Be careful what you ask for; you might get it.
In my own case I happily emailed off a random stream of consciousness loosely related to trail running in the hope of scoring some free stuff and now somewhat unexpectedly find myself in possession of said freebies, but committed to regularly sharing my trials and tribulations as I prepare for this year’s Hillary 34km event.
Funny old thing, life. (The loot is good though)
This first literary outing is supposed to be an introduction and a bit of an insight into my background, motivations and general ambitions for the event, but I think a lot of that has been adequately covered in my original application which Shaun kindly posted online on the Hillary event page.
So, to avoid exhaustive repetition I shall instead summarise briefly and then go on to recount something of my experience of the 2015 Hillary 34km event which, as I mentioned in my last post, did not go exactly according to plan.
If you’re intending to run this event for the first time this may be helpful. If you have already run the distance then you may find certain bits hauntingly familiar.
If you’ve done the full 80km event then you are a paragon of awesomeness, whose shoes I am unfit to tie – but you know that already.
To recap somewhat, I’m a guy in my 50’s who grew up in 1960’s and 70’s Titirangi. I pretty much lived in the bush and in my teens and twenties camped and tramped most of what is now the Hillary trail.
More than 25 years later, I found myself running 10km fun runs and then half marathons and finally made my way back into the bush with a bunch of motivated fellow nut-bars from boot camp. We were intending to toughen up a bit for the Tough Mudder obstacle race, but the minute my feet hit the tracks again I was hooked on trail running. We ran the length of the Hillary in stages over the next few months and did indeed complete the ‘Mudder but since then I have been back into the bush with my trail shoes and running pack at every opportunity.
It’s not that I don’t like obstacle racing, but hooning down the tracks takes me back to the childhood joy of movement for its own sake, for the feeling of effortless power and speed and that frisson of danger at full pelt on a gnarly downhill. (Also, you don’t usually get nearly as many high voltage electric shocks in trail running and nor do you have to face the ‘Ice Enema’).
My path to the Hillary 34 event was really an extension of the work that I put in the previous year when I ran many road and trail miles and a couple of mid-length Xterras leading up my first full marathon at the 2014 Queenstown marathon. That event started with bright-eyed optimism and ended more than five hours later in hail and flying tree branches. That was a finishers medal I think I really earned – not to mention the giant burger and beers after.
After recovering a bit from Queenstown, training began again in earnest early in the New Year. This would actually be my second run from Piha to Muriwai, but the first time I had actually entered the event. I was determined to make a better showing than my first effort on the distance.
The first attempt back in January 2014 was my fourth trail run and the first time ever I had run over 25km in one stint. So it was a bit of a voyage into the unknown. I thought several years of road half-marathons and a few seasons of boot camp would be sufficient to at least give me a fitness base to get through it.
Yeah, Nah. I wouldn’t recommend it as a training plan.
I managed to grind it out but I wasn’t particularly compos mentis at the end and had turned a peculiar shade of blueish grey by the time we reached the Muriwai car park. I also had fun with random leg spasms on the drive back.
So, for The Hillary ‘15, I made a plan and worked my way through the bush, increasing my distances incrementally and culminating a couple of weeks out from the event in a monster 37km run out from Piha, along Kuataika, Wainamu Bush and looping back via Cascades and Kuataika again to Piha.
I had supplemented my long runs with speed work and hills, tested my gear, worked out my eating and hydration plan and was feeling pretty good going into the event aiming for a comfortable sub-6(ish) hour finish time.
What I HADN’T done was train on a fairly vital portion of the course in the kind of conditions I could expect at the time of day I would be coming through there. That bit me big time.
When we came out of the bush at Lake Wainamu and ran along the dunes toward the Bethells aid station I was pretty tired, but we were doing OK for time. The 16km event were just getting their briefing as we cruised in so we must have been around the 2:45 mark, which all things considered was doing pretty well. Then the wheels fell off.
Pretty much all of my training had been on the course south of Bethells. It had also mostly been early starts, generally finishing before the hottest part of the day. I’m not really sure why I hadn’t given any real attention to Te Henga. I guess maybe I thought that once at Bethells, it was just a short slog up the hill and then a steady open trot along the cliffs. To be sure, I was dreading the ‘Stairs of Despair’, but I figured I’d still have enough in the legs by then to get me up, and then it’s only a few easy road km to the end.
Te Henga is not my favorite part of the Hillary in any case. It’s pretty enough on a good day, but prickly and exposed and the bush tracks suit my temperament better so I stuck to the fun stuff in my training runs. Boy, was that a mistake!
We hit Bethells at about 1:45 on a blisteringly hot day. Even as we ran along the stream towards the aid station I was starting to overheat with the sunlight radiating off the big dune. A check of the water supply at the aid station showed I’d been drinking plenty of water and I was taking electrolytes regularly but as we began to climb out of Bethells I knew I was in some trouble.
The 16km crowd breezed past before we had got around the second headland and the heat was really getting to me as we started up the hill above O’Neill’s Bay. (If you look at a topo map and the 10m contour lines are more or less on top of each other then you know your legs are in for a bit of work.) By the time we got to the little Pohutukawa glade below the zigzag, I was staggering and nauseous and generally not in a good way. I spent about 45 min there trying to get reset, but it was evident by then that my race was pretty much over.
Huge thanks to Martin, my pace runner who got me back down the hill intact and back to the aid station where the amazing penguin ladies threw me into the paddling pool and held me under until I’d turned a less alarming colour.
There’s something strangely comforting when you’re pretty much at the end of your tether about seeing a giant friendly penguin galloping toward you across the paddock. (No idea how you managed to wear those suits all day in that heat!). Thanks to you guys I came out of it without any lasting ill effects and so yeah, owe you big time.
The general consensus seemed to be that I’d been nobbled by heat exhaustion. In hindsight I would have been better to take a longer break and cool off more before setting off up the hill. (I saw smarter people than me lying down in the stream for a bit) and I should have been paying closer attention to my body state as I went along, but really my biggest mistake happened long before the race in not properly acclimatising to the conditions I knew I would encounter on race day.
You live and learn. This year I have a different plan and it doesn’t involve melting down on heartbreak hill.
It was a hard lesson to learn, and gutting to have to pull out of a race I knew I could finish easily in better circumstances.
As something of a post-script, a couple of months after the event when things had cooled off a little we re-visited the 34k and kicked Te Henga’s prickly sunburned butt.