So last weekend I completed a double effort of the Waitakere Ranages Hillary trail in 29 and a half hours. I’ve had a week now to ponder this mission and this is my full report.
The Hillary Trail
To recap, this is a 149 km run (6,700 metres climb) through the Waitakere Ranges at their wettest following the 18 month old Hillary Trail Route which goes from Arataki Visitors Centre at the southern end of the ranges to Muriwai, taking in some of the more scenic tracks in the Park.
The Hillary Trail connects a network of existing regional park tracks through the Waitakere Ranges. The 3-4 day tramp is advertised on the Trail’s website… “The Trail epitomises the sense of adventure and personal achievement that Ed Hillary himself championed and was renowned for. It is not a walk in the park - but a chance for well-prepared trampers to experience the diverse, and often challenging west coast.”
Together with Gus Grey, I was first to run it, and since that day I’ve talked about attempting the double. I’d never run this distance before and considered myself not particularly trained up for such a feat as I was recovering from a damaged disc in my back (long story) and prior to that my only real run of distance was in March racing in the 49km Mototapu Adventure Run event with Phil Wood. Also stacked against the mission was the fact that it is the wettest time of year so the tracks were muddy and energy sapping and the fact that it was the shortest day of the year 4 days after the run!
So I started at 2pm on Saturday at the Arataki Visitors Centre. I had my Osprey pack loaded with water and food, but only for a the next couple of hours as I had Richard Moyle (pretty much a professional support crew) following me in the car and he met me at points along the way so I could restock my pack with food and water.
I’d also roped in some awesome people to run different sections along the way. These were die hard trail runners who hardly need an excuse to get out on the track. They joined me mainly for safety so I didn’t run off a cliff, but also to keep me company through the long sections!
The first leg from Arataki to Huia (10.5km) was pretty uneventful – Bart Muylle joined me on this leg before racing into town to work and then joining me again later on in proceedings. Half way through here we ran into some Japanese tourists who casually asked how far we’d been and were going. The look on their face was priceless when we told them. “You crazy man!” they cried.
Bart and I coming into the Huia stop
Next was a similar distance out to the coast to Whatipu, but this leg had the first big hill and highest of the trail. Luckily we had fresh legs and made short work of it. Lousie Marks was with me on this leg – Bart’s partner and she is a great multi-sporter getting 4th in the Coast 2 Coast this year and 2nd last year.
Lou and the Manukau Heads in the background - starting to get dark
She kept me honest and we arrived in Whatipu 10 minutes under the fast scenario I had mapped out for the run. I had worked out a fast and a slow scenario, with the fast based loosely on what time I did for the single trip or 12 and a half hours (which was done on the dry summer tracks). This way I could give support runners and spectators a bit of a window as to when I’d be at various spots along the way. So coming in that quick – I needed to calm things down a bit if I was going to make the whole distance.
Coming into Whatipu
The Osprey Talon 11
At Whatipu Dan Roberts joined Lou and I and we set off up the coast to Karekare. Dan has done the Hillary Trail 4 times and parts of it many times so is an experienced runner for these tracks. It was just getting dark here so I slipped on my Ay Up lights. Cue the gratuitous plug…These are the bomb and turn night into daylight. The Ay Up Lighting system is lightweight and has some of the most powerful LED’s out there. The small rechargeable batteries lasted the duration. I used a smaller (2 AA battery sized but lighter) battery for 5 hours on mostly full beam (they’re advertised as 6 hours low beam or 3 hours high beam) and the rest of the night session with a bigger (around 4 AA battery sized) pack on high beam and it had heaps of juice left. I would highly recommend these to anyone doing anything at night.
We got to Karekare at 7.11pm, a few minutes ahead of the fast scenario still, despite the track being really muddy. Doh! I thought I needed to slow down as it seemed pretty quick but the legs felt good. We hoovered into some pizza here – my first real food and as we left regretted eating so much as the tummy was a bit solid! Up and out of Karekare towards Piha, this was a slightly longer leg at 12.5km and included a bit of gravel and sealed road along the top of Piha before dropping back into the bush again and running past the Kitekite Falls (which were in full flow and looked stunning in the moonlight). Just before dropping into the bush we were met by two Auckland Council Parks Rangers (Stu and Simon) who I have dealings with through Lactic Turkey Events and they were keen to run with us for an hour or two. One was the local Piha ranger and he had great delight in pointing out how much better his tracks were than some of the rest of them we’d run over – hilarious! These two sprightly rangers managed to drag us through at a pretty hectic pace and we arrived in Piha 18 minutes ahead of the fast scenario schedule. I was tracking for a pretty solid time for a one way Trail, better than I had done before and was really worried now because I had to come back.
Louise finished here and it was just the Rangers, Dan and I as we climbed out of Piha. It was a stunning clear night, but we could see the odd lightning flash over towards Auckland. This is a big leg, from Piha to Bethells and I reckon the toughest at 14.2km with the dreaded Kuataika Track in the middle of it. We left the rangers on the road at Anawhata before Dan and I dropped onto the Kuataika track and plodded our way up the big steep hills. My mind and body still felt really good and we kept a good pace despite these hills. I was surprised as I was expecting to be starting to cramp and tire by now, given how little training I’d done. After these climbs we had a gnarly downhill to the Wainamu Lake and found the tracks around the lake a mud pool the whole way. My feet were well and truly soaked through and starting to get a bit damaged. We came into the support spot at Bethells in 9 hours 40, just before midnight and still 10 minutes ahead of the fast schedule.
Dan and I at Bethells - still got energy!
We picked up Bart again here and the three of us headed off along the Te Henga Coastal walkway. This is my favourite track in the Waitak’s and it didn’t disappoint. Running along here was the highlight of the whole mission – both ways were good but probably the return trip better. This track weaves along some cliff tops high above the crashing waves of the West Coast. The wind was up so the waves were really cranking and the moonlight on these was quite dizzying if you looked down. Bart was recovered from his earlier jaunt so pulled Dan and I through. However it was still quite a slow leg compared to the schedule, just due to the darkness I think and having to take things a little easy. It could go horribly wrong with one misplaced step! We were at Muriwai and had finished the first half of my mission, one Hillary Trail in 12 hours 35 and the time was 2.45am.
Vicki Woolley was waiting to meet me here. The lads headed home so it was just Vicki and I heading south. Vicki has done the Hillary Trail before, in winter last year starting at midnight and did a spectacular time. She is a trail running junkie and was the most excited of all the support runners – more so than me even and said she had hardly slept all week with excitement. We set off on the return leg to Bethells and as we tramped along the road section, saw massive bursts of lightning across to the east above the city. Luckily it was still pretty clear where we were although the wind was starting to pick up. By the time we got onto the coastal walkway the wind was blowing big time. We kept a good pace but there were some hairy times. At one stage I heard Vicki yell “arrrggh!” I looked around asking if she was alright and she said she grabbed a gorse bush as she’d tripped and didn’t know what was below, so gorse was the lesser of two evils. She admitted afterwards that this was the only night run she’d done where she actually felt uneasy! Once off the cliffs things were a bit quieter and smoother and we clocked into Bethells at 5.40am and only 3 minutes slower than the outward leg. Pretty impressive! But when was I going to do that calming down I needed to get through?!
A wee bit to eat for breakfast and we continued around the bog of doom that surrounded Lake Wainamu and up the hill. The sun was just peaking over the ranges as we neared the top and it was really nice to take off the headlamp that had guided my way for the last 13 hours or so. We could see further than the spotlight the Ay Up’s lit up!
The Kuataika Track was a slog and I was feeling pretty sleepy by this stage. At one stage as we arrived at the top and out onto Anawahta Road Vicki asked me if I would continue from Piha? She’d heard me wrong or I’d said something I didn’t know, to give her the perception that I was calling it quits at Piha. I replied “No…no way!” super animated compared to what I’d been for the last hour as I hadn’t even considered this. I was however fighting the sleep monsters.
Vicki and I running along Piha Beach
These monsters were well blown away as we made our way down Piha Beach towards the Piha Café, where the support team waited. Also waiting was a super delicious and hot breakfast from the wonderful new owners Pete and Pattie at the Café. There were actually more than 10 people there to cheer me in. It was awesome to see my three wee girls and they sprinted with me up into the café carpark.
My three lovely girls sprinting to keep up as we near Piha Cafe
My wife and Rich got my pack ready with food and water for the next leg while Pete and Pattie provided coffees and a full cooked breakfast. I inhaled this big breakfast like it was a wee snack and the coffee was almost instant in its awaking of me. Thank you Piha Café – awesome food and coffee and the hospitality was outstanding for our somewhat unique party – Pete was taking photos and shaking his head in amazement. They presented me with a Piha Café t-shirt just before I left. I was stoked!!!
Look at the smile! - Food
Vicki digs into her food
Mmmmm yum yum mmmmmmmm
Rich the support man, Zara my eldest, Barbarella (standing), Pattie (cafe owner), Me, Vicki and 3/4 of Phil
I spent a bit long here enjoying the food and rest. The new support runners were itching to start so I put the pack on again and off we headed. For this leg I had Vicki, and the nice and fresh Barbarella and Phil Platt. Barbarella is an experienced hand at adventure races, long trail runs and in general team racing and quickly took charge of seeing I was right and supporting me for the majority of what was left of the run. She even said they were going to take my pack for the uphills….”No way”, I replied. I wasn’t about to let that happen, as that would have been cheating and it felt good on me.
Cue another deserving and gratuitous plug. My Osprey Talon 11 had been on me and loaded up for nearly 19 hours and I didn’t have any pack rub! There’s not much better test and proof of a good pack than that. The beauty of the Talon is the ease at which you can adjust all the straps as you go. So as you eat and drink and the pack gets lighter you can fine tune the setup of the pack on your back to the optimal position – it was magic. But that’s not all – the two hip pockets allowed plenty of room, one for my iPhone which was tracking my progress with a GPS app and the second for gels and bars. There was some more substantial food in one of the bigger side pockets and rubbish in the other. Lastly the liquid bladder fits nicely in the provided compartment and the wee loops on the front straps kept the hose and nozzle at the right spot. Highly recommend this pack – it felt like a bit of good fitting clothing for the whole way rather than a pack on your back – even though I was carrying lots of water, food, some warm gears, first aid etc. Go the Osprey Talon 11!
Barbarella, Vicki and I at Kitekite Falls
Anyway… they didn’t take my pack ever! We made our way out of Piha at a slower pace as I finished another coffee!! It was nice to see Kitekite Falls in the daylight and likewise the coastline from the Mercer Bay Loop Walk – it was pretty wild with the weather now and looked amazing.
On the way to Mercer Bay
Mercer Bay lookout - that’s a wild coast!
We ran into another supporter, Alan Moore, as we dropped down into Karekare. It was quite a group of runners now which helped the time and the kms ease by quickly. A wee routine was formed in that there was always someone behind me and the rest took turns at the front – good pacing! We finished this leg quite strongly I thought and I was feeling good after the coffees.
Looking down into Karekare
The legs still felt pretty strong the only thing bad was my feet (which by this stage felt like one big blister underneath from being wet for so long) and an upset stomach which I assumed was from the huge amount of sports gels I had consumed! We did that leg in 2 hours 10 which was only 25 minutes slower than the day before on the way north. I was stoked with this given we’d had a longer break in Piha which was included in this time. It started dawning on me here that I was going to easily make it and even with quite a smart time! Why was my body not buggered yet?!
A quick stop here as the rain had set in for good now. We made our way to Whatipu. Things really slowed here, not due to anything we controlled but because of the track conditions. The tracks were more like streams filled with mud and it was slow going slipping and sliding through mud pool after mud pool. Downhills, which I’d usually been jogging down at a reasonable pace, were lots slower as we tried not to end tits up in the puddles!
Coming down into Pararaha Valley - look at the track (stream) we had to run in
Vicki, Barbarella, Alan, and I at the bottom of the Pararaha Valley. Flooded boardwalks.
A flooded Pararaha
As we came into Whatipu we were relieved for a break from it! This leg was 40 minutes slower on this return than it was the day before … it was a bit frustrating.
Having a quiet moment - 2 legs to go!
At Whatipu I said goodbye to Vicki who had been with me for 11 hours now and she was looking tired … at last! An awesome effort! Amy Entwisle joined me here. I used to work with Amy and she is now a regular running buddy and together with Alan, Barabarella and Phil we set off. Phil was doing awesome and announced as we left that this was now his longest run ever! He’d only recently been introduced to trail running by Vicki and was loving the run, the stormy weather and the whole experience – fantastic. He would race ahead and take some of the great photos you can see here.
Coming up out of Whatipu - still striding out!
The rain was really hammering down as we climbed the big hill out of Whatipu and tip toed our way along the exposed ridgeline of the breathtaking Omanawanui Track. It was wild!
Windy Omanawanui Track
We got to the top of this climb, the last monster climb of the run and it was nice to drop down into the valley above Huia. I was getting really excited now – only one short leg to go! We clocked into the Huia stop at half 4 on Sunday afternoon or as the lovely lady who made announcements on my iphone app said, “1 day and 2 hours” after we started. This lady had been making announcements every half hour and had during the run been introduced to all the support runners and developed quite a personality. She was great and although a little disheartening in the early part of the run when she triumphantly declared I only had 134 kms to go! or 120km to go, was a great tool for making sure I ate and drank at regular intervals as I’d made sure I’d done both each time she spoke.
That leg took 2 hours 47 minutes, which was just under an hour slower than the way out – seems a long time but once again I think the mud and weather was to blame. We were pretty ginger along the ridge in the winds, and in the steep slippery downhills, but running quite steadily when out of the weather.
Last leg now and its considered a wee leg compared with the others – we had clocked it in 1 hour 20 the day before so thought 2 hours would be achievable. Barbarella dropped out here to look after her injured knee – she’d been fantastic since Piha making sure I was looked after and still fine. A great team player and I heard afterwards that the other support runners learned lots off her in this time – that’s the spirit!! Phil also decided to finish here – a marathon effort from him … now a true trail running convert! So Amy and Alan were there to look after me to the end. Little did we know it was to be the toughest leg of them all!! What a shocker! This wee leg sucked my will to live – what a mind bugger. I was so close and I regularly run these tracks so know the speed I could do on them but we were stuffed by the mud. It was long and tedious. I was thankful I still had strength in my legs because it was tiring work literally plodding through ankle deep to calf deep mud most of the way. It got dark a third of the way in here so we donned lights again.
It ended up being a 3 hour 8 minute leg! It was a huge relief to be done with the mud and get onto the big wide and gravel Slip Track (ironic I know), which climbs to the finish. I pushed hard up here, legs feeling good so I tried to keep a good pace so I’d finish under 29.5 hours. As we peaked onto the top of the climb I heard a cheer coming from the Visitors Centre just 200m below. It was amazing to jog down to the finish with this constant noise from a lovely little crowd cheering me in. At 29 and a half hours I stopped the stopwatch! I’d done it – first to do the Double Hillary Trail! I’d knocked the bugger off!
Amy, me and Allan - Finished!
I was stoked to finish, although to those there it might not have seemed it as I’m pretty sure my body started going into shutdown … Shaun is logging off. From one instant striding out up a munty hill to hardly being able to walk and I felt sick and shaky. The crowd of supporters (some had come back after a sleep and showers from running with me earlier) congratulated me and I tried to stay standing up.
I couldn’t eat or drink so my lovely wife piled me into the car while the awesome Richard who supported the whole way packed up my gear (despite probably feeling just as whacked). I got home and tried to shower (quite hard to clean muddy legs when you can hardly bend down past your shoulders!) and fell into bed. I was feeling pretty rough. Quite mind blowing, the body had been fine all the way until it had done its job and then it was instantly sore. Sore like you feel two days after a massive run! Apparently all night I swapped between a fever like warmth to shivering cold and shifting around as though I couldn’t get comfortable. I was oblivious to this as I slept.
So it’s a few days later now and I am all recovered – didn’t really get sore legs, no hint of any injuries – the only thing is some blisters on my feet. Once again I can’t quite understand it. I thought was well under-prepared for such a feat given I’d not done any specific long training and was recovering from a back injury. Before starting I was worried I was taking it all a bit too casual and probably shouldn’t be doing it but I did. The body is a fantastic invention!!!
Lots of people have congratulated me and in the same breath told me I am crazy – more the ones that don’t do much exercise themselves so don’t understand. Lots have also asked what next? I’m not sure. I’m stoked I’ve done it but don’t want to see the Hillary trail for at least a couple of months. At this stage I don’t have a big mission on the horizon. Now I know my new limit, I’ll have to think of something to test it!!
I’d like to thank all my support runners who came for parts of my journey. It was reassuring knowing that they’d look after me if things went pear shaped and it was great company. People from different backgrounds, but all enjoying being out in the wilderness that is the Waitakere Ranges! A huge thank you to Richard who clocked up over 300km in the car supporting, feeding and watering me and pushing me out of the support stops back onto the trail. He managed a bit of sleep but it was a full on mission for him and he adds another support badge from me! Thanks to my wife Madeleine too for understanding that once I have something in my head there’s no stopping me so she might as well support me and help me through – just like she did. All fantastic people and without whom I wouldn’t have been able to compete this mission.
I hope you enjoyed the live updates and reading about this adventure. I’ve shared because I would like to read about stuff like this. It’s inspiring to me so hopefully helpful and interesting to you!
If you’re reading this for the first time then all the live updates of the journey are at http://runningbeast.tumblr.com/