My race along the Hillary Trail in New Zealand took place over 2 months ago, but it took me time to find the motivation to write about it. After a good early-year race at Two Bays, and with some good training in my legs I had arrived expecting to do well. However, in ultra marathons sometimes things don’t go according to plan.
A pre-dawn start provided some great running by headlamp through the forest, and rerouting due to a washed-out trail provided some extremely technical early sections. The first half of the race contains the bulk of the race’s climbing but it also contains some stunning views. The vistas on the climb out of Karekare were amazing and I briefly considered pulling out my camera to snap a picture, but it was tucked away and wrapped in two zip-lock bags, and I was focussed on time. In hindsight I should have stopped to take the photo, as the few minutes wouldn’t have really mattered.
The Hillary – Night running
The Hillary – Coastal Views
By the time I dropped into Piha at the 45 km mark my legs were a lot sorer than I expected. I took off once more but I was starting to struggle and my pace decreased. I started feeling twinges indicating the onset of cramping, and around 63 km into the race I stretched my foot out during a descent only to have my calf cramp. I put down the leg in a way to alleviate the cramping calf and then my quad cramped. I fell to the ground in an agonising cramp that I was unable to stretch out myself.
I arrived at Wilsons Promontory with two key objectives in mind. Firstly, I needed an enjoyable run after having lost some motivation in the two months preceding it. Secondly, it was important that I minimised damage as I had a 100-km race at The North Face 100 only two weeks later.
Wilsons Prom is one of the favourite parts of my home state, and an ideal trail running destination, so I expected it to deliver on my first objective. In order to ensure that I didn’t run too hard I had decided that I would stop at the lighthouse (37 km into the run) for a picnic lunch.
Starting in the dark with a road climb to the Telegraph Saddle carpark, I then stepped off the paved surface, and would remain on a combination of trails, beaches and gravel roads for the remainder of the run. I turned off my headlamp not long after starting the amazing descent towards the campsite at Saddle Cove. The beautiful run through temperate rainforest on soft trails in pale light conditions was magical, so despite running slightly faster than intended I was enjoying myself too much to consider slowing down.
As I ascended from the cove I encountered another runner stopped to take a photo, and offered to snap one of him. Soon enough there were four of us standing around like a bunch of trigger-happy tourists. We set off once again discussing that this was a run, not a race.
I continued to the stunning views of Refuge Cove and practiced my sand running with a long stretch along Waterloo Bay. I first glimpsed the lighthouse from a few kilometres away, feeling amazingly fresh and strong, but upon arriving I sat down at a picnic table as planned.
On Saturday I will run my furthest race of the year so far at The North Face 100, in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney. In this case the 100 refers to kilometres rather than miles. After this race I will focus on some shorter races during the southern winter.
The competitor briefing proclaims that “this is one of the most amazing and challenging running courses around”. It is well known for containing a significant number of stairs, but with around 4000 metres of climbing I expect it might fall short of being one of the most challenging courses. Hopefully it delivers on some amazing views.
This coming weekend I will complete my second race for 2015 just outside Auckland, New Zealand. The race runs through the Waitakere Ranges on the west coast, following the 75-km Hillary Trail for the most part. Despite a highest elevation of just over 350 metres above sea level, the race manages to squeeze in 3,700 metres of ascent.
The Hillary – Course Map
The Hillary – Route Profile
The race is part of the new Skyrunning Oceania series, which features 8 races across Australia and New Zealand. In just a month’s time I will race my second race of the series (and the fourth race overall) at the Buffalo Stampede, but that is something I would rather contemplate once this current challenge is behind me.
After being refused entry to Hottentots Holland Nature Reserve (read about that here) I needed a backup plan for my run. After a week in the Winelands region of South Africa I was booked to stay that night in Cape Town as I would fly to Johannesburg the following day. Therefore I immediately started to plan a run up its famous flat-topped mountain.
In the late afternoon I parked my car at Cecilia Forest, which provided me access to gravel roads that wound there way up to the top of the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens. I would use different routes for my ascent and descent, and I tried to remember my preferred direction from previous runs. I climbed up Nursery Ravine, and reached the “top” realising how much lower I still was than the peak. As I started on a circuit around the top some low cloud started to move in, and I decided that it would be wise not to waste any time.
As I headed towards one of the best viewpoints on my route I removed my phone from my pack for a photo as the cloud had cleared for the moment. Then when I was a scant few metres from stopping for a photo I was enveloped in cloud once more. I climbed up to the high point at Maclear’s Beacon, before making my way to the top of Skeleton Gorge for my descent. The descent was slippery at the top, but definitely preferable in my opinion to the loose rock at the top of Nursery Ravine.
After three days of running in Jonkershoek Nature Reserve I planned out a couple of runs in the adjoining Hottentots Holland Nature Reserve. Setting out from the town of Stellenbosch for my first run it would take me almost as long to drive to the reserve as it would have taken me to run there from Jonkershoek.
After driving the long circuitous route to the reserve entrance I arrived early, heading through open gates before they were manned for the day. When discussing my planned run in the reserve the previous week with one of my running mates he had suggested that I carry some warm gear with me, as it was in the same place that he had almost become hypothermic when a cold change had swept through on a run there. As I set out it was particularly grey and overcast, and his warning was clear in my mind, but I was well prepared for bad weather.
My route would take me from the main parking area at Nuweberg along a contour to the overnight Boesmanskloof Hut, before climbing up a valley to my high point for the route, with a downhill finish. The overcast weather was a pleasant change after some warm days, and the run to the hut was quite easy. It was a nice climb to the high point of the route, but just after passing it I heard what at first sounded like a dog’s bark. Looking around I sighted a baboon standing on top of a rock surrounded by its troop. I was unsure whether the sound was aimed at me as a way of warning me from their territory but I thought it best to continue running, and the “barks” continued until I was well away from their resting spot. After a couple of shorter climbs I reached a road that wound downhill back to my car.
After travelling to the Winelands of South Africa to celebrate the wedding of some great friends, I decided to stay in the area for another week to indulge in some wonderful running and delicious food.
Staying in the town of Stellenbosch for a few days it was only a short drive up through a valley to reach the entrance gate to Jonkershoek Nature Reserve, so I went out there three mornings in a row to check out some of the trails it offered. The valley ends with a steep ravine, hemming in the lowest part of the reserve on three sides.
For day one I climbed straight to the end of the valley, past three waterfalls before the steep climb to the top. From the top I could gaze back in the direction of Stellenbosch, or forward into the adjoining Hottentots Holland Nature Reserve that I would run later in the week. I had considered a point-to-point traverse between the reserves but skipped it due to the added complexity in transport. From the top I followed the contour above the valley towards the west, gaining a view of the ocean below and the Cape of Good Hope to the south-west, before descending back into the valley. It was a beautiful run, but tough in parts due to overgrown trails often featuring sharp plants that continually scratched my legs.
Day two started with a climb directly from the trailhead, following a much easier route than the previous day, so I was able to slowly run the entire climb. Upon reaching the contour trail above the valley floor I started by heading in the opposite direction to my eventual destination. I ran until I reached a ravine featuring a waterfall, plenty of shade and some comfortable rocks, where I sat down to enjoy a relaxing snack. Then I retraced my steps, climbed to reach a viewpoint into another valley to the east, and then climbed even more to the highest point I would reach in the reserve. Then I made my way to the top of the route I had followed up the previous day, and descended the loose and rocky ravine as the day continued to heat up.
There are many possible ways to celebrate Australia Day. Barbecues and a couple of drinks is very common, and that would follow, but I started the day with a run.
As part of a new series of night trail runs organised by TrailsPlus, the Australia Day Midnight Rambler offered running options from 5 km through to 6 hours. All of the events were based on a 5-km loop, providing a great way to practice trail running at night, which is a very important skill for long-distance races. Opting for the longest option I would set out on January 25th at 23:00 for an hour of running, and then would continue for the first five hours of our national day. The plan wasn’t to run flat out, but to get in a solid six hours of training to end a week that involved good mileage, as well as a new 5 km PB at my local Parkrun.
I set out on the first lap behind a few guys setting the pace up front. Since I wasn’t racing I had decided to run down the batteries already in my headlamp rather than starting with a fresh set, but immediately realised that they were already nearly flat. I pulled out my spare hand torch but generally ran using just the dim light from my headlamp. At the end of the first lap I stopped to replace the batteries before leaving the aid station, now gapped by the runners ahead. I would run almost entirely solo for the remaining 5.5 hours.
I had been hosting friend and fellow runner Tamyka since Friday evening, as she had flown in from Queensland for the long weekend. Our race preparation had involved a few nice runs plus plenty of eating, not all of it ideally suited as pre-race nutrition (including a spicy pizza at lunch). As I thought ahead to the nearing toilet block halfway around lap four I missed sighting a rock and the resulting fall involved some grazing on my right hand and knee. On the following lap I noted the exact rock that had caused my fall, and I glared at it on each subsequent lap.
Since returning to Australia last May I have conducted almost all of my training as solo runs. That has included weeks where every training run has lasted at least 2 hours. It provided plenty of time in my own headspace but had become challenging to stay motivated at times. Having run with a great training group for a couple of years while living in South Africa I have missed the camaraderie (and peer group pressure) that training partners can provide.
Therefore I have started looking for some people to run with in earnest. Last weekend I went out for my first run with the Dandenong Trail Runners, a group of runners who organise regular informal runs in the hilly Dandenong Ranges National Park. Since I generally run in the park at least once a week, and sometimes as often as three times a week, it seemed like a great fit.
A week after my race at Two Bays I joined the group for a “flattish” 20ish km run. A group of 19 people met up in the carpark at the Basin Theatre, and we all set out together. The group would separate on the climbs and then regroup at junctions along the course. A number of people were locals to the area, but there were also others like me who had travelled quite a distance (over 30 km in my case) to be there. At the highest point on the route we stopped for a group photo, which apparently involves a jump that I still need to master. I am easily spotted thanks to the very bright green shirt I was wearing.
Completing my first race of 2015 during the second weekend of the year was always part of my plan. However as mentioned in my pre-race post I had trained for a mountainous race that would play to my strengths. I knew that the largest single climb at Two Bays was less than 300 metres of ascent, and that the total ascent would be considerably less than Bogong to Hotham. The race would be 8 km (and around 3 hours) shorter.
Two Bays – Logo
Two Bays – Course Profile
Standing in the starting chute I learned that we had a few hundred metres before reaching single track, and the conga line that would follow. Therefore, unlike my normally controlled starting pace I took off quickly in order to secure a decent position on the single track, slotting in just within the top 30.
I settled into pace in a line of runners, initially striding along happily but noticing a gradual slowdown. After just over 4 km I made my way past a stream of runners with the repeated chant of “on your right” and found myself with open trail ahead of me. This allowed me to set my own pace without any concern for those runners ahead. Occasionally I would pass, or be passed, by other runners as I focussed on my own run.