Big Hills, Blow Outs, Blisters, Beers and Tears.

I’m still not sure why I did it, and over the space of nearly 7 and a half hours I thought about it a lot … a hell of a lot. Why The Hillary event? Why the 34km event? And I’m sure I wasn’t alone out there questioning our (poor?) choices at some point. But life wasn’t all bad, the views and scenery was breathtaking, watermelon at aid stations is awesome, everybody out there was amazing and the beer afterwards was quite simply #thetits. There was even a very special moment that I’m certain left no eye dry.

The Hillary Trail running event was the first big event I’d entered after my first Xterra series, and I guess it always will be a bit of a signature event for me. First time around in my role as an inspirer, it made me really think about what I was doing and why, and was the genesis of this blog. So after being brutalized by the Te Henga trail on my first attempt at the shorter 16km distance, I thought it would be best to not repeat that pain but rather add another 18km before I even got there for more pain. Last year it was just Lee and myself having a crack, this year I some how managed to convince Graham, Mr Icebug Tim, and Chris to also join us. Because as they say “misery loves company”.

After a pretty lack lustre build up I was predicting a very long day, to the tune of 8 plus hours, but at least I would look good at least in my new Trail Snail shirt. With that in mind we loaded the buses like lambs to the slaughter and headed off to Piha. At Piha, with it’s ever present odour of cooked brake pads, we waited just the right amount of time for the nerves to build up before we started off across the black sand searching for hard spots and dodging bemused sunbathers.

With my legs starting to complain from the soft sand, we finally turned off and headed for the trail proper with Whites Track. Here cheering us on was Bryony Shaw, who I would come to realize was just the first of the many familiar faces I would stumble across during my day, such is this community of trail runners. Besides Te Henga, Whites was the only part of the trail that I knew what to expect and that was uphill, 230m up in 2.5km. About halfway up I lost Lee, who’s training had been worse than mine, and bar as few glimpses of him across the lake at Bethells, I wouldn’t see him again until the finish.

I had heard stories of Kuataika Track and the Hillary Big W, and thought this would be where I was going to spend my day crawling my up and down the hills. Thankfully with my trusty Zeals I had the confidence to let loose on the downhill, but my choice of such a aggressive shoe would come back to bite me on the hard packed second half. A couple of Kauri dieback foot washes later and a couple more familiar faces, I was on the relatively flat trail circling Lake Wainamu and the base of the sand dunes. A quick chat with a lurking Kunal and it was into the first aid station to fill up my now empty pack (Water drunk = 2l).

Not knowing how the first 18km would go, I had predicted at least a 4 hour section. I was stoked to see I was done in 3 1/4 hours, not long after the 16km runners had left. Guess what, more peeps I knew were manning the aid station – you seeing a theme yet? Topped up and cheered onwards, I was off thinking I’m smashing it so far and that I had a plan. Well Te Henga, at 2:30pm, on a clear sunny day, has a way of smacking you back to reality real quick.

My plan was to take short breaks in what little shade there was, and for the most part it seemed to be working, well for the first half where there was some shade. I started to catch some of the tail of the 16k’ers at Jenny Craig alley, which gave me a bit of a boost as I passed them and a chuckle as they realized that I was in fact running the 34km. Coming around the corner and seeing what I’ve dubbed “The Oasis Aid Station” lifted my spirits and filled my pack again (Water drunk = 4l).

8km from the end there is the everyone’s favourite part of the race, the (what feels like) 7000 stairs of the devils staircase to Constable road. This is where I broke, I took the stairs alternating between climbing one flight at a time, dry retching, and fighting the urge to just drop my pack and live on the stairs for the rest of my life. After 24min I made the top spurred on by Chris Edwards yelling down at me, who at the time I didn’t recognize at all, and with a cheeky vomit, I shuffled into the final aid station. This is where I meet the new love of my life – watermelon. I must have smashed back half a watermelon myself, but it did the trick, banishing any thoughts of quitting and giving me the desire to finish this damned race. It was also where I got some cell coverage back and as such text messages of support from friends, family and the finish line which beaconed me. (Water drunk = 6l)

Now my poor shoe choice really punished me with the time on the road. I could feel the blisters growing on the balls of my feet, so I put my head down and focused on the white line and power walked my way home. Dropping onto the trail down to the gannet colony everything started to cramp, legs, hips and back. To a passer-by, they would have seen a sweet drenched man throwing back white pills from a little ziplock bag, as I tried to fight it with a handful of S!Caps. On the beach I made a beeline for the tent marking the exit to the finish, and woe betide anyone that got in my way; I’m pretty sure I went straight through a family’s cricket game.

Cheered on by the yells of friends, some of which had waited hours, I mustered the energy to run over the line to the big bearded smile of Shaun. Ending the day after 7hrs 26min on my feet (Water drunk = 8l). Lee came in about 40min later to finish his day off. After a bowl of chilli con carne, getting changed and pouring myself a cold beer, I didn’t think the day could get any better, but that special moment was still to come.

As the sun was setting Graham and I headed back to the finish line with a couple of beers to cheer home the last of the 80k’ers, and Vicki Woolley in particular, who was running in memory of Steve Neary. So when word came that she was inbound there was a rush of hobbling runners to form a guard of honour, to see her home in a manor befitting the occasion. Thankfully the light had faded enough to hide the tears of those present as Vicki ran in, hugged the finishing arch that she now wouldn’t have to eat, and then noticed us.

By some serendipitous timing I had just opened and was pouring a glass of my favourite beer as Vicki walked up to Graham and I, maybe it was the look of someone that had just run 80 hard kilometres, maybe it was Steve, but something told me it was meant to be her beer. Either way it made Vicki smile, so for that simple thing I was honoured to have been a small part of her day.

The only thing left to do was to head home via Carl’s Jr for a greasy burger, then shower and bed – Until the delayed adrenaline kicked in and I couldn’t sleep. The next day was the finial Albany Lakes Summer Series runs (as well as our wedding anniversary), and we were up early with me stiffly hobbling along. Amber smashed out another cracker covering the 2kms in 13min13sec and collecting her first running medal. I have a feeling I won’t be passing the Trail Snail name to her.

Now a couple of days later with the legs pretty much back to normal and the blisters healing I find myself looking at the Tarawera Marathons and debating 42 or 50km, and thinking ahead to next years Hillary with the aim to shave hours of this years effort. You know what, I think I have a problem.

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