The Hillary Ultra – NZ

Last year I caught sight of discussion of a new race being developed in New Zealand, a race following the Hillary Trail just outside of Auckland.  This quickly grabbed my attention as the trail looked tough and beautiful, and what a great chance to see it!


After a long process to gain all the necessary approvals and support, Race Director Shaun Collins (Lactic Turkey Events) was able to announce at the end of December that the race had go ahead for 29 March 2014 (great timing for me, a nice pre-birthday trip away).  The event offered an Ultra – 80k taking in the whole trail (with a few extra kms thrown in), as well as 34k and 16k races.

I must admit I went into the race slightly under researched and prepared, only committing to the race 3 weeks prior after finishing 6FT Track.  How hard can 80k with 3000m of ascent be?  Ok, yes hard, but that is similar ascent to Bogong to Hotham but spread over 80k, and way less than the Cradle Mountain Ultra which is also 80k.  I mention these races now as there are definitely similarities in the punishing I was signing up for.  So now, post race I know that the 3000m of ascent was perhaps a bit of an underestimation, with my Suunto Ambit bringing it in at 3500m (so close to the same as TNF100).


Getting across to Auckland for the race and to registration was simple, nearly easier that some of the long road trips we make here is Australia to Ultras.  A quick flight across on the day before the race, jump in hire car, drop stuff at motel (nicely located near registration and 15mins to the start line) and off to registration.  After a quick efficient registration and drop bag drop off, I took a quick drive out to the start line to check where I needed to be early the next morning.

After a rather too short sleep, off to the start line (with no kangaroos to avoid on the roads!).  We all met for the pre-race briefing with lots of energy and nerves as we prepared to set off for our long day.

And we're off….and jogging at a comfortable pace - no made sprints from anyone.

And we’re off….and jogging at a comfortable pace – no made sprints from anyone.

The race started at 6am, with everyone setting off at a comfortable pace into the darkness.  A fun first hour in the dark it was!  After an easy 2k loop on wide gravel walking trail to warm up (and the first of many foot baths to clean our shoes to assist in preventing spread of Kauri Dieback disease) we then ducked off onto single track.  Plenty of undulations, stairs, bridges and twists and turns to fly along in the dark (think the old final TNF leg along the cliff line, done on fresh legs in the dark).  I would perhaps next time take a stronger head torch for this section (had not taken my normal one as did not want to leave in a drop bag) as your light and comfort on trail in the dark certainly makes a big difference through this section.  I chatted with a few local runners through here, including Jo Johansen who rolled out another brilliant performance (having won Tarawera 2 weeks previously) to win the ladies and 8th overall.

Early run in the dark

Early run in the dark

We exited the single track and out onto wider dirt roads just as the sun came up and clocked through a few of the only easy kms for the day as we headed into Checkpoint 1 at Huai.  From here the first climb began, with some nice easy climbing, before it became some more serious climbing and an introduction to the themes of the day, climbing, descending and tree roots!  A good chat with local – Gary Philpott about the trail and some Aussie runs before he powered on uphill while I focussed on getting some calories in.  Only a few kms to the top, but then more ups and downs along the cliff lines – the theme for the day starting!  Some truly beautiful views, great running and then steep descent, ascent and descent in to Checkpoint 2 at Whatipu (being chased down to the checkpoint by the young legs of 15yo Reegan Absolum – who having run the trail twice previously was granted approval to race and demonstrated he will be a strong force in the future).

Some early photos, an excuse to pause & enjoy the views

Some early photos, an excuse to pause & enjoy the views

As we left the checkpoint and climbed again, local Heather Davidson came passed and powering thru for a strong 2nd place. Lots of fun technical single track followed the climb descending once again into a valley (must really work of my technical tight single track to do this one again!), yet another climb and down into the aid station at Karekare.


Once again, leave the aid station and climb, with another good solid climb to reach beautiful views out along the coast, and then heading through the outskirts of Piha with a few road kms before heading into beautiful walking trails and crossing a stream at the top of Kitekite Falls – avoiding tourists and locals who make good use of the trails and the falls.  Once off the walking trails, a couple of kms of gravel road through town down to the Piha aid station along the beach.

Having run most of the morning on my own, I had a brief chat with another runner as we left the aid station (with no immediate climb this time) and headed along the beach before turning off and heading once again in to the forest.  Climbing once again up onto the head land and then slightly inland through farm land and into a beautiful (and steep) valley.  Very steep dirt ‘road’ dropping you quickly down into the valley, with a river crossing (delaying me a few minutes to enjoy a soak), before the steep climb out the other  side of the valley.  This climb is super steep, with good grip and constant forward momentum needed to avoid slipping back – I would not like to try this (or many of the technical single track sections) in the wet, as with a clay base I can only image how slippery it would become.  This climb seemed the longest of the day, with a false top, before another fun descent on single track.  Not long into the descent, I glimpsed another runner and gradually caught him – Gerard Waters, another local with some good knowledge of the track and a sense of humour.  A few quick words, the odd joke and we found ourselves together until the finish.  At the bottom of the descent is the very tempting Lake Wainamu – by this time the day was getting very warm, and without much breeze a dip would have been great.  Instead, skirting the lake, we then ran down along the huge Bethells sand dunes, electing to stay in the shallow water where possible to keep cool.

Bethells aid station brought welcome cold drinks, light banter, and a quick refill of my pack, before heading thru horse paddock (and convincing one of the horses it really didn’t want my salt & vinegar chips) to the next climb.  With 16k to the finish at Muriwai, Gerard ‘helpfully’ pointed out where we were headed to along the coast line – looks a long way!  Following the coastal cliff line for 9k dropping and climbing along sheep tracks and watching out feet to avoid being tripped by the grasses across the track (which after a near miss along the cliffs I decided to be more careful of).  Along here we sighted first runners in a long time climbing behind us, with Shannon-Leigh Litt gradually reeling us in (and surprised herself to see others after a long time on her own).

Another climb, another amazing view

Another climb, another amazing view

Turning away from the coast, be face the last big hurdle of the race with a few hundred metres of stairs facing us to climb to the top of the cliff line.  Here we caught a few tail enders from the shorter races, and also an injured hiker, stopping briefly to see if he needed help (strained knee – so not looking forward to the climb).  Surprising ourselves, the stairs were quickly done, with a short stop at a drinks station at the top, and off jogging down the road, for 2.5k before a short single track descent, some road and a lovely descent down to the beach.  Hitting the beach we were caught by another runner, who we chased across the sand, before turning inland over the dunes.  Hitting the road behind the dunes we managed to find some speed again for the gentle climb towards the finish, re-passing Ryan Cook, before a nice run on the grass through to the finish – 11:50!  Fourth female, happy with a sub 12hr on that tough course.

Smiling to the finish

Smiling to the finish

The mens race was won by Stephan Quentin who was brought across from France by his sponsors for Tarawera, but didn’t have a good day there, still affected by travel (and not his type of technical course anyway).  He ran a blistering fast 8:38 and loved the technical course.  We Aussies will get to see him race at TNF100 this year as he heads our way after some more time in NZ.

I must admit finishing it I had that well known, never again thought, quickly replaced by that was fun, what next as I caught up with people I had met throughout the day and we chatted about our days as we watched others finishing.  A lift back to my car at the start with some of the other runners (thank you gentlemen!!), a good sleep and then the race festivities were completed with a great post-run breakfast and awards ceremony.  Fantastically organised and with a video teaser of the event ready for us (see below) – just to convince us we really want to go back next year!

I definitely rate this as one of the toughest ultras I have done – and I tend not to shy away from the tough ones.  Those 80kms have a bit of everything thrown in there, with very few easy kms.  In trying to liken it to Aussie runs, the Coastal beauty of GOW100, the night tough single track of TNF100, the never ending tree roots of Cradle Mountain.  As I mentioned before, the track in wet conditions would be even tougher!  Perhaps training needs to be just running up and down a steep creek bed.    Knowing the course definitely would help with overall times, but for me getting to experience it as something completely new was awesome – and justified having put on immigration paperwork I was there for a holiday – surely 80k of trail is a holiday!!

The event organisation was brilliant with a clearly marked course, lots of helpful volunteers, well stocked aid stations and pre-post race atmosphere.  The sheer feat of organising all of the foot wash stations we went through along the way was huge (there were lots!!  I am very good now at brushing my shoes and then walking across the mats of solution).  The work to get the approvals and to put the race together quickly once the approvals came through was thorough and greatly appreciated!  Hopefully this even will get approval for future years and can become one of the iconic NZ ultras!  It certainly has all the hallmarks and the course to support this.  Aussie runners, definitely consider putting this one on your list – you know you want to go experience it! If in doubt have a look at this :

(And when you see the person being chased down the steep hill, that is me 🙂 ).



About brymcconnell

Ultra running mum to two young girls who loves to get out on trails any chance she gets.
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One Response to The Hillary Ultra – NZ

  1. We were thrilled this ultra marathon finally got consent and we were able to cheer you on arrival and departure in Piha. Fabulous event that surely must become an annual event. 😄

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