|Looking down to O'Neill's (in the foreground) and Bethell's Beach (in the distance) from Te Henga|
The Hillary Trail holds a very special place in my heart. It's where I fell in love with trail running.
It was on the 16th of July 2011. At midnight. For a fatass run called Midnight Midwinter Madness II. Prior to that I had run a few trails, notably the Tarawera Ultra 60k in 2010 and 100k in 2011, but nothing, and I mean nothing, could have prepared me for the Hillary Trail, at midnight, on the coldest, wettest, night of the year. To say it was confronting would be a massive understatement. It was freezing (and I hate the cold with a passion), and muddy (literally up to my calves at points), and very dark (my headlamp at the time had about the power of a birthday cake candle). I had no idea where I was (didn't occur to me to consult a map), and so ran along in the dark desperately trying to keep up with the faster, more experienced runners, ahead of me.
That year I made it as far as Karekare, about 32km along the Trail. I had thought, foolishly, that a 75km run was easily within my grasp, but I was humbled by the strength and toughness of the Hillary. I vowed to come back the following year, stronger, more experienced, and more determined.
My second attempt was in April 2012, supporting great mate Malcolm Law in his attempt to set a Hillary Trail PB. This time I was humbled again, but made it as far as Piha Road (about 40km in) so considered that a Hillary Trail PB. To be fair, I knew that I made a few mistakes that day (shoes, nutrition, preparation), and so wasn't discouraged. Mal went on, like a true champion, to finish in 11.25, knocking almost 2 hours off his Hillary PB.
Third time lucky for me was in June 2012 for Midnight Midwinter Madness III. This time I drew together the strands (or would it be shreds?) of my first two attempts, and finally knocked the bugger off. It took over 15 hours, and wasn't all easy, but was one of the most satisfying trail running adventures I had ever completed. From that point on the Trail wasn't flirting with me any longer - we were in a committed relationship.
It's been almost a year since MMMIII, and it's time to start planning another Hillary Trail attempt. The loose plan is to run sections of the Trail whenever I can over the next few months, and build towards a solo attempt later in the year. I want to go solo as I think I'll have the best chance of running the Trail in a PB if I can run at my own pace - sometimes slow, sometimes positively pedestrian - over the entire distance. Before I attempt that, I want to familiarise myself with as much of the Trail as I can, section by section.
Which brings me on to this Saturday's run along the mighty Te Henga Walkway. Te Henga is the Maori name for Bethell's Beach, which is on the West Coast of Auckland, about 1/2 way between Piha and Muriwai. It is a ruggedly beautiful stretch of coastline, and the track takes you on to the cliff tops, high above the rocks and surf. It's a place where you feel exposed, and vulnerable, but most of all absolutely alive.
We started our run just before 6am, with headlamps blazing (sometime ago I invested in one which actually throws out a half decent beam of light), and rugged up prepared for the cold. But it was very mild, with minimal wind, so before we'd even completed a km, it was off with the gloves and double layer of merino, and back into it.
The walkway snakes around to O'Neill's Bay, then up high to the cliff tops. I remember the climb from MMMIII, and it almost broke me, but this time (on fresh legs!) it seemed like a doddle. Once we were at the top, the light started to get brighter, and before long at all headlamps had been stashed, and we started enjoying the flow of the winding track towards Muriwai.
About a km out from the turn around point at Constable Road there are steps leading up about 175m of elevation (if my GPS is anywhere near accurate) over about 500-700m. If you've never done that before, that's steep. Matt and I set ourselves a challenge to run the entire section. About half way up I thought my lungs were going to explode, but somehow kept on going, and reached the top puffing like I'd just escaped from robbing a bank.
Here's a photo of Matt at the top (to prove we actually made it):
We reached Constable Road, which was just a touch over 10km) in 1 hour 36, and decided to see if we could negative split it back to the car.
On the way back the sun started to shine across the hills and off the white caps of the waves crashing on to the beaches below, and despite trying to negative split the return we had to stop for a few more photos:
All in all, another wonderful experience on the Trail. Now to start planning the next section! And here's my favourite photo of the day, a panorama shot across to Bethells: