2015 UltrAspire Hillary Aspirer Eugene shares the magic that is The Hillary Trail

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2015 UltrAspire Hillary Aspirer Eugene shares the magic that is The Hillary Trail

Eugene turns from aspirer to inspirer as he tells us all about the magic of The Hillary Trail, why he keeps coming back for more and the wonders of being part of the trail running community (you may need a hanky!)

As my quads began to shriek and my lungs rasped, I finally reached the point where I knew I’d found freedom.

Not from the throb in my lower back or my sweat-stinging eyes – freedom. The place where I could unleash myself from doubt; run away from fear; and to appreciate every step.

As if to underline the sense of euphoria and connection with the universe I was experiencing, a bird glided on the updraft flowing up the cliff face below me. I watched in awe at its graceful beauty and the effortless way it ascended.

Just as I pondered whether there could be a more content, peaceful place on all the face of the Earth, a fellow runner we’d joined up with that day clambered up to where I stood, hands on his knees, doubled over. “F…k that – I thought it would never end,” he wheezed.

Ah, the joys of running.


Where was this nirvana? We were atop the cliffs at Whatipu, a group of four on a mission along the Hillary Trail. I’d been there once before, but for some reason this particular Saturday morning the view had transcended beyond something more than a mere vista. Dare I say it, it was almost spiritual, a place of discovery.

The Hillary Trail can do that to you.

Before long, after sucking on the electrolyte in my backpack and greedily chomping on an energy cookie, we were back to reality, bombing down the hill, me trying not to slip over yet all the while trying desperately to keep up. After all, a training run was our major mission here – it wasn’t some airy, fairy, yoga retreat.

My friend and I had started that day pensively staring at the board by the Arataki Visitors Centre, not long after dawn. It had been our intention to run from Arataki to Piha as part of our training for The Hillary. Our plans were in tatters.

The board explained to us what we should have checked out the day before. A major slip had closed the Upper Huia Dam Road days earlier. There were no diversions in place (there are now). What the hell were we going to do?

Out of the gloom came two saviours. Two fellow runners, one of whom had the supreme advantage of actually knowing the tracks beyond the Hillary Trail. When we found out they were headed to Piha, and that they knew a way around the slip (taking the Parau Track, what is now the official diversion), we asked if we could tag along.

They were soon dragging us along the trail (the extended, mega-mix version), impressing the hell out of us with not only their navigation nouse, but their technical trail skills. And they were good buggars; it was great to kindle new running friendships.

The Hillary Trail can do that to you.

And that’s not a surprise when you spend any length of time on the trails. If sports scientists could figure out some kind of friendliness quotient among world sports, I reckon trail running – ultra trail running in particular – would come out near the top. It’s like you join the happiest tribe; a bunch of people who smile and laugh even as they’re squeezing every last bit of energy out of themselves to scramble up a peak, exchange nutrition tips and hints at the aid station tables, and will cheer you on when they pass you.

A few years ago when I’d just started trail running, I met this happy-go-lucky, yet driven and determined guy called Shaun Collins. Sound familiar? He’s the esteemed founder and race director of The Hillary (ie, it’s his name you should curse in those dark moments when you’re wondering who the hell thought of organising a race over a course which involved 3500m of vertical metres).

Shaun not only encouraged me to get on the trails, passing on ideas for great tracks to run, but he even sent me a training schedule for my first attempt at the 100km Tarawera Ultra. It was in a spreadsheet (he is a financial controller by trade…) stacked with helpful information – more data and information than I’d ever seen before. I felt humbled that someone I’d only just met had gone to all the trouble of breaking things down for me and offering such great advice.

(Coincidentally, he also lent me his UltrAspire hydration vest to try out, and helped me buy my first one – which I’ve used right up until the arrival this week of my brand new UltrAspire kit – thanks UltrAspire! I’ll let you know how I get on once I’ve taken it for its first outing on the trails.)

So when Shaun won the battle that it took to get permission to organise his inaugural race last year, I felt I owed it to him to enter. And besides, there was something irresistible about getting back on the tracks, beaches, clifftops and bush trails that bear the name of one of the greatest New Zealanders.

The Hillary Trail can do that to you.

Having entered the 34km race (I’ve previously admitted wimping out of the 80km at the last minute), I stood on the beach at Piha and soaked up the inspirational words of Sir Ed’s daughter, Sarah. And then we were off, soon puffing and panting as I navigated the endless stairs of the White Track, and then managing a globby-mouthed grin at the top as I glimpsed the broiling west coast down below. I was still smiling as runner after runner whizzed past me on the Houghton Track twisting down to Lake Wainamu – even though that gnarly downhill scares the bejesus out of me with its tree roots and clay crevices like ankle-busting booby traps. (And, yep, I know that I’ll be going down there on race day when I will have already run, probably, more than nine hours…looking forward to that like I would being stabbed in the eye with a walking pole…)

Anyway, back to last year’s race: I finished 14th that day, but when I reached Muriwai, I wasn’t even thinking about time, placing or pace.  It was about sharing one of my favourite places in Auckland – damn it, in the world! – with a bunch a like-minded runners. A pleasure-filled journey shared. As I hugged my family at the finish line (they don’t like it much – ewwww, you’re all sweaty – but, hey…), and gingerly bent down to untie my laces, I noticed my legs.

A few drips of dried blood evidenced cuts and grazes from vegetation; seeds of all varieties were stuck to the hair on my legs like Velcro; and mud and dust “grime lines” (like tan lines only grime…) marked where my socks had been.

And all I could think was: “Jeez, I’m lucky.”

The Hillary Trail can do that to you

By | 2017-05-19T00:14:09+00:00 March 2nd, 2015|UltrAspire Hillary Aspirer|1 Comment

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  1. Mavis March 9, 2015 at 8:24 am - Reply

    I’m not quite sure how to say this; you made it exmretely easy for me!

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