Running the Hillary Trail



With such a dry Summer this year, Chris and Sindre’s plans to attack the Hillary mid April worked well with Mother Nature, and the weather was perfect for both runners and photographer. Low 20’s and sunshine mixed with cloud was our companion for the days adventure.

Ultra people

Off road ultra distance running is fast becoming the latest sport to embrace a challenge hungry audience and it’s everywhere it seems. The signs that its popularity is growing moves hand in hand with both grass roots and large event numbers increasing, and sponsors attracted like bees to honey. Organised events and finish line photos mean the world to most; yet somewhat sterile to those who seek real adventure without a safety net. These old school adventure and limit seekers chase something much greater than shiny buckles, they are rewarded with memories and personal growth.

Over the Summer I had the pleasure of following two guys, Chris and Sindre who set their own goals to run the full length of the 75KM Hillary Trail in a day for the love of running and to push their limits. With no real prior long distance experience, they had their eyes on the unsupported trail record at the time, which was 9.09hrs.

“Killian?” Who’s Killian” Chris said after I spoke of his amazing athleticism.

“The Hillary Trail epitomises the sense of adventure and personal achievement that Ed Hillary himself championed and was renowned for. It is not a walk in the park – but a chance for well-prepared trampers to experience the diverse, and often challenging west coast.” – Auckland Council website

Seen as a four-day tramping trail through the Waitakere, the ‘Hillary Trail’ is named after pre-eminent mountaineer and explorer Sir Edmund Hillary. The Hillary Trail officially opened on 11 January 2010 and connects a network of existing regional park tracks and basic backpacker campgrounds to achieve the distance.

How we met

Back in April I met Chris and Sindre on a photo shoot (rumours are that I’m a professional photographer) and we got chatting about running. Chit chat soon shifted to the pin ups of the ultra running world as they explained their aims to run the Hillary.

Both had some running experience and in particular Chris, who held the German Junior marathon title at 17, and was coached by his father. “It has been 10 years since I ran my last marathon.” Chris informed me. It also struck me just how close these guys were, and I seriously thought that they were both long time buds. This was not the case at all and they had only met and trained up to a suitable distance together some weeks earlier.

“Killian?” Who’s Killian” Chris said after I spoke of his amazing athleticism. Then talk shifted onto gear that the guys were using for their “assault” of the 75km trail. Sindre being fresh into New Zealand only weeks prior had no kit other than his runners, shorts and poly top.

“Have you got anything I can take with me for water as it’s unsupported?” Sindre asked with a cheeky smile. Of course! I happily offered him my 5ltr water bladder for the day. So here we were at dusk taking photos in the bush at sunset, gas bagging about these two taking on the Hillary. These fellas were focused on their own prize and adventure and I was intrigued to say the least.

You see, I’ve run a few ultras in my time, and understand that its like attending a university where the teachers are your feelings. I’m not a religious man either, but being out on the trail for hours with a swift turn over of the feet a hypnotic state kind of takes you over, and life just looks different. It’s a time to think about where you are “right now” in the moment. There is nothing quite like it and you can take what lessons you want from the experience. For me, being honest and focussing on integrity got me to the finish. Yeah, I sound like an old hippie, but I’m a different person for it, and I’ll cherish the experiences and people I met.

I could see that Chris and Sindre had the energy and focus to do this. They might just pull it off. Everyone loves an underdog right?! I could see it in their eyes, you know, when mental focus stands taller than yourself. When amazing things happen. The “Oodles of ‘A’ type personality” of these fellas was literally brimming with the endless excitement at how far they would push their bodies and minds on a handful of jelly snakes. #Oldschool.

In the past few years I’ve captured records being set by global super star runners, bib numbers at the finish and also directed shoots with the golden brands of the sport. But it’s the everyday adventures and real people doing it for the thrill of the unknown that will always attract my undivided attention. I was in.

The day

A 5am alarm will never be my friend, and Auckland city was still sleepy from the night. A friend from Brisbane was visiting and was keen to come along for the day, which turned out well. We chatted half arsed about the days plan, and rolled into the visitor carpark for 6am.

It was still dark and surprisingly chilly after such a hot and steamy summer, and the nervous tension (fear) of the runners and their supporters was electric. I’m fairly seasoned to these emotions having covered the long distance community and scene for some years, but it’s always exciting at the start of any unknown adventure. Simple tasks such as securing buckles, checking food and tying laces were a mountainous task during this pre run “flight check”.

With gels and other random items such as anti friction lube, phones and personal lucky charms being checked and re-checked the start was getting close. Then a surprise act with everyone writing positive messages and inspirational phrases on each other with marker pen. This is the side of long distance running that most will never see. To product sponsors and brands these scenes are like kryptonite, and cannot be designed in a room of “market engineers” packaged and sold. It’s the human spirit for adventure and pulse of running. The primeval drive we all seek when placing one foot in front of the other with the world around us moving in a seemless magic. Right here right now it was all stripped back to the basics. LOVE, BELIEF and FOCUS, always a true privilege to see unfold. Then it was time to go.

6am… torch less…and off they run

An early AM convoy hit the road with coffee at the top of the “to do” list, and sufficiently caffeinated off we drove. The plan was fairly “improv” to say the least, but our goals were to follow them as far as we could along the trail and sections that would not slow us down too much over all. You see, the trail itself is one thing, but accessing it is another, which took some A class navigation from Leon who turned out to be a real homing pigeon. I would have been utterly lost without Leon reading the logistics while chasing some tight meetup/ cross path times.

With such a dry Summer this year, Chris and Sindre’s plans to attack the Hillary mid April worked well with Mother Nature, and the weather was perfect for both runners and photographer. Low 20’s and sunshine mixed with cloud was our companion for the days adventure.

Right off the start something was wrong when we first crossed paths with Chris and Sindre. It just did not look right with Sindre’s pace looking like a real chore compared to Chris. Looking into Sindre’s eyes the story was plain to see, and his body was in control, not his mind. After 4 hours it was all too much and Sindre pulled the pin.

“We set the right pace for the first few hours but Sindre unfortunately started to struggle with stomach issues. After 4 hours he had to pull out. I felt really bad for Sindre as he was super excited about the run and wanted to complete the full distance” said Chris when we met up with them at Karekare.

Solo is a state of mind that long distance runners “just get” where body and mind are one and legs lift effortlessly in the moment. But this comes with experience and you only learn it out on the trail. So how did Chris cope from this point on? Pretty damn well it seemed as his spirits looked good and he was still strong at the next meet.

Anything can happen over such a long distance though and “just like that”, the record started to slip away from Chris. A wrong turn just 15 minutes into the run was not to blame, but the second mistake really shook his tree.

“Arriving at Anawhata beach was the realisation that I was lost again. But I was still positive that the 9.09 time was still within my reach even though I had now lost 35 minutes. What else can you do? I just got back on the trail and carried on” said Chris.

The Kuataika summit is the fifth “big” climb on the Hillary trail and after more than 6+ hours on race pace Chris finally met his limits. With the pace falling off and Chris’s physical strength at its lowest, Chris got lost again and the record was now gone. Chris had spent forty five minutes lost at this point and that was that.

This run was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.

At Piha Beach (an utterly magnificent stretch of the West Coast) Chris met us with a smile on his face. We had rushed to this spot like idiots to make sure we crossed paths and his pace was still strong. To see him in such good spirits was a real highlight for us all and Chris clearly faced the negative mind games after loosing Sindre and the record, and was amping up to finish. Chris had a look in his eyes of success and he knew he was close to achieving an amazing personal goal.

The last stretch was in front of him and crossing trails, beached, summits and full of the ups and downs all collide at this point. Chris with no ultra distance experience and only a few months preparation got to supporters at the 75km mark in a time of 10.23 which after such a long day on his feet was an astonishing time. The Auckland locals have a high regard for this wild West coast line and it is a brutal trail that throws everything the North Island can offer to trip you up running its length against all reason.

Tears of joy, relief, acceptance and exhaustion followed Chris to the end of the Hillary trail and an amazing adventure too.

“This run was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. The Hillary Track is the most beautiful and unforgiving trail I’ve been on in New Zealand, and I loved every minute. It really got tough near the end and I had to dig deep but the thought of the post run BBQ kept me going” said Chris the following day.

When you speak to Chris and Sindre about their adventure it’s easy to see why every day blokes can achieve super human goals. And by super human, I don’t mean crossing the line of a race, or even breaking records. I mean taking that first step into the unknown and growing from the experience to better your life and people around you.


This story is by Paul Petch, an Auckland City based commercial photographer, art director and producer.

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