Mama always said “you’ve got to have a bad race to have a good one.” So if that’s the case I’m due for an absolute blinder.
I feel like the big man upstairs was throwing a bunch of hard balls at me during my build up for the Hillary, as there a multitude of reasons that could explain why this year’s event didn’t play out as well as I had hoped. But the lessons I have learned about racing, preparation, and myself have been a great value in themselves so I haven’t come away from the experience completely empty-handed. So let us debrief.
Saturday 6am: wake up time. Why was I awake at such an ungodly hour for a race that starts at 11o’clock? That was my initial thought too, but with the snorer-cum-bulldozer I had the pleasure of sharing a 7-person room with at the backpacker’s lodge I could not sleep, so I thought I may as well begin to get ready. As I climbed carefully out of the bunk bed so to avoid making any sounds (which I’ll admit was a bit ludicrous with the bulldozer grumbling away), I felt my hip twinge. I had strained one of my gluteus muscles a week earlier and although I avoided running all week, it still hadn’t had enough time to heal. I already knew the day was going to be a real struggle with that pain, as if the Hillary wasn’t tough enough already.
I walked gingerly down the stairs to the communal kitchen for breakfast – the standard bircher muesli slop I had stored in the back of the fridge the night before. This turned out to be poor placement on my part, as the inconsistent fridge temperature meant I was having an oaty chia seed popsicle for breakfast. Yum. Once I had finished my delicacy I continued with my preparations (putting strapping tape on my feet to prevent my shoes from sanding them down to the bone), and began the commute out to Muriwai to catch the bus to the 34km event start line.
Once again, the big fella was about to bestow another misfortune on me so I apologise to the other competitors who were unlucky to have shared the same bus. Half way along our journey to Piha, we were told the bus was leaking some kind of fluid from somewhere (don’t ask me, I’m not a mechanic nor am I a male) which meant we had to continue swapping running stories on the side of the road whilst we waited to be rescued. After 45 minutes or so, our light-hearted conversations quickly turned to speculations of how long it would take to run to Piha (hours) and the possibility of adding a new 60km distance to the 3 Hillary events. Fortunately while some anxious plans were being formed, the mechanic was working his magic at the back of the bus and we were soon hitting the road again. So if a mechanical breakdown was an attempt to ruin our chances of competing, these plans were foiled as Shaun was kind enough to delay the start until 11.30am. Yet because of the time constraints, we runners who were fashionably late had to listen to the race briefing while we pinned on our numbers and from the inside of portaloos, which didn’t exactly ease the nervous state we were in.
In hindsight, I probably should have jogged to the start line as the morning’s setbacks meant that I only had a few precious minutes to do some stride-outs and stretches. But I guess when you’re slogging it for 3 or more hours in the midday heat, you tend to warm up soon enough. We were quickly ushered to the start line under Lion Rock – well it was more of a starting mob, no time to draw a crooked start line in the sand this year – and I began going through my body check list. Feet: laces done firm but not too tight, and bow triple-knotted. Butt: niggly but nothing I can’t push through. Pack: locked and loaded. Head: this race is about you bettering your time, don’t try and take off after the other girls. Remember this is what you’ve been training for so give it death.
I had little time to dwell on this as the starting gun sounded and race mode kicked in. Based on last years’ experience I planned to keep a steady pace along the beach to get to the first wash station ahead of the bulk of the competitors before heading onto the narrow bush track. The aim of these early stages was to preserve my legs for the gnarly climbs that lay ahead in the second half of the race which meant swallowing my pride and walking up some of the steeper ascents. As we came out of the bush and onto the farmland at the top of the rise I was feeling fine – not exactly springy but not too heavy in the legs either. Next was a sharp windy descent down the Kuataika Track which was great fun to bound playfully down until I came around a blind corner to find a big boggy mud patch extended across the track. There was enough room to run either side of it but at a second’s notice I compensated and ran straight through the middle, landing knee-high in mushy clay. Good one Zara. Fortunately there was a stream immediately after so I could wash off a bit before heading up another big hill. At this point I praised my Icebugs for not absorbing litres of water and weighing me down after my short bath.
As I made it down to Lake Wainamu, I started to feel something wasn’t right. I wasn’t feeling incredibly exhausted or slow, but just a bit off. By then I had been running for 80 minutes so I was at a good pace to get to Bethells faster than last year, probably due to the fact I didn’t spend 10 minutes lost at the waterfall this time round. So I blamed my mildly lethargic state on the humidity and ran enviously past all of the swimmers and picnic partakers to the Bethells aid station.
Because of our delayed start time, there was a crowd of people to cheer us on through Bethells. Having the applause and high-fives was a great mental boost before hitting the Te Henga Walk(run)way. I really enjoy running this single track along the cliffs where a few stumbles here and there will remind you to stop gazing at the stunning landscapes and pay attention to where you put your feet. Although this time I wasn’t in the most blissful state. At first I was a bit tired, walking up the hills grudgingly rather than with the chutzpa I normally have. It was here that Fiona trotted past me, chatting away, and although I kept up for a while I was forced to admit she was looking strong while I was succumbing to a wave of exhaustion. My legs were so weak I couldn’t run in a straight line and my vision kept sneaking away from time to time. I resolved to walk much of the trail to give time for my extra fluids to kick in and provide me with a magical second wind. However by walking it meant I was going to have to spend more time in the heat, so I developed a routine alternating walking and running to get to the next aid station with a bit of haste without exacerbating my nausea. Slowly things started to improve and I could see Lucy just ahead who seemed to have entered the same dark place I had just emerged from. I was within metres of catching her when another wave of exhaustion washed over me again and my legs started to falter. I didn’t see her again until 4pm.
As time went on I felt more and more nauseas which I’m not sure was due to dehydration and fatigue, or the fact that I was approaching those ghastly Constable Rd steps. By now my legs had nothing left and I used the hand rail to pull myself up the staircase, hoping my lower half would follow. One of the kind girls from the Islander aid station ran down to coach me up the final 100 or so steps before the top of the hill. She was wonderfully encouraging with her praises of “you’re doing amazing”, “smashing it” even though by that same time last year I was already putting my feet up at the finish line. All of the Island girls were so supportive with their offerings of sustenance and empathy as I dry-retched after even small sips of water, and I would like to take this chance to thank them since I wasn’t in the state to do so sincerely on the day.
Once my tummy settled a bit and my staircase coach insisted “it’s all downhill from here”, I clicked back into racer mode to finally knock the bastard off. I’m sure we all switched into this survival setting at some point in our running careers where you move in a trance-like state, desensitised to the immense discomfort you felt before and you can just keep going. Things all seemed to move in a bit of a haze until all of a sudden I was dodging surfers on Muriwai Beach. Hallelujah! Although I hadn’t won I was so pleased to be finishing so my body could turn to jelly on the ground. But then I went one better and become a mess of jelly on a medical tent stretcher. Neat.
So I guess this goes to show you that the Hillary trail is not one to approach lightly or unprepared, even if you have conquered it before. This event has taught me many lessons about training, nutrition and hydration, and has provided me with some awesome friendships along the way. Although I didn’t achieve what I had set out to do (I finished half an hour slower than last years 3:36), I take some comfort in knowing my course record still stands because it shows me I am capable of more, things just didn’t work out for me on the day. But when I gain a bit more experience and get stronger, I plan to return to smash it again, or just come back to be a part of the awe-inspiring event that is the Hillary.