First, some apologies.
To all the rocks, tree roots, and ruts in the track I cursed, I’m sorry. To the guy whose legs I nearly took out when I tumbled downhill on my backside, I’m sorry you had to hear that language. (And that I nearly knocked you over, obviously).
And just in case you heard it, dear race director, I didn’t mean to question your parentage as I pulled myself up off the ground for the umpteenth time and tentatively felt my leg to check that I had in fact escaped without snapping it.
I’m not going to lie. There were moments in the first hour and a half of The Hillary when I secretly wished I had broken a leg and would have an excuse to get helivaced off the course.
The detour along Parau Track was not my friend – the humidity meant my glasses were completely fogged up most of the time, and though I had a head lamp, I could see barely anything (that and I’m crap on technical trails).
But you know what? All that meant was that when I got to the end of 80km after almost 14 hours, I could say with all genuineness, “I knocked the bastard off!” And that, to me, was what it was all about.
I was never, ever – like not in a zillion years ever – going to be threatening the guys at the pointy end of the race. But, hell, what an adventure. An incredible, challenging, breath-taking adventure.
For the reasons above, I can’t say I enjoyed much of the Arataki-Huia leg.
Out of Huia, I slotted into an almost meditative state as I trudged my way out of the Karamatura Valley. I think I even enjoyed it. Along the Omanawanui Track (is there a more stunning place in Auckland?), I was delighted that my friend and training mate Shaun caught up with me and we were able to share the trail for the next few hours.
Dropping down to Whatipu, if it hadn’t been obvious before, I realised that it was going to be a stinking hot day. So I made sure both my bottles were filled up before tackling what I knew would be another grind up the Gibbons Track.
Here’s where I need to give a big hat tip to UltrAspire – thanks so much for the Zygos hydration vest. It fitted like a glove and I barely noticed it all day – surely that’s the best compliment I can give? Such was the capacity and handily-accessible pockets I stuffed with food, I only needed to take the vest off once all day (to fill the bladder at Karekare aid station – thanks to the guys there; your expertise and help was phenomenal…the tip about tying a block of ice to my wrist was awesome).
As Shaun and I tentatively tip-toed down the Muir track into Pararaha Valley, I realised that we’d run hardly any of this leg. That was about to change. The inland trail to Karekare via the Zion Hill Track was some of the best trail running I’ve ever enjoyed. It was the first time I’d run it and boy, did I love it, partly because the stunning coastal forest afforded temporary reprieve from the sun.
I’m no match for the machines at the front of the field (complete respect and huge congratulations on your record-breaking win, Andrius – sensational!) but for once in the day I felt like I was flying, and I know for sure that I had an insane-looking grin on my dial. Happy times.
Climbing out of Karekare, my speed was back to a crawl. Along the top of the Mercer Bay cliffs, especially, the heat really started to kick in. It was taking a toll on both of us.
Luckily there were some cheesy jokes to get us through. Honestly, the efforts of the delightful marshal in the penguin suit at the start of Log Race Road were exceptional. Well done – and thanks for the laughs (From memory, my favourite: What cheese should you use to hide a horse? Mascarpone. Bahahahahaha! Hey, I’d run about 40 km by that stage…)
Along Glen Esk Road, I realised we were close to what I thought was the 8 hour cut-off to reach the Piha aid station. I wouldn’t say I started sprinting, but we certainly picked up the pace to make it in time.
I’m not sure if it was a relief or slightly gutting when we got there to be told the cut-off had been moved back. More rehydration, more refilling bottles, more jet plane lollies and I was off.
This time, I was on my own. Shaun had decided to stick around in the shade for a while to cool down. He was suffering in the heat. Unfortunately, his race was over at Anawhata when he pulled the pin. I was gutted for him when I found out – we’d trained together over summer and he has a formidable pedigree in ultras, but Saturday just wasn’t his day. We all have those days (and I note that there was a significant drop-out rate – just proving how tough a day it was). Shaun will be back, he’s a warrior.
Out of Anawhata, I had braced myself for the savage clay downhills of Kuataika Track, but for once my quads were fine. For future reference, though, I did see an excellent idea – a salute to the guy who was marching downhill backwards to give his quads a break. Great work!
By the time I reached Houghton Track, I was starting to feel energised. All summer, I’d dreaded arriving at this gnarly steep downhill with its two kilometres of tree roots laid out like a maze I can never crack. But when it came time to tackle it, I just hunkered down and got on with it. To distract myself, I started singing out loud the song that had become stuck in my head (since you ask, Turn the Page – the angry, thrumming Metallica version, mind, rather than Bob Seger’s 1973 original).
Really, really sorry if you heard that – hopefully not though. By now, it had become quite a lonely sojourn. Not that I minded, but I was looking forward to getting to Bethells. (However, in my twisted, I-can’t-think-straight-because-I’m-real-tired frame of mind, I was bizarrely resentful of the crowds swimming in the lake as I skirted along the bank – damn, I’d love to be leaping in for a swim and lounging for a picnic, I thought).
And then, Bethells aid station. So much, rightly, has been said already about that crazy penguin crew. But, wow. Wow. They were fantastic. I’m not just saying this because my friend Kay and her son Finley were among their number – though it was fantastic to see them – but boy, weren’t they great? How on Earth they sat in the heat all day in those costumes I’ll never know. Surely they deserve a finisher’s medal?!
Nourished by probably the best-tasting marmite and chip sandwich I’d ever had, I set off along Te Henga. Luckily for me, the temperature was starting to drop. I’d figured it would take me about an hour and a half to reach Constable Road. If only. It was over two hours. I was trying not to limp now – an injury (plantar fasciitis) which had flared up in my foot before the Tarawera Ultra had nagged me all day. And now it was grumpy that I hadn’t been listening.
Luckily, I had one of the most incredible views to distract me. The setting sun was…glorious. I wondered if there would ever be a more perfect track to be on at a more perfect time.
Towards the end of Te Henga, I came across a few fellow travellers. We were all in pain, but we all managed smiles. Aren’t ultra-marathoners the friendliest bunch?
There were no smiles on those goddamn stairs at the end of Te Henga. They’ve never seemed steeper than they did on Saturday evening. Then at the top, peering down at me, were some friends who’d come to cheer me on, including Shaun and Hilary, and Gary. It was just the boost I needed to get me up to the aid station.
Only 6km to go, but I was terrified of the dark. Ok, maybe a little hyperbole. But I was definitely not looking forward to running in the dark again after my morning’s effort. So I hoofed it (ok, once again, maybe a little bit of hyperbole there too…).
Even in my haste and tiredness, I still had time to notice that one of the volunteers, Dan, had also been at the Huia aid station in the morning. And I happen to know he’d been out on the track helping clear it of flax a few weeks back. And he marked a substantial portion of the course on Friday. And he got married just last weekend. And I know for sure that he would have been supporting his new bride when she ran the 16km in the afternoon heat. What a trooper, Dan. You rock.
Along the road down to Muriwai, I was given my own escort. My friend Gary drove his Hilux along to make sure I was safe from the traffic and to encourage me. Gary is a legend of ultras and marathons – you’ll find plenty of references to him in the NZ endurance running history book Tear Along the Dotted Line (he’s also the organiser of the Riverhead 50 km and 30 km event on April 4, the 19th edition – get along!). Gary’s a young, spritely, almost 80-year-old who ran the New Plymouth marathon last week, and so I was humbled to the core when he joined me on foot for the run from the beach up to the finish line area.
Once there, Gary’s escort role was taken over by my 13-year-old, Kieran. He did the same at Tarawera where he’d been deputy crew chief to my older boy, Marc and wife, Suzanne. It makes my heart swell with pride to have Suzanne and the boys involved.
Kieran and I ran through the finish line (31st place, 13 hours 57 minutes) and for some bizarre reason, I danced a silly jig on the final kauri dieback mat. Despite that, Suzanne was still prepared to hug me.
I also gave our dear race director, Shaun Collins, a hug. I can’t say enough about what Shaun and his wife, Madeleine, and Lactic Turkey Events have done. To have got this race up and running took a Herculean effort. It was no easy task, especially with the kauri dieback issue. I’m sure, though, that their efforts have raised awareness of this awful disease and so the overall impact is incredibly positive. (I know, too, that Shaun has worked hard with the Auckland Council staff, especially Ranger Stu, so a salute to them too – thanks for everything).
All that work. All that toil. And in the dark on Saturday night, I saw and experienced what it was all for.
I’ll admit I was tired, but as I stood there at the finish line, I got a lump in my throat when two guys who were running the 16km crossed the line. It had not been easy for them. But here they were, despite it all, crossing the line with an enormous sense of achievement, to the whoops and hollers of church members who’d waited in the dark to welcome them home.
It helped me make sense of why I’d done what I did. To run 80 km over the Hillary Trail is no easy feat. But it’s not about the distance or the terrain. It’s about the challenge we set ourselves, and what it takes to achieve it.
I had to dig deep to get to Muriwai. I’d knocked the bastard off.