Running the first section from Arataki to Huia went really well. We started off at a really relaxed pace as we ran through the final stages of darkness and into the new day. The first section was really technical while we were running through the forrest. This for me was typical NZ trails - tree roots, rocks and mud pretty much covered every inch of the trails we were running over. A group of 5 of us including eventual winner Andrius Romonus, 2nd place Chris Morrissey, Sam Clark from Whakatane and Danny Garrett from Auckland ran together as we made our way through to Huia.
As we were approaching the Huia Dam, Andrius and I broke away from the other guys as we started to come down a really technical descent. The other 3 guys weren't too far behind and not too long after the Huia Aid Station (14km) Chris caught up to us as we started tackling the biggest climb of the day (approx. 400m+ in 1.5km). It was definitely steep but it went by really quickly. It was during this climb that I realised my legs weren't quite firing how they normally would only 14km into a race. I'd been having hamstring issues in the couple of weeks building up to this race but what I was experiencing really didn't seem to add up. I lead us up this climb at my "climb all day pace" and despite having great energy levels my legs felt weak. I figured it would pass and I kept myself in check over the next few km and decided to take things even easier than I already was. Soon after we reached the top of the climb we were being greeted with absolutely breathtaking views of the coastline and harbour. It's rugged and harsh but has an amazing beauty that takes your mind off the gnarly terrain.
As we started the descent to the Whatipu aid station Andrius picked up the pace and his local knowledge of the trails showed as he made a bit of a gap. I continued at my comfortable pace and the gap seemed to remain the same. By the time we left that aid station I was now in the lead after a quick refill of water. I walked briefly to be then joined by Andrius with the intention of running together for a few km to pass some time. Andrius is a general all round nice guy and a great person to be sharing the trails with, he ran a cracking race and deserved the win!
As we cruised along the trails I wasn't felling any worse than earlier but things were still far from good. My nutrition was going to plan, I was well hydrated but my legs still felt half asleep. As we made our way over undulating trails I would look down at my legs from time to time and think "C'mon guys, any time you wanna start working that'd be great!"
Andrius pulled away ever so slightly through some beautiful dense forest trails but was still within sight. Then as we approached the Zion trail section of the Hillary I had my second hiccup of the day. We got to a marker arrow (actually 1/2 an arrow) that pointed left. I obliged and made the turn and carried on along the trail. Andrius was no longer in sight and I was running down the trail not seeing any Hillary marker signs and the only pink ribbon I saw a couple of times was tied tightly around trees (different to all of the previous markers). After going off course in a race back in Perth last weekend I was adamant I wasn't going to do the same here. I ran along for another 5mins and then made the decision that maybe I wasn't on the correct trail. I turned around to run back to the 1/2 arrow and ran for about 5mins before seeing Sam Clark running towards me. He asked what I was doing and I mentioned that I thought we were on the wrong track as I hadn't seen any markers in a while. He informed me that we were on the right trail so I turned around and carried on. Sam and I then basically ran together through to the Piha aid station at 44km. Some wasted time but I was definitely thankful to be on the right trail.
Mum and Dad had made the trip up to Auckland for the race and it was great to see them at the aid station at Piha. After a slightly longer stop than usual to make sure I had everything I needed I left the aid station now in 3rd place and began my journey along the sand of Piha Beach. As I made my way along the beach it was great to see the Australia/ New Zealand Skyrunning President and good friend Marcus Warner who gave some kind words and a cheer. I then caught up to the energetic and enthused 34km Skyrunners as they had just been set off by R.D Shaun Collins.
Piha to Bethells was a real low point in the race for me. Mentally I was in the game but sadly my legs didn't have much to offer. After a while it seemed like my quads were trying to take too much of the load off my hamstrings which wasn't much fun. I then joined up with a group of four 34km runners who were absolutely fantastic and I have them to thank for dragging me along for a while and taking my mind off my stupidly tired legs. On another day I might have skipped past offering words of encouragement but today I felt like I just needed to follow and stick as close as I could to them. As we approached the massive sand dunes just outside of Bethells we hit some more runnable terrain so we said our goodbyes there although I did think it was probable I'd see them again.
I was informed at Bethells I was only 11 minutes behind 2nd place (Sam Clark) and 34minutes behind 1st place (Andrius). Despite the condition of my legs I thought if I can just keep moving forward, I might have a chance of reeling Sam in. A few km after leaving Bethells and after a relatively steep climb up to the top of the coastline I glanced back and didn't like what I saw (no disrespect Chris). Mr Consistent Chris Morrissey caught me up with ease and after a brief chat I explained that Sam wasn't far ahead and for him to 'go get em'. Chris took off looking like he was running a 5km Parkrun and within minutes I looked across the gully and saw Chris far in the distance. Bye Bye 3rd place I thought.
Somewhere about 5km out from Constable Rd Aid (73km) I stopped to go to the toilet. I got a huge shock to see my urine was bright red. I hadn't ever experienced this before and it really freaked me out. I'd heard about kidney failure etc before and kinda knew what it was all about so I knew something wasn't right. I stopped on the side of the trail to get my mobile phone out to call Mum and Dad to find out what I should do. My main concern was if I carried on that I could really put myself in danger and at risk of doing some serious damage. I had no reception where I was so there was no other option other than to keep going. I slowed down even more, which now meant I was going really slow, as I made my way to the bottom of a massive flight of stairs up to the aid station. Then to my disbelief, I looked up and not too far up the stairs ahead I could see Sam looking a little worse for wear as he made his way up the stairs. As I caught up to Sam he mentioned that he hadn't eaten or been able to drink in a couple of hours. On a side note Sam was backing up at the Hillary Ultra after not only competing in an Ironman event the weekend before, but because of confusion at the transition area Sam was sent out for another lap on the bike, so did an Ironman plus an extra 90 bonus kms on the bike. To get 73km into the Hillary in 3rd place was absolutely incredible!
From Constable Rd it was a mere 7km to the finish. I felt confident I could run the final section to Muriwai and not get caught by Sam or anyone else behind me. To be completely honest this was probably the best I felt all day. I laughed as I thought for a brief second that I wished it was a 100km race so I'd have time to try and catch the guys in front of me, then I laughed again and thought "Who am I kidding, you run a good couple of km and think you can run another 20! I don't think so." I was very glad to see the finish line at Muriwai and the sound of the crowd cheering were awesome. 9hrs and 7mins after leaving Arataki I was done. A doctor in the medical tent assessed me and decided that I was ok for now but to keep an eye on things over the next day or two.
My overall impressions of the Hillary Ultra is that it was a truly incredible race. The history behind the Hillary Trail and the Hillary family make it particularly special. Shaun the race director and his awesome volunteers did an amazing job at putting on a very professionally run event. Compared to other Skyrunning events I have done this race definitely rates very highly. The trails were stupidly technical and although there were no 2000m+ mountains involved the constant up and down nature of the course made it an absolute beast. 80km with 3700m+ vert gain are decent stats in my book. The pursuit of running from the beach to the sky and back down was a really great experience. Skyrunning NZ style!
I'd definitely like to return in 2016 with a fresh set of legs and see what I could do here. Despite having a day well below par, my memories of this race are fond and I would highly recommend this race to anyone wanting to experience New Zealand Skyrunning at its finest!