
Then it’s just a final haul running as best we can (because there are people watching) along the beach and up for a lap of the reserve, following the smell of burgers to the finish.
That’s the plan in my head.
We’ll see how close it tracks on the day.