Look so fine, feel so low.
I’ve spent a fair chunk of my life watching weather come in over the Waitaks. As a sailor since I was a kid on both harbours and around the gulf, it was often fairly important to keep an eye to the West to get an idea of when to shorten sail – or crowd it on. So I like to think I have a fair handle on what is on the way weather-wise most of the time in Auckland, by eyeballing the hills and sniffing the wind.
Late on Saturday afternoon I was sitting on the grass above the red cliffs at the Northern end of O’Neill Bay feeling pretty awful. I had staggered at a painfully slow pace up the track from Bethells with the slope and the muggy heat draining my legs, lungs and will to live. I was too hot, tired, nauseous and despondent to go on for the moment so I sat down to have a drink, nibble on a cookie and take stock. I was a long way behind schedule and beginning to have some serious doubts about whether I would manage the remaining 14km or so to Muriwai before dark and so I sat for a while, looking back towards the South at that damn sun sparkling on the sea and shining on Kuataika summit.
The view was lovely and it’s fair to say I was feeling pretty low.
Then I noticed that the wind over my right shoulder had shifted slightly and even before I turned around to look, I knew that everything was about to change.
Let’s get this party started…
The day had started well, if a little later than expected due to one of the buses from Muriwai breaking down en-route to Piha. We had our briefing as the first two or three 80km guys came through and then we lined up on the sand by Lion Rock at 11:30 and a couple of minutes later we were off.
The run up the beach and over to Marawhara stream among the cheerful horde was the usual easy shamble, apart from the obligatory cursing of soft sand by the surf club beach path. A 5 minute wait in the queue at the Trigene stop gave me an opportunity to empty out the shoes and then it was off up Whites track.
I thought I was keeping a little back in reserve up that first hill, but according to Strava I took 2 minutes off my PB for the Anawhata Rd climb. Race day buzz I guess. Anyway, trotting over the farm and then down into the Kuataika I was nicely warmed up and starting to enjoy myself.
As expected, I caught and passed a couple of people on the first descent and reached Anawhata stream in good time. The slog up to the middle of the W was pretty warm, but I kept a steady walk/jog going and again rattled at a good clip down the hill on the other side to Kuataika stream where I dumped a hatful or two over my head before squelching off up a long sweaty climb to the top of the ridge.
A few people had got past me on the way up, but not too many and I kept most of them at least in sight on the next stretch to Wainamu Junction. I’d been keeping up with the water and electrolytes and chugging on the Gel Flask every 40 min or so to this point so I downed half a bar and set out once more.
Houghton track was as much fun as I thought it would be and I fairly hurtled down to the lake, passing a couple more people along the way. The track was relatively dry and fast and I had a great time hopping and jumping my way down, keeping the cadence up, staying loose and basically letting the hill pull me down. At the bottom I reined in a bit and began a steady jog around the lake toward the dunes.
The day was definitely getting quite warm by now and down in that windless bowl between the big dune and the hills the temperature was climbing, making the lake look quite inviting. A pause at the waterfall to soak the Thir and douse the head was a big help before setting foot onto the track around the northern side of the lake. As I passed the jetty I noticed a couple of guys had dumped their packs and were doing bombs into the lake. I was half-tempted to join them, but would probably have never wanted to leave, so I kept going.
As I moved along the wet sand beside the big dune I was experiencing something of a feeling of Deja-vu. At more or less the same point as last year I had gone from feeling OK and running pretty steadily to starting to feel a bit crap. By the time I reached the Aid station, I was definitely over-heated and feeling slightly queasy. Something was definitely not quite right. I shouldn’t have been feeling like this only 18km into the race.
I had made Bethells in almost exactly 3 hours, which was only 15 minutes slower than last year’s effort, so things were more or less on track but there was something off somewhere that didn’t improve much as I hung around for about 20 min during which time the wonderful unicorn crew (They had wings, so maybe they were Pegacorns?) checked I was OK, re-filled my bottles and hydration pack and offered me food that I just couldn’t bring myself to touch, settling instead for more diluted gel from the flask and plenty of water.
Finally I decided that I was as good as I was going to get, so I walk-jogged along the meadow and up onto the track to begin the long painful climb up to the top of the hill. Along the way I began to encounter the first casualties of the day, either returning to Bethells or waiting for assistance to arrive. In each case I checked that they were OK under their own steam or had someone to stay with them and didn’t need me to go back down and tell someone before I continued my own slow progress.
Normally that climb from the paddock to the top of the cliffs doesn’t take me more than about 20 minutes when I’m not pushing. On Saturday it took more than twice that, with frequent stops in little pools of shade and in the Pohutakawa glade near the top. This time though, I didn’t linger under the trees and pushed on up the zig-zag to finally emerge onto the grass at the top of the hill.
I wanna know have you ever seen the rain, comin’ down on a sunny day?
Which brings us back to the beginning of this tale, where I sat on the hill enjoying a teeny bit of breeze, but not much else. I figured I should probably try to eat something a bit more substantial than gel so I broke out my secret weapon, one of my special marathon power cookies. I nibbled it in small bites while sipping from my pack as I tried to re-assess and reset the plan to account for my current sorry state.
That’s when the wind changed, picking up a little while backing slightly from a northerly to more of a northwester and things began to look up for me.
The forecast for the day had rain coming in late afternoon and all through my climb I’d been looking longingly at the gathering grey out to sea and ahead. But until now the somewhat unstable conditions caused by the lurking remnants of Cyclone Winston and the persistent ridge of high pressure lingering over the North Island had kept it at bay.
Either that or the weather gods were messing about with me – I’m tempted to go with the latter.
Anyway, as the first splats of rain began to fall around me I got back up, put my pack on and started to walk. By the time I reached the corner where the sign marks the start of the cliff path the rain was falling steadily, the temperature was starting to drop and I began jogging down the steep bit by the fence. I don’t know whether it was a combination of the cooler temperature with the rest, food and rehydration, or just the fact that I was up and moving; but within a couple of minutes I was feeling good and starting to run properly.
The rain kept increasing in intensity and after a half km or so there were little rivulets everywhere and the clay was tuning slick and shiny.
In my happy place
It sounds kind of strange, but the more it rained and the muddier and more slippery it got, the happier I became and the faster I ran. I had run over 22km with about 800m in elevation and my legs should have been feeling the distance, but it didn’t seem to matter. The track was deteriorating almost visibly but the Icebugs were clamping onto the ground like grey and orange suction pads and propelling me onward.
As I moved along the cliffs the visibility closed in until I seemed to be running in a wet grey globe floored with mud and bordered by steep slopes to the one side and white-green, sea far below on the other. I was bouncing back and forth across the top of narrow bits, skipping over rocks and skittering through shiny clay patches, jumping down banks and generally having the time of my life.
I began to encounter and pass more runners, some coping well with the conditions and some looking more than a little freaked out. “This is getting really slippery!” said one as they made their way gingerly down that narrow clay gut about halfway along Te Henga (which was almost a creek at that point).
“Yeah!” I said happily as I bounced across the top of the channel and down the other side. They must have thought I was nuts.
And still I kept getting faster.
Eventually I reached the slip and the ‘Danger! Crumbly Bits’ sign. They weren’t kidding, it was looking very soggy and churned up by previous traffic. I took a bit of a look, then thought, ‘heck with it!’ and jumped for a likely looking foothold. The treads on the IceBugs locked into the clay and I scuttled over onto the track again, then ran away into the rain once more.
Not far along from there I came across Brendon with his wheelchair and crew. I have no idea how they managed to all get across that slip with the chair but they’d done it, which has to rank as a pretty epic feat. The effort had obviously caused them to re-assess their strategy and they were looking to pull the plug on Te Henga and try and climb out up the hill to the farm. Nobody had cellphone coverage, but I promised to let the team at Constable Rd know what was happening and headed onward down the track.
The next few km flew past and before I knew it I was slogging up the steep clay slope to the last corner before the drop down into the valley that leads to the Constable Rd. stairs. One of my friends happened to be marshalling at that spot and he looked pretty relieved to see me. (I was after all, still a long way behind schedule). He passed me some flat Pepsi and gave me a bit of an update on the race so far. Apparently a few people had been having a hard time on Te Henga with the rain and track conditions. I chugged the Pepsi, bid him farewell and set off down the hill to finish Te Henga off once and for all.
Soon I was approaching the foot of the stairs and for once I was glad to see them. Switching into ‘stair plod’ mode I began the ascent, looking back occasionally as I steadily gained altitude.
I passed a few more people on the way up and was myself passed on the middle landing by one of the 80k’ers who was running up the damn things, limping a little and swearing under his breath at every other step. These people are seriously impressive! Maybe I’ll be able to do that one day, when I grow up.
By the top of the stairs I wasn’t having quite as much fun as I had along Te Henga, but I was feeling pretty good when I reached the aid station to be greeted by my wife, who was on duty there. This was an unexpected bonus as I’d thought she was on finish line refreshments. I had set us both up with the ViewRanger app and set up Buddy Beacon on my phone to fire off my position every 15 min when I had coverage, so she’d been following my progress on the map on her phone and hadn’t been overly worried about my lateness, but was still pretty relieved to see me intact. (As was I, let’s face it!)
I picked up a coke and sat down for a couple of minutes while I passed on the info about the wheelchair crew. Then it was out onto Constable Rd for the final stretch.
Running to stand still
Pulling out of the Te Henga track entrance and onto the road, I fell into step with one of the 80k’ers, an Aussie girl who had come up the stairs just behind me.
I had thought I was tired, but somewhat surprisingly I was able to keep up with the fairly brisk pace she was setting as we ran down to the corner and left onto Oaia road. That lasted about 1km or so, until we got to the slight hill where she left me in her dust as I dialled back a little. (Still pretty chuffed about that initial pace though!). By now it was after 6:00pm and starting to get a little gloomy as the day faded early under the overcast and drizzle.
From the top of the hill I picked up the pace again off the road onto the grass and then dropped down onto the track for the last run down to the Gannet colony and the stairs to the beach.
I was on my own as I ran easily down the wide tame track and opened the taps one last time to fly down the path in the damp twilight. I don’t think I have ever reached the end stages of a long race before feeling quite so content. By rights I should have been a physical wreck; I’d had a long and trying day, my time was a good hour and a half behind where I’d expected to be and the weather was pretty filthy.
None of that mattered. I was feeling fine and running well on a gentle downhill grade on an easy track that unrolled in front of me under the dripping trees.
I’ve mentioned before that I’ve found every run on the Hillary Trail is different and every race teaches me something I didn’t know before.
This time I learned that while heat and humidity may be my Kryptonite, they can be beaten with perseverance and a little luck and that in cool, wet and muddy conditions I have super powers (OK, maybe not really).
I also learned that when the trails turn to goo and try to swallow me or throw me off cliffs, Icebug Zeals are freaking amazing shoes.
I’ve never really liked running Te Henga all that much, it’s open and prickly and exposed. On Saturday though, in the rain and mud and slithery crumbly craziness it gave me one of the most enjoyable and exhilarating running experiences I’ve ever had and for that I’m profoundly grateful.
Anyway, nearing the end of the last bit of bush (and remembering to duck the low branch, as I wasn’t feeling quite up to vaulting it!) I soon reached the bottom of the track and trotted around to the end of the road. From there I got my first sight of the finish area, tantalisingly close across the wet sand.
Clattering down the stairs, I ran out onto the beach and let the tired feet take me home.